Monday, November 29, 2010

the not-exactly-freaking-out post

A week from tomorrow, I have two 15-20 pages papers due.  I have written exactly zero words of these papers.  I have a rough outline for both of them, and I've done more than half the research, and I wish I had something else productive to add to this list because I am in a near panic.  I say "near" only because I know it will get worse six or seven days from now, so I don't want to overstate my case just yet.  Last fall I wrote a 13 page paper in 2 days (and got an A!), so I know this can be done-- but it was an undergrad class, and I was younger and stupider then.

Then six days after that, I have another one due.  and then the day after that, an exam.  And THEN, I will be done.  For almost six weeks.  You should see the stack of (fun) books I have waiting to be read.  I will sink into them like falling into marshmallow fluff. or jumping into a huge pile of (dry) autumn leaves. or diving into orange jello.  or maybe I will just sleep for a week. except wait-- then I'll have to cram all my Christmas preparations into ten days.  But at least that will be FUN.

But this next stretch won't be.  I'll try not to subject you to too many panicked posts.  Maybe I will learn something really interesting to share along the way, but otherwise I doubt you'll hear from me much until the semester is over.

And since I'm on the whine train anyway, could this damn cold just please go away?  I've had it since last Tuesday.  If I take a Nyquil, I can sleep, but then I'm too groggy to get anything done the next day.  If I don't take a Nyquil, I can't sleep.  #viciouscycle #ohwaitthisisn'ttwitter

Thursday, November 25, 2010

so today you get the smarmy post

It's Thanksgiving.  I'm thankful.  I've got both my kids home, and they are so amazing.  Every once in awhile I'm just dumbstruck that I get to be their mom.  And dh.  For every minute that he drives me crazy, there are two minutes where he is a far better spouse than I deserve.  And we're all healthy, even though two of us have colds at the moment.  And our house is warm, even though it was below zero last night.  And the dog is as dumb as a stump, but so sweet.  And our cat is elderly, but now that her joints hurt, she likes to snuggle up for warmth and it is pretty nice to have a warm cat in your lap on a cold night.  And later today, we're going to have dinner with a bunch of great friends and have more food than we could possibly consume, which means we will also have fabulous leftovers tomorrow.  And the pies are turning out well-- even the cherry, which is always the trickiest one.

It's a great life, and I'm lucky to be in it.  I'm thankful.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

stochastic thoughts

So.  Two websites that I found this week which are now on my favorites list: from Alastair via Bona Fide Betty, OneWord, which is like doing NaNo in 60 seconds (except you only write about 100 words, and it's not a whole novel, and you don't lose any sleep, and it's only 60 seconds, but other than that, it's just like NaNo).  And the other, which I found on the weekly roundup of writer posts here, is the visual thesaurus at Visuwords, which is utterly cool.  Try a word, any word, like dry or ugly, and it will create a branching web of synonyms. You can drag it around if it doesn't all fit in your window.  It's how I came up with today's title, since I know we're not using "random" anymore but I couldn't think of anything else to call it.

And snow.  We've got it.  It's too early.  In the past week, we've gotten somewhere around 6 inches of snow, which we usually don't get until after Christmas.  You wouldn't believe the number of brown Christmases we've had in the 18 years we've lived here.  Usually this time of year we get sleet and slush and freezing fog and rain mixed with snow, but nothing that actually collects on the ground and looks white.  We've got it now.  It even enabled me to skip classes today, since as bad as it is here, it was much worse in UTown.  They were supposed to get 6-10 inches of snow today, compared to our measly 1-2" (the rest of ours came last week, when UTown got only rain).  And tonight our low is supposed to be 17 below.  That's not wind chill, that's the actual temperature.  Am even more thankful than usual for a warm house.

