Wednesday, April 30, 2008


So I'm sitting in Not My Usual Coffee Shop, trying, trying, trying to turn this draft of a draft of a chapter into an actual chapter draft. But I'm not doing that, obviously, because I'm typing this post. If, as I said in my last post, the discipline of grad school is the discipline of a thousand questions, today I'm answering a petulant, "Uhhhh, GO! AWAY!" in response to each of them. Resistance is futile, I know. A chapter will not go away. But lately, I'm reminding myself of my goddaughter, who, at three, will fight and fight and fight to stay awake and keep having fun, while all the while knowing, in her tiny, clever brain, that she will have to go to bed sooner or later. And while listening to her resist, I keep thinking, "But going to bed IS fun! Sleep? Is FUN. Please, god, let us all go to sleep."

She doesn't know yet that sleep is good fun she'll crave one day the way she craves chocolate (she learned that one early) or television now. It will all be reframed, and she won't resist going to bed the way she used to. Not really. I do, fairly regularly, have nights when I want to stay up and make cookies or watch one more episode of The Wire or play around on the internets far later than is reasonable, given the plan for the next morning. But just as often I have days during which I can only think of when I next get to crawl into bed. I have mornings when I fall onto my bed after my shower and feel the cool sheets start to swallow me, a tiny centimeter at a time. The desire to give in overwhelming.

As is the desire NOT to write this damn chapter. I need a reframing. I need, somehow, to remember that I like this. Not because I hate the work, right now, but because my dissertation is currently the party that I don't want to go to on a Friday night because my house is cozy and my dog good company and it's cold out and, besides, I don't know what to wear. It's the party that will be fun once I get there, I know it will be, but just seems so awful from afar.

And of course, when that's the case, the only thing to do is to get up and go to the party and let the rest take care of itself. Everything else is inertia, is laziness, is desire eating up my day, tiny little mouthfuls of seconds swallowed before I realize they were on my plate. Nothing to do, I suppose, but spit them out. Nothing to do but shut up and open the Word file. (There. Done.) and start typing something. Something. Something.

Monday, April 28, 2008


I often leave the television on the in the background as I clean the kitchen or shove laundry into the dryer. Click it on and let it squawk to keep me moving. Last week, I walked past the TV just as a Today show anchor informed those of us unfortunate enough to have the program on that simple, everyday decisions, such as "whether to have skim or soy milk in your latte" took energy and were tiring. Just the little choices of modern life could wear you out.

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes at this kind of first world problem. How utterly horrible to find yourself worn out by thinking about your morning coffee. (Worn out without morning coffee I understand. Worn out by the very contemplation of it? A little ridiculous.) But then I started to think about how often, as a grad student, I'm negotiating my day. The kind of discipline that grad school demands is the discipline of a thousand questions. Will I work now or later? If I work now, where will I work? If I have written a paragraph, is that enough, or do I need to work more? Can I sit on this couch just 15 more minutes before returning to work? Do I need to read this chapter before bed?

It's true that these questions, the when and the where and the why, can seem unrelenting, the decisions constant, the guilt for making the wrong choices unforgiving. We want, very much, to make the right decisions. I think even more than that we want to be the kind of person who makes those right decisions effortlessly. Grad school, and maybe life in general, often feels like a series of tests in which we try very hard to prove that we're the kind of person we want to be. We'll be ok in the end because we're meant to be, because we have what it takes. Because we are, inherently right. Because we exist at all.

It's so easy to resent it, to develop what friends of mine call a case of the fuckits, in which you just can't be bothered to make one more damn decision. I was thinking about that last week, the same day as the latte segment on Today, while taking the dog on our first morning-long walk of the spring. We'd taken a long bike path to the tiniest of hidden parks and he'd scared a few ducks as he splashed about in a lake that would be a puddle come July. I sat on a bench and was breathing deeply and trying not to think about the work I'd blown off that morning, the training run I hadn't taken, the things that would not get done because my dog needed to run to be happy and because, to be happy, I have to watch him.

And all of a sudden, in my godfather's voice, I heard the line from Thoreau, the line from Walden: "I went to the woods because I wished deliberately..." Deliberate deliberate deliberate. The word washed around against the surfaces of my brain, ebbing and surging a little. And I realized that I'd almost been taken in by it. I'd almost bought the idea that these decisions that we make every day are a burden.

My god. Those of us who have the option of making those decisions every day —the decision to work, the decision to walk, the decision to see an idea through to its greatest potential, the decision to nap to the sound of the bus stopping with a great sigh on the street outside—are given the gift of deliberation. We are even given the gift of deciding on kinds of milk. Kinds! This should not be exhausting, and if it is, it should be exhausting like the mental equivalent of raking leaves or putting up storm windows, an exhausting that comes from doing something simple that validates the everyday, a miniscule ritual to mark that moment in time.

It's not so much about making right decisions as it is about making decisions at all. It's not about being worthy or deserving or valid or good. It's just about being, like breathing, out and in, every day. Making deliberate choices so that the moment isn't taken for granted.

