A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Taking Stock

There are all kinds of lists floating around this time of year—gift lists, Christmas card lists, naughty and nice lists. Posted on Facebook, I found a list of “Things I Did in 2008,” and I felt somewhat inspired. It’s time to take stock of the year—my deeds, my failures, my ambitions. Much of this particular inventory had to do with dating, falling in love and screwing up at work, though, so it didn't really relate to me too much—I'm already married, and since my husband and I are both in grad school, we don't really have time for dates.

So, I decided to write a couple lists of my own, to take stock of what I did in 2008 and what I would like to do in 2009. After I thought about these things for a while, I was a little depressed by the shortness of both my lists. I should be more forgiving of myself—I am in graduate school, after all, so the list of things I have accomplished in the past year is bound to be somewhat short and focused on academics. I tried to come up with a more well-rounded list of aspirations for the coming year, and I think I’m satisfied with my goals. If nothing else, a list that is focused on several different things will make me feel like a complete human being again, not just a machine that must constantly churn out her graduate coursework. Of course, this list may be a little bit ambitious for the year that I’m going to write my Master’s Thesis and (hopefully) begin a Ph.D. program… but we’ll see. At least I have the goal of emerging a little bit more into the larger world.

Things I Did in 2008
(That I Had Never Done Before):

- went to Little Rock
- tried Palm Wine (which, by the way, is yuck)
- stood up to my superiors (boss, professor)
- wrote a paper in 24 hours (and got an A!)
- got a publishing contract
- became informed about politics
- ate at the Brass Balls Saloon (Ocean City, MD)
- (somewhat) successfully limited my book-buying addiction
- went to Philadelphia (and got delayed on the subway)

Things I Want to do in 2009:

- write poetry and/or stories again (like I did in undergrad)
- get a “Distinction” on my comprehensive exams
- earn my Master’s Degree in Literature
- see my article published in a book
- teach my first college course
- be admitted to a Ph.D. program
- continue to loose the weight I put on while sick
- learn Spanish
- read Ulysses (by James Joyce)
- find a hobby to share with my husband
- finally watch Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, & other classics
- get to know the bike trails in/around D.C.
- visit the zoo more often
- tour New York City on foot

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Recovering at the End of the Semester

I haven't blogged a whole lot lately--after the debacle of my Josephine Baker paper, I've purposely kept the laptop shut for a day or two at a time, in fact. After I had taken my exam, I knew I had to get right to work on that paper in order to pull all my research together into a coherent display of what I had learned over the entire semester. This is a ridiculous expectation, of course, and turned out to be a painful experience that definitely lowered my GPA a little bit.

I spent about twelve to fourteen hours a day, for three days straight, sitting at the computer--and finally submitted my paper at 4:15 A.M. on Saturday, December 13. A measly 4 hours or so after it was actually due... I'm hoping the professor didn't notice the time stamp on the submission. It's not like he was going to grade it right away when it was due at midnight.

Of course, I woke up in the morning with a clear picture of how I should have approached the project and written the paper. I then developed a new and exciting obsession with rewriting the paper that I had already turned in--so I decided that it would be much more emotionally healthy for me to close the laptop and back slowly away. I figured that a healthy diet of movies and shopping should cure this useless compulsion to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite (a paper that no one else would read). I didn't even allow the lure of surfing Amazon and Facebook to entice me back to the computer. I swapped one screen for another, deciding it was time for some therapeutic romantic comedies.

After watching Love Actually, followed by several discs of The X-Files season 1, I was suddenly overtaken with a desire that seizes me at the end of every semester--to clean and reorganize the apartment. It's like a cleansing, I suppose. I could no longer stand the dirty dishes, Smirnoff bottles, cardboard boxes from Amazon shipments and stacks of papers that had piled up during the last few weeks of the semester. Everything must go--into filing cabinets, the bins at the recycling center, or the trash. Old clothes must be donated, the apartment dusted, the furniture re-arranged. I managed to move the Queen-sized mattress and box spring by myself, as well as the five zillion pound elliptical machine in our bedroom, in order to make room for a new bookcase, which I then hauled home from Ikea and assembled more or less on my own. I re-hung all the pictures on the walls to suit the new furniture arrangement. I scrubbed the stove. I did five loads of laundry. I wrapped all the Christmas presents for our families. I read virtually nothing for an entire week, and it felt so good to be DOING--anything--instead of just sitting and reading.

I feel better, and now that we've come to our parents' homes to celebrate Christmas with all possible permutations of our family groupings, do you know what I want to do?

I want to cuddle up with my copy of Nadeem Aslam's new novel and Hermoine Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf. Followed by Ulysees by James Joyce, although even my friends in the literature department think that I would be punishing myself to read that particular book as Christmas "Break" reading material. I'm a sick, sick person, but I've regained my insatiable desire to read. Perhaps it's a good thing that while at my parents' house and my in-laws' house, there aren't too many quiet moments... another week or so without hundreds of pages to consume might do me some good. Except all I really want for Christmas is some time to read books of my own choice. Well, that and a yacht. But for now, I'd settle for the time to read.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Finish Line

Ph.D. applications: submitted.
Final Paper #1: completed and turned in.
Exam: taken.

I feel like I'm "done," whatever that means; I took my exam last night, the only exam I had this semester (thankfully), and then I came home and had a little celebration with my husband. He made me delicious a pizza with extra cheese, mushrooms and peppers (plus basil and oregano, which really made the sausage extra-tasty) and I ate it in bed while we watched Casino Royale... I always want to spend two or three days in bed watching TV and reading after I finish up a semester of graduate school, and it's not really because I'm physically exhausted. It's like I need to retreat to the most comfortable, safe place I know in order to recuperate. I want to become a hermit--after last Spring Semester, I don't think I even left the apartment for about a week.

I feel like I have the freedom to lay around more, leave the alarm turned off and maybe even go shopping or something. The holiday merchandise at stores like Old Navy, Bath & Body and Pier One are calling to me. We also desperately need certain grocery items, since I haven't had time to go to the store for the last two weeks, and the apartment needs a good cleaning. I won't describe the disturbing details, but suffice it to say that it's bad enough that I'm actually kind of looking forward to dusting, vacuuming, sorting out the stacks of papers and boxes...

I feel like I have the freedom to do these things, but I'm not quite there yet--I still have Research Paper #2 to conquer, with only three days left before its due. I can't afford to quit or even slow down just yet, so perhaps my celebratory pizza-in-bed was a little premature and emotionally misleading. I justified it as being necessary for my mental health, a rejuvenating few hours to make sure I was ready to tackle this last project of the semester. The exam itself was, after all, a little demoralizing and discouraging.

But even once I turn that paper in, I won't really be "done." Over Christmas "Break," I have to study for more exams and research my thesis so that I don't become too overwhelmed during the spring semester. (These exciting descriptions of my life are reminding me of why graduate students do not make good television characters.) I get the feeling the finish line is at least as far off as late April/early May, when I graduate--and then what? A summer of learning Spanish and doing research for my Ph.D. program, if I'm lucky enough to be accepted into school again for the fall.

But this is the kind of thinking (complaining, really) that will make it impossible for me to be cheery about my life. I know I want to keep doing what I'm doing, and it will continue to get easier as life moves along. I've already learned to manage my anxiety much better--last year, I spent most of my time (waking and sleeping) in a complete panic, not to mention being a wreck about exams. In contrast, when faced with ten minutes to finish my second essay during the exam (which was only two-thirds completed), I was able to swallow my panic even then. I should feel much better about that achievement alone.

