Saturday, May 26, 2007


Before I say what I came here today to say, I feel it is important for me to reinforce for you all just how much I love teaching and just how important I think teaching is to an academic life. I have an utter, dogged faith in the power and promise of the classroom. Further, I don't just think that we, as teachers, are important to the undergrads. I also think that the undergrads should play a role in how we think about our research, how we write, how we conceptualize our place in the big picture. I think the undergraduates should be a vital part of a research community and I think what happens in the classroom should be more to us than a way to get a paycheck.

That said:

They've left! They're gone! Oh, oh, THANK GOD. The campus is quiet, the library is dead, the town is sane. The undergrads have gone home and left us in peace. The summer has officially begun.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


I'm revising a conference paper right now. Or that's what I'm supposed to be doing. Instead, I've been sitting in coffee shops, trying like mad to focus on the job at hand and failing miserably. I hadn't quite factored the end-of-semester exhaustion into my cool-conference excitement, so apparently I have to write this paper when I'm not really capable of working for more than an hour at a clip. Yesterday, though, it was hopeless. I found myself in my favorite coffeeshop, eavesdropping on a pair of older men. It was an irresistible temptation. As soon as I sat down, I heard one of the older men say, "Now, in my autumn years, I see the world as full of ice cream. Everyone is a different flavor, and thinking about all those different flavors is what makes life interesting." And suddenly, my conference paper seemed very dull.

As the morning wore on, I heard the man's views on nearly everything, but I couldn't get enough. I opened a Word file and started transcribing their conversation. I started to wonder if I could follow the man home or ask him to meet me for lunch some day and just talk a while. He confessed to his companion that, "I get frustrated because my understanding of things is incomplete, though I claim to be an educated man." His voice was comforting and clear, and when he said that, "the most important thing in life is the pursuit of's the pursuit that sustains us" it felt like he was making that promise just to me.

He told the story of his family during the depression, the way his grandfather bought up the mortgages of local farms, tore them up and made grown men cry in gratitude, and then after the depression got rich when those same farmers were able to come back and take out loans to expand their holdings. But, a ten year old when the depression hit, (making him nearly 90) he said that, "My memories of rural poverty are so bleak I'm still afraid to spend money. I guess that means I haven't grown up yet."

At this point in the conversation, I got up to refill my coffee cup while his less quotable companion started to talk. When I came back, they were gone. I was sad to see them go, both because the conversation had been so interesting (despite the fact that I wasn't at all involved) and because that meant I needed to focus on the paper again. Not that I was able. I read a paragraph, read a sentence, wrote a phrase, and then thought about the men and their conversation. I keep coming back, over and over again, to the idea that you might be 90 and still worried that you haven't grown up. Most of my worries right now seem annoying and infecting; they corrupt my focus or make me feel small. I'd give them back. But that worry? That worry seems like a gift.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Life According to a Beach Flea

I said in the post below that I keep meaning to blog, but life keeps getting in the way. It's true, it does so over and over again with exhausting unpredictability. Sometimes I get in my own way, my subconscious suddenly throwing up a dilemma or a drama or a fairly boring predicament as it tills back and forth across my mind. Sometimes other people and other things parachute right into my world and leave me spinning, unaware of where they've come from but unable to turn away. Often, the life of which I speak is a mixture of the two and sometimes I'm deeply grateful. Sometimes I just want to hide. Regardless, there it is—life—right in the middle of my regularly scheduled plans.

For a considerable number of of my teenage years, I was pretty convinced I wanted to be a marine biologist. It might have been about a misplaced love of The Voyage of the Mimi, but it also might have been about the way the ocean sings lullabies and fish dance ballet and the way things are possible in the water that just aren't possible on land. My love of those things got intertwined with an academic interest and I didn't know then that it's best to check on whether you have any aptitude for a thing before you decide to devote your life to it. Before my freshman year of college, when I learned that I don't actually like the biology of marine animals much (just their poetry), I went off to a summer school where I was to happily spend the summer with other nerdy teenagers, sweating away the summer days in a marine bio lab and designing and executing my own little lab experiment.