And Bookstores.  I live in a small town.  Not teeny, but small--about 20,000.  Not only is it small, it's rural--it's the largest town in a 100-mile radius, by a considerable amount.   if you drive two+ hours, you can get to a town of about 100,000, if you drive five hours, you can get to a "city" of 500,000, but you've got to drive eight hours or more to get to a real city.  And I am a book addict.  This is a problem.  The library is small, the bookstores are limited.  Bookstores are part of my lifeblood.  I love independent booksellers and I understand how important they are, but sometimes you just want to walk into a vast space filled with books, where you know that you could browse for hours and not see everything there is to see.  So you will understand why, when our Borders opened about three years ago, I felt like a little piece of heaven had come right here.  When I get twitchy and shrewish, my spouse will say, as tactfully as he possibly can under the circumstances, "Why don't you go hang out at Borders for awhile?"  And I will go, order a decaf latte' at the coffee counter, wander around for an hour and a half or so, and come home happy and peaceful.  Tonight, I had a 33% off coupon and $10 in "Borders Bucks" and I got exactly the three paperbacks I wanted, $7.99 each, for $11 and change total.  I am so happy.  It just makes my cheap little book-loving heart sing.

On to tchotchkes.  When we were first married, when we went on trips, I would buy a souvenir mug.  But before long, the mug cabinet was full to the bursting point.  So I started to collect keychains.  There are rules. They have to have the name of the place on them.  They have to cost less than $8 (it used to be $5, until inflation made it impossible to get a good keychain within the rules).  I have to buy it while we are at the place (under duress I occasionally have allowed myself to buy it at the airport, but usually, it has to come from a tacky souvenir store).  I have a great collection.  At some point, while browsing the tacky souvenir shops, I branched out into tchotchkes (yes, I googled that to figure out how to spell it).  I don't always buy one.  It has to be something that especially strikes my fancy.  I have a snow globe from Seattle, a ceramic mug with the handle in the shape of an alligator's tail from Florida, etc.  So you will understand how thrilled I was to find a bobble-head Statue of Liberty while we were in NYC last week.  O. M. G.  The guy at the counter must have understood, because he very carefully wrapped it in one brown paper bag, taped it shut, wrapped it in another brown paper bag, taped it shut, and then put the whole thing in a small plastic shopping bag, which I reverently stowed in between several layers of dirty clothes in my suitcase.  (It's all of about 4" tall.)  Fab-u-lous.

And New York.  It was amazing.  The last time I was there I was pregnant with Nell, so it was more than twenty years ago.  We went to Wicked.  (I tried, I really did, to get tickets to see Pacino as Shylock in Merchant of Venice, but apparently everyone else wanted to see it just as badly as I did.).  We went to the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and South Street Seaport and Times Square and kicked through the leaves in Central Park and had a drink at the revolving restaurant at the top of the Marriott and just about all the tourist-y things that you could possibly do in three days.  The weather wasn't great, but it was a hell of a lot better than the weather we came home to.  ('scuse dangling preposition)

Anything else?  Can't think of anything at the moment.  Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.  Tomorrow is pie baking day.  I think I'm doing five, maybe six.  Fortunately my friend the amazing cook is doing the turkey and trimmings.  I'm thankful.

Monday, November 22, 2010


I sat down to write a really whiny post about how insecure I feel right now and how I don't think I can do this and what was I thinking... you're bored already, right?  But thankfully before I started I clicked around on other people's blogs and decided to try a different spin.  Why not think about what I'm grateful for instead?  It's Thanksgiving week, it's appropriate.  I'll spare you the sweet post about my health and my kids and my staunchly loyal underappreciated spouse and having a roof over my head on a night when a blizzard (literally, according to the National Weather Service) is blowing through town.  Even though I am unspeakably grateful for all those things.  Nope, I feel tonight that what I need is to be grateful for exactly the things that are making me whine.  I'm grateful for the opportunity to be pushed past my perceived limitations.  I'm grateful that I've told so many people that I'm doing this that there's no way I can back out now, because if it were just between me and the registrar at UTown, I probably would.  I'm grateful that I'm not bored.  I'm grateful that there are always mind-blowing things out there to learn, and I get to find out about a few of them.  I'm grateful for the frustration that I feel with myself and with my professors when we don't value the same things, because I'm learning how to shut up, get over myself and do what I need to do.  I'm grateful that I get to find out (not for the first time, but when you're a perfectionist/control freak like me, it's always new) what it's like not to be particularly good at something, and yet still need to do it.  And if you're reading this, I'm grateful for you, too.