I only want a few moments to enjoy my life before I hit my mid-sixties--that's all I ask. I need to find a finish line, and I need to think of this educational process as more than one race. I don't need a medal every time I finish something--a gold star sticker and a cookie will do just fine. But I definitely have to find myself some down time before I launch into the research for my thesis and all the other work for next semester. I think maybe I'll stay in bed next week, after I turn in my paper, and reread Harry Potter.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Graduate Student as Comedic "Wing Man"

Why aren't there television shows about graduate students?

Let's think about this for a moment: Graduate students are very intelligent, and intelligence often produces a sharp and sardonic wit; we are often jaded and cynical... a graduate student would be the perfect wing man to constantly crack jokes about the state of politics, literature, art and life in general. Our conversations could be the perfect sit-com material.

But yet, the way in which we spend our time is not conducive to an entertaining plot. We sit and read. We sit and read some more. We might get up and make ourselves a snack, or move to Starbucks. But then we sit and read some more. At certain points during the semester, we spend ten, twelve, even fourteen hours at a time glued to our laptops, frantically writing twenty and thirty page papers: "Does this even make sense anymore? Dammit!"

The show certainly couldn't center around only graduate students, but like I said, we'd make good wing men. Cracking sardonic jokes from the sidelines, barely looking up from our novels/textbooks/laptops. The sidekick who's stuck at home, the friend that no one can get to go out. The running gag who never shuts up about their thesis project...

This could be a big hit. It would be like a more intellectual version of Seinfeld, with jokes about Marcel Proust. There was a Seinfeld episode about Tolstoy, now that I think about it. Elaine was trying to read War and Peace, I think.

There were also jokes about literary figure Marcel Proust in the movie Little Miss Sunshine: Steve Carell's character was a suicidal homosexual Proust scholar. Much was made about the fact that he was the "second" most important Proust scholar in the world and that his lover had dumped him for the first and most prominent Proust scholar in the world. That's a pretty depressing fictional equivalent. Of course, Carell's character turns out to be the most sane person in the entire family; I'm not sure if I find that comforting or not.

In this scenario, the television incarnation of my graduate school self is the equivalent of a character who tries to slit his wrists. Or, in the Seinfeld scenario, I'd probably be George.

Why aren't there any attractive, sane intellectuals portrayed on television and in the movies?

Because graduate school robs you of your sanity, and after nights of binge-eating while staying up late to finish your work, you have lost your looks as well. You feel like you barely have time to spend ten minutes on the exercise machine, yet you look at old photos, wistfully trying to remember how it felt to be able to fit into your favorite skirt. You can't concentrate any more, especially near the end of the semester. Your attention span drops and you have to play tricks on yourself to be able to finish your work. You feel like you're slowly wearing away like an alka-seltzer tablet in a glass of water...

I'm not sure if that would make a good TV character, wing man or not. Although high anxiety characters can sometimes be funny, as long as they're not too shrill or whiny...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Somewhat Unusual Thanksgiving Sentiments

Since it is the Thanksgiving Holiday, it would be appropriate for me to post something about being thankful.

So let me take this opportunity to thwart those expectations just a little bit. I'm not going to talk about the usual things--my family and friends, my financial blessings, and blah blah blah. I am hoping, with my list, to give all my readers (yes, all three of you... four, if you count my husband, because I make him read my blog) a new perspective of what thankfulness can mean:

1. I am thankful for the scent of cooking and rowdy African music that I can smell and hear when I stick my head out the door and into the hallway of my apartment building. I can sense the joy of other families celebrating Thanksgiving this year and it makes my heart feel excited.

2. I am thankful that I have somewhere cozy to stay locked away from everyone during Black Friday. I do NOT want to deal with people. I dislike people. Intensely. I love individual persons--perhaps even every single one of them on the planet, if I think of them separately. But I hate people, as in the masses. Even my love of shopping for bargains cannot overcome my horror at the concept of getting up at 5 AM to wait in a line in the freezing November air for a chance to fight with some strangers over lowly-priced electronic goods. If I really want it, I'll be willing to pay full price for it.

3. I am thankful that my grandparents are spending the holidays with my in-laws this year. Every year, my parents have Thanksgiving with my dad's brothers and sisters, and my grandparents spend the day at some fancy but impersonal restaurant. Grandma has always said that she enjoys seeing how they a decorate five-star joint for Christmas, but I've never believed her. It always makes me want to cry. What can I do, though? I'm five hundred miles away. This year, however, my warm-hearted mother-in-law is excited to have them over, which reminds me how lucky it is that my family and my husband's family get along so well. In other words, I'm thankful that not everything you hear about in-laws is true.

4. I am thankful that although my husband and I can't be with our families this year, we have somewhere to go for the holiday--and that we will probably get to hear a somewhat inebriated (ex?) hippie tell stories about Ann Arbor in the 1970s, when you could walk around on the streets openly smoking weed because you could only be fined five dollars for the offense.

5. I am thankful for a holiday that makes everyone--from your mother to your ex-boyfriend-- want to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. It's an especially cheery feeling to hear from someone that you only speak to every six months or so, if that.

6. I am thankful that my husband is willing (when I am not) to go out on Black Friday and buy a giant turkey in the post-Thanksgiving sale--to cook just for me. Some people get leftovers, but I get an entirely fresh meal the day after the holidays...

7. I am thankful that there is nothing compelling me to finish this list all the way to a full ten things for which I am thankful, since it is proving to be kind of difficult to think outside the box on this one. I've got a good husband, good friends, good food, warm fuzzy socks, and full access to Amazon.com. What more do I really need?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Demoralized by Graduate School Applications

Applying for graduate is a lot like prostituting yourself.

I had forgotten how bad it really gets, since I haven't written what is called a "Statement of Purpose" in about two years. But it gets bad.

Here, for example, are a fairly typical set of instructions that detail what a particular university might want you to include in your Statement of Purpose:

1. What are you interested in studying? You may wish to describe in more grandiose than appropriate terms the types of research that you have already undertaken, as well as your professional goals beyond earning your graduate degree.

2. Why should our institution care about you? Please explain any life experiences that you have had that make you better--both more intelligent and more ethnically diverse--than all our other applicants. Include, if possible, an explanation of how you were raised in a financially impoverished situation but have pulled yourself up by the bootstraps and have achieved academic success beyond the uneducated members of your ethnically diverse family. You may also wish to give the graduate admissions committee some examples of your determination to pursue your goals, your initiative and ability to develop ideas, and/or your capacity for working through problems independently. Please make sure, however, that that you don't sound overly egotistical. We like members of the academic community to achieve a certain amount of narcissism which prepares them to ignore their students at times, but still be able to lick the boots of the professors at our particular institution.

3. Why would you like to undertake your graduate studies at this university? In other words, why is our institution simply the best? Indicate, if applicable, which professors to whom you have tried to kiss up.

4. Please do this in 500 words or less.

So, this is what I am doing over Thanksgiving "Break": diligently working away at the fine art of prostituting myself. I mean...composing my Statement of Purpose. Heck, I'm starting to sound pretty impressive as I compose draft after draft of this thing. I might even start to admire myself if I'm not careful. The problem with that is that I'm already pretty narcissistic. By the time I'm done, my head would probably be the size of a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade--if it weren't for the fact that prostituting yourself can turn out to feel pretty humiliating. "Please pick me, please, please, please! Look at how awesome I am! I'll bake you cookies!"