That summer was everything coming of age films glorify. I got a glimpse of what it was like to create yourself independent of family and history. I fell in love with women who made my head swim. I went to class every day in a lab that smelled of salt water and antibacterial soap and sat listening to the professor talk and the aquarium filters pump and wheeze through gallons of sea water. I tried very hard to focus on the lecture of the day, but I couldn't. I couldn't because I'd fallen in love. With a beach flea.

The scud (that's them, up top) was my first intellectual love, and I should have known then that marine biology and I were not meant to be. I did not fall in love with those beach fleas for their scientific value. I fell in love with the idea that something so simple could exist, could intrinsically know how to exist. I'm still in love with it. I spent hours that summer stooped and crouching next to tide pools, sun drying salty water on the back of my neck. I watched them swim around and around and around. They didn't have to think things out—hell, they couldn't think things out. There was nothing to think about. They swam. They lived. There was no struggle to understand or communicate or find company. They just lived. That's all they had to do, ever, and it was so easy for them. Life did not get in their way because there was only life. There was only the side swimming that defined them, the ebb and flow of the tides, the day after day after day. I just couldn't believe it then. I can't believe it now.

Some days I try very hard to move through my days scud-like. I breathe and I try not to falter and I watch the sky and try to remember that I know, without all the interfering navel-gazing and anxious deliberating, how to live. I know, if I just shut up long enough to hear it, that my breath goes like this: in and out, in and out. All day long it goes. My feet take me where I need to go, back and forth, without a lot of help. I chew and swallow. I sleep and wake. And all of this other stuff, this life that tries to get in the way, is just the trappings of being human. I'm still just an animal, still just trying to get from one part of the day to the next. I know the way. I watched a beach flea. It showed me how.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Carnival of GRADual Progress

I keep meaning to put up a few posts I have in the works, but life and blue books keep getting in the way. In the meantime, there are much better things to read than anything I'd write. Many of them are featured at this month's Carnival of Gradual Progress, up at 10-Year Plan. Check it out!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Home for the Holidays

At the end of the movie Home for the Holidays* Holly Hunter's character stands at the boarding gate at an airport as her parents hug her, fuss over her, remember her as a baby. It's the day after Thanksgiving and she's desperate to leave, anxious to be away from the invasive attention and criticism. She hugs them back, implores them to let her go and then, just as she's about to get away, says, "Maybe I'll make it back for Christmas."

When she says it, you don't doubt she means it, and yet it's a statement that's hysterically at odds with the desire she expresses, even before she arrives at her parents' house, to be done with the visit and the bickering and the tension of familial obligation. As a statement, it's just sits there (brilliant!), a perfect encapsulation of the push and pull of love and frustration, of devotion to family and the pain of having to perform a version of yourself that leaves so much hidden and so much unknown to those who imagine they know you best.

I was thinking about this line from Home for the Holidays, as I walked out of one of my classrooms for the last time today. My students this semester are really quite impressive. (Or at least the ones that bother to show up impress me a lot.) I've taught my heart out for them, and today they rewarded me by applauding when the class was over, hanging around to tell me that they learned from me and that they liked my section. I grinned at them and felt a little shy and told them how nice it was to hear. I watched them go fondly.

Which was confusing, because I've spent the better part of the last month whining in a most unattractive way about how just plain DONE I am with the whole TA gig. It's tiring and repetitive (I teach the same class four times each week) and my obligation to the professor of the course stifles any and all creativity I might have with the material. The whinier I feel, the whinier my students seem and, let's face it, none of us want to be in the classroom any longer. We're ready for the summer. It's all a pain in the ass, now.

So imagine my surprise when, finally—FINALLY!—I was finished with teaching this particular class for the semester and instead of running out of the classroom I stood around to consult with my students, try not to blush at their compliments, and said, "I'm sure I'll see you around!" and "Let me know how things are going for you!" They just fell out of my mouth, these tiny little promises of a future, a continuation of a class beyond the boundaries I've been utterly devoted to since the moment the class begun. I knew it would never happen, I didn't even want it to happen, but I said those things anyway. They just floated there, perfect encapsulations of my love for teaching those students and my exasperation with the classroom.

