Wednesday, May 07, 2008


It's undoubtedly spring now, and apparently spring is the season of revelations. As the world wakes and opens, so do we, ready after a season of protective bunkering to consider what it means to be a person in a world, shocked by the newness of green into new ways of seeing, reminded by all of the people stumbling around in the sun of things we've said or promises we've made. Pluvialis at fretmarks wrote a beautiful post about such things yesterday.

And so it is only appropriate that, as I was running errands on Saturday, I had the following revelation: This is the life I wanted.

It's actually true. As a much smaller person, I remember watching movies about women with jobs and lives and space to be themselves, and I wanted it badly. I lusted after a life that would belong to me in that way. I wanted a life in which I got up and read the paper. I wanted a life in which I had my own apartment and looked around in the evenings and liked the things on the walls and the books on the shelves. (I knew there would be lots of books.) I wanted a life in which I had friends I adored with whom to have long dinners or meet for drinks or laugh on a sunny afternoon. I wanted meaningful work I was good at, though I never, in my wildest dreams, thought it might be this work. I wanted to be 30. The dog is a complete surprise, but you pick up some things you didn't know you'd need along the way. This is the life that I wanted.

What I didn't know, what no-one ever told me, was that when I got the life I wanted, I'd also be wanting something else. No-one ever explained that, actually, I'd have to. The room that holds my life now has to have windows and doors and ways to move through. Otherwise, it's not a life, but a prison. But this room that is my life also came with a hidden trap door that I haven't watched for: In order to be happy, I have to be constantly imagining my life as something different, something better than it is now. I have to be working towards something that builds on the thing I have to make it stronger, make me stronger, make the potential of the life that I wanted real. And while imagining that, it's far too easy to fall in and assume that if I'm imagining something else in my life, the life I have isn't the life I want. It isn't good enough or exciting enough or fulfilling enough. The things I want now that are missing loom as evidence that I've done something wrong. The things that I have that aren't enough are proof that I was wrong to want them all along, instead of cherishing them for the stepping stones that they are.

Trapdoors lead to dark places. They lead to places where I'm claustrophobic and want out. Down in the dark, I can't see the room I live in now. But it's the room I hoped for. It's the life I wanted. I'm living it everyday. I'm using it to move towards something I want, too. That's what makes it a good life. I should hold it more gently. I should revel in it while I have it. Because I won't forever. I don't want it forever. One day I'll open one of those doors and walk through. I'll climb though a window and fall into a bush. And so, somehow, I have to find the balance towards knowing that I want my life to change and loving the life I always wanted.

The lovely photo above is attributed to someone known as Balu62.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


So I'm sitting in Not My Usual Coffee Shop, trying, trying, trying to turn this draft of a draft of a chapter into an actual chapter draft. But I'm not doing that, obviously, because I'm typing this post. If, as I said in my last post, the discipline of grad school is the discipline of a thousand questions, today I'm answering a petulant, "Uhhhh, GO! AWAY!" in response to each of them. Resistance is futile, I know. A chapter will not go away. But lately, I'm reminding myself of my goddaughter, who, at three, will fight and fight and fight to stay awake and keep having fun, while all the while knowing, in her tiny, clever brain, that she will have to go to bed sooner or later. And while listening to her resist, I keep thinking, "But going to bed IS fun! Sleep? Is FUN. Please, god, let us all go to sleep."

She doesn't know yet that sleep is good fun she'll crave one day the way she craves chocolate (she learned that one early) or television now. It will all be reframed, and she won't resist going to bed the way she used to. Not really. I do, fairly regularly, have nights when I want to stay up and make cookies or watch one more episode of The Wire or play around on the internets far later than is reasonable, given the plan for the next morning. But just as often I have days during which I can only think of when I next get to crawl into bed. I have mornings when I fall onto my bed after my shower and feel the cool sheets start to swallow me, a tiny centimeter at a time. The desire to give in overwhelming.

As is the desire NOT to write this damn chapter. I need a reframing. I need, somehow, to remember that I like this. Not because I hate the work, right now, but because my dissertation is currently the party that I don't want to go to on a Friday night because my house is cozy and my dog good company and it's cold out and, besides, I don't know what to wear. It's the party that will be fun once I get there, I know it will be, but just seems so awful from afar.