Hmmm, maybe that should be my closing argument. Cookies are always a winner.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Variations on a Theme of Cake

Lessons learned and conclusions reached since my last blog:

1) Working out truly does produce a few endorphins ("happy chemicals") in your body to help elevate your mood. But chocolate cake is even more effective.

2) Friends who faithfully read your blog and nickname you "my quickly dissolving friend-tablet" are the exactly perfect kind of friends to have.

3) It's strangely gratifying to have your best friend's ex-husband's brother tell you that you are eloquent on a regular basis.

4) After reading papers written by undergraduate students for several hours, you need another helping of that chocolate cake.

5) I do not appreciate students who use the word "thrice" in their papers.

6) Don't forget what another wise friend once told you: "Sometimes it's okay to not be okay for a while." There is a strange, zen-like peace to accepting your state of emotional breakdown. And then, if you accept the state of breakdown (or fizz-out), you can justify eating cake. You can even get your husband to buy you both a chocolate creme and a strawberry-vanilla flavored cake.

7) It is possible to regret eating the cake all at once, because then it is gone.

8) Cake obsessions indicate something Freudian. But if you've been reading too many undergraduate papers, you won't be able to figure out what.

9) You should not watch Persepolis when you are already emotional. You will cry. And cry and cry and cry and cry. And your husband will not know what to do with you. He has already given you cake, after all. What other recourse is left?

10) Also, if you eat too much cake, you will need that bottle of Alka-Seltzer.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Alka Seltzer Metaphor

As preoccupied as I have been with political issues, I have decided that it is now time to get back to our regularly scheduled programming: a day in the life of a graduate student.

Update on my sedentary, book-consumed life? I have reached a glass ceiling. No, a wall. Okay, I'll admit it--I'm still searching for the right metaphor, and I'm not coming up with much. What can you call it when you've literally spent almost every moment of every day, from getting up at 8 a.m. to falling asleep around 10 p.m., reading and writing and reading and writing and reading some more... and all the sudden everything just makes you feel like crying?

The technical term, now that I think about it, is "burn out." It's more like a slow, pathetic fizzing-out, though... like an Alka-Seltzer tablet dissolving slowly in water, wearing away until all that's left is a murky, chalky-tasting water. Hmmm, I wanted a metaphor, but that is particularly depressing.

I've have awakened two nights in a row from dreams (not nightmares, mind you) that have made me sob loud enough to disturb my husband. I went to two different birthday parties last night and attempted to set aside any anxiety over unfinished work... but although I didn't panic about taking a break when I probably shouldn't have, I didn't seem to enjoy myself a whole lot, either. I feel kind of like a walking zombie; I'm not quite awake, yet I'm never able to sleep deeply and restfully. Hence the comparison to murky water: I definitely feel as hazy as that glass of sodium bicarbonate mixture.

I got up this morning with a lump in my throat that I cannot explain, and everything from the memory of my dreams to "Your Weekly Address from the President-elect" on Youtube has made me want to cry. I shed a few tears over my simmering pot of Rice-A-Roni, and I can't think of any particular reason. Of course, the weather has been depressingly overcast the past few days, and though I've attempted to combat the encroaching grayness with hot cocoa and Salman Rushdie, that tactic apparently hasn't been very successful. It's been dark at 2:45 in the afternoon, though--who can fight off the depression from that? (I suddenly sympathize with Sarah Palin/Tina Fey's declaration that she's not going back to Alaska...)

The real truth, though, is that I just want to be able to STOP for a minute. Every waking moment, if I'm not reading something or writing something, I'm working with my own students and clients to help them understand their reading and write their assignments. My idea of a break has been cooking (enough to last me the whole week, usually) and folding laundry. The most space I have for my own thoughts is usually during my commute, when I can turn on some music in the car and zone out for a minute--except I have to pay at least minimal attention to the traffic. Add it all up, and suddenly even birthday parties with good friends seem less like relaxing and more like something to check off the to-do list. (Next weekend, the schedule includes a tail-gate party with my husband's friends--even more effort than talking to my own friends.)

I think what I really need, in order to get rid of this lump in my throat, is to lay in bed, wrapped up in blankets, staring at the ceiling and listening to my husband breathe deeply. Then, I need to be able to get up and watch movies. Play Mario-Kart and Wii bowling. Ignore the outside world for a while. Choose what book I want to read. A comfortable, relaxing hibernation, in other words... not just being locked up in my apartment with tons of work to do.

If only I had time for such luxuries...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

This Thing Called Patriotism

In Michigan, the brilliantly colored leaves start to appear in September and stick around for about a month, whereas a little further south, the leaves don't really start to turn until late October. I still miss fall up in the Midwest, which always meant weekend after weekend of trips to the Cider Mill and walks around the cold, clear lakes to admire the trees. But the past few days, the leaves have finally been changing colors here in Washington D.C. and I've found myself surrounded by leaves that are pumpkin, cranberry, mustard... Why do autumn leaves always make me think of Thanksgiving food? (I guess it's the bad poet in me, left over from junior high.)

And oh, yeah. Barack Obama is now the president-elect. There's more change around here this November than usual. Suddenly the crisp fall air, which is one of my favorite smells, seems even sweeter. Yesterday, I felt like I was waking up to a whole new world; the headlines are calling it the "Dawning of a New Era" and equally optimistic titles. It's hard not to give in to the celebratory mood, so I cranked up my radio and sang along with an eclectic mix of energizing music--Queen, Amy Grant, the Dandy Worhols... That's right, Obama is "Good for me, baby" and now America can once again say to the world, "We will, we will, rock you!"

I know, it's cheesy. But I have this strange feeling inside--I think they call it patriotism (along with a strong dose of optimism and hope--perhaps even an unrealistic amount). My grandparents, who lived through both the Great Depression and World War II, have described this feeling to me. Grandma wasn't exactly Rosie the Riveter, but she did start working for the telephone company when my grandpa went overseas to fight; they both sacrificed the first several years of their marriage in order to defeat Hitler and ensure a safe, prosperous life for all Americans. And I'm so grateful that they taught me the values of their generation--a desire to work hard and achieve something, a sense of pride in a job well done, a commitment to the people that you love, and a desire for the simple good things in life, like a house that you build into a real home. But the one thing that I've never quite understood was this thing called patriotism.

Sure, you go to war to defeat bastards like Hitler. You protect your family and your country. And then you come home and go to college on the GI bill, buy a little house and fix it up, have a couple kids and a dog, take some camping trips. But why do you get teary-eyed when you put your hand on your heart and sing to the flag?

I think a lot of people from my generation feel disconnected from that nationalistic emotion. But can you really blame us, after the Monica Lewinsky scandal made our country pretty laughable for a while, and followed by the ridiculous and shameful antics of the government under the Bush administration? What ideals do we have left to connect to? We haven't had a JFK, or even an FDR, with his fireside chats to keep our hope alive in times of crisis. Most people my age haven't even been lucky enough to be close to grandparents like mine, who have described to me what life was like during the Depression, World War II, and the post-War Era. Most people haven't heard stories about eating string to survive, or seeing the piles of bodies in the concentration camps. So I'm sure it's even harder to imagine why you would sacrifice something for America--because to most Americans, our country is defined by Britany Spears and Tom Cruise, Monica Lewinsky and George W. Bush. If the greatest thing that has brought us all together in recent history is the tragic events of 9/11, we're certainly not going to learn as much about hard work and hope as our grandparents' generation. At least, not until we truly start to rebuild in such a way that American citizens remain connected with each other.