Monday, November 15, 2010

dealing with today's demons

The post from Saturday (which actually was written earlier last week, but I didn't get around to editing it and posting it until this weekend) talked about giving up expectations.  Well, actually, what I was talking about was being opposed to society's expectations, but the immediate problem for me this morning is dealing with my own expectations of myself.  Oddly, and as is often the case, Lucy March's post touched on this topic today, too.  Which I suppose is good because otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here typing this out.

So... a lot of my expectations for how this grad school thing was going to play out have turned out to be ... incorrect?  unsupportable?  wrong?  yeah, wrong.  that's it.  This is not going to be what I thought it would be.  I knew it would be hard, it wasn't that I was thinking I would cruise through it.  I know myself well enough to know how I react to deadlines and writing papers, etc.  I did enough of it last year to know what I was getting into.  But it's hard, really hard, in ways I hadn't expected, and in directions I don't really want to go.  And it's not going to end up with me having found my people, the place where I finally fit in.  Which is making me question the whole reason I'm doing this.  Not helped any by the fact that my 3rd prospectus in ten days is due tomorrow and with about 24 hours to go, I don't even have a topic at the moment.  I know I'm writing about Kafka's Metamorphosis, but that's as far as I've come. 

You know, the one thing I can't seem to get past after nearly 30 years of working on it is this damned obsession with whether or not people are going to like me.  It's the dumbest thing.  Because a large part of my resistance to grad school at the moment is knowing that I'm not going to be able to do this ("this" being both the papers I'm writing right now and also just the whole damn thing) the way I feel like they want/expect me to do it, which will result in me passing the classes but not really doing well.  Not measuring up.  Them being disappointed in me.  And a tiny little miserable part of me is thinking, "They won't like me."  Which is just plain old silly, but there it is. It results in me acting out of fear.

OK.  that's why I type this stuff out.  Because I know this one.  I've been here before.  Trying to chase that elusive goal of people liking me is exactly the way to ensure a fail.  If you're trying too hard, you're not being yourself.  and then neither you nor the people around you know who you are or what to do with you.  The key is to be yourself, to be yourself thoroughly, and then even if the situation doesn't work out, at least you know it's for the right reasons.  And you might just happen along the way to find people who really like you as you are.  Should not be phrasing this in 2nd person.  I need to relax about this and just do my thing.  Getting all knotted up in anxiousness is not helping in any possible way.  There's no point in approaching life like a clenched fist, dreading what might happen, anticipating the worst. 

*deep cleansing breath* :-)  OK.  I'm OK.  I'm going to just dig in and get it done.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

GS: last one for awhile

Since I'm boring myself to death with the grad school posts, I'm sure it can't be too much fun for anyone else, either.  Fortunately, we are done with the theory portion of my Intro to Graduate Studies class, so there will be less to think about.  The rest of the semester is about research methods, getting published (not one of my goals), and getting into a PhD program (also prob not in my future, esp since the school I'm attending doesn't have a PhD program in English).

Yesterday we went to the university library and visited the archives.  I could never devote my life to archival research, but in the short run, it might serve a useful purpose for me.  The archivist was ... oh, the term is demeaning, but still... he was adorable.  We were all politely yawning behind our hands at the tedious boredom of it all (only one box on the table at a time, only one folder out of the box at a time, ask for permission, ask for permission, ask for permission, etc). But the archivist was practically dancing around in his excitement about his special collections.  I find human beings endlessly fascinating.  And btw, the latest way of taking notes:  instead of copying or typing while you're examining the materials, you bring your digital camera and take a picture.  No lie.  How cool is that?  After you ask permission, of course.

