Happy Holidays

Well, finally, the semester has come to an end. I'm wiped out. How about you all?

Top 3 Greatest Quotes from the Post-Semester Grade-a-Palooza:

"The American Revolution was an important cause of conflict between the Americans and the British." (Um, huh.)

"This issue was at the centerfold of the battle." (They were clearly surfing porn while they wrote their final paper.)

"During this semester there have been many themes in American history." (Yes. I'm so glad you paid attention.)

Reading things like this makes one realize how limited my impact is on the students. Alas. But, I did get a very flattering evaluation on ratemyprof in which I was deemed a "smoking" version of Velma from Scooby Doo who Fred would have dumped Daphne for. I don't quite know how to take it, but I suppose it is all for the good. I do wear a lot of turtlenecks with skirts, so maybe that is it. I'd rather they said that I inspired them for profound thoughts and improved their written work. But, as the above quotes reveal, perhaps that simply isn't the case. I'll just have to satisfy myself with unmasking the dastardly villians of American History.

So, now I'm off to see Spousal Unit's family and my Dad in the Big City for a few days. After that, it's back to the dissertation grind. I'm just now finishing the chapter revisions that I was working on eons ago. But, I am pounding out the new conclusion as we speak and will send it off in the next hour. I'll return to daily updates on chapter progress when I return (starting Friday).

Cheers to you all -- I hope you have a holiday season filled with love and laughter and joy with your families and friends.


Oh, Deer.

Two weeks ago on Wednesday I stayed late on campus to show a movie to my seminar on the Civil War in American Culture and Memory. We were on the Counterfactual History week, so we were studying various re-thinkings of the outcome of the war that posit the South as victors. They're reading Harry Turtledove's "Guns of the South," and some theory about the value of counterfactual history to historians, so I thought I'd show them C.S.A, a really interesting indie film that is essentially a mocumentary in the style of Ken Burns about the history of America since the Confederate victory. It is punctuated by advertisements for racist products, most of which turn out to be real. It's a great, uncomfortable film that seems to say ultimately, that the South did actually win the Civil War after all, an idea that more than one historian has advocated -- probably most ably by David Blight. So, I ordered a few pizzas, made a salad, bought some soda at the grocery (where a kid proceeded to vomit in front of me in the dairy section with a resounding splat), and showed the film to the students. They loved it, I loved it, so it was a good time even though it was about 10:00 by the time I left campus for my hour drive home.

I got into the car and start driving on the small, dark, two-lane remote state highways that constitute the major route from my hometown to the campus. Right away I felt kind of weird -- it was raining pretty hard, and visibility was really low. Plus, the car kept hydroplaning because there was so much water in the road. About 10 minutes into the drive, I thought, Man, wouldn't it be great to just sleep in my office -- hole up there and truck through some of the 186 papers and quizzes I've got backlogged? But it seemed so lame to backtrack just because it was raining. I've driven through plenty of rain before, so, I talked myself into continuing. Boy, was that dumb.

I was about 20 minutes from home in a particularly remote section of the route and going at a respectable pace (50?) when I rounded a curve and saw a huge deer in the left lane crossing into my lane on the right, and taking her time about it, too. I slammed on the brakes, but had time enough to know without a doubt that I was going to hit that deer as my wheels slid on the wet road. The car slid, screeched, and then -- whump. The deer went flying. If it wasn't so horrific, it would have been kind of funny -- it flew in that way that the fake cow does in Monty Python's Holy Grail cow catapult -- with a rigidity that looks plastic. Another layer of unreality was added to this awful scene by the fact that Patrick Tull continued to narrate Desolation Island through the iPod, saying something like "Avast there, belay the yardarm you scurvy dogs!" or "Clew up, clew up, halliards there, maintopsail!" Nothing like priatespeak to help you through the adrenalin rush and terror of a car accident.