And that's where Obama comes in. No, he's not Jesus and we shouldn't place our hope in him. Especially for those of us who are Christians, we should remember that over and over in the Bible, God gave the Jews a king because they wanted a tangible leader--but all too often, it led them astray. They made their king into an object of worship and they stopped following God himself. And whether we are Christians or not, I don't think any of us really feel that Obama deserves our worship.

But I think it's okay to believe that we have a new hope because of what Obama represents and how he will govern. He's not perfect, he won't fix everything--but he doesn't have to. The press is saying that now the challenge for Obama is to live up to everyone's unreasonably high expectations, but my husband made a good point the other night. It's not so much that Obama has to live up to our expectations--it's that Obama has to get us to live up to his expectations. We need to learn what it's like to be real Americans again--and our impressive voter turnout is a good start. But there's still so much for us to do.

And I'm ready to sign up. Tell me to grow a Victory Garden, Obama. Start rationing margarine and panty hose if it will help. I'm not sure if you really want to give me an assembly-line job (I'm no Rosie; picture me trying to rivet). But I'll buy my share of war bonds or whatever it takes. In other words, give us our marching orders--it's okay to have hope that someone new (and much, much more competant) is in charge. It's okay because the hope that Obama inspires is really a hope in each other and ourselves.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Today's Inspirational Message

Lately, politics have been giving me indigestion. With less than a week to go until the presidential election, I'm getting tired of debating my mother over global warming and most of all, sick of how people from both the Republican and Democratic parties seem to have taken a swan dive off the cliff of sanity and into the gaping ravine of fanatical hate. A hanging effigy of Sarah Palin? A plot to assassinate Obama and 88 other people? It's starting to feel like we live in a Latin American country or the Middle East.

That brings me to today's inspirational message: if you don't care about voting, you bug me. Offended yet? Good. Now I have your attention. Want to know why you get under my skin?

Well, you may feel like your vote doesn't matter. You may feel like neither choice (Obama/Biden, McCain/ Palin) is a good choice. But at least you have a choice. At least if you go to the polls on Election Day, you're not going to be coerced or harmed. And if you really want to make yourself heard, you've got a voice--and you can use it without fear. To everyone living in a dictatorship or a theocracy, that would be an amazing right and opportunity.

A lot of people that I meet that don't care about voting don't have that perspective. Americans don't know what it's like not to have free speech. Certain ethnicities and races still know and feel the power of discrimination (in regards to voting and otherwise), but the majority of the country has no idea what it is to fear for their lives because of the political climate. You may not have the time to travel to a foreign country, but read a book--In the Time of the Butterflies or In the Name of Salome by Julia Alvarez (two of my favorite novels), Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, for example. Check out Baghdad Burning, an anonymous blog that has been published in two volumes. Take a minute to imagine what it would be like to live under a dictator, or under communism. Even just catch up on your World News--consider the elections in Kenya, or the image of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad being pulled to the ground in April 2003.

Try to understand the desperation of people who cannot speak out--or people who have spoken out, despite the danger to their own lives, and have been silenced.

Try to imagine what it would be like if we did not have the opportunity every four years to replace our president, or to re-elect members of Congress.

You may not like the way that our government is run, or who is running it. But if you stop to consider these types of things, I feel that you have little choice but to appreciate the construction of our government. It is not perfect, but it is flexible. We have the ability to change our laws and system of governance without destroying the whole thing and starting again from scratch. We have the ability to reinvent ourselves as a nation without tumbling into violence and chaos. And that's why effigies of Bush, Palin, and McCain are so disturbing. That's why shouts of "Kill him!" at McCain rallys bother me so much. We don't live in Latin America or the Middle East, and none of our political candidates should have to fear for their lives.

All that American patriotism that my generation doesn't really seem to understand? All that hokey "American Dream" stuff that Obama and McCain are trying to revive? Well, after eight years of listening to George W. Bush malign the idea, turn it into a slogan, it certainly does sound cheesy. But the gist of it is this--America is one of the greatest countries in the world, no matter how fake our politicans can make that sound when they say it up on a stage, and it's not about Americans being better than anyone else. Because we're not. We have the capacity to be arrogant, selfish and destructive. Our leaders are sometimes as corrupt as in any other nation, and we've been led into some sketchy situations. We've compromised our ideals, and probably will continue to do so. But the American system of government allows us to continue striving for the dream of freedom and equality, change for the better, and ultimately peace.

That was genius on the parts of the men who constructed the United States Constitution. Now we just need to prove that we ourselves can be as flexible as our own system of government. We need to stop allowing issues to polarize us, or political corruption to discourage us. We need to use our free speech to build constructively, not create more choas and a climate of fear and violence. We need to care enough in order to make our voices heard--something that so many new people will be doing on November 4 this year. We need to believe in the freedom and power of our own vote.

And that has been today's inspirational message, just in case you missed Obama's infomercial last night before the World Series. Tune in tomorrow, and I'll be selling you a sausage grinder that comes with a free gift of cubic zerconia earrings.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Every Day is Snickerdoodle Day

In high school, I knew a couple named Joey and Lisa. Joey and Lisa were so in love (or, more likely, so horny) that they could not keep off of each other--even when one of them had mono. So, first Lisa had mono. Then Joey had mono, at which point he gave it back to Lisa. And so it went, with colds, flu bugs, you name it. The two of them were constantly sick and in a weakened state, but luckily for them (?) that didn't seem to affect the strength of their hormones...

Ah, memories. Joey and Lisa popped into my head recently, since I have been sick non-stop for three or four weeks now. First was some sort of sinus thing, then I caught the stomach flu. The flu hung on for several days, and even once it was gone, it appears to have irritated my more permanent stomach condition. So, I've been on a steady diet of rice and potatoes for three weeks, although happily I've been able to add cookies, turkey and chicken. So basically, I'm having Thanksgiving dinner over and over again--turkey and mashed potatoes, unfortunately without the gravy or the cranberry sauce--and lots of snickerdoodles. People wonder why I'm complaining--why wouldn't you want every day to be a snickerdoodle day? I'm worried, though, that I'm going to get sick of Thanksgiving even before I hit Halloween. I like to prolong my holiday celebrations, but this is going to get a bit ridiculous.

Having finally started to control my stomach condition, I of course came down with the upper respiratory/sinus infection-type thing that has been making my husband miserable for over a week. I could feel it coming--the achey body, the slightly scratchy throat, but he was being so pathetic that I couldn't help kissing him. (I now have a new appreciation for the force of Joey and Lisa's love... and hormones.) But really, I blame the flat tire I got on Wednesday night. My friends and I had to stand around in the parking lot in the blustery wind, waiting for the Triple A guy to come and change my tire. I got chilled, and I knew my body would give in to the infection after that type of exposure to the cold.

So here I am with chest-pains and a cotton-stuffed head, sniffling and cuddling with my box of snickerdoodles. I keep trying to read Madame Bovary for class, but I can only concentrate on fifteen or twenty pages at a time. Meanwhile, my husband has mostly recovered by now but keeps wanting to kiss me... apparently he hasn't noticed how disgusting I am when I'm sick. His love is not a superficial love--he sees beyond the snotty kleenexs and red-rimmed eyes, the ratty hair and sweaty brow. Or he has some powerful hormones.

Well, at least I'm lucky enough to have a box of snickerdoodles and a love-blinded husband to cuddle with while I'm sick. We'll watch a lot of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, and then I'll start to panic over the huge amounts of homework that I've neglected. I have learned a lesson from all of this, though--I shouldn't have looked down on Joey and Lisa, back in high school when they couldn't keep their hands off each other. There's nothing more beautiful than someone who loves you despite your snotty nose and hacking cough.

