Friday, March 23, 2007

Where Does It Hurt?

Last week my dog, Bug, had surgery, and what followed were two days of utter hell. Two days during which he didn't want me to get off of the floor next to him, two days in which he cried almost non-stop, two days in which I didn't sleep or eat much at all, two days in which I repeatedly lost my patience and now feel god awful about it.

The crying and doggy hysteria were unexpected. Bug was having a reaction to the transdermal fentanyl patch they put on his front leg for pain. Apparently, it was making him hallucinate being in pain rather than actually causing him pain. The pain medication I was giving him in addition to the patch wasn't working because there was no pain to alleviate. There was just an ongoing, tripped out belief that pain was there.

I'm not entirely sure that the difference mattered all that much, except in the treatment. (After I removed the pain patch, he was fine within an hour or two.) His cries were so real and so human and so unrelenting that I have no doubt he believed he was in pain. But I also was pretty sure that he wasn't, and so I kept mumbling to him, over and over, "You're ok, you're really ok." I wanted to scream because he didn't believe it. He only saw and thought and felt pain in an endless loop. He couldn't let go of it and I didn't understand why.

Now that I do, I'm completely captivated by this possibility. The possibility that we might hallucinate pain where none exists is interesting, cruel, and a little bit hopeful. How much of the pain we feel is not actually pain? How often do we want to cry out from a pain that we only believe exists but, in reality, doesn't? How often is the ability to just step out of a loop of pain and grief and pain and grief the only analgesic we really need? Is it possible that some pains can be relieved simply by realizing they aren't real to begin with? Could anything be that simple?

The more I think about it, the more I think so. I'm currently training to run a marathon. Distance running, from what I can tell, is a mind game. Every time I want to stop running. I question myself. It usually goes like this: "Do your feet hurt? No? How about your legs? Do they hurt? No? What about your lungs? Do they hurt? They don't? Then shut up and run." So often I believe that I must stop because I don't want to continue any longer. If I question that belief, I often discover it's not true. Furthermore, it's false in the most obstructing of ways. It's a belief I erected for myself because it is easier to believe I hurt than to hurt because I've stretched a new muscle or discovered I can't do what I set out to do.

There are so many things that cause emotional pain that they build up over time, new layers of scar tissue on an ever-battered heart. It's possible to revisit them and poke at them and discover they still hurt. Some of them will always hurt, will always be a real and true ache for which there is no anesthetic. But there are also things that hurt because I believe them hurtful. I long ago decided that they caused me pain and I yelp when I prod them and nurse them as wounds. I know, though, that they don't really hurt. I know that, like the pains I imagine half way through each mile on the run, they are only pains that keep me from moving forward.

The trick, I suppose, is trying to understand which pain is real and which pain is a figment of an imagination that once felt something hurtful and has been unable to let go. And the hell of this, I think, might be in coming to understand that many of the things that cause me pain are things with sources I might have imagined to be more horrific than they really are; that many of the things that ache are really sprained ankles obtained running from monsters under my bed.

Photo by Olga Berrios

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Eighth Carnival of GRADual Progress

The Eighth Carnival of GRADual progress had an embarrassment of riches to choose from this month, as semesters took off, classes were underway and deadlines were approaching, research was undertaken and days came and went. It's all part of the business of being a graduate student. Thank goodness there are so many smart people writing about it so we can all be assured that we're not going out of our minds, or at least we're not going out of our minds alone.


Dealing With People and Politics:

At The Life and Times of a History Ph.D. Student, Life&Times talks about those difficult dynamics and the emotion of doing what you love. FemaleCSGradStudent blogs about the politics of being heard at department meetings. Anastasia writes about the tension between subfields and the evolution of an academic specialty.

Those tensions are hard to deal with between grad students, but sometimes the toughest relationships to negotiate are the ones with we have with our advisors. Geeka at When Do You Think You’ll Be Done?, Zelda Piled Higher and Deeper and Skookumchick at Rants of a Feminist Engineer write about the ups and downs of those relationships.


Anastasia writes about the possibility of teaching at a community college .
Ancrene Wiseass
writes about the fear of your own syllabus and the challenges of putting a syllabus together. Heo Cwaeth solves the infuriating problem of the student who comes to class plugged into anything other than the material by introducing the Electronic Absence. Philosophy Factory has posted a note to her students.

The Business of Being a Graduate Student:

Working Writing Wailing Mama blogs about writing the dissertation (People do that, I hear.) LaKisha at 10 Year Plan blogs about the ups and downs of working in the archives. At Thought Bubbles, Yvonne writes an all-too-familiar post about the hell of a lit. review. FemalesCSGrad Student writes about time travel and the ideal panel discussion.

Hopeless Academic blogs about those days that just slip away from you, and at Chesterly, Rob talks about the music that saves those days and gets things moving. Zapaper at Chicago Bejing writes about the ordinary and extraordinary progression of days.

Sometimes the business of being a graduate student is about, at its foundations, the decision to continue. At Scrivenings, Scrivener writes a beautiful post about knowing it's time to let go of the dissertation.