Anyway.  A few observations before I leave theory behind-- I wish I could say forever, but I fear it will be with me for at least the next couple of years till I'm done with school.  I'm still thinking about feminism, of course, and it occurred to me that what I'm arguing with myself about isn't whether or not feminism is valid (because it is), but how it should be practiced.  I was reminded of something that happened in the first theory class I took, which was back in June.  Of course I'd heard about the biological vs. cultural definition of gender, I'd even had arguments about it, but it was the first time I'd studied it as an academic discipline.  The professor was going on, for about the third class period in a row, about how there is no significance to our cultural definitions of what gender should be, it is all just a construction.  And I had another one of those little moments, where the fog lifts and you get it.  Geeze, this is two posts in a row about something like that, which will lead you to think I have these moments all the time, which is not true-- this was six months ago.  Anyway.  For a moment, it was like this huge weight lifted off my shoulders.  All those expectations of what women should be like-- chatty, maternal, good cook, homemaker, endlessly involved in their friends lives, interested in clothes and makeup and jewelry -- and which I am manifestly not, disappeared.  It was like floating.


So it's not that I don't get it. I do.  But it was followed almost immediately by a feeling of betrayal-- that if I leave cultural femininity behind, I am betraying my sisters.  this is difficult to explain.  bear with me here for a minute.  Because feminine values are not valued in our culture-- the ones I listed, and a lot more (vulnerability, interdependence, cooperation, to name a few).  So while I completely support the banishing of cultural expectations that are imposed on anyone about almost anything, I can't support the denigration of feminine values.  I'm learning to separate those two out.  In fact, that's what this post is about.  Me trying to figure out how to let go of all those years of feeling like a failure, while at the same time not devaluing the feminine.

Because feminism often feels to me not like male-bashing but like female-bashing.  Broadly speaking, it often feels like we feminists want men to be feminine and women to be masculine.  And to an extent, I agree-- to the extent that each of us needs to balance out within ourselves our own unique mix of masculine and feminine aspects. And given the nature of our culture, that sometimes means that women need to over-emphasize masculine traits (like valuing the individual over community (to be blunt: acting out of self-interest), or being strong and opinionated) and vice versa in order to compensate for cultural programming.

But even as I say that, I still staunchly stand by the importance of femininity.  Even though I'm not a very feminine person.  You mess with my sisters, you mess with me.  It's a funny mix where we are right now, isn't it?  Because women are still discriminated against in ways that have much to do with the way our culture is organized.  I'll even go along with using the term patriarchy, as long as we're clear that a) patriarchy isn't just about men being in charge, and b) women can (and often are) just as patriarchal as men.  Because how are we going to undermine patriarchy if women are all trying to be patriarchal?  Being a biological female doesn't excuse being ruthless or cruel, or using unethical means to get what you want, or ignoring the importance of people in your push to own power-- all of which are things that I associate with patriarchy (not masculinity), and all are things that I've heard feminists justify as being OK if it's done by a woman with feminist goals. 

I'm boring myself again.  I was going to skip the reading report for October because I hadn't "read anything" until it occurred to me that I could report on some of the academic reading I've had to do.  Because everyone should read House of Mirth and Age of Innocence (both by Edith Wharton).  Oh, lord, should they.  Wharton is such an incredible writer.  HoM is earlier, and the writing is more sort-of in-your-face so you notice it-- wow, that was beautifully written.  And it could be a textbook for teaching structure-- the two halves are perfectly balanced.  AoI is more subtle, and absolutely brilliant.  When I read them in my 20s, I thought HoM was better, and AoI was just the pathetic story of a man who was too weak to go after what he wanted.  At nearly 50, it read entirely differently.  But they are both depressing, so you're forewarned.  And talk about women supporting patriarchy-- read them, and then tell me which gender is oppressing which, because you could sure as hell argue it either way.  Beautifully written, worth reading, but depressing.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Imma Shine

It's the end of my long day (leave the house at 7:45 a.m. and don't get home until 9 p.m.) and I just finished driving, I'm the only one home, and I'm drinking a beer (Pigs Ass Porter, since you asked), so just take this whole thing with a grain of salt.  You've been warned.  And while I'm specifying caveats, please substitute "what I think of as God" for "God" throughout.