I'll have to keep that in mind, too, when I give this infection back to my husband and he starts hacking and sneezing again. Meanwhile, I'm going to go eat some more snickerdoodles. I recommend the soft-baked kind from Pepperidge Farms.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


After my loving and nostalgic tribute to prepackaged and frozen foods, I immediately came down with the stomach flu--or was it food poisoning?? Suddenly, those fish stick dinners--and the hot dogs in particular--don't sound nearly as tasty.

After spending three days incapacitated and watching all five Harry Potter films (the highlight of my weekend), now I'm desperately trying to play catch-up with midterm papers, projects, etc. So, I haven't had much time to blog as of late--I've been spending every available brain cell to churn out pages about developmental psychology and Judith Butler's theory of performative identity. And I don't mean using every available brain cell, I mean spending. I'm not sure I'm going to get those little guys back.

The really upsetting thing, though, is that I thought I had adjusted to my life as a hermit--I'm just used to not being able to do much of anything fun, it's the status quo. I shut myself up in the apartment, telling my friends somewhat hyperbolically that I'm "buried under a stack of books." (Really, the stacks of books are all shoved up against the wall so that they don't topple down on me.) Then I can read or write all day, and stop just to watch Bones or Supernatural on Hulu when I really need to give my brain a break. Or the MSNBC politics video feed if I want to get riled up. I'm in touch with the world--really! I talk to people all the time... although admittedly, on Facebook.

So, at least I feel like I'm in touch with other human beings, and I'm still able to get my work done without feeling too bad about missing out. But now, of course, on the weekend that I'm particularly convinced that its physically impossible to get all my work done, all my friends (wow... who knew I had so many here in DC?) have been asking me to do things. Really fun things. Renaissance Festival. Mexican Food. Pumpkin Patch. And meanwhile, Jeremy volunteered for the Obama campaign yesterday.

Suddenly, it's not so easy to focus. I don't feel so isolated from the world, holed up here in my apartment. Fall is my favorite time of year, and suddenly I'm thinking of Renaissance music and those giant turkey legs that they sell at the Festival, the elephant ride I had been wanting to take this year, the crisp smell of Autumn and the bright colors of changing leaves...

Jessy stopped by the apartment after she and the others had been to the pumpkin patch; she brought me two small pumpkins. After surveying the apartment, seeing the books I had scattered across the table for reference as I am writing my papers, she commented, "Wow, you really do look like you're buried under a pile of books."

I guess it's not always hyperbole.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Microwaved Dinners

I've been enjoying a little taste of home this week. By this I mean that both my husband and I have been so busy that we've been living off left-overs and frozen food—and oddly enough, this always reminds me of my childhood. I'm sure the idea of microwaved dinners will make you cringe if you were raised, like my husband, on home-cooked meals. His mother was a stay-at-home mom who would prepare complicated casseroles, sausage lasagnas, and batches of hand-rolled German egg noodles with meatballs.

My mother was a college professor, though, and because she was teaching most of the day and correcting papers in the evenings, roasts and lasagnas weren't the usual fare at our house. I grew up on a steady diet of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, microwaved Campbell's soup and hot dogs, fish sticks and tater tots, and peanut butter sandwiches. Those were the nights when my parents had the energy to “cook” something. Sometimes they would just pull out one those kids' TV dinners with Penguin on the box—not my favorite. For a treat once a week, though, we would go to Taco Bell for nachos and those oh-so-delicious Cinnamon Twists. We would sneak the twists out of the take-out bag while they were still hot, and then enjoy those stale chips and that highly-processed cheese sauce when we got home.

Though I don't have fond memories of the Penguin's unidentifiable slabs of meat and too-tiny brownies, I still enjoy a good bowl of Mac 'N Cheese, a can of Vegetable Beef soup, or dinosaur-shaped nuggets. Lately, a couple of my colleagues have ridiculed the processed chicken fingers that I bring to microwave for lunch, but even though I would generally prefer to be eating healthier food, I have to admit that I find this diet somewhat comforting. Graduate school is such a stressful, disorienting experience—I want something that reminds me of my childhood, that makes me feel safe and sheltered. It may seem strange, but I associate fish sticks with my grandfather because baked them for us, and I think of Ballpark Franks as my father’s heart-felt attempts at cooking, all the more special because they would come out of the microwave over-done and a little shriveled. But I have a (perhaps overly nostalgic) sense that these meals were made with just as much love as my mother-in-law’s lasagnas.

Home is where they make you microwaved hot dogs
Campbell's soup.

So this week, when we’ve been too busy to cook, I've treated myself to PB and J, tater tots, Campbell’s clam chowder, and a lot of microwaved popcorn. I’m motivated by more than just a need to grab something quick – if I was in a rush but wanted something healthy, there’s always the salad bar at the corner grocery store. Typically that’s the option I choose, loading up my to-go carton with slices of red pepper, fresh mushrooms and some egg salad on the side. You can usually get some nice fresh fruit, too – although it’s ridiculously expensive and I have to worry about paying for all this on a graduate student’s stipend.

But I’m twelve weeks into the semester and craving a taste of home—and the microwaved soup and hot dogs make me think of evenings in front of the television, watching Wheel of Fortune with my grandparents. When the peanut butter sticks to the roof of my mouth, I think of hot summer days spent playing in the backyard tent. I can still see my grandmother carrying the sandwiches across the yard, the sunlight falling on her shoulders. I feel safe and happy for just a moment, remembering these things about home, before I have to return to the four precarious stacks of books on my desk and the piles of papers that I need to correct. Next week, I’ll go back to my chicken wrap lunches and salad bar dinners, but for now, I need a little taste of home.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Little Bit of That Hope Rhetoric

Maybe I over-reacted a little. Yesterday I was preparing to eat flour and water pancakes for dinner once the Great Depression Part Two was upon us, but after a few frozen margaritas at my belated birthday/Pre-Depression party, I have been able to shut out the general state of anxiety that is gripping a good portion of the nation. Maybe I shouldn't watch so many political pundits on msnbc.com. Keeping up with the news is one thing, but swallowing the political drama wholesale is a step or two beyond staying informed.

One reason why I might have over-reacted (besides the simple fact that I can sometimes be fairly dramatic) is that there are a lot of things in my life that I feel unprepared to face, and they all seem to be coming up pretty quickly: My Ph.D. applications come due in December, too-quickly followed by my comprehensive exams to get my Masters degree, then my first contracted publication and first teaching job... and if I get in to the Ph.D. program that I am eyeing, I'm not convinced I will survive it. I was told that it will be nothing like the program where I'm currently working on my Masters degree; a graduate told me that at the school I aspire to attend next--they give you tough love. They kick your ass, so that you're prepared to face the next person who tries. Or something like that.

A lot different from where I am now--in my program, the department has a literary dessert contest every year, and I'm friends with several of my professors. Some of them have their students over for dinner, while others let you haunt their office and play with their action figures. I babysit for one couple in the department, and go out for lunch to talk about my thesis with my advisor. I felt at home as soon as I started going to school there. But now, I'm faced with a Ph.D. program that will be trial by fire--if I even get accepted into the program. So, I'm feeling a little less confident than usual. It's not hard to imagine failure on all sides, accept the worst-case scenarios, and plan for the next Great Depression.