Some Other Things:

Jim Gibbon's academic haiku contest came to an end when Jason Finley was declared a winner. I personally was very fond of styleygeek's contributions, as well.

Skookumchick at Rants of a Feminist Engineer has launched Scientiae, a carnival on science and gender.

The next Carnival of GRADual Progress will be held on or around April 15 at Fumbling Towards Geekdom. Check the Carnival website for updates and ways to submit a post for inclusion.

Friday, March 09, 2007


I'm feeling a bit isolated and lonely today. No reason, really. I have fantastic friends, a lovely community, plenty to do. I'm sitting in a neighborhood coffee shop that I'm so in love with I will go happily broke here. But when they say that being a grad student is isolating and lonely, they actually do mean it. They mean that feeling isolated is part of the bargain; it's intrinsic. You cannot escape it with friends or community or plenty to do. You cannot escape it in a coffee shop where they know you well enough to suggest you might need training in their coffee pots so you can fix them when they break. You cannot escape it because you have signed up for it and that's the way things will be sometimes. Just like sometimes they will be bright and rewarding or miserably punishing. Sometimes you will be lonely. I am lonely today.

A few weeks ago I saw a bit of the Pippi Longstocking movie on television. Not the recent, shiny one. I mean the badly-dubbed one from the 1970s with the completely infectious song. I watched it constantly as a child, and I loved it. I loved Pippi in the way that Pippi's sidekick Annika did. She made me slightly nervous, but I was a little in love with the idea that the strongest girl would necessarily be stronger than the strongest man, that an independent child really does know what's best for her, that there was no such thing as a bad hair day. I often wanted her to just sit still, but Pippi was an early lesson in accepting all the aspects of a character you love, even if you wouldn't have chosen those particular characteristics. I would have liked it if Pippi read books. She didn't. But she did have a monkey, so oh, well.

I decided, after getting to see a bit of the movie, that I should re-read the book. What fun! Pippi and Annika and Tommy, going to school and riding her horse and causing trouble! A reminder of the possibilities of being a girl and being untempered by reality! So I purchased a copy of the book and read it in the bath one night. And it was, of course, wonderful. I often resist re-experiencing loved things from my childhood because I fear that my adult perceptions will wipe out my memories of it as a child, steam-rolling over little wispy bits of the past. I don't think that I lost my little girl feelings of attachment to Pippi, but in this re-reading, I discovered something new: the sad Pippi Longstocking. It broke my heart a little.

As a child, I never identified with Pippi. I thought she was fantastic, but she wasn't me. As an adult, the differences aren't so obvious any more. I'm suddenly aware of Pippi's frantic happiness in the face of terrible grief and isolation. She's not undone by it, but the loss of her parents and her inability to really fit in cause her real pain. She talks to her lost mother. She sits and examines the things left behind by her beloved father. She tries desperately to fit in at a tea party and cries when she doesn't. I cried, too.

I didn't doubt her confident promise to her dead mother that she'd always come out on top. I don't doubt her genuine joy in finding a tin can in the bushes. I still believe in the girl who walks the tight rope at the circus and draws on the school house floor. I loved being reminded of how much every day has to offer if you have the courage to take it as it is. Pippi still made me very happy.

But now I know, and couldn't help but see, how much joy and confidence and happiness in the margins comes with real sacrifices. I know that if you are extremely good at delighting in time alone, it means you have to practice being alone a good deal and sometimes that's hard. I know that Pippi is happy because she makes herself happy, but that doesn't mean she doesn't know sadness at the very same time. Sometimes happiness sits on a foundation that includes isolation. I know that Pippi quite well.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lies and Lying Liars

Whenever I visit my grandfather, at some point he gets this glint in his eye and says, "Well, you know, historians are all just liars anyway. They make things up."

No kidding.

I'm currently taking the first crack ever at a dissertation chapter. This is quite an undertaking, considering I have no research and only the crudest sketch of a topic. I'm not even completely sure which sources I'll use. But The Advisor said I had to write an introduction to a chapter, so I'm writing an introduction to a chapter I do not have. And I'm making it up every step of the way.

So I've been sitting in this coffee shop for an hour and a half and all the Sunday morning brunchers come and go with their Sunday Times and their lazy weekend routines. And I've written one paragraph. One paragraph in an hour and a half. At this point, it's such a struggle that I feel like I'm having to create each word from scratch. "What would be a good connecting word? You know, something to indicate these things go together? Hmmmm. How about A-N-D? That'll work. Put that down."

Damn. I can't decide, either, whether this is a result of trying to write this long before I'm ready or if it's destined to be this hard every time I write something for the first time. Or maybe it's that I had a cinnamon bun with my coffee and by the time I got to stringing sentences together, I'd completely sugar crashed and am doomed to feel this clueless until I have some protein. Either way, it feels pretty hopeless. I can only hope that when I turn this in to my writing seminar later today (What? I'm supposed to have more than a paragraph 12 hours before I turn something in?) that my fellow historians will recognize a good lie when they see one and make up something to say in response.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Friday Photo Blogging