So several years ago, I read the first half of one of Brian Greene's books, The Elegant Universe.  (Love beautifully written books about science, but I never seem to get more than halfway through.)  He was explaining, beautifully, the theory of relativity, and it was late at night, and all the sudden I got it.  I had this flash of being able to hold the whole thing in my head-- all this lovely, brilliant pure energy racing around the universe at the speed of light, and then slowing down as it takes on mass and becomes-- well, everything.  Matter.  (That may not have been at all what Mr. Greene was trying to explain, but work with me here.)  Then I woke up the next morning and it was gone.  I can still remember the basic outline, obviously, but that moment where the whole thing existed as a moment of comprehension in my head is gone forever. 

But I can spin that idea out endlessly.  I've thought about it a lot over the intervening years, and moved it into a realm which Mr. Greene would probably be embarrassed to have anything to do with (sorry, Brian).  For example, is this what the Incarnation is a metaphor for?  God, pure energy/light, choosing to take on material form?  Or this:   if you can ascribe volition to pure energy, you could think of that moment, the moment of taking on mass, as a choice, and that choice might be made out of love.  Which gives a whole new meaning to the New Age idea that the fundamental glue of the universe is love.  Pure energy choosing to take on material form, slowing down its headlong flight across the universe, so that the world(s) can exist.  So we can exist. 

And then the corollary, or subset, or next thought, anyway:  and that's all we are, too.  Pure energy, slowed down from light speed, to take on mass and exist.  (cue Twilight Zone music). I should possibly be typing this while unimpaired, but I'd never have the nerve to post this if I wasn't punchy.  Remember, I told you-- half a beer and I am silly as Junie B. Jones.

So tonight while i was endlessly driving back from UTown, it occurred to me in another one of those flashes that what we are is brilliant.  What I am is brilliant.  Not more brilliant than anyone else, but we are each brilliant. Brilliant is our status quo, not something we achieve during certain special moments.  And there's something about recognizing our own brilliance that connects us with God.  If you want to use the language of my youth, we're somehow denigrating God if we deny the way God made us, if we deny that the way God made us is to be brilliant.  If you want it phrased agnostically:  We grow up in a world that layers guilt and obligation and worry and anxiety on top of what is our essential self.

OK, now I'm getting uncomfortable.  But that was my flash of insight on the endless drive today.  oh, good grief, I'm uncomfortable with my own brilliance, right?  so what else is new.  and I can never be anything but silly when typing out this kind of thing because who the hell am I to think I know anything about this?  but it's what I was thinking about, so voila, the post.  and dh and MadMax got home so I'm not even editing it. much.

Monday, November 01, 2010

GS: then and now

There are a lot of things about grad school that are different now than they were in 1985, the last time I did this.  For one thing, it is now a somewhat touchy issue to call a professor by their first name.  Back in the 80s, we were still rebelling against the "old way" of doing things, and professors, almost every single one I had from freshman year up through 2nd year of grad school, wanted to be called by their first name.  Some would even be slightly offended if you called them "Professor Allen" or "Dr. Smith" or whatever.  No more.  As grad students, we are given some leeway, and probably me especially since I'm older than most of my profs, but in general, we are much more formal these days.

And then there's the whole research thing.  "Back in my day" (she says, looking smug and disdainful as she tilts her chair back on two legs and sticks her thumbs in her pockets), we were old school.  We went to the library and pulled books off the shelves, including the "Reader's Guide."  Said guide would allow you to look up scholarly articles that had been published on your subject.  You could look through summary volumes for older stuff that collected several years at once, and for more recent stuff, you pulled each monthly volume individually off the shelf and looked up your topic.  And then you would go and either pull the bound archived journals off the shelf, or (I shiver with horror to remember it) you would go to the microfiche reader and succumb to an instant headache as you watched the pages whizzing past until you found your article.  It sucked.  This is one thing that is clearly, unambiguously better now.  Now, you sit at home and point your browser to the university library website, or the MLA site, or one of several other sites, enter your search terms, and instantly have your list of articles sitting in front of you.  And more often than not, you can click on the article, and the full text of it will pop up right there on the screen in front of you.  No lie.  It is totally, awesomely amazing. 

