Archive for April, 2007

a circuitous route

April 30, 2007

In an effort to prevent the kind of dinner “conversation” that sometimes occurs between people who have lived together for a while, my friend Abby gave me this beautiful box of questions. I like to think of it as CPR for the life of the mind–there’s simply no recovering from “Oh, you went out for lunch today? What did you order?” Yes. It can get that bad.

Anyway, one evening Russell and I sat down to a nice dinner at the end of a particularly long week, and I pulled a card that read: “Do you live more in the past, the present, or the future.”

Go ahead, think about it for a minute.

***

I’m not sure if it’s the result of my (somewhat) Catholic upbringing, or my habit of comparing myself to my near-perfect parents, or some sort of hardwired desire for perfection and closure, but I spend a lot of time reflecting on what I could/should have done differently. To say I’m utterly steeped in regret sounds so melancholy, and I don’t always feel sad when I look back, but I do regret not doing one thing or another almost every day. Even when my “mistakes” turn out to be the best decisions I’ve ever made, I still feel a lot of disappointment in myself. For example, failing a class (MBI 464—Human Viruses) in college resulted in me being a double-major in Microbiology and English because I had to stay an extra year to retake the class. I’m now working on my PhD in English! I should be thankful I blew off my first exam in order to finish Middlemarch. Yet, I still think to myself, “I wish I’d actually studied in college. Who knows where I would be right now.”

That’s some seriously flawed thinking right there. And it’s not just school, it’s everything. Relationships with friends, family, acquaintances, writing I’ve done, papers I’ve submitted, things I’ve said, purchases I’ve made (I’m currently regretting our couch), you get the point. If there was a do-over button, I’d have worn through the enamel on that baby!

***

Russell, on the other hand, lives in the future. He’s a forward-thinking, progressive sort of fellow. He embraces the possibility and change that the future brings. Occasionally I like to go there with him. We talk about what will happen when I finish my dissertation, when we move out of Cincinnati, when we have our own house, when this crazy summer, fall, winter, what have you is over. In these moments, I’m tempted not only by the promise of this, and this, and this, but also by the lure of the fresh start, the clean slate, the new horizon. An exercise in escapism, to be sure, but when I daydream about planting a small vegetable garden and watching my zinnias bloom, it doesn’t feel all that wrong.

I believe that this perspective is one that we (as Americans) are supposed to have, the one we’re encouraged to cultivate in ourselves. We push ourselves first through junior high and high school for the promise of college and, once there, we push ourselves through with visions of “the dream job,” which allows us to look forward to the serious relationship, the house, the kids/pets, the cars, upgrade, upgrade, upgrade…. All in the name of progress, right?

***

Not this past New Year’s, but the year before that, I made a resolution to “Be Here Now,” to appreciate the moment rather than looking to the past or the future. Not an easy task, I assure you. At the party that year, my proposal was met with both skepticism and seriousness. A friend loaned me a book—half-joking, half-seriously—to give me some insight. Published in 1971, Ram Dass’s tome on spirituality and, well, acid, was an interesting read, but it was a bit out there for my 2006 sensibilities. I won’t discount the message (I think the reviewer’s comments on the Amazon page speak to the profound changes that come from rethinking our perspectives on time), but I guess I was looking for something more practical, less drug-fueled. You know, something to help me focus when I’m gearing up for a self-imposed guilt trip about not reading something sooner, or when, on Monday, I’m already thinking about how great the following weekend will be.

***

Lately, I’ve found a bit of a mental loophole to help me out, but only with my writing and my school work. (No matter how hard I try, and believe me, I do try, I can’t “be here now” when I’m stuck behind someone who doesn’t understand the whole “right on red” thing.) Whenever I get frustrated with the dissertation process, the writing, the reading, the note-taking, the synthesis, the lack of progress, I try to envision how my future self would feel about my current attitude. Said another way, I’m trying to pre-empt some of the regret I might feel when looking back on this period of my life. Perhaps an example will clarify…

Rather than look back on this summer and think, “Why didn’t I savor those long lovely days at the library where I had peace and quiet, a huge table all to myself, and all the AC I could handle?” I consciously try to appreciate my surroundings as they are right now. Rather than reflect on Ch. 4 as messy and disorganized, beating myself up for not having it perfect the first time around, I try to be aware of the dynamic, pliable qualities of my writing, now, before it hardens into a final draft.