And of course, when that's the case, the only thing to do is to get up and go to the party and let the rest take care of itself. Everything else is inertia, is laziness, is desire eating up my day, tiny little mouthfuls of seconds swallowed before I realize they were on my plate. Nothing to do, I suppose, but spit them out. Nothing to do but shut up and open the Word file. (There. Done.) and start typing something. Something. Something.

Monday, April 28, 2008


I often leave the television on the in the background as I clean the kitchen or shove laundry into the dryer. Click it on and let it squawk to keep me moving. Last week, I walked past the TV just as a Today show anchor informed those of us unfortunate enough to have the program on that simple, everyday decisions, such as "whether to have skim or soy milk in your latte" took energy and were tiring. Just the little choices of modern life could wear you out.

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes at this kind of first world problem. How utterly horrible to find yourself worn out by thinking about your morning coffee. (Worn out without morning coffee I understand. Worn out by the very contemplation of it? A little ridiculous.) But then I started to think about how often, as a grad student, I'm negotiating my day. The kind of discipline that grad school demands is the discipline of a thousand questions. Will I work now or later? If I work now, where will I work? If I have written a paragraph, is that enough, or do I need to work more? Can I sit on this couch just 15 more minutes before returning to work? Do I need to read this chapter before bed?

It's true that these questions, the when and the where and the why, can seem unrelenting, the decisions constant, the guilt for making the wrong choices unforgiving. We want, very much, to make the right decisions. I think even more than that we want to be the kind of person who makes those right decisions effortlessly. Grad school, and maybe life in general, often feels like a series of tests in which we try very hard to prove that we're the kind of person we want to be. We'll be ok in the end because we're meant to be, because we have what it takes. Because we are, inherently right. Because we exist at all.

It's so easy to resent it, to develop what friends of mine call a case of the fuckits, in which you just can't be bothered to make one more damn decision. I was thinking about that last week, the same day as the latte segment on Today, while taking the dog on our first morning-long walk of the spring. We'd taken a long bike path to the tiniest of hidden parks and he'd scared a few ducks as he splashed about in a lake that would be a puddle come July. I sat on a bench and was breathing deeply and trying not to think about the work I'd blown off that morning, the training run I hadn't taken, the things that would not get done because my dog needed to run to be happy and because, to be happy, I have to watch him.

And all of a sudden, in my godfather's voice, I heard the line from Thoreau, the line from Walden: "I went to the woods because I wished deliberately..." Deliberate deliberate deliberate. The word washed around against the surfaces of my brain, ebbing and surging a little. And I realized that I'd almost been taken in by it. I'd almost bought the idea that these decisions that we make every day are a burden.

My god. Those of us who have the option of making those decisions every day —the decision to work, the decision to walk, the decision to see an idea through to its greatest potential, the decision to nap to the sound of the bus stopping with a great sigh on the street outside—are given the gift of deliberation. We are even given the gift of deciding on kinds of milk. Kinds! This should not be exhausting, and if it is, it should be exhausting like the mental equivalent of raking leaves or putting up storm windows, an exhausting that comes from doing something simple that validates the everyday, a miniscule ritual to mark that moment in time.

It's not so much about making right decisions as it is about making decisions at all. It's not about being worthy or deserving or valid or good. It's just about being, like breathing, out and in, every day. Making deliberate choices so that the moment isn't taken for granted.

Which, you know, is a good thing. Because I suspect I'll keep blowing off work to walk the dog or have a coffee with a friend or read one more article in The Times. I'll keep making these little deals with this five minutes or that five minutes there. I'll keep setting a clock and letting it tick away the minutes during which I'll work. I'll keep making deliberate decisions that are the gift of a modern life in which every moment is given to me.

The picture of the latte up top was either taken by Asa Jelena Pettersson or the latte itself was created by Pettersson or both. I don't know which. But I really like it, a little clock in coffee.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


In 1998, my good friend O and I went on a 10-day adventure to Alaska. We'd planned and purchased and organized and we'd traveled together before, and we thought we had the whole thing down to a science. But we hadn't counted on Alaska. We hadn't counted on a land so big that it threw off our very ability to judge how small we were in the world. On our first day, our shuttle driver pointed across a bit of water and asked, "How far do you think it is across?" We consulted and decided it was about three miles. He laughed and said, "No, twenty." You're smaller than that, little girl.

