Friday, February 23, 2007

The Phantom Happy

What makes a happy graduate student?

I've been thinking that question over. It started when I read over the posts written for Happy Woman Professor Day, an event engineered by dhawhee over at blogos. They got me thinking a lot about how I imagine my life as a professor, and what, in that fantasy, makes that happiness possible. It's interesting that the first thing that jumped to my mind, and then proceeded to dance around my skull, knocking over lampshades and spilling coffee, is that, in my vision, life as a happy professor is defined by the things that have nothing to do with academia. It's defined by balance and a life beyond my research and teaching. I know, already, that I love to teach and that I find research maddening but challenging in exactly the way I might hope. But that cannot make me a happy professor, nor can the things I hate in my vision of the future (departmental politics, long hours, unrelenting expectations) make me unhappy. It takes the whole damn package of career and love and personal space and hobbies and integrity.

Looking forward, I expect to be asked to make compromises, both on behalf of my career and on behalf the of the family I hope to have. I intend to make them. I don't intend for my career to be a non-negotiable aspect of my life, and that, I suppose, means I better expect my career to be pretty mediocre. I can be happy with that. In fact, that may be the only way I envision myself happy as a professor. I'd like a job where I can teach, please. I'd like a job where I can, if I put the time in, have intellectual community and social interaction. I don't know that I care very much where that job is or whether my work is well-known or appreciated. I fear that being known and appreciated is the only way to the get the little job with an office and classes and files full of copies of archival documents, but surely there has to be a middle ground between academic superstar and barista.

This, of course, means that the things that will make me happy as a professor are the same things that make me happy as a graduate student. And they are. As I've been thinking this over, I've realized that I am, actually, a happy graduate student. I feel a little as if I'm getting away with something. The misery of graduate school is not at all overblown, but somehow I'd translated that into a belief that I must also be miserable. And it just doesn't follow. My life here is defined by dissertation, yes, but also my friendships, my hobbies, the goals I have that are completely independent of academia. It's defined by a fair bit of navel-gazing and being completely wild about my dog and my niece and my goddaughter and the people who remind me of all the really cool things beyond my doorstep. It's a good life.

I'm not saying that I don't just loathe some aspects of it. Right now, I'm so tired of negotiating academic personalities I could scream. I hate the feelings of inadequacy and the endless road that stretches before me and the constant worry about money. But oh, well. That's just the way it is. It doesn't have the power to make me an unhappy person, even if it does have the power to ruin more than a day or two. I have the ability to digest it all, try to move past it, develop coping mechanisms, sublimate and deny. I have a dog who sleeps with his nose under my leg, a list of personal projects the size of my arm, and friends and family that make my heart feel tight and lucky. I'm a happy graduate student.

I do reserve the right to change my mind on that point, though. One more funding proposal might break me.

Friday Photo Blogging

Friday, February 16, 2007

Friday Photo Blogging

I've been avoiding the camera of late, and it's not a good idea. I need a hobby. I particularly need the pursuit of something that's difficult for me. (I don't exactly get photography on some intrinsic level.) But it's been so gray and cold. In the winter here, everything eventually turns the same color and the floors and the cars and your shoes and the cuffs of your pants are coated in a sandy, salty slush that I can't feel entranced with no matter how hard I try. I only ever associate it with the in-between moments, when the world can't quite be so snowy that you must stay inside but also can't quite get off its lazy ass and bring on spring.

I know, of course, that under all the snow and slush and sand and salt and dirt and ice and really disgusting mess, the world is actually doing quite a bit of work to make a nice spring for me. Right now, I don't really care. I'm impatient. I'm ready. I've been cold plenty long.

So I haven't been exactly inspired to pull out the camera and capture the moment. I'm stuck in a "move it along, nothing to see" mentality. But then the other day, I noticed they'd brought in tulips to my local grocery, and I decided that I needed some. So I've been having my own little love affair with these little flowers. They made me a promise. They promised I'd feel better about things soon enough. I'll fall for anything that can make me that promise right now.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

I'll Fly Away

I just bought a plane ticket.

I leave that line all up there by itself because it seems unbelievably significant. It's not that I don't travel. Actually, I travel a fair bit, and I consider it one of the unanticipated benefits of an academic career. But this is different. It's a plane ticket to an overseas location that holds not one archival document necessary for my dissertation. (Though I bet if I went looking, I could find a document or two that would be useful. But I'm not looking.) It's a plane ticket to the doorstep of one of the most extraordinary people, someone I often wish I was sitting near while I work but cannot meet me for coffee because the ocean is vast and air travel for a coffee date impractical. This is a plane ticket to a place that I'm quite certain I'd love if I only spent enough time there. In short, I'm going on vacation.

The whole being a poor grad student thing means that I have not one bit of business buying a plane ticket. And oh, god, I just don't care. The whole worrying about financials at the expense of all else is exhausting and the worrying about spending every waking minute on your dissertation until the dissertation is done is exhausting and I'm just not able to do it all of the time. (Particularly given that worrying about working and working are very, very different things.) I'm 32 years old. I'm an adult and I get to live a whole great big life. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fan of the Life Begins At Graduation approach, but it's so easy to believe that the PhD comes before everything else.

It doesn't. It really doesn't. The PhD is one thing in my life, perhaps even The One Thing, that makes it possible to feel fufilled and challenged and happy. But it's still only one thing. Being fulfilled and challenged and happy requires that, once in a while, you do something ill-advised and life-affirming. Not because you deserve it or you have thought out all of the logistics, but because it seems like there's a whole world waiting for you and it's going to get away if you don't just leap into it. Or get on a plane. Sometimes, the world is waiting for you to get on a plane.

Photo by Phillippe Noret

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Cabin Febrile

The whole cozy, stay indoors, enjoy the time to hunker down thing I said below? I'm over it. It's cold and I've had enough and I'd give an arm (probably just the left one, but still) for a day warm enough for shorts and a long, long walk with the dog. Plus, with the hat I have to wear every damn time I leave the house, I'm not going to have a good hair day until May.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Cold Snap

It's cold here this weekend. And when I say it's cold, I mean that it's cold enough that the warnings suggest not that we bundle up before going out, but that we don't go out at all. It's a sort of cold that feels aggressive and invasive. It's distracting and exhausting. I'm wearing long underwear in the house and have closed off the bedroom to make better use of the heat my sad little furnace is capable of generating. Because the bedroom is icy cold, (note the photo of my windows from the inside) I've pulled out the bed in my sofa and have it piled high with blankets, pillows, my books and my computer. The TV remote is close by. I may never need to leave.

I spend a lot of time at home, but I spend most of my time at home feeling like I should be doing something else or going somewhere else or talking to someone else. It's grad student guilt. There's so much time and so much work and I'm about a quart low on discipline. So when the temperature isn't predicted to reach zero degrees and the television newscasters are talking about the cold in serious tones, I feel completely justified in crawling into my nest and hunkering down. I made chicken and noodles yesterday and muffins this morning. I keep sticking my cold toes under Bug's warm belly and taking breaks from this week's work to read blogs and watch television. I don't have to go anywhere else. I'm really not allowed to because that meteorologist I don't usually take seriously said so. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself. Grad students get so few opportunities to settle in without guilt, and I'm going to enjoy every minute of this.

I am starting to wonder, though, if I'll ever be warm again.