***

I know my solution is shaky, in part because I’m using the future to reconfigure my past, neither of which really counts as “now.” Furthermore, it seems problematic to depend on something that doesn’t exist (the future) to avoid a past (which also doesn’t exist yet) that only stands in for the present. And maybe you’re thinking: Jen, you’re missing the point, you should be focused on the present, the right now!!! But what if it works? Maybe it’s a temporary (and probably metaphysically flawed) fix, but it’s a fix, and I’ll take it.

***

Two quick things before I end this post: first, I made the same resolution this year (2007) and it’s just as difficult the second time around; and second, I never, ever have any trouble “being here now” when I’m knitting. None at all. I should probably take that as a sign…

lighten up, francis

April 25, 2007

My apologies for yesterday’s angry post–not all days spent writing are sunshiny and inspired, but that doesn’t mean I need to spew negativity, either. Who knows how many dreams lay dashed as the result of my rant on Romantic Writing. Oh, the horror.

After posting, I paced around my apartment a bit, watched my neighbor mow his law, watered my plants and then it hit me–I’d forgotten Matt Groening’s excellent advice via his “Life in Hell” comic strip. All I needed to do was leave off the writing and pick up a book. Which I did. A real page turner, despite the dry title.

That, and I needed to chill out. Sometimes I forget that, too.

taking the turn to negative town

April 24, 2007

My students and I are blogging in our English 225 class. The assignment for tomorrow asks us to post an entry describing our feelings about writing in general, about drafting the final long paper (a position paper on an issue of personal significance or a manifesto—a great writing exercise despite recent events), about writing online, or about any old thing they wish. Right now, I’d rather write about my feelings for salt (love it!) or people who drive slowly in the left lane (hate ‘em), but I’ll try to tackle the writing thing.

The other day, I had a conversation with one of my colleagues about the romanticizing of writing that occurs in upper-level writing classes. I’m probably as guilty of this practice as the next person—I think a lot of people who enter a PhD program in Composition and Rhetoric believe they have something important to say, that they need to write to live fully, that they possess a special passion for writing, that they write to understand themselves and their world, blah, blah blah. I’d be lying if I said I never felt (or, perhaps more truthfully, wanted to feel) those things. However, there are other, less beautiful reasons I write. And, sadly, on this day, the ugly reasons are overshadowing the romantic ones.

Case in point: If I had to pinpoint my feelings about writing at this moment, I’d identify “obligation” as the strongest. If I don’t finish my stupid dissertation, then I don’t get my PhD. And if I don’t get my PhD, I can’t teach. And, since I’m not fit to do anything else at this point, write I must. Oy.

My colleague? He told me he writes because he’s good at it. That’s it. He chose his career because he’s a good writer. By that logic, I should be putting something in alphabetical order right now (or some other organizational task). Too bad I can’t get my PhD in California Closets and ordering Crayola crayons by color.

Shoulda posted about salt.

(re)discovering beets and asparagus, and other tales of taste

April 16, 2007

So, you know how there’s that idea that your taste buds change every twelve years? That, for example, if you hated Brussels sprouts as a kid, you might want to try them again as an adult because you just might love them? Well, after this weekend, I’m wondering if the same can be said about movies.

If you had asked me at the beginning of 2007 how I felt about B-movies, horror movies, and the like, I would have explained that I don’t like violence, thank you, and told the story of how I had to stop watching Casino to throw up. Literally. (I know, I know, Casino is neither B nor horror, but to me it was all so much blood and guts and therefore unwatchable.)