Then I read something that gave me a little boost. (Those of you who are cynical about the Obama "rhetoric of hope" should just skip the rest of my entry.) Michelle Obama was talking about facing the intensity of her husband's presidential campaign, and she said, "When you're a person like me, who steps outside the normal boundaries of what their life is supposed to be like — say, going to Princeton — you're worried that maybe you're not prepared, because everybody has told you you probably won't be, and then you get there and you're like, I'm prepared... I think many of us are more prepared for certain situations than we imagine."

This is not Sarah Palin saying, "Yes, I'm ready to be president because I'm confident... I have that confidence." Confidence doesn't make you qualified for a job, just emotionally ready to face it. But Michelle Obama seems to know that--she was talking about readiness to face an emotionally intimidating and rigourous experience. That's what is really terrifying me, after all--the emotional drain. The academic challenges will take everything that I've got, and what little I've got left in my reserves--will it be enough? Will I be able to press through my work, even when my brain is already fried? Will I be able to find any sympathy from anyone in the new department to make me laugh when I feel like crying? Because graduate school makes me feel like crying, fairly often in fact.

My husband tells me he thinks I can survive a Ph.D. program, and I hope he's right. His opinion matters a lot to me, obviously. But somehow, Michelle Obama made me believe it, at least for the moment. And this sounds incredibly silly, but the next Great Depression doesn't seem so likely either, once I've had a few frozen margaritas and swallowed my own personal fears. Maybe I can even swallow my cynicism and believe that Congress will do something intelligent.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Pressed Up Against History

Despite the fact that I'm a fairly politically conscious person who has been glued to the Obama/McCain/Palin drama for quite some time now, I've tried not to write about that too much in this particular blog. I want to have a forum to write about my life as a graduate student, because I think that I live in this strange twilight zone of being an adult and yet still a student--with all the responsibilities of an adult, plus all the responsibilities of a student, yet very little of the fun of a student. Yet I was rereading an essay that I love by Salman Rushdie--entitled "Imaginary Homelands"-- and I came across a passage where he discusses writing his Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight's Children:

In Midnight's Children, my narrator Saleem uses, at one point, the metaphor of a cinema screen to discuss this business of perception: "Suppose youself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up. . .

Gradually moving up until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars' faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions; . . . it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality."

The movement towards the cinema screen is a metaphor for the narrative's movement through time towards the present, and the book itself, as it nears contemporary events, quite deliberately loses deep perspective, becomes more "partial." I wasn't trying to write about (for instance) the Emergency in the same way as I wrote about events half a century earlier. I felt it would be dishonest to pretend, when writing about the day before yesterday, that it was possible to see the whole picture. I showed certain blobs and slabs of the [contemporary] scene.

It struck me that this is how I feel about the economic situation at the moment. I can look back on the stories that my grandparents have told me about the Great Depression (over and over again, because I'm very close to my grandparents, and they are fabulous storytellers), and I can get a sense of rising action-tension-climax-denoument. Reading history is not so different from reading fiction--they are both narratives, after all. But even when I hear on the news that we face another depression like the Great Depression if Congress doesn't put together some sort of bailout package, I still don't quite understand. I am pressed up close against the movie screen, able only to see blobs and slabs of this week's events, only blurry pieces of images that frustrate me and fill me with thoughts like, "Will we be able to afford to buy Lindt chocolate bars if the stock market crashes?"

Forget chocolate. That's how much of a princess I am--I think of luxury items first. And of course, those would be the first to go. But even worse, will the grocery store start running out of things like eggs and milk? Will I have to eat pancakes made of flour and water, like my grandmother was often forced to do? I may seem dramatic, but I'm very close with my grandma, so the conditions of a serious economic depression are etched into my mind. Patched clothing, cardboard stuffed into holes in your shoes--making do with what you've got and not getting anything new for a long time. This could be psychologically disturbing for a shopaholic like me.

And even my last sentence makes light of the situation, while part of me feels frightened that I shouldn't make jokes. (Yet if you can't make jokes, you won't survive something like this at all.) I don't really understand everything that's going on with the markets, but I know what will happen if we have a honest-to-goodness crash, and I can't figure out why we (yes, all of us) let politics become so petty. I could raise unending examples, rant until I am blue in the face about how different politicians have said-this-and-done-that, but why bother? There are enough internet bloggers out there who throw in their two cents and a whole lot more without really understanding the political scene. That's what I want to avoid doing, in fact.

I just want to talk about fear. There's a fear that comes from being pressed up against history, being forced to confront the reality that we're living in more than our every day existance. When we think we're at a noble turning point in history--like being about to elect the first African American or female president, for example--we can feel good about ourselves. This is a momentous occasion, after all. Give yourself a pat on the back. We think we see things clearly.

But the price of milk gets higher, the price of gas gets higher, and suddenly we're pressed up against something that's not so noble, not so grand. We realize that we're always walking alongside the precipice of history, always teetering and about to slip. Maybe even if we don't go into a Great Depression, we (as a nation) should take our heads out of the sand and realize that our actions have greater consequences than we often bother to consider.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Landslide is Coming

A"Sharp spur mek maugre horse cut caper (The pinch of circumstances forces people to do what they thought impossible)."

--Jamaican Proverb, translated by Zora Neale Hurston

As if I wasn't overwhelmed enough, my body decided to go and get sick on me, and this provides a good example of how grad school changes your perspective: once upon a time in a land far, far away, I considered a sick day a good day to watch my favorite movies while napping on the couch. Now, a sick day is a "decreased productivity day," and I do my napping in between reading assignments. Yes, I'm still trying to keep up with my to-do list from my bed, because otherwise it will come back and devour me in a few days.

Which is where this Jamaican proverb comes in: I'm oddly comforted by the idea that while I may have to half-ass a few things once I recover, "the pinch of circumstances" will help me get everything done, in the end. I'm trying not to panic that the world seems to be moving past me at double the speed that I can go right now, because when I've recovered, I'll suddenly be able to outrun my usual pace--thanks to adrenaline, I suppose. At least, I hope that's how it works.

The thing is, I usually feel like I'm "running" pretty much as fast as I can to keep up with my fairly daunting list of tasks. Sure, I think I've reached a new "transcendental state" with regards to school. I've been feeling more calm about all my work, but that involves being content with the fact that I will constantly be working and still be unable to get ahead of things. I don't know if I'm quite ready for the landslide that's going to hit me when I finally escape my feverish state and have to look at all my work in the face again. A landslide tends to destroy anything that's in its path.

If there is going to be a landslide, maybe I should at least spoil myself with a few screenings of While You Were Sleeping, You've Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally... all the classics of my sick days on the couch in times past. A few episodes of Buffy or Veronica Mars, perhaps. Yet, I'm not quite feverish enough to forget the landslide--just feverish enough to put my hope in a Jamaican proverb and hope that in another day or two, my herbal remedy teas will kick in and clear my head, before I'm buried by a wave of mud (or, more literally, a toppling stack of books).

Monday, September 15, 2008

My New Transcendental State

Today is my twenty-fifth birthday, and over the weekend I got a birthday card and present in the mail from one of my dearest friends from high school.

The card read, "Since I can't be there in person, I thought I'd send you the next best thing: books!" (Ah, a woman after my own heart... this is why we understand each other so well.) Then she wrote, "I know you probably won't have time to read them in the midst of grad school, so feel free to shelve them for future rainy days..."

Hmmm, future rainy days... when I've run out of things I need to read for my concentration(s) in Modernist and International Literatures. Future rainy days once I've earned my Ph.D. Future rainy days... seven years from now.

