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...
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