Which makes me laugh at myself retroactively for last year.  You have to remember that for almost twenty years now I have lived in a small town, which has a great library manned by dedicated, valiant librarians but it is still a small town library.  I.e., the chances of it a) having the book you want and b) having it checked in and on the shelf, are pretty slim.  So the first time I walked into the U library last fall, used one of the computer terminals to check the catalog for the topic of the first paper I needed to research (which was on Dante), descended into the bowels of the library, and stood in front of about eight shelves full of books on the Inferno, I got teary-eyed.  Not kidding.  I also was shocked and a bit smug to see that all the books were still there, even though all 26 of us in the class were writing on the same topic.  I assumed I was the only one who cared enough to investigate critical sources for a paper that -- strictly speaking-- didn't require it.  Finally, a year later, I figured out that no, it wasn't that I cared more, it was just that all the other students were sitting at home in the comfort of their jammies, glass of wine in hand, doing more and better research on their laptop.  Silly me.

But perhaps the biggest difference of all is the entire range and tone of what we're studying.  Back in the 80s, we were reading "literature":  poetry, stories, novels and plays.  There was some ambiguity about what constituted "literature"-- I remember talking about "found" poetry, which is when you find an unexpectedly lovely or resonant use of words in a newspaper article or a subway billboard or wherever-- but for the most part, we were reading works that had "stood the test of time."  One professor defined capital-A Art as anything that is created with the intent of producing art (he was speaking of visual art, but it would apply equally well to literary art). Which would leave out things like advertising copy, newspaper articles, journals and diaries.  Those were things that historians studied, not lit majors. 

But like pretty damn near everything, now we see Art as not its own thing, but as a cultural construct.  Meaning that the way certain objects or texts have come to be considered Art says more about the prejudices of the time than any innate value of the object.  Back in the middle of the twentieth century, The Scarlet Letter was considered to be Art while Uncle Tom's Cabin was considered to be a popular novel of lesser value, in large part because a well-educated white man wrote Scarlet Letter--making it important and weighty-- and a sentimental female wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin --making it negligible and not worth reading (went this type of thinking, I'm not necessarily endorsing it here, just describing).  I know I've used this comparison before, but it's such a good one-- two novels published two years apart, one considered to be one of the most important novels of American literary history, the other--far more influential at the time--deserving maybe a line or two in the history books, but not valued as a work of, ahem, Art.  And full disclosure:  I've read Scarlet Letter--of course, all US English majors have-- but I've never read Uncle Tom's Cabin

The issues are clear, and the point is valid.  Women of the time weren't allowed to have the kind of education that Hawthorne had.  Harriet Beecher Stowe was far from uneducated, but Bowdoin College, Hawthorne's alma mater, didn't accept women until 1971.   Yes, 1971, over a hundred years too late for Harriet to have received the same education.  So, the argument goes, how could she possibly have produced a work that met the same standards for intellectual rigor as Hawthorne's?  And she didn't.  But is it fair to judge her work by the same standards we judge Scarlet Letter?  Of course not, to the historian.  As historical artifacts, signs of their times, they are of equal worth.  It's only when you get into the tricky area of defining what is Art that you get into questions of worth.

There was a version of this argument going on when I was in grad school before in a somewhat different way.  As US students of English literature, the history of specifically American Lit was obviously of some importance to us.  But the early stuff-- James Fenimore Cooper, for example-- just isn't very good.  As works of art, British lit of the same time period far outshines American lit.  But if you're a student of American lit, that's where you have to start.  You read Cooper because of his importance in the sequence of American literary history, not because of the intrinsic value of The Deerslayer.  

I am so totally boring myself here.  I can't even remember where I was going.  I think it had something to do with how literary studies are getting to the point where they will disappear and become cultural studies, because it is no longer OK to make judgments about what is worth reading and what isn't.  So you end up studying anything and everything that is a part of culture rather than making distinctions about what "deserves" to be studied and what doesn't.  And then I was going to gripe about that, because I like being a literary snob.  I don't want to read Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Or the Deerslayer. (I've made it through all my years without ever having read either one, so that is possibly unfair).  But I've bored myself to death and lost interest.  ADD strikes again.