Yes, that's right. Recently I found out that I most likely have six years in a Ph.D. program after I finish my Masters degree this coming spring. That's seven more years of slaving away as a professor--but paid much, much less because I don't yet have that "Ph.D." attached to the end of my name. Seven more years of living in the same apartment--which is cozy and sunny, but is running out of room for books. Seven more years before my husband and I can buy a house, paint the living room turquoise and my office walls the color of warm chocolate brown. Seven more years before I can buy a ten-foot long dining room table where I can make collages and play with play-doh with the kids, or build myself a entire wall of built-in bookcases.

When I found out how long we'd be living in our apartment before we could afford a mortgage, my sweet husband (who knows me so well) said, "Don't worry. When you get into a Ph.D. program, I'll buy you another bookcase." It may not seem romantic to anyone else, but that concession to my habit of book-buying was one of the sweetest comforts he could have given me at that moment.

I had a nice moment today, though, when I realized something: I'm twenty-five and stuck in the midst of an incredible challenge to become qualified to beat out hundreds of other applicants for a university teaching position once I've earned my Ph.D. Yet, I don't have any children that will feel abandoned, my husband and family are very understanding and supportive, and I passionately believe in the value of teaching International Literatures to high school students and young undergraduates during this era of globalization. This is defintely worth my time and effort, and so it's okay if I am career-driven right now. As a kid, the term left a sour taste in my mouth--probably because my own parents were gone so much, and when I did see them, I only saw that they were stressed out by their careers, drained of any passion that they may have had for what they were doing.

Another friend of mine has labeled this my new "transcendental state of being in regards to school," which has been growing on me these past few weeks that we've been back to school. (But I have also had an under-lying fear when I remember that I was fine the first few weeks of school last fall, and then I had a breakdown and remained a slobbering, overwhelmed sop until sometime in February.) Now, on the day of my twenty-fifth birthday, when apparently everyone expects me to have some sort of "I'm getting old" crisis, I feel like I understand this "transcendental state" more fully. It has to do with letting go of the resistance and giving myself fully to a goal, to accepting the grueling pace of my academic life. Of course, at times I'm sure I'll still feel the tears clogging my throat and weighing heavily in my lungs--the feeling that even if I keep working at an unsustainable pace, I'll never be able to finish. Yet, I think that for the most part, I've finally achieved a sense of balance and acceptance.

The birthday card from my friend ended with the admonition to "do something special on your day--no homework allowed." Those words were firmly underlined. And for the record, my husband skipped a meeting to come home and cook dinner for me, and give me presents. (He has also planned a "surprise party" for me in a couple of weeks.) But that firmly underlined instruction came from someone wonderful who clearly has already forgotten what it's like to be in graduate school--there are very few days when I can simply not do any work.

But, I think I'm okay with that. I just hope I don't have to wait seven years to read those books my friend sent me.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Goodbye, Hummingbird

First came the attack of the spiders.

For weeks this summer, I had little red welts all over my ankles--I hadn't noticed, but teeny little spiders had been nibbling on me while I was sitting out on the balcony, studying hour after hour until the late afternoon sun got too hot. I would discover new bites every day or two, the itching becoming a consistent distraction. Then, insects--perhaps spiders, perhaps not--started eating away at the beautiful leaves of my money tree, which I've been carefully cultivating all summer. I've been so excited that with the extra hours of summer sun and special diet of extra Miracle Grow, my tree has shot up almost a foot over the past few months. See, usually I have a hard time keeping plants alive. I've even killed cacti and bamboo plants--two of the hardiest types of house plants, I'm told.

So, I decided to get even with those little bastards. They were eating me, and eating my plants, after all. I went and bought some insecticide--but while it seems to have stopped whatever was eating away leaf after beautiful leaf of my money tree, it also killed off most of my flowers. My bright little pink and orange blossoms, another proliferating victory of my gardening attempts this summer, all shriveled up. But loosing the flowers themselves isn't the only sad part, though: it means my hummingbird won't come back.

Hummingbirds have always seemed like a bit of a myth to me, and since I'm ornithophobic (afraid of birds--no joke), I've never had a particular desire to see one. Yet, one day while I was reading out on the balcony a month or two ago, a small blur flew up towards my pot of riotous flowers, and hovered there for a few seconds. Startled, I let out a little yell, and it flew off. I sat there, trying to figure out what exactly I had just seen. The was it moved was not languid like a butterfly, yet it definitely hovered, which was unlike a sparrow. And it had been too small to have been another type of bird, and too big to be one of those beautiful, irredescent dragonflies.

I asked my husband Jeremy whether he thought that hummingbirds lived in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and he wasn't sure. But a few days later, I was eating lunch by the window, and the blinds were pulled back so I could see the flower pot clearly. Suddenly, a tiny bird flew up and stuck its beak into the blossoms hanging over the balcony ledge. I was able to watch as it drank from several blossoms, and was now sure it had been a hummingbird. A magical little friend, in a way, since his presence seemed so unlikely.

And when he came again a few days later, while I was sitting on the lounge chair next to the flower pot, I was even more thrilled. I was only two feet away, and this time, I did not make a noise. He looked at me for a moment, and I could clearly see his long little beak, and how quickly his wings were moving. Then, he drank from several flowers again, and I stared at the tiny grayish body, imagining how light his bones must be. I even felt proud--for an ornithiphobic to be more thrilled than frightened by a bird in such close proximity seemed like an accomplishment.

But now, those little red and pink flowers are shriveled, and my big yellow begonias are turning brown as well. The final kicker is that my arch nemesis, the squirrel I have affectionately termed "son of a bitch," has popped the heads off my gerber daisies. The stems still stand tall, but look rather morbid, like headless bodies who have returned from the dead to warn of the impending fall season. I might as well dig up the dying plants, stack up my pots, and be ready for winter.

School is here, so I don't have time to prune and water and mulch my little garden much more, anyway. But it is like saying goodbye to something much larger than just summer when I realize that the hummingbird will not be back any more. Perhaps I shouldn't feel sad--my grandma told me that she's only seen a hummingbird once in her life, and I've seen him three times now, once from quite close. But my heart feels just a little heavier when I look at my headless gerber daisies and the shriveled flowers that once drew the hummingbird to my balcony. Maybe he will come again next summer, though.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Birth Control Incident

The cause and effects of stress:

1) I forgot to take my birth control on Tuesday.

2) I went to "catch up" on my dosage on Wednesday. (For those of you uneducated about birth control, you normally take one pill every morning. To catch up, you take the first pill in the morning, then the second pill at night. Voila! You are caught up, ready to take the regular dosage the next morning again.)

3) I went to take extra vitamins about an hour later on Wednesday night, but being tired, I thoughtlessly grabbed and swallowed the third birth control pill I had taken that day.

4) I did not panic until ten minutes later--because it took me that long to even register that I had taken three pills(!).

5) I managed to stay calm on Thursday, felt on edge most of Friday, but felt the need to express some tension on Saturday. So, I went ahead and expressed myself (and you can all send your sympathy to my poor, long-suffering husband).

Now, I was faced with the following questions:

1) Am I going to die? (It may not be apparent from this blog as of yet, but I have the capacity to be extremely dramatic. Also, I'm a hypochondriac.)

2) Have I had such trouble concentrating on all my reading this weekend because of the hormonal imbalances/fluctuations caused by my three-pill dosage? Or, is it simply because I was assigned to read literary theory by a man who clearly did not care at all whether or not his readers could understand what he was saying???