I pulled over, and was shaking so hard I couldn't get the damned iPod to stop. I finally managed to turn it off, and then sat there for a moment just freaking out, before I got out my cell phone. Generally, I have no cell signal between home and campus -- it really is the back end of nowhere, so cell phone towers aren't a high priority. Frankly, it's pretty amazing that electricity has made it that far, really. But, miraculously, I had signal. A friend later suggested that the fear and adrenalin I was giving off must have boosted the receiver on the phone. I don't know, but I was so thankful that I could reach Spousal Unit. While we talked, I got out of the car to assess the damage -- it wasn't too bad: front bumper, grill, hood, and right front panel. But, the car was drivable, so I made it home. The estimate was about $2000 smakers worth of damage. Not to mention yet another strike against Stewgad's killing karma. This makes the 5th critter I've hit in a year. I swear, I'm not a bad driver and I don't deliberately seek out small (or large) furry things to take out of this mortal plane. But somehow, I've hit a bird, two suicidal chipmunks who literally waited on the side of the road until my front tire was perpendicular to their path and then ran as fast as they could to make it under my tire at the precise right moment, and a strange rat-like creature that may have been a small possum. So, now I can add a deer of the list of things that I have personally dispatched from this particular life cycle.

I was talking to a senior faculty member a few weeks ago and telling him about my tally and he couldn't believe it. "Stewgad," he said, "In 25 years of commuting on that road I have never hit an animal. Twenty-five years. What is wrong with you?" I suggested that that question has formed the core of my identity for the past decade or so. OK, not really, but still, what is wrong with me? Why do I have such a deadly driving record? Maybe I've been a small furry thing in many previous lives and I'd been repeatedly hit by a car and that these critters I've hit thus far were the incarnations of the folk who hit me and this is some kind of payback. Or maybe, I didn't really hit that deer and that, as a colleague suggested, baby Jesus and the Easter Bunny swooped down in their UFO and transported it off to the North Pole where Santa will fix it and add it to his contingency of flying deer. (That sucker did really fly!) Maybe this year while we're sitting around waiting for the Christmas loot, we'll hear sprightly footsteps on the roof and the rousing cry of "On Dasher, on Dancer, on Donner, and Gimpy!"

Hey, a guilty critter-murdering girl with a major car repair in her future can dream, can't she?


As I was packing up my bag for class this morning, I had this huge revelation.

Here it is:

I've been acting, believing, feeling, and living as if I had already failed at this dissertation.

As if I had already failed.


Which is, of course, completely mental. I haven't finished it or submitted it or even really gotten much feedback, so how could it be a failure? It was so strange, I was just putting my stuff in my bag and it just hit me -- that I need to stop believing that the time it has taken me or the revisions that are required of me or the work I have yet to do is a sign of failure. No wonder I've been feeling beaten down and discouraged. No wonder I've struggled to get myself to work on it. I've been seeing the whole thing as a fait accompli. (Which I just looked up for the spelling: "a thing that has been decided so that those affected by it have no option but to accept." I SO was not giving myself other options than failure.) I wonder if I did it because I thought subconsciously that by assuming I was already a failure, then I was emotionally and mentally protected if it turns out I do indeed fail at it. Regardless, it seems pretty damned dumb to shoot myself in the foot like that before I've even had a chance to join the race. Sheesh.

A good thing to realize, I think, though.


p.s. Joyful day for us blue state feminists!!

p.s.s. Speaking of which, I love it when my assumptions are overthrown by my students. One of my meathead football-type dudes came to class last week in a bright pink tee-shirt that said on the front "This is what a feminist looks like." Brilliant.

As a history professor, I'm about as un-old school as you can get. For one thing, I am an utter disaster with names and dates and other historical "facts." When my students ask me, "Hey, Professor Stewgad, when did this happen?" I look at them blankly and say, "What do I look like, Google?" Or vaguely reply, "Um, the 19th century?" (Ok, not really, but almost.)

I figure that since I can't remember names and dates, I shouldn't be asking anyone else to do so. Consequently, I don't give exams. I have developed a nice-sounding pedagogical justification to accompany this personal failing. I have come to believe that all exams do is teach people how to take exams. And I wonder, why are my students going to need to know how to do that in 10 years? They won't. But, will they need to know how to write coherently? One can only hope. So instead of taking tests, my students write papers. Lots of them -- of varying lengths. This sucks royally for me because I'm constantly behind in my grading, but I'm pretty passionate about my reasons behind it. (That isn't to say I don't think that other profs shouldn't have exams. They absolutely should. But I'd feel like such a hypocrite.)

