Friday, April 27, 2007

Why I Do This

Ok, I'm completely, twitteringly pleased to be tagged by Ancrene Wiseass for the 5 Reasons Why I Blog meme. I've never been tagged before! I actually think about this a lot, a sort of continual re-evaluation of whether blogging is a good use of my time and energy (it is!) and why. Here's what I've got:

1. I can't resist the urge to turn anything and everything into a story. The need for a narrative is a coping mechanism of mine. If I can make something a story, give it a beginning, a thoughtful middle, an anticipated end, then I feel like I'm in control. If I can explain my fears, find a metaphor for them, write about them in a way that makes them seem logical, then they must not be completely insane or more powerful than I am. I blog because it forces me to take the disordered anxieties of my life and make them seem completely reasonable, digestible, and temporary. If others read them and understand them, it means that they are not only sane but expected. The things that might otherwise be consuming can become just a post, a story, some words on a screen. I can go back and read them or I can leave them there with a date and a time and a metaphor.

2. Grad school is lonely. It's lonely and it's isolating, and, as I've mentioned in other posts, that is completely intrinsic to the process. You can't get away from it. It would be so easy, so normal, so sane to close up, shut off, live in a world where I'm the only one that knows what I think and what I feel. Blogging is one way I attempt to continually reach out to people, to admit what's hard, to practice being vulnerable. The first few months I wrote posts for this blog, I felt like I was leaving my heart beating on the screen for everyone to see. It needed to be easier than that. I needed to learn to let go, to lean through my own ideas and emotions. If I post what I'm thinking on this blog, I can't control how people interpret it or judge it. I can only leave it out there, let it go, and hope that someone reads it and takes it (and me) for what it is.

3. I love bloggers. I mean, I just love them. I start my morning with photo blogs and move on to reading the latest from my favorite bloggers. I wanted to be able to engage with the ideas and contribute my own to the mix. Just like I feel like I'm blogging now to reach out, I felt like the bloggers I respected and admired were reaching, too. I wanted to reach back. I wanted to find ways to connect with the grad students and professors and writers who continually inspire me. This was pretty much it!

4. I'm a stats whore. I'm constantly examining the site meter to find out how many people have read the blog and where they are and how long they read. I feel a little shiny pebble of affection for every reader. If I don't post, the stats go down. So I post. Sad but true.

5. It's really a lot of fun. It's a way to stretch the writing skills that could buckle and contract under the weight of academic demands. It's a great procrastination technique. Somewhere along the line, it just became a thing I do. Not the most important, not the best, not the easiest or the hardest or the most interesting. Just something I do.

I suppose, then, that I'm supposed to tag someone else. I'm feeling slightly clueless about who has done it already and who has not, but let's go with Kisha, Scrivener, The History Enthusiast , and O'Donovan. Oh, and Xtin, whose beautiful blog made me want to do this so badly I couldn't help but try.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Enough Now

Each year at about this time, I find myself waking in the morning, curling up with Bug on the couch, trying to make myself go, move, do SOMETHING. I groan and poke at myself and chastise. I wonder how I possibly could be so tired when I've had so much sleep. It seems impossible. Seven solid hours last night and at 10 am, as I headed to the fourth section I teach each week, I was already thinking of my couch and my dog and the bagel chips and hummus that waited for me when the day was over. I felt incredibly lame. And then it dawned on me: The semester is almost over. I'm limping toward the finish line in a marathon no-one ever remembers is a marathon until it's almost over. The end of the semester is just exhausting. I'm exhausted.

The problem is that I consistently underestimate the strength of the pull between the mental and physical, the way that link vibrates and tugs. I don't really do enough each day to justify an exhaustion, so I must not be entitled to exhaustion that day. But the thing about an academic life is that work is never done. No matter how much work gets done, it's not enough work. (A problem that all too often leads me to think I might as well not bother at all.) Each day, even the days during which you know you will not work, you have this nagging feeling that work is the only thing that deserves your time. This is, of course, bunk. But that's not the point. After weeks and months of feeling that pull every day, my body starts to register it in the way I walk around and the way I talk to people. The consistency of it starts to vibrate and make things fuzzy. My brain is using my body to tell me that it's time to let up a little, walk away, think about other things for a while.

