Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sinking Ship

About two years ago, aware that I hadn't yet read a book that was very important to my field, I asked my friend J if I could borrow his extra copy. He readily agreed, since he'd been referring to the book in conversations for some time and knew I needed to read it. So he lent me his extra copy and I took the book home and promptly didn't read it. I moved it from pile to pile, shelf to shelf. Time passed. I mentally thumped myself repeatedly for not reading it. Very Important Book became emblematic of all the reading I hadn't done. I feel like I'm haunted by all the books and articles I should read but don't. And those are only the ones I know I should read. There's a whole phantom universe of literature that I cannot read because I do not know it exists. It seems a hopeless struggle, a struggle represented by this one damn book.

Still, this spring, I was determined to remove this one book from my list so I could return the copy to J (never loan books to grad students) and move on to feeling bad about another seminal book I hadn't read. So when I went to visit Xtin over my spring break, I took it along. We sat one day in a coffee shop and I opened Very Important Book and began reading it. We chatted a bit about it and about the introduction. I read a little more of the book during the week I was there and more still on the flight home. When the vacation was over, though, I was plunged back into the day-to-day of graduate life and found myself reading other things. Very Important Book was set aside.

So here I've been, feeling bad about what I haven't read. It's one of the great frustrating truths of graduate school, for me, that no matter how much I've read it's not enough. I've carried that book to coffee shops and to the library. I carried it half way around the damn world and I still didn't finish it. I'm frustrated by my inability to get through these things so that I carry their ideas around instead of their pages.

The story, though, does not end there, I'm embarrassed to say. Last night, I was filing papers that I'd cleaned out of old folders and files when I reorganized the desk area a couple of months ago. It had all been sitting in a box under the desk, waiting for me to file. So I'm making piles around me on the floor. There was one for thesis drafts and one for teaching evals and one for old papers. I reached into the box and pulled out a stack to file, and on top was a paper I'd written my first year in graduate school, five solid years ago. I looked at it and almost choked.

Right there in that box was a paper I'd written on, I kid you not, Very Important Book. The same Very Important Book that I have been beating myself up over not reading for the last two years. It turns out that not only have I actually read the book, I've written a paper on it. Not only have I written a paper on it, but I'd written a paper that received very enthusiastic comments from one of my advisors. I apparently had "brilliant!!" insights into this book. And I swear to you—I'll swear on my future in academia (take that for what it's worth)—that I have no memory of it. Not one. It's not that I didn't remember the details of the book. It's that I was aware of the book and convinced that I'd never read it. At all. Not a page.

I seriously don't know what to make of this. I can't decide whether I should laugh my head off or cry and drop out of grad school altogether. I do know that I find it more than a little disturbing. It's one thing if I can't get myself to do the work. That seems like the kind of thing I can work on—better scheduling, more discipline, writing groups, whatever. There are solutions to that. But if I can't actually remember that I've done the work this ship is going down. Maybe it already has gone down, and I just don't remember it.

Photo by Tom Murphy VII

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Want Ad

I have a leaky faucet in my kitchen, and it's driving me out of my mind. I have a very hard time ignoring drippy kinds of noises. It feels like a constant, rhythmic poking at my brain, and and I cannot summon the amount of focus I need to just let it fade into the background. Instead, each drip dances before my eyes, pulls on my earlobes, blows on my nose. I'm pretty sure there is a name for this condition.

Today, I call this condition Laziness and also Being a Grad Student. I know how to fix the stupid, drippy faucet. It wouldn't really take more than an hour, and that includes the time it would take to run to the hardware store and pick up the washer I need. I just don't have the time. I mean, I have plenty of time. I'm swimming in hours in which I'm not working. But I have not one minute of the day in which I feel it's a good idea to start a project like fixing a leaky faucet because no matter what I'm doing, I should be working. I cannot possibly do the laundry or rearrange the filing cabinet or run to the grocery. I cannot do all those Living Life things because that would be admitting that I don't intend to work at all.

I do intend to work. In fact, intend is about all I do these days. I'm a very good intender. My seventh-grade teacher, a stern Catholic nun about the size of sapling and with a very long ruler, used to mutter over and over again that "the path to hell is paved with good intentions." (She didn't have to be original; she was mean.) I'm pretty sure, though, that she was wrong. I think that hell may, in fact, be the land of good intentions. There's no trotting down the path left to be done. You're just stuck there, intending intending intending all day long, and yet somehow missing what it takes to just up and DO the damn work.

Or I'd be pretty sure of that if I believed in hell at all. Frustration makes me dramatic, and right now, I'm frustrating myself like I can't tell you. If anyone has any discipline to spare, let me know. I'll pay a premium, even if it's used.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Something Shiny

I'm sitting at my computer, looking out the window on a gorgeous day. The crayola blue sky is wearing a cloudy halo of gray and white, and the wind is blowing hard enough that the smell of fall is leaking in through the open windows. In my yard, I have a birdfeeder with cakes of safflower seeds, and around it dance a collection of chickadees and cardinals, flying and swooping and twirling. They take the seeds off to the hood of my car or the windowsill or the flower boxes to bash at the shells and eat their lunch. The chickadees are beautiful, stunning little black heads bobbing up and down from the top of the feeder. The cardinals, all of whom look pretty scrawny in an endearing sort of way, occasionally drop in heavily from the branches above and push all the chickadees away.

