Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday Photo Blogging

I was in Edinburgh on my birthday this year. I was alone and wandering the city and in a ridiculously good mood, feeling like I had the freedom to do anything I wanted any minute that I wanted it. As I walked out of my B&B on my way for dinner, (and oh, god, what a fantastic dinner it was) I found this little snail on the front walk. I put my camera down on the wet ground and took his picture, feeling that we shared a certain something in that moment. It was a certain being in the world-ness, a certain reality untainted by moments outside the one right then. The air was right, the light was right, we were right. He became my mascot of a very good day.


My dog, Bug, is a herding dog. In fact, he's of a breed that's not particularly well known, so his genes aren't so far off the farm. This morning, he won't go outside. Why? Because it rained last night, and my 70-pound dog, a beast I've watched herd a cow and bark at goats, doesn't like to get his feet wet.

I could go on now and say many things about the way we override our own natures, about the way that the people that we are often defies the best plans, about the way that the universe has a sense of humor built right in. But I'm not going to. There's too many things in this world that just make me roll my eyes and giggle, and I like that and try to have as many of them in my house as possible.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Office Dreams

So it turns out that if your work space isn't functional, it's hard to function in it. Who knew, right?

Since I came to graduate school five years ago, I've been working on the same 24"X36" table. That's where my computer, stacks of paper, mug of pens, books, CDs, and any number of pointless objects have lived. I have no idea why I thought that was a good idea. I mean, there is the space thing. That space thing where I have none to work with. I live in a tiny little house with a tiny little yard and a tiny little bedroom and no office space. Anywhere. Hell, I don't even have closets. It's my own little 600 square foot paradise, and I love it truly.

But let's be honest. I'm a grad student. I dream of an office with big windows and high ceilings and infinite bookshelves from floor to ceiling. I dream of room to pace and mutter, a rug on the floor where I can sit and organize documents in piles around the room, an enormous desk with a hutch full of cubbies and slots for papers and paperclips. My office dreams are big dreams. My space is very small.

I've known for a while that the little table shoved into a corner of my kitchen was not working for me. I vowed to rework it this summer. I spent the better part of a week looking at desks in shops and furniture stores and office supply warehouses. I measured and measured and measured. I measured my tiny space so many times that Bug would bark at me when I pulled out the tape measure, sure it meant nothing fun was coming his way. I made many frustrated phone calls to my mother, who apparently is required by motherly obligation to listen to me whine and bitch about the limitations of my space and bank account.

And then last week, the following e-mail arrived in my in-box:

Available: A desk. Big dark wood, 58" long, no drawers. Lots of great dissertating space. With this desk, the dissertation pretty much writes itself. (It takes like a decade to do it, but it pretty much writes itself.)

I immediately began negotiations for the desk. I admit that I was wooed, sight unseen, by a desk that might write my dissertation for me. If I was willing to get rid of a bookcase (oh, god) I had 60" in which to slip a desk. The desk came home with me a few days later, revealing itself to be, frankly, ugly and battered, but an excellent size with excellent potential. I spent the next four days sanding, painting, and moving things about. Rearranging and finding homes for the books displaced by the sacrificed bookshelf took two full days. (No, really. Turns out that my books are arranged such that if one spot is lost, the entire organization must be redone.) Untangling and organizing all the cords and plugs around my desk took an embarrassing amount of time. I spent, seriously, a full day looking for some kind of storage device to put on the desk so I'd have a place to put my small and much-loved plant. I found one.

And then last night, I put my computer on the new space, my pens, my plant. I placed a sunflower from my garden on the filing cabinet and a picture of my grandmother next to the plant. I stood back, and looked, and suddenly felt like a dragon erupted from my chest, beating its wings as it flew from the house. I couldn't stop looking at the new space. I giggled when I walked past. I was so fucking relieved. I had no idea how badly I needed an office space that worked. I woke up in the night last night and smiled. And today, with my grandmother looking on and a perfect view of a hilarious chickadee making short work of the seed in my feeder, I did more work than I've done in months. Months. I sent e-mail and made notes and thought thoughts. I didn't get up and pace around and I didn't look longingly at the television, though I can see it from here. I ran some errands at lunch, and came back to my desk, excited to sit and stare at the computer and out the window and cross things from my list. And now, I sit here blogging. I sit in my new office space and dream of the work I'll get done instead of the space in which to do it. I'll just keep dreaming. My desk is going to write the dissertation now.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Hoards for Harry

Last night, once again demonstrating just how vulnerable I am to peer pressure, (yes, at 33 years old. What's your point?) I was convinced to go to the midnight madness that was the Harry Potter Book 7 release party. I'm a Harry Potter fan. I'd intended to pick up the book (from my doorstep, where I imagined Amazon would deliver it) on the 21st with the rest of the excited but reasonable Harry Potter fans. But instead, I fought for air space with hundreds (hundreds!) of other crazy people at one of several Borders bookstores in my city.