It's a nice idea. The problem with the constant pull on that cord is that even when you stop pulling, it twitches like a phantom limb. It often takes me more than a week to stop feeling it and believe with my body as well as my brain that it's time to relax. That week is not this one. This is the week I grade mid-terms so that my students can take a look at them before they take the finals that I will then grade. (Whoever arranged the university schedule this semester really messed the whole thing up.) I need to revise a conference paper and write a few things for my advisor to read while I'm at my conference. In short, the cord that twitches and nags and makes me exhausted is more of a web right now, a million sticky fingers that's got me bound and trapped. I want to snap them all and walk away into the fields, but they'd just plaster themselves to my hair and eyelids. There's nothing to be done, so I'll dance in my web. I'll spin and twirl and hope that, eventually, the academic spider with its very long legs gets tired, too, and puts this semester to bed.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Lesson of the Day

The lesson the day today is this: If you get up in the morning and run eight miles before breakfast, you are absolutely allowed to go ahead and feel pleased and proud with how the day is starting. You can even, if you wish, congratulate yourself on just how productive you are, what with eight miles run before you've had a meal. However, you should not labor under the delusion that you will actually do anything else at all that day. You will not. You will have your breakfast and think about lunch and take a long shower and, if there's one to feed, feed your dog. You will not write a conference paper. No matter how enthusiastic you feel about the possibility of a productive day kicked off by an eight mile run, you should not think that the eight mile run will be the beginning of bigger, greater things. It will, instead, be the last thing you do all day, and you might want to consider whether you need to do anything else. Because if you do, you might want to do those things before you run eight miles or schedule the run for another day. Because when it's over, it's over, and there's nothing to be done about it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Two weeks ago, I was standing in Covent Garden at rush hour, and I noticed an enormous crowd. I wandered over to see what the fuss was about. In the middle of the crowd stood a woman who had painted herself completely pink (hair, face, clothing, the whole bit) and was standing in various poses, like a live mannequin in a store window. The crowd was captivated. I was confused. People, I thought, will watch anything.

Apparently not. Thanks to Thought Bubbles, I just read this Washington Post article about violinist Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius in the DC subway to no notice at all. Read the article. It's beautifully written and completely fascinating, both in the discussion of what it means to perform and what it means to hear a performance. But I'm not at all sure about its incredulous observation that most of the hundreds of people who heard Bell's performance were oblivious to its power. I'm idealistic. I think the power of brilliance will strike home and I don't think you need shouts of "Bravo!" to know it.

Because I'm completely self-involved, I couldn't help contemplating, after I read the Post piece, the quiet performance of academic work. Unless I'm running through messy little free-writing paragraphs, I'm not, when I write things, writing them out for myself. I'm writing them out so other people can read them. If that were not the case, then my dissertation would read as I often wish it could: "X is the case. Trust me. I just know it is. The End." That dissertation would be absurdly arrogant and not at all useful to the field, but my god it would save a lot of time and trouble.

That won't work because writing is, in many ways, a performance. It's a demonstration of what we know to be true. It's an illustration of how we came to that conclusion for those lucky enough not to be stuck in our heads with us. And it's a performance destined to be met with silence every single time. Maybe some people read it and get very excited and you get some recognition. Or maybe some people read it, get very excited, and you never know it at all. Those are the good options. Regardless, academia is a constant exercise in learning to perform without applause. My heroes are historians and cultural critics who have never heard me exclaim over their genius. They do not know that they changed the order of things in my head. But they must know, as I do, that some of the best performances are received in a library, where standing ovations are frowned upon. They must know that dozens of people can walk through a DC subway and have the course of their day changed because Joshua Bell's music entered their consciousness, slid around a little, and fell back out as they went on their way.

The really lovely photo is by someone listed on wikimedia commons as "per from Norway."