This is not the medical dilemma of the average person, this much I know. Is it even the medical dilemma of the average grad student?? At any rate, how would I prefer to categorize my episode of slight hysteria on Saturday? The female hormonal problem--or mental problems??

I'm really not quite sure which option portrays me in a better light, but I certainly wouldn't want to "play the gender card" as a crutch. According to Sarah Palin, if we women are discriminated against, we need to simply "work harder, prove yourself to an even greater degree" (watch the clip called "The Sarah Palin Gender Card" from the September 3, 2008 broadcast of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart at http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=184086&title=sarah-palin-gender-card).

There's the subtle political undertone for today's blog entry: see if you can deduce my politics from that statement. Meanwhile, I'm going to skip the rest of that literary theory and go back to reading A Tale of Love and Darkness. I didn't get very far yesterday because I decided that for the sake of my sanity, I needed to go to a beer-tasting party. Isn't it great when you can justify things like that? After all, alcohol just seems like the best way to top off my three birth control pills.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Memories That Are Worth Keeping

I was feeling uninspired to blog, probably because I have two four and five hundred page novels (Tales of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) to read by Thursday or Friday this week, and then two more novels and a bunch of theory to read for the following Tuesday. The anxiety, which I was hoping to manage better this semester, is creeping back up on me.

But, I thought maybe I would feel better if I took a little time to think about this quote:

"If a man lives calmly, without getting impatient, he has time to think and to remember. That way, he'll meet his destiny, perhaps. He'll live content, maybe. He won't forget what he's learned. If he gets impatient, rushing to outstrip time, the world gets out of order, it seems."

--from The Storyteller, by Mario Vargas Llosa

My world gets out of order quite easily, but if I'm going to spend another six or seven years as a graduate student, I need to learn to manage my anxiety. I don't want to spend that long with my world out of order, hiding behind stacks of books. The problem is, I am an impulsive, impatient person. I get excited about ideas and want to implement them right away. I want to do so much that I have unrealistic expectations for what I will be able to accomplish in a day, a week, or a year. I've got to learn to believe that it's okay if I don't finish something, or I'm a little late on a deadline. At least every once in a while.

I want to "meet my destiny"--some great intellectual destiny is what I envision for myself, I suppose, as a teacher and author. Also, someday, a mother. But I have a feeling that wasn't exactly the kind of destiny Vargas Llosa meant, and I also want to "live content," as he says. I want to find a way to enjoy being a student--I already enjoy the reading (well, most of it... maybe not some of the theory) and I already enjoy learning all the kinds of things that I get to study. It is simply learning to balance all of that with every day life.

I want to be able to enjoy watching TV, going to the grocery store, hanging out with friends. These probably don't seem like high aspirations, but you'd be surprised at how much I can enjoy chopping up vegetables to saute and pruning the flowers in my little balconey garden. Part of me wants to move out to the country and become a small-time organic farmer. (Except that may not be a good idea--I have a history of killing plants, even bamboo and cacti.) At any rate, I want to have small moments in my life. Virginia Woolf moments, I call them. Moments when I can watch the rain or stare at the patterns of sunlight on the tree leaves. I want to enjoy reading Tales of Love and Darkness, instead of rushing right though it and missing the beautiful descriptions. I want to make memories like Amos Oz describes:

"Living memory, like ripples in water or the nervous quivering of a gazelle's skin in the moment before it takes flight, comes suddenly and trembles in a single instant in several rhythms or various focuses, before being frozen and immobilized into the memory of a memory."

I want, in the midst of all the chaos and stress of my graduate work, to be living a life that poetic, that zen. I want to still be making memories that are worth keeping.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Thoughts at 3 AM

"Soon after we begin living we become aware of the confines of our prison. It takes us thirty years at the most to recognize the limits within which our possibilities will move. We take stock of reality, which is like measuring the length of the chain which binds our feet. Then we say: 'Is this life? Nothing more than this? A close cycle which is repeated, always identical?' This is a dangerous hour for every man." (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

Classes started up again last week, and of course I couldn't sleep. Running on 3 hours of sleep while you're trying to follow a completely new schedule is great, let me tell you. Ah, well... chronic insomnia--at least it lets you get even more homework done in the middle of the night! Except, I usually end up surfing Amazon for even more books to read. Instead of actually being productive, I like to create even more work for myself, it seems.

The anxiety wasn't really about all the new loads of classwork, though--I think I've finally adjusted to the fact that I have so much work. The reality is, in fact, that I will never be finished--there will always be more preparation for my comprehensive exams, more research to do for my thesis, more novels to read to keep up with my career's chosen and ever expanding field of study. The lack of closure isn't easy to cope with, but I think I've settled into a more manageable pace, for the most part. An acceptance of my state of being as constantly reading.

Hard to identify with? I'm sure. Very few people have to read a minimum of 100 pages a day in order to keep up with their workload. I'm sure I sound like I don't live in the real world--and in some ways, I don't.

But I'm sure that everyone has that anxiety--that "taking stock of reality," that "dangerous hour for every man." And that was my week last week, pondering some serious questions: what do I do about my family's health problems when I live 500 miles away? How do I make choices about my career--certain courses of research are more interesting and more important, while others will actually get me hired. (Maybe.) Will there be enough money coming in next year? Will I be able to get into a Ph.D. program right away? Or, will I need to get a job? Will I be able to get a job next year? What kind? After all, the whole point of getting a Ph.D. is that there isn't a whole lot you can do with just a Masters degree in Literature.

And then there's the thought at 3 AM that wouldn't let me get back to sleep: Have I really become that kind of adult? Up late at night, worrying about bills, obsessed with my career? Do I really like what graduate school has done to me???

Sunday, August 31, 2008

What Do My Pajamas Say About Me?

Most days, when I don't have class, I wear my pajamas all day. Or I change into sweats. Does this make me like one of those middle-aged married women who doesn't care any more about her appearance? I don't even have kids yet--just books. Lots and lots and lots of books.

Maybe I should start making more of an effort again, but let's be honest. You can't curl up with a good book in the same way when you're wearing jeans, and since I have to read so much, I might as well enjoy it, right?

Or, maybe grad school is just increasing my dormant tendencies to be reclusive. I used to go out every chance I could--in high school and the first few years of college. Once I got a comfy couch, a couple of cool roommates, and a boyfriend who would stay over, I didn't see the point of going out nearly as much. And now that the husband comes built-in and Amazon delivers to my door--what is there to go out for, other than occasionally stocking up on cheese and vodka?

So, it's back to my original question: have I reached middle age before I've even turned twenty-five?? Let's consider the signs:

1) I wear pajamas and sweats 3 days a week minimum.

2) I don't wear make-up on those days, either. In fact, I've started going out in public more often without it, too.

3) I've gotten too lazy to go out and buy a new bathing suit because I don't really want to show off my thighs (though my somewhat biased husband says he likes my legs...) and there's no way I'm going to wear one of those bathing suits with the little skirts.

4) Ask me to do something, and at least half the time, the answer is I'd rather sleep.

Hmmm... I'm sure I'm forgetting something.

Of course, this list makes me sound like a total bum, when really, I'm working my ass off so that someday all of you must address me as Dr. Schultz. And I must admit, I think I still clean up pretty well. When I actually feel like going out, that is. So maybe I should just think of my wardrobe comprised of sweats as the official uniform of grad school. It's kinda cool--I even get to wear those special fuzzy slipper socks all the time.
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