One of the consequences of this that I readily accept is that the students don't always read the textbook as carefully as they should because the know they won't be tested on the material contained within. This tends to get pretty ugly around the middle of the semester when the students are bogged down with other stuff and I'm trying to conduct a discussion on material that absolutely no one has ever glanced at. At that point, I pull out Textbook Trivia. It is strategically timed to occur in the week that a paper is due. (for reasons that shall become clear below.)

I tell the students on Monday that "it would be in their best interests if they read the assignment very carefully" for Wednesday. They all gulp and nod, expecting a pop-quiz. When Wednesday rolls around, they all come into class and sit there pouring over the textbook as if there was no tomorrow. They all look terrified. (I must confess that this too is part of the fun for me.)

Then, when class starts I tell them to put everything away except their textbook. They start looking a little confused. I then tell them that there is no quiz. (To oos and ahs and an occasional cheer.) I then tell them, however, that they will be competing in four groups for a 48-hour extension on the next paper assignment. They tend to get very excited at that point.

Then I ask for a volunteer -- someone who may be uncomfortable speaking in public. They usually hesitate at that point, but then someone always volunteers. That student's job is to keep score and to determine which team has their hand up first. Then, I tell that volunteer that congratulations, they get the extension automatically. (This usually elicits groans, and some protests at which point it is good to remind the group that this game is not a democracy, but a dictatorship run by me.)

I then divide the class into groups, and hand out the rules. Here are they are:

4 teams of 6-7 people. Everyone gets 5 minutes to review the chapter.

There are 4 kinds of questions ranging in points from 1-4. 1 & 2 point questions must be answered individually. 3 & 4 point questions can be considered by the whole group, which will have 1 minute to consult. (I hand my trusty battered Timex Ironman to the volunteer student as a timer.)

Each person must answer at least one question for the whole team to get credit.

The whole question must be read before you raise your hand. If you raise your hand before the whole question is read, your team is disqualified from answering.

There are no points deducted for wrong answers, however, any challenges made to the rulings of the volunteer or the game host (me) will result in point deductions. (I implemented this one recently after a 10 minute argument about who had their hand up first threatened to derail the whole project.)

The host reserves the right to award partial points for any incomplete answers.

Ahead of time, I've prepped about 75-ish 4x6 cards with questions and answers on them taken from the chapter (for a 55 minute class). I assign point values based on the difficulty of the question. Harder questions are usually specific details (i.e. "What was Zachary Taylor's nickname? is a 4 pointer. (FYI - Old Rough -and-Ready) "Name 2 Plains Indian Tribes" is a 2 pointer. 3 and 4 point questions are often analytical: "Critique Manifest Destiny.") For 3 and 4 point questions, I give a lot of partial credit and let the other teams answer if/when the first team gets the answer wrong or incomplete.

When there is about 10 minutes left in the game, if the teams are pretty evenly matched in score (which they always have been) I raise the stakes. I tell them that if EVERY team can reach as certain score or gain 20 points in the next 10 minutes, that I'll give the extension to everyone. This tends to eliminate the competitive anger that has usually emerged at this point and shifts the energy to cooperation. They start helping the teams that are behind, and stop trying to kill each other, which is always good.

The game is fun, the students love it, and it is a day when everyone gets really active in their participation. But, the really great thing about this is that it usually elicits a pretty interesting discussion -- as the students talk about the answers, they argue with each other about which details are important, which ideas are correct, and how to understand and interpret the material. It may seem juvenile for 19-22 year olds, but I swear, they love it. They even forget that they're learning. And, I suspect that when they miss an answer, and hear from a competing team that John Tyler's nickname was "his accidency," they don't soon forget it.

Thanks for asking for details, Scriv and Flavia! Let me know how it works if you try it out in your classroom!