However, two recent viewing experiences have made me wonder whether my tastes have expanded. First, I watched The Descent with friends and, after getting over my inital squeamishness, decided it was one of the most fun movies I’d seen in a long time. I mean, it was creepy and scary, and I’ll probably never willingly enter a cave again, but it was also hilariously funny and full of parodies of the horror movie genre. I enjoyed thinking about how and why the director did what he did.

Then, yesterday, Russell talked me into seeing Grindhouse, the new double-feature by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. It was amazing. Seriously. The most fun I’ve had at a movie for a long, long time. As soon as it was over, I announced to Russell that we’d be seeing it again. As we walked home, I chattered about how much I loved the first movie, “Planet Terror,” and how funny the trailers were, and didn’t he love the second movie (“Death Proof”), and wasn’t Rose McGowan awesome, and what about Marley Shelton and…

So, yeah, pass the Brussels sprouts!

a day of reckoning

April 14, 2007

A week or so ago, a student asked me why I never wear anything I’ve knit. I didn’t hesitate when I told her that the onslaught of babies has prevented me from being able to finish anything for myself. What I failed to mention is the fact that, for the time being, my knitting for babies is all done.

yep. more babies

The truth? Well, that’s a bit harder to explain.

It’s like this: I have been busy writing, teaching, reading, knitting stuff for others, but I’ve also been maybe a bit distracted by the sheer number of projects I have going on at once. Said another way, I have too many projects on needles and I tend to work on all of them a little at a time and I continue finding new projects to start and I have this thing where I get sad when something is over and I’m a process knitter and…

So the truth looks a little more like this:
sweater for me

or this:
one shawl

or this:
just yarn

or even this:
a ball i can't let go
And, sadly, there’s more where that came from.

So, there it is. The real reason I’m not wearing anything I knit.

will i ever learn?

April 9, 2007

Painfully aware of the rapid disappearance of whatever modicum of cool I ever had, I tend to imagine my students on some cutting edge that I’ve long since renounced as remote and unreachable. I can’t understand their IM speak, their video games are too fast and confusing for me (I miss Punch Out, Tetris, Super Mario Brothers), and, as I’ve already confessed, I can’t keep up with their music.**

In no place is this feeling of being “out of it” more persistent than the realm of technology. Seriously, I sent my first email when I was in college, in 1997, and even then I was late to the game. I don’t own an iPod, use Tivo, understand HTML, download music, use Facebook, or have a Blackberry. I only began blogging last year for a class.

My students, on the other hand, have probably been blogging since they were in knee pants, posting their thoughtful musings, video clips, graphics, and photos on their own websites (built from scratch, of course).

Or so I thought.

Like last year, I’m teaching a composition class wherein I ask my students to create their own blog in order to write for a broad public audience. And as this sequence of assignments approached, I had some serious qualms about asking my students to blog. I worried that (certainly already having blogs of their own) they might not find anything of use in this process, that they might resent having to cover old ground.

Turns out, as a class, they have relatively little experience with blogs. Really, almost none. So much for my stupid assumption.

At first I was elated. I find blogging such an interesting writing exercise and I like the way it forces me to rethink composition (and rhetoric) as systems of communication. But now, after reading some of their responses to blogs they found for class, I have a new fear:

Is it ethical for me to ask my students to publish their writing on the internet?

Many of them wrote about stalkers, privacy issues, disclosing their identities, the consequences of blogging on their future careers, etc., etc., etc.

In my mind, I see a continuum of safe to risky blogging techniques, and I’ve been trying to highlight the different strategies bloggers use to attract and/or repel particular audiences (to say nothing of practical advice about how to keep one’s identity shielded.) But I’m now wondering about the ethics of asking a student to publish online as part of a grade. Something to consider…

**Last year, after admitting that I still loved the Beastie Boys, a student laughed at me and stated with disdain, “they’re so old.”