I've been thinking about a blog post about the difficulties of teaching as a TA and the rewards of teaching in general. I've not written one because I all too often feel caught in a perfect storm of frustration and passion, excitement and dread. I never want to go to class and I'm always content while I'm there. I never know what the hell to do with them in class and yet am almost always pleased with the way it goes. I'm starting to feel like I'm born to teaching in a way that is similar (though not as intense) to the way we're all born to families that ask impossible things and disregard more than they know. I'm starting to think that this push and pull between the desire to teach and the desire to stay quietly with my books is going to define my life. I'm always going to be glad to leave that classroom on the last day, I think, but I'm also going to be wistful that I have to go.

*This movie is one that I adore and admire so completely that I will never be able to talk about it in just one post. It is destined to come up again and again. Deal with it.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Bad Room

When I'm extremely stressed out, I sleep. It's a blessing and a curse, as far as coping mechanisms go. I'd love to be one of those people who ramps into overdrive, demolishing To Do lists in a dervish, toppling lamps and vases and the occasional small child as she goes. I am not. I am the sort of person who looks at a very long list, frowns at the impossibility of it all, and yawns. "Wouldn't it," I think, "be much easier to achieve on proper amounts of sleep? Wouldn't a little rest be called for just about now?" I suppose this is better than an all-out, howling breakdown, but only by inches. Either way you end up slumped in a corner, drooling and exhausted.

Several years ago, I was living in a tiny house in a large west coast city. There was a second bedroom that I attempted to use as an office, but it really just became a space in which odds, ends, books, dog toys, files, bills, bills bills piled up. I eventually just closed the door and called it The Bad Room. The only time the door to The Bad Room was opened was when I needed to chuck something else inside, head turned away so I couldn't see where it landed or what was waiting in there. In reality, this is not at all like me. I like to know where all of my stuff belongs so that I can put it there in occasional tidying sessions. I don't have a lot of space and I try to use it well. I like things to be generally clean, though I'm not obsessive about it.

Metaphorically, The Bad Room was me all over. Is it big, scary, messy? I need a nap. I'll deal with it later. If it's that scary and messy, like The Bad Room, it probably requires an entire organizational system be devised and enacted, and that takes time and potentially professional assistance. It definitely requires money. The worse a problem is, the more of a perfectionist I become about its solution. Eventually, that solution will become clear, and then I'll act on it. But sometimes that requires time.

So imagine how proud I was when today, just a week or two after I discovered it had been decimated by a squirrel's nest (a literal one), I took on the project of cleaning out the shed in my back yard. Out came every box full of paint and hardware, every bag full of camping equipment, every rake and shovel and dog toy. It all had to be swept and cleaned and repaired. Things were thrown out. Things were put back in. It's clean out there now. I didn't need to avoid the shed. I just went and took care of it. Because The Bad Room was years ago, and I'm a grown-up now.

Or something.

This, then, is the point at which you should ask me what I was supposed to be doing today. "Today?" I'd reply, confused. "Whatever do you mean about 'supposed to do?'" I might whistle.

Oh, right. Today's Bad Room was not The Bad Shed, at all. It was the finals-related tasks on a towering To Do pile that drove me to sweep out nasty-smelling squirrels' nests. There was a study guide and a timeline to create for my students. There was a conference paper to revise. There were a lot of things, and not one of them lived in that shed. The end of the semester is, for me, characterized by all the tasks I'm willing to take on to avoid doing the real work at hand. It's characterized, not by sleep deprivation, but by sleepily sitting in chairs with books in my lap. This is the time of year when I look around and yawn and then become incredibly willing to take on items on the To Do list I would have, long ago, ignored for weeks and years. Not now. I'm a grad student now.

Have an unfortunate task that needs doing? Send it on over. I'll happily take it on. Just as soon as I take a little nap.