After a typhoon in the Pacific trapped us on an Alaskan beach in frightening winds, we made our way to Anchorage and decided we'd take on Denali National Park, something we hadn't planned before. We rented a car, drove in, and patted ourselves on the backs for being so flexible, so able to change with the weather. We arrived at the welcome center to get our backpacking permits. And were asked to take a test on how to deal with bears. Then we were pointed to an enormous topographical map and told to pick our section of the park. "Can you give us any suggestions?" we asked. No, we were told. No, for liability's sake, they don't make suggestions to backpackers in Denali.

By the time we'd gotten our permits and gotten on the bus, we were a bit nervous. But nevermind. We were in Alaska! We were adventurous! We were free!

Or something. The bus driver couldn't tell us where to get off (liability again), so we guessed by map as best we could, and he dropped us by the side of the road and zoomed off into the distance. And there we were. We had hours and hours to just explore. The only rule was that we could not make camp within a mile of the road. No problem! We were experienced backpackers! Alaska would finally, finally be ours.

Denali is a trail-less park. There are no signs or footpaths. There are bear and moose and any number of wild things, not least the humans who try to conquer it with tents from REI and ramen noodles. But there's nothing to tell you where to go. When you spend a lot of time hiking and camping, this seems beyond ideal. It's as if you're the first ones to ever travel there. (Except, of course, those nice people who built the roads and made the maps and such. But mostly the first ones ever.) So O and I put our heads together and decide on a route and off we go.

But we're smaller than that, even. We're so small you can't possibly imagine. It turns out that you can't just go off because, well, there's things growing there. It turns out you have to bushwhack. Seriously. The stuff that looked like scrub from above on the road is as high as our heads. It's thick. It's in our way. It's really not fun at all. Nature is inconvenient.

We figure out, quickly, that the yellow stuff is impossibly tall. It takes forever to get through. But the red is a little smaller and we can see over it and so if we try to look for the next red bush (no idea, still, what the red stuff is. Or the yellow.) then we only have to whack the bush half as hard. And so hours upon hours we whack. We've learned, during our testing on bear safety, to talk constantly in order to warn them of our approach. But bushwhacking actually requires some concentration and so we're not really immersed in conversation. Instead we're singing back and forth, "Hello, BEAR! Just passing through, BEAR! We won't hurt you, BEAR!" It's all a sort of Alaskan whistling in the dark.

Finally, hours and hours and hours later, easily six hours of exhausting bushwhacking later, we come to a spot on a side of a hill that looks like it will make for a perfect camp spot. We set up tent. We smile at each other. We feel small in the Alaskan wilderness, but we feel real and good. And we pull out the map in order to see if we can calculate just how far we've come. And collapse in giggles. It's maybe two miles. Maybe two. We've worked so hard. It's been all day. We're so pleased with ourselves. And we've only come two miles. Alaska has a sense of humor, as well.

The day was not without rewards. It's so beautiful there that it exposes all of my shortcomings as a writer. I can't tell you what it looks like. I can tell you that at one point during the day I was up to my eyebrows in a stunning autumn yellow, yellow branches the only thing I could see, sweat in my eyes and crisp air in my lungs, when the branches moved and I was face to face with a baby moose, not at all surprised to see me there, watching my quizzically, as if it was waiting for me to say something. It chewed its lunch and I backed away, worried his mama might show up, yellow swallowing him and me both.

But my god. I was so tired. I was tired in exactly the way I'm tired right now. I'm drafting my first chapter, see. I'm trying to get from point A to point B, write my way through the first 50 pages, arrive at the other end and make camp and claim territory and feel pleased with myself. But I have to bushwhack to get where I need to be, and I'm hacking at sentences, stomping on commas, pushing my way, clumsy and frustrated, through paragraphs. I've got all this lovely research all around me, towering like mountains, and it wants to be seen in the best possible light. But I spend all day, all day long, and all I get to show for it is the tiniest progress, the smallest distances, the least possible ground covered. Every once in a while there is a moose. But mostly, I'm sweating and standing on tippy toes to peer over the yellow grass and wave at you all.