Monday, April 16, 2007


I've never bought the whole business about academia's ivory tower. I don't think that being immersed in ideas and books saves any of us from anything. At most, I think it's a damn effective coping mechanism for a lot of us who have had more than our share of the world. I've rarely gotten through a semester without a female student coming to me quiet and scared to admit she'd been raped and needed some flexibility with course deadlines. I know grad students who give up on their degree because they don't have the money to support their families. I pay attention to all the reports of states trying to pass legislation that restricts what professors can teach. My students have blurted out horribly offensive, racist, homophobic things in my classroom. There is no umbrella here to protect us from poverty, disease, hatred. I do not think this is a place separate from the real world.

But it is, in a very real sense, my temple. I am continually bitterly disgusted and surprised to find corruption and cynicism flowering here. I hold seemingly bottomless reserves of faith in the power of the academic. I think any life is possible for a person who embraces it. I grew up in a town where education was valued by very few, where poverty left many of my friends alcoholics before they'd left for college, if they left at all. My high school had a mortality rate. My sister and I could sit around and talk about the car crashes that did people in on the country back roads. We could, but we don't, because we wouldn't know what to say about a world that's so brutal and so small. I knew, even there, that college would save me. I knew it and I was right and it did not let me down.

And so as I'm reading the blog posts that are going up today about the slaughter at Virginia Tech, I'm thinking about someone on the radio who said he thought that this would be a wake-up call to colleges that they were part of the real world and not protected from violence. Of course colleges are part of the real world. Of course none of us are safe from violence. We are the real world. We bring the violence to campus with us. But I'm outraged that someone would defile the temple, throw away what academia has to offer, take away someone else's salvation. I wonder how many of the dead thought college could save them the way I knew it would save me.

A Virginia Tech professor broke down in the middle of an NPR interview this afternoon. I broke down, too. Not because I never thought it could happen, but because when you leave someone bleeding on a classroom floor, hope and power and salvation are left there, too. That person could have been anyone. That classroom could have made it so.

The photo above was taken by an anonymous someone. It's of Carrie Tower, on my favorite college campus of all.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


I just sat with a friend, had dinner and a nice glass of wine, and discussed finishing graduate school.

In case you missed it, let me emphasize that I just discussed FINISHING MY PHD.

It's years away, this finishing. It's not even on the horizon. It's a fantasy, a figment, a sci-fi action feature. Scientists must be gathering in labs trying to cook up a finished PhD in little test tubes and frowning and being grateful they're funded for a while yet. It's elusive and fuzzy and I can't quite see what it looks like.

But I've suddenly started letting myself imagine it possible. At this point, the fantasy is all I have, but it's incredibly powerful. For five years, I've worked and taught and researched and studied and read and read and read. I let myself imagine what would happen when it was done and I let myself imagine what would happen if I failed. I sometimes let myself imagine more reading or more researching or more teaching. But I did not let myself imagine an actual finishing, stamped with an expiration date and an "inspected by" sticker. As I start to imagine that I might finish, and when it might finish, finishing starts to feel like something I might do.

What I can't imagine right now is the actual writing. It seems so hard and so big and so impossible. I don't see ever knowing enough to do that with confidence. I cannot close my eyes and see myself writing that final paragraph. Recently, I had a conversation with a very smart friend about the dangers of a failing imagination. How can we fulfill dreams if we can't dream them up to start? Without a bank of images and ideas to pull from, how can we make manifest our deepest desires? How do we know their names? There are so many things we're programmed to imagine wanting: the college graduation, the wedding, the baby, the house. But what happens when we haven't been trained to imagine something possible? What happens when our imagination fails to show us something is possible when we most need that internal roadmap?

I don't know, but the thought scares the hell out of me. Learning to imagine is hard work. When I first came out, I decided that my lesbian imagination was dismal. It's very hard to imagine that you can be competent in love (or in bed) with a woman if you don't have so much as a Hallmark-style image of what it could be like. In my typical fashion (yes, go ahead, laugh), my response to this was to read. A lot. I thought if I just read enough about being a lesbian, I might be able to imagine how to do it. I was right.