It was INSANE. Insane. My friend Z. and I arrived to find that we couldn't park in the rather large parking lot in front of the store. We couldn't park in the rather large parking lot in front of the grocery next to it or the restaurant next to that. Nor could we legally park at the huge bank parking lot down the road. We did park illegally there because we figured the chance of an official bank vehicle showing up to its reserved spot at 12am on a Friday was slim.

We met up with two other friends and stood and watched the absolutely insane hoards arrive in various costumes. (Have I mentioned the inane?) We thought, at first, that the aim was to dress as characters from the books, and many adorable children (up much too late) were dressed as Harry or Hermione. Some of the costumes were a little harder to decipher. (Me: "Why does that man have stuffed animals stapled to his t-shirt?" Friend: "He's Hagrid. You know, the guy who takes care of the creatures." Clearly.) But then we found ourselves face-to-face with a very odd phenomenon indeed: many, many people were there dressed up just to dress up. We found ourselves talking with a woman wearing her high school prom gown. Why? We were afraid to ask. Either it was obvious and we should have known, or she was unbalanced and it would have been unwise to ask. There were teenagers dressed as gypsys, as ghosts, as owls. There was a surprisingly large number in all black goth wear. There were quite a few older women there by themselves, wearing witches hats and turning the pages of a magazine while they waited to purchase their books. Apparently, there's something in Harry Potter for the freak in each of us.

Perhaps the most amusing trend in all this costuming was the teenage girl in naughty Potter wear. The historian of sexuality in me finds this particularly interesting, given that one of my few criticisms of the books is that is portrays teenagers as completely sexually innocent. Not here. There were any number of micro-mini Hogwarts uniform skirts (where do they get these?) and tight button-down shirts, unbuttoned about six buttons below comfortable. My greatest disappointment of the evening was not seeing two girls in t-shirts, one inviting Harry to "grab my golden snitch" and the other suggesting she "ride Harry's Firebolt." Thank goodness I have friends to keep an eye out for these things.

When the first book was purchased at 12:01, the store erupted in a Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan-style orgy of teenaged screams that went on for some time. My friends and I were stunned. Seriously, I haven't heard screaming like that since I heard INXS in concert in 1988. Each of us who had pre-ordered books wore armbands, and people were called up to get their books by armband color. As people would return to tables and corners and aisles with a purchased book, the group they were with would, too, erupt in screams. At a certain point, we started to snicker. We were above it all. Just a book. And then, around 1 in the morning, our armband color was called. And the four of us, adults, uncostumed, grad students all, erupted in a completely surprised "WOOOHOOO!" We couldn't help it. Maybe it was in the air. Maybe we were tired and wanted to go home. Or maybe this book is just good enough, has just enough to offer, that we, along with the crying toddlers and earnest little girls and hormonal teenagers, couldn't wait to get our hands on it.

Major Weekend

Four weekends a year, I can guarantee that my father, my grandfather and I, all cozy in homes that are a thousand miles from one another, are doing the same thing. It's a Major Tournament weekend. We're watching golf.

When I confess that I spend four weekends a year fixated on the meanderings of a little white ball, people express surprise. I'm not really the sort that likes sports. I'm lucky when I can tell one from another. But I grew up with golf. As a toddler, my grandmother threw me in the back of her cart with her clubs and I bounced across the fairways. My father was desperate for me to be a golfer (I play, but too poorly to be anything but a disappointment.) and tried to give me lessons in the backyard. And some of my fondest summer memories are running in and out through open screen doors as my father snoozed on the couch and the sounds of televised golf melted into sun-warmed carpet. I knew all the golfers names, the Jacks and Toms and Fuzzys. Even as a child, I knew who I wanted to win.

I occasionally try to explain my love for televised golf. It's the staid announcers, whispering in British accents about a difficult lie, an excellent tee shot, a bad club choice. It's the sound of the wind on microphones and the crack of club against ball and ball thumping to a stop on the green. It's the polite smattering of applause even after the most abysmal putt. (I must admit that I do not enjoy the recent trend of men in the crowd bellowing "IN THE HOLE" after every shot. Golf is a quiet game. Plus, it's harder for me to nap during the middle of round three if someone's bellowing.)