Monday, February 25, 2008


Last week, I was on a research trip in Minnesota. It is, of course, absurd to travel to Minnesota in February. But when you're sitting in the archives, the weather outside matters less. It does matter, though, and the way I could tell this was that I couldn't default to walking everywhere, which is my preferred method of getting around in a new city. You learn a city faster that way. But instead, I was forced to take the bus, and learning the buses in a visited city where you could walk always feels like learning a foreign language just so you could watch a movie that has subtitles. It's a lot of deciphering for very little pay off.

Still, I managed to get a bus right outside of my hotel and take it directly to the library that would suck me in for eight hours. After my first day, I went outside, crossed the street (I needed to go the opposite direction, see, so I figured I'd have to stand on the opposite side of the street.) and got on the appropriately labeled bus. 30 minutes later, that bus pulled up outside of the library again with me still on it. So I walked to the front and had this irritating conversation with the bus driver:

"Which bus goes to Street With The Hotel?"
"We aren't on Street With The Hotel."
"Yes. Which bus goes there?"
"We don't have a bus that goes there."
"But I'm staying at This Hotel, and I got on a bus there this morning."
"But we don't have a bus that goes there."
"But I got on there this morning."
"We don't go there."

We had, obviously, reached a conversational impasse. Nothing I could say would convince her that I'd gotten on a bus at my hotel. (Really, I had!) And nothing she could say was going to convince me that I hadn't, in fact, taken a bus to campus that morning. So I got off the bus, crossed the street, got on an identical bus (or so it seemed to me) and arrived at my hotel five minutes later.

Now, it turns out that two things had happened. The first is that there are two buses that each do a half loop of campus over and over, and so by crossing the street to get on the bus that was going the other way, I crossed over into a different half of the loop. Ok, whatever. Seems like a dumb way to do it, but it obviously works for them. The second thing that happened was that when I mentioned the street my hotel was on, I actually gave the name of the street outside one door when I'd actually gotten on the bus on the street outside a different door. Totally my fault. I still think that, given that it was a giant, six story, white hotel building sandwiched between restaurants and some construction, the bus driver could have extrapolated from the name of my hotel to the bus I needed, but fine. That's my problem, too. I'll avoid making additional snarky remarks about her reasoning skills.

The point of this too-long story, though, is that I've been thinking about this conversational impasse all week long. Because I'm pretty sure I've reached a similar impasse with my own brain. Usually, the things at war in my head have civil conversation and negotiating sessions. The things I'm afraid of and the things I'm resisting push and push, and the tools I have for dealing and the things I want to achieve push back, and I eventually get to a very nice place in which I see that these fears over here are right and should be listened to and those over there are trouble-makers and have to sit in the corner and shut up. I come up with a few decent metaphors and I understand and all is well.

Yeah, not this time. Right now, my brain is just playing an on-going game of conversational Pong. "How do I get there?" "We don't go there." "How do I get there?" "We don't go there." Over and over. I'm pretty sure that the impasse is caused by something really stupid, like my inability to recognize the giant white building outside the bus window as a hotel. But I can't figure out what that piece is. I can't figure out what simple thing I cling to in the face of overwhelming evidence that it isn't working. Which has brought me to the following conclusion: I need someone else to enter the negotiations. I need a fucking therapist or something. And god, I think I'd rather get back on that bus.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

An Open Letter to Barack Obama

Senator Obama:

I am a Democratic voter who will soon go to the polls to cast my primary vote. I want to support you. I really do. But I can't. (Nor can I support your main opponent.) I've seen you speak, had chills from the power of your rhetoric, and responded to the power of your message. But as a citizen who is gay, I believe you take my vote for granted and count on self-hatred and the fear of a Republican government to get me to the polls. You leave me unable to give you full-throated support because I am one of the Americans who does not get that same support from you.

You say that you believe that gay couples in the United States are entitled to all the rights that heterosexual couples have, but that you believe that marriage is "between a man and woman." I have no idea what that means or how that makes sense to you. I don't know if you struggle with that or state it because you believe it's a political necessity to do so. But I do know that when you say it so unequivocally, it implies is that you believe that there are privileges awarded to some and beyond the reach of the few. It reinforces, for every gay-basher or homophobe who hears or reads your words, that they are right to think that gay couples are different, unworthy, separate.

And separate but equal is not a doctrine that has worked well for us in the past. Surely you can see the way that "marriage" holds a civil rights loophole: Housing available for "Married Couples Only." Rates for hotels and vacations just for "Married Couples." Businesses and Employers who don't discriminate based on sexual orientation—oh, no—they just have different policies that take into consideration the different needs of their married employees. By setting up marriage as something reserved for the heterosexual, you leave that privilege at the top of a mountain that only some can climb. You also make it possible for those at the top to kick rocks down on those who stand below.

Let me be clear: I, personally, have no real interest in marriage per se. It is not the civil rights hill I would have chosen to die on. But I do have an interest in public rhetoric that reinforces hierarchy and gives power to a majority at the expense of a minority. You want me to be grateful that you believe I'm equal while simultaneously proving that you do not think that is so. You want me to be so grateful that you will hand me something that I might not notice what you take away with the other hand. You want me to be so fearful that the other guy will be worse that I'll hand you my only bargaining chip, my vote. You want me to call on some hidden self-loathing, walk into a voting booth and pull the lever for the one who thinks it's ok to say I'm less. I can't do that. Not even for you and all your pretty speeches.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Down By The Water

Long ago, in my last blog post, I wrote that sometimes you're standing on a cliff, paralyzed by the fear of falling, and all you really can do is jump. It's true. Sometimes it's the only right thing to do, not because the ending is assured or the world at the top dangerous, but because you know there are places you have to go and there are no maps and in the end fear is the worst possible law to live by. So you jump.

And sometimes, it was the wrong cliff. You can't really know, sometimes, until you're lying broken and aching on some rocks you just know weren't there before. You can't really know until you've seen what's at the bottom up close. And so I find myself, lying here, wondering how such a pretty cliff could lead me to such a jagged place. These are the hardest things to blog about. This is one of the reasons why this blog has gone so quiet. It's very difficult for me to admit to pain and confusion, difficult to blog about the causes when I try to remain anonymous, even more difficult because, for all the truths I do not tell here, I am incapable of lying under the cloak of anonymity this space provides. And really, there's just no way to avoid feeling lame when you jump and the fall is not at all what you expected. Who wants to talk about being lame?

Not me. I don't enjoy talking about it, nor do I enjoy feeling it. And yet there it is. The fall is hard. I'm unsure of where I've landed. I am, in fact, lying here in pain and confusion, brought on by more than just the trauma of the fall. Somehow, when a jump leads you to an unexpected place, new fears arise. The fear of getting up, the fear of the climb back to the top, the fear of all the things that made the jump wrong. And so as I move through my days right now, I seem to be vascillating between two moods: A sort of horrible, clingy sadness and The West Wing.

As you can imagine, The West Wing is the mood of choice. God bless writer Aaron Sorkin, god bless TV on DVD, god bless my new MacBook and its happy, shiny screen that brings the show to me in technicolor. I've seen it all before, but that's ok. I need it right now.

The show, is of course, brilliant. Astounding in its cogent commentary and with characters so real you're sure that if they were in charge, we'd stand a fighting chance, the show is just engaging enough to let me cry without forcing sentiment. Aaron Sorkin isn't afraid of metaphor and poetry, and since metaphor is my favorite coping mechanism, he speaks my language. In a season one episode, one character tells the president that his demons are shouting down his better angels, and I suddenly can visualize it, too. It's a pitched battle with my better angels fighting fiercely, hair clinging to their grimy faces, robes torn and arms bloody. My demons are all fire and unsure footing. I imagine I have to get up and get dressed and eat breakfast so that my better angels have a fighting chance. (Though I admit that I occasionally feel bad for my demons, who are so damaged and seductive and mean-spirited that I am sure that they'd benefit from a nice bowl of soup.)

Right now, the war being waged is just loud enough that I can hear very little else. It makes dissertation writing next to impossible and blog-posting, as you can see, full of the sort of melodramatic and self-pitying emotion that makes even my better angels snarl in disgust. So I watch The West Wing. I watch episode after episode and try not to think about much at all. But things sneak in and I find myself relating to the drama and the struggle. I watch when a reporter asks the press secretary if there is water over her head. No, she says. The water, she says, is exactly at my head. I nod and nod and think yes. So I'm posting today to say that I haven't abandoned this half acre. I have not drowned. But I'm feeling battered, so I'm just going to lie here for a while on these rocks where the water is exactly at my head.