I feel incredibly tender towards the girl who didn't know how to imagine what it meant to be gay and had faith some books could solve her problems. I hope that one day I feel just as tenderly towards the woman who cannot, for her life, imagine sitting down and writing page after page until it all added up to done. I'm not sure, though, that books will solve this problem. If nothing else, the plot of a novel about finishing a dissertation would be very slow, indeed. "And then she sat down again and looked at her blank screen. A bird chirped. The wind blew. She decided she needed some tea."

Somehow, though, I need to build the part of my imagination that sees finishing the dissertation as a possible task. I'd like to stop short of some Stuart Smalley-style affirmation, because it would be nice if I could finish the dissertation AND still respect myself. (Though, as my mother very much likes to say, beggars can't be choosers.) I need, instead, pictures of myself writing, I think. Perhaps I'll try to take some. I need pictures of other people writing. I need to know what writing a dissertation looks like. I need to imagine pages filling with words, printers spitting them out. I don't need to imagine being knowledgeable or expert. Even my imagination isn't that good. But if I can just imagine writing this thing, then this finishing business might actually be possible.

Though perhaps I should focus on beginning first.

Artifical Intelligence

My TiVo thinks I'm an idiot. For those of you not familiar, I'll explain that TiVo, being the considerate household gadget that it is, will spend its day quietly recording television shows, movies, documentaries that it thinks I might like. It puts them in a folder labeled "TiVo Suggestions." It's like a little package waiting for me when I get home. Each day I come home, change clothes, feed the dog, and settle on the sofa with my special TiVo remote control. (See how I just made it sound like I leave the house every day? That was good, huh?) I first make sure that it has recorded all the shows that I asked it to record (I love it but I do not trust it) and then I check the suggestion folder.

And then I'm often crushed. I expected that TiVo would require some training, but I thought it would learn very quickly. It took me several weeks to convince it that I do not speak Spanish and therefore will not enjoy Spanish-language programming. In order to do this, I had to give a thumbs down to every program in Spanish it recorded. I felt a little bit bad about this. I'm sure some of those programs were very good and did not deserve a thumbs down. But I would not know, as I do not speak Spanish and needed to convince TiVo of that.

Once we finally got the language issue worked out, I then had to convince TiVo that I am not a 8-year old girl. I did not, oh, please, please, please want to it to tape That's So Raven. For the longest time didn't even know what the title meant. Something having to do with a girl named Hannah Montana was also out. It went through a phase where it recorded every Lifetime Afternoon Movie it could get its grubby electronic mitts on, and then it went on a reality show spree. Thumbs down. Thumbs down. Thumbs down. No, thanks, TiVo.

I thought perhaps I should attempt to teach it what I do like. I kind of thought all the Season Passes would help, but apparently not. So thumbs up to Law and Order, thumbs up to Independent Lens, thumbs up to reruns of the Gilmore Girls and to some travel porn on the Travel Channel. Cooking competitions? Yes! CourtTV? No!

But it seems that TiVo has considered all of this and decided that I still have lousy taste in television. I imagine it very earnestly trying to find things I might like. "What about this review of the 100 best video games?" it asks. "Boooooo," I say and pout. "I think you'd really like this show about dead girls whose killer went free. Don't you?" it says hopefully. "NO!" I say emphatically and scowl. "Charmed?" "THUMBS DOWN! THUMBS DOWN!"

It's not like my list of shows I'd like it to record gives me away as an idiot, I don't think. I have a season pass to Veronica Mars and Battlestar Galactica and Robin Hood, but I have Masterpiece Theatre and The American Experience in there, as well. I definitely have never recorded anything having to do with video games. But still, it doesn't believe me.