I could watch them forever. I could watch my birds and the squirrels who are trying to steal the last of the black walnuts and the sky as it changes all day. I'm having a moment of wondering how, given the world that we live in, anyone ever gets anything done.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Read History. Be Fearless.

Every once in a while, what we ask students to do in a classroom requires that they be brave. It requires that they use their whole minds and whole hearts to truly see the material, to seize it, to make it belong to them. Sometimes, we ask them to look for stereotypes or caricatures when acknowledging them in the text is acknowledging that they live in their brains, as well. Sometimes, we ask them to be critical in the face of opposition from their classmates or their other teachers. Sometimes, we ask them to be so courageous as to tell us, the people with the red pen in hand, that we are wrong.

In fact, I think when academic work is done best, it is done bravely. It's done with a kind of ruthless vision that I work hard to approximate. I often fall short. It is done with a kind of unsparing sympathy that can keep me up at night. It's done in an effort to ferret out truth and logic and reason, even when it hides under very powerful boulders. Sometimes, that very powerful boulder is me. Sometimes, I hide the most important answers from myself.

Today was my second lecture of the semester. I decided I needed to tell my students that if they were to do good work in my classroom, they would have to be brave. I put a slide up that read: "Read History. Be Fearless." And then I told them that it was more important to be right than to look right, more important to reach for a full, astounding understanding of a text than to settle for mediocrity. I think I trembled a little. I wanted them to know. I wanted to remind myself. What we do takes courage. It's not a take bullets kind of courage. It's personal, private, intellectual. It's courage all the same.

Boots First

It's amazing the difference a good pair of boots will make. Fall has arrived to my great midwestern locale, and with it the need for socks and footwear. And when it comes to footwear, I choose boots. I have two pairs that I love without reserve. One is a pair of tall, black Fluevogs with a funky heel and the number 10 stamped in smeary ink on its soft, camel-colored lining. These boots have gone everywhere with me, fit me like a glove, have been resoled and lived to walk another day. The other pair are newer, a pair of Camper boots in dark chocolate leather that are so comfortable I could sleep in them. I waited easily six months for them to be available in my size; I waited for them like a lover meant only for me. I'm so glad I did.

I'm a bit unsure as to why zippering leather around my calves and wiggling my ankles inside my boots has such an ability to change my entire mindset, but it does. I feel smart in boots. I feel sexy in boots. I feel in control in boots. I wore a pair of dress boots (soft, Paul Green brown boots that feel like leather socks when I stretch in them) to my prelims oral defense. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have passed prelims without them. I felt so in charge of everything in those boots. Only someone who knew her shit could wear them. Sort of like magic in leather. A friend of mine likes to say that on the academic job market, "you can't get a job without a new pair of shoes." It's just good justification for new shoes, but I believe her. I'm already wondering which boots will hold the perfect job market mojo.

So this morning, I got up and saw that it was 50 degrees and raining. I needed a blanket while I read on the couch, and when I went out for coffee, I realized that the Camper boots were my best footwear choice. I practically danced my way into them. Fall has come and I can settle down into my boots and into quiet mornings at my computer. Of course, I was wearing my gray hoodie inside out on the way to coffee and didn't realize until it was much too late, so my brain isn't functioning yet. But if my brain can't be functional, at least my feet can be happy. The rest will follow.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sleeping Beauty

I'm very slow to wake. First thing in the morning, it's all I can do to move my body from the bed to the couch. That's a first step. I eventually get myself to my computer, check my e-mail, read a few blogs. My brain will wake, but I won't be ready to talk. It's like I live in a fort made of blankets. First thing in the morning, the blankets are at their fluffiest point of the day, and it takes a while to pat down all the fluff and see the outside world. This is the way it is every morning. Apparently, it's also how I'm going to start every semester.

Classes start this week. I teach for the first time today. I'm lecturing a class, and so I've spent the last week organizing the syllabus and attending an absolutely excruciating department orientation. (What is it about us that made them think they should read the orientation packet to us line by line? Have a group of PhDs and grad students not proved that their reading comprehension is just fine?) I've put together a powerpoint to go with the first lecture and made copies of the handout. I'm doing everything I should. Right now, though, it's like swimming through concrete. It's like crawling a terrific distance. I don't want to. Not because I won't enjoy it or I won't be good at it, but because I feel like I just woke up. I feel like Sleeping (ahem) Beauty, and someone just awoke me from a deep sleep and said, "Hurry! We have a mountain to climb!" Ugh. Couldn't I just ease into things?

I don't like it. I don't have anything brilliant to say about that, because my brain is sleepy and slow. I just know that one of the real down sides to a semester system is that it's very hard to consistently make a cold start. I'm not saying I'd give the summer back. No, thanks. I'd just rather it didn't end.