I got back in the pool today for the first time in ages -- my first thought the instant I was fully submerged: this feels great -- why didn't I do this sooner??

This seems to be a refrain I'm working with lately. I've been looking back on the past 5-7 years and just wondering what I was doing with myself that whole time. Where did the time go, and why didn't I finish this dissertation in that time? Why didn't I write these chapter sooner? Why didn't I revise them sooner? What is taking me so long? I know that finishing is going to feel great -- so why didn't I do it sooner?

I keep thinking that if I can just come up with the answer to these questions, it will free me from whatever psychic chains are keeping me tied down to this project. But, I've thought about all of those chains and come up with a few, but none of them seem to be the ONE that is holding me back. I've thought a lot about the one that kept me tied to my identity as a student (I LOVED being a student. On my first day in kindergarten, I came home sobbing because I didn't think it was "real school" because they didn't give me any homework. When I was 7, I used to pretend my room was "college." In Jr. High my mom's university sweatshirt was my favorite outfit.) But, I don't feel like a student anymore. I've let that part go -- willingly and happily. (I can actually make mac and cheese in a pot on my own stove instead of having to do the plug-boilover-unplug-plug-boilover-unplug dance with the hotpot.) So, it isn't that anymore, I'm pretty sure.

I've thought a lot also about the Good Enough chain. That heavy thing tied around my ankle that I drag along behind me as I walk and as it scrapes along the ground it hisses: "not good enough" so persuasively that at times I know with absolute and complete certainty that I'm not good enough for the Ph.D. My work isn't good enough - or even worse, that it just isn't enough. I haven't read everything out there that there is to read that might possibly relate to my subject -- I haven't found all of the research that I know I need to do to really make my argument complete. But, I think I've made my peace with this. I know that I'm NEVER going to do all of that stuff before I need to finish, so I just have to draw a line and say -- there. That is enough. It is enough. I am enough.

So, if it isn't either of those things, what am I left with? Laziness? Well, duh. Yes. This sucks, why wouldn't I want to read a novel or bake cookies instead? But, laziness is a temporary glitch and one I'm not really grappling with right now. Fear of failure? Oho, that's a huge one. And another No Shit kind of obstacle. But, has it been enough to keep me from finishing for a decade? Maybe. But, right now my fear of losing my job so outweighs this one, that it is rapidly diminishing into background noise on KFKD. Nothing I can't handle. So, what is it? Why don't I finish???

I don't know. I just don't know. And when I think about this, I keep running into a wall. I thought maybe the right thing to do would be to get some help with this question, but the last time I saw my therapist, she was not so helpful. We went over the same old shit, and I could just hear her thinking "get over your damned self and let me get back to people with REAL problems!!" I may be exaggerating, but I really think that we have reached the "just do it" phase of therapy.

Well, here I am, in the library, attempting to just do it and I'm stuck.

I looked at that chapter that I had to write 2/3rds of and decided that maybe perhaps in the time I had available, this wasn't the chapter to work on. So, I picked up another one that I have already taken one stab at revising and one that I have a chance of actually completing before the deadline next week. It is in pretty good shape in parts, but the two halves of the chapter don't work together. They never have, and I had hopes that my last revision had addressed this. My advisor disagreed. So, now I'm looking at it going, "hm." How do I integrate these two parts more fully? How can I connect them more clearly? And, fuck, how do I do it in 7 days??

How do you revise your own work? How do you step out of the conceptual frameworks that you have carefully created and see new and better ones that enable you to more truly say what you're trying to say? Any suggestions would be most welcome.

Well, I guess I'm not going to write myself into any brilliant answers to my dissertation hangups. Maybe they are questions that just don't have answers until you finish. That would suck. But, then again, wouldn't it be a bit of a shock if something about this process didn't suck. Anyway, I'm going to stop the three-year-old's refrain of "why, why, why?" and get back to getting over it and to just doing it. The clock is ticking.


Days until first chapter revisions are due: 13

Pages of chapter I've already written: 56

Pages of chapter that are usable: 21

Sections of new material to be added: 2

Amount of research to do in order to add the new material: 5 more different KINDS of material to examine (and find).