Which, you know, is a good thing. Because I suspect I'll keep blowing off work to walk the dog or have a coffee with a friend or read one more article in The Times. I'll keep making these little deals with this five minutes or that five minutes there. I'll keep setting a clock and letting it tick away the minutes during which I'll work. I'll keep making deliberate decisions that are the gift of a modern life in which every moment is given to me.

The picture of the latte up top was either taken by Asa Jelena Pettersson or the latte itself was created by Pettersson or both. I don't know which. But I really like it, a little clock in coffee.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


In 1998, my good friend O and I went on a 10-day adventure to Alaska. We'd planned and purchased and organized and we'd traveled together before, and we thought we had the whole thing down to a science. But we hadn't counted on Alaska. We hadn't counted on a land so big that it threw off our very ability to judge how small we were in the world. On our first day, our shuttle driver pointed across a bit of water and asked, "How far do you think it is across?" We consulted and decided it was about three miles. He laughed and said, "No, twenty." You're smaller than that, little girl.

After a typhoon in the Pacific trapped us on an Alaskan beach in frightening winds, we made our way to Anchorage and decided we'd take on Denali National Park, something we hadn't planned before. We rented a car, drove in, and patted ourselves on the backs for being so flexible, so able to change with the weather. We arrived at the welcome center to get our backpacking permits. And were asked to take a test on how to deal with bears. Then we were pointed to an enormous topographical map and told to pick our section of the park. "Can you give us any suggestions?" we asked. No, we were told. No, for liability's sake, they don't make suggestions to backpackers in Denali.

By the time we'd gotten our permits and gotten on the bus, we were a bit nervous. But nevermind. We were in Alaska! We were adventurous! We were free!

Or something. The bus driver couldn't tell us where to get off (liability again), so we guessed by map as best we could, and he dropped us by the side of the road and zoomed off into the distance. And there we were. We had hours and hours to just explore. The only rule was that we could not make camp within a mile of the road. No problem! We were experienced backpackers! Alaska would finally, finally be ours.

Denali is a trail-less park. There are no signs or footpaths. There are bear and moose and any number of wild things, not least the humans who try to conquer it with tents from REI and ramen noodles. But there's nothing to tell you where to go. When you spend a lot of time hiking and camping, this seems beyond ideal. It's as if you're the first ones to ever travel there. (Except, of course, those nice people who built the roads and made the maps and such. But mostly the first ones ever.) So O and I put our heads together and decide on a route and off we go.

But we're smaller than that, even. We're so small you can't possibly imagine. It turns out that you can't just go off because, well, there's things growing there. It turns out you have to bushwhack. Seriously. The stuff that looked like scrub from above on the road is as high as our heads. It's thick. It's in our way. It's really not fun at all. Nature is inconvenient.

We figure out, quickly, that the yellow stuff is impossibly tall. It takes forever to get through. But the red is a little smaller and we can see over it and so if we try to look for the next red bush (no idea, still, what the red stuff is. Or the yellow.) then we only have to whack the bush half as hard. And so hours upon hours we whack. We've learned, during our testing on bear safety, to talk constantly in order to warn them of our approach. But bushwhacking actually requires some concentration and so we're not really immersed in conversation. Instead we're singing back and forth, "Hello, BEAR! Just passing through, BEAR! We won't hurt you, BEAR!" It's all a sort of Alaskan whistling in the dark.

Finally, hours and hours and hours later, easily six hours of exhausting bushwhacking later, we come to a spot on a side of a hill that looks like it will make for a perfect camp spot. We set up tent. We smile at each other. We feel small in the Alaskan wilderness, but we feel real and good. And we pull out the map in order to see if we can calculate just how far we've come. And collapse in giggles. It's maybe two miles. Maybe two. We've worked so hard. It's been all day. We're so pleased with ourselves. And we've only come two miles. Alaska has a sense of humor, as well.

The day was not without rewards. It's so beautiful there that it exposes all of my shortcomings as a writer. I can't tell you what it looks like. I can tell you that at one point during the day I was up to my eyebrows in a stunning autumn yellow, yellow branches the only thing I could see, sweat in my eyes and crisp air in my lungs, when the branches moved and I was face to face with a baby moose, not at all surprised to see me there, watching my quizzically, as if it was waiting for me to say something. It chewed its lunch and I backed away, worried his mama might show up, yellow swallowing him and me both.

But my god. I was so tired. I was tired in exactly the way I'm tired right now. I'm drafting my first chapter, see. I'm trying to get from point A to point B, write my way through the first 50 pages, arrive at the other end and make camp and claim territory and feel pleased with myself. But I have to bushwhack to get where I need to be, and I'm hacking at sentences, stomping on commas, pushing my way, clumsy and frustrated, through paragraphs. I've got all this lovely research all around me, towering like mountains, and it wants to be seen in the best possible light. But I spend all day, all day long, and all I get to show for it is the tiniest progress, the smallest distances, the least possible ground covered. Every once in a while there is a moose. But mostly, I'm sweating and standing on tippy toes to peer over the yellow grass and wave at you all.