I'm starting to think that the TiVo senses something deeper about me. I think it knows the truth: though I usually prefer to immerse myself in interesting ideas and challenging stories and enjoyable, well-crafted characters, I'm really just a television junkie who wants little more than to sit on the couch and pet my dog's ears and zone out. It knows I'm lazy. It knows that if I came across that show about the dead girl whose killer went free and there was nothing else on, I'd probably watch it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Where I Was

In my living room, there's a framed copy of a watercolor done by my great-grandmother's postman. The story goes that before she left Yorkshire for the United States, she expressed real regret at never seeing her home again. Her postman brought her the picture that now sits in my living room, a portrait of the home she was leaving behind in blurring greens and yellows with a few white ducks. I look at it daily, sometimes barely noticing, sometimes trying to imagine my great-grandmother's face as she'd open the front door or the way she must have walked across the bridge at left for the last time. It's only a copy (my aunt owns the original) but I love having it close by.

I also have a watercolor of my childhood home on my walls. My family now has a long tradition of commissioningwatercolors of the houses where we've lived. That house, a large brick Victorian with a turret and long, deep porch, appears in my dreams over and over. I walk through it, I touch it, I get lost in it. Sometimes the dream is only that I live in it again. I wake, I cook, I sit on the porch and watch the traffic. It is, in my dreams, the place I run to and the building that holds me tight. In my waking hours, I often find myself scheming to buy it someday, though that's a ridiculous plan.

I'm prone to ridiculous plans, prone to fantasizing about the things I desire and the worlds in which I imagine I could live. I've never been particularly practical about the things I embrace and take in and cuddle in my soul. So imagine my surprise when I discovered last week as I took a train to London that I was trying very hard not to fall in love with England. I didn't want to fall in love with it; I'd only been in the country once before, and I've only seen bits of it and it's very far away and feels a little cliché, besides. It felt a little dangerous, the way falling in love always does. I did not want to. I resolved that I wouldn't, and then stepped off of the train in Southwark.

Once in Southwark, I wandered (I do love a good wander) and found myself in a market with lots of open stalls. One of them was full of baked goods, and I bought a danish with sweet, cool pears sliced across the top. Walking and quietly humming to myself, I decided that what I really needed was coffee. Turning the corner, the city rose up to fulfill my desire in the form of a hole-in-the-wall just big enough for someone to hand out my drink. Practically purring, I walked along with coffee and danish in hand, looking for a bench on which to sit and watch the morning unfold. Suddenly, Southwark Cathedral emerged, dark and moody against the morning sky, and I stopped dead. A humming city that smells of grass and smoke and water, a danish and a coffee acquired without trying, a cathedral that's more than 500 years old and a bench to sit and watch it while the cathedral watched me back. "Fuck it," I thought, "I'm in love."

On the train back to my friend's house, I knew it was true. I was sucking up the landscape, ushering every inch in, feeling a bit wild with swings of adoration and grief that it wasn't my home. There are many places in this world that I love. The places with which I have been in love now number four. The first is is that house in my dreams, the one that I left but will not leave me. The second is gone, a once sturdy yurt in rural Oregon. I miss it every day. The third is the city of Boston, where I often imagine retiring to hobble around the T and sit at the Public Library to work on that book I'm saving for those days. And now England. It's silly to think I love a whole country, but damn it, I'm pretty sure that I do. On the plane home, they were running several films set in the country, and I kept turning my face from the scenery as if I'd glimpsed a old lover in favorite café. It's not mine. It's not mine, I know, but I want it all the same.

Since I returned, I've been thinking about what makes a person fall in love with a place. I keep looking at the watercolors on opposite walls and wondering if places don't grow up like vines through history, choking our hearts and making it impossible not to love what has nurtured our past. I don't much like this thought. It smacks a little too much of a desperate grabbing for some kind of history to fill a gap created by family traditions lost. But then I look at the picture of my childhood home, the one that haunts my dreams, and I can't imagine that any child or grandchild of mine could ever lay eyes on it and not feel its floorboards hum and its walls caress. I can't imagine they wouldn't know it for home the way I do. It feels twisted around my very cells like part of my genetic code. It seems completely possible that some grandchild of mine could find it like a tiny pebble in her shoe.

The picture up top is from the website of the Lockton and Levisham Heritage Group. Levisham is the village my great-grandmother left to come to the States.