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.

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.
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