But the real truth of my love for the sport, I think, is in its sentimentality. Golfers are a sentimental group, and when you give the lot of them a weekend of air time and the resources of television commentators and advertising agencies, they can outdo Hallmark at Christmas without breaking a sweat. I cry during every major tournament at least once. When Jack Nicklaus played his final round at St. Andrew's two years ago, fighting off his own tears as he was greeted by a standing ovation on the 18th green, I cried like a baby. Tiger Woods cried in his caddy's arms after winning his first major after his father's death and I can't imagine there was a dry eye in the house. There wasn't in mine.

This year, I've cried already. (At the golf. The commercials are also an astounding exercise in sentimentality, but that could be a post in itself.) Steve Sticker, a golfer whose game had been so bad he'd been written off by many, actually cried during his post-round interview when he was told that he'd set a course record and was asked what it meant to him. I'm sorry. Who doesn't cry when they watch something like that? Who doesn't need an occasional cathartic cry, not about evil or politics or an incredibly sad afternoon movie, but instead about individual triumph over demons and habits? Ok, so maybe most of you. But the scenery ain't bad.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Real Me

Part of my summer work (the part I'm actually doing) involves teaching a course for high school students on campus for a summer school program. As a teenager, I participated in a similar program, and it was the best moment of my high school life. Never mind prom or making out with my high school boyfriend in the Wal-Mart parking lot. My one summer away from home promised me that there was a world beyond my stifling small town and that when I got there, I could be anyone I wanted to be.

Two days ago, I walked into my classroom and saw that someone had been writing on the board. They'd drawn a diagram with two columns. At the top of one, it said, "The Me People See." Under it, there was picture of a smiling girl. The other column was labeled "The Real Me." Underneath it was a completely empty column, nothing but eraser dust and the ghost of earlier lessons. When I looked at it, I felt heartbreakingly tender towards its artist. I remember that. I remember feeling like the person I was didn't count, was just blank space in a world full of color and light. I remember feeling like I was foreign and unknown, even to myself. I remember feeling so lonely in my skin because I felt like what everyone saw was just an image in a fun house mirror.

I talk to my students everyday about practical things that are shatteringly important to them but mundane to me. The details of what happens when you miss a class in college ("You mean you can't make it up?!") or where you buy your books for class are the details of their unknown future. To me, they are details of my life that fold in with paying the cable bill and doing the laundry; each so present and obvious that it doesn't occur to me to explain it to them.

But sometimes, they ask me questions I still ask myself, and I know that they aren't just trying to imagine what their daily life will be like in three or four years. They are trying to fill in that blank column labeled "The Real Me." I'm teaching them standardized test prep (oh, god, the material sucks), and they ask questions like, "Will this tell me how smart I am?" I tell them no, emphatically. I explain it's just a test. I start each class by saying, "What is the ACT?" and they answer in a giggling chorus, "A GAME!" They don't really believe me, though, because right now, they have so much at stake. So they keep asking me whether it measures their intelligence, why it doesn't reflect that they are good in Math, when their scores will improve. They want evidence that they are smart enough, that their aptitude for Math means they should be a doctor or engineer, that the work they do now will pay off.

I'd like to tell them, but I can't because they cannot see this part of the future clearly, that they will be asking these questions for the rest of their lives. They'll be wondering if they are smart enough for far longer than they should. They'll wonder about the right career path long after the path has been chosen. They'll want to know if the work is paying off over and over again. The picture of who they are will come into focus. They'll be able to draw the outlines in deft, confident strokes. But filling in that illustration is their life's work. It is what they'll do every day. It won't always hurt, but it will always seem frighteningly unfinished. I want to explain that to them, but right now, I think it might be more important for them to hear that in three years, things will be better. And I'm not lying. Bits of my 20s really sucked, but I can say with confidence that every year is better than the one when you're 16.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Time Out

I keep wanting to write something about being a graduate student in the summer, but it's not happening because I don't really feel like a graduate student right now, except for in that constant nagging feeling that I should be doing something else. But even that has receded, the tiniest wave at the lowest tide.

When I take Bug to the park in the summer, there's a moment in every trip when I just sit down. I plop down on the grass and lean back on my elbows and watch the swallows swoop and dive. Bug either flops down next to me, hot and panting, or he stands and leans against my shoulder blades and watches the swallows, as well. It's my favorite part of the walk. It's the moment at which I feel most in the world.

I think I may be having a moment like that in my graduate school life. I just sat down. I'm just leaning, watching, waiting, breathing. I'm just here.

I really like it. It's too bad it's really time to get to work.