Monday, July 17, 2006

Fear of the Day

Today marks the first official day of my dissertation research.

I'm terrified. However, apparently I shouldn't be quite so frightened. It has, thus far, involved getting up, reading my blog roll, and making some coffee. Next I'll take the dog to the park and play soccer with him until the heat and humidity gets the best of both of us. (This will take approximately 15 minutes, as Bug is a herding dog of an alpine variety and I am a person of a slothful variety.)

Of course, in my own special way which I suspect is not that special, this is exactly what I'm finding terrifying. When it comes to my dissertation, I'm afraid that I can't do it, yes. But what seizes me in the middle night and makes me sweat is not the thought that I'm incapable. Instead, it's the thought that I can but won't. It's the thought that for years, I'll get up and walk the dog and look with guilt at the pile of papers accumulating in the corner or at the computer that sits accusingly on my desk. I'll meet friends for coffee in order to "work" and three weeks later discover that I've covered an hour's worth of ground. Just as bad, though of a completely different ilk, is the thought that I'll dig a tunnel into my subject and be mesmerized by the siren song of its complexity, going deeper and deeper and becoming drunk on its possibilities instead of turning them into realities.

There are many things to be afraid of here, and of all of them, I am the most terrifying. My advisor's disapproving voice, the question of "how's it going?" and the need to convince my peers I am not an idiot are high on the list of things that I should fear. But I sit atop that list, petting my dog, reading the latest Sarah Waters novel and whistling innocently through the guilt. Before I conquer my research, I'll have to conquer myself.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Conversations with Duck

There’s currently a duck sitting in my neighbor’s yard. My city is surrounded by lakes, so a duck isn’t a radically weird thing to see, but my little street is a couple of miles from either of these lakes and I’ve never seen a duck here before. He’s sitting in the grass, bobbing his head up and down, appropriately duck-like, and checking things out.

I’ve decided that the duck has arrived on our street as a result of one of three scenarios:

1) He just couldn’t take it anymore—all those water-loving lake-bound fowl, wet feet day in and day out, no hope of anything different. Might as well leave it all behind, feel the grass beneath your webs, see if it really is any better.

2) He took a wrong turn at a moment when everyone else went straight and found himself sitting in the grass in a spot he’d never even contemplated before and decided this was really the spot. Sun on your head, smell of freshly cut grass and baking pavement in your nostrils. It’s not what you’d planned, but it’s good. Might as well sit a while and ponder your luck.

3) He got pushed and jostled and generally misdirected in his already distracted travels (So many things to think about—girls, the sound of jet planes and how to judge if you’re about to get run down, that piece of bread that was probably a bit too far gone.) and now suddenly he’s not on his own lake anymore. He’s in a neighborhood where people mow the lawn instead of letting it grow long and the cars are going a bit too fast to make a break for it and so down he sits. Sooner or later, the answer will come. Until then, it’s best not to move too quickly for fear of knocking it right out of your tiny little head.

I don’t know which of these scenarios brought him here. But I’m looking at this duck on the grass in the middle of a residential street with no water and trying to say, telepathically, “I hear you, dude.” I hope he stays, because I suddenly feel like I have company.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

About My Dragon

I’m having a hard time with the “About Me” section of this blog. I’ve changed it many times, and I expect to change it many more. Part of the problem stems from the fact that at a certain point (which I have apparently reached) all the succinct descriptors are defined by relationships that I either do not have (wife, mother, etc.) or seem sort of pathetic if invoked as defining. For instance, though my friendships with the people in my life are rich and satisfying and occupy a great deal of my time and energy, to describe myself as a friend in the “About” section of a blog would appear a little plaintive and over-reaching. If nothing else, it would be a bit misleading. My friends do not define me, though my time with them certainly does.

The other problem I’m having in telling readers about me is that it’s bringing me face to face with something that’s much larger, much more defining than I had ever intended: being a graduate student. I never meant for this one fact to be so all encompassing. And by encompassing, I mean grad school has eaten me in quick, messy bites and swallowed me with very little ado. I’m here, on the verge of beginning my dissertation after four years of course work, a masters thesis, studying for exams, working up a dissertation proposal, and suddenly I realize that if I tell you I’m a graduate student, you’ll have a better picture of my daily life than if I tell you any other single fact about me. I’m a graduate student. I spend long hours working at the most minute possible tasks (I’d be embarrassed to say how long a single sentence can occupy my attention) and longer hours avoiding those tasks. I spend my time with people who swear they will not talk about history during a meal only to find themselves deeply involved in a conversation about source problems in a dissertation on race in the 17th Century or the best way to keep abreast of current journal articles. We can’t help ourselves.

A while back, peacay over at BibliOdyssey (which is wonderful in every way) posted the image atop this post and I immediately saved it to my desktop and sent it to a friend as the perfect representation of how I feel about graduate school. To me, the image appears calm and violent simultaneously. It’s just a depiction of the simple fact of an encounter with a dragon. I often look at it and wonder whether the person in the picture is being eaten or spit out (in this grad school-inspired metaphor, I’m not sure which would be the more awful) and sometimes I think the person is launching an assault on the dragon, climbing down his throat. The dragon does look uncomfortable. Regardless of the actual circumstances, whether by accident or design, the legs have thrown their lot in with the dragon and their story will be told together.

I imagine, then, that the dragon sits smack dab in the middle of my profile looking self-satisfied and full. And as much as I want to say something in my profile that has nothing to do being a graduate student (just as I’d desperately like to believe that there are things about me unrelated to my grad student status), I can’t pretend that the perspective here isn’t going to be one defined by the belly of this beast. I’d tell you I teach and lecture history, but that’s part of the grad student gig. I’d tell you that I’m a dog owner and hope that balances things, but the truth is that being a dog owner is one of the reasons I’m a graduate student. I had to find something to do that seemed worth the time away from this animal that I love. That doesn't make me seem balanced at all.

I suppose the elements of my life, for as out of whack as it seems in profile, do fit together quite neatly. I have a life that allows me to walk the dog in the morning and discuss surveillance and sexuality over coffee in the afternoon. I teach to make money and to make sure that the ideas I struggle with on my own are worth boiling down and passing on and giving new life in the minds of the students who I both adore and who exasperate me. Even my hobbies work as coping mechanisms that relieve the stress of grad school. It's all been woven together in a pattern that's neither jarring nor boring. I love being a graduate student. But I’d like, very much, to believe that I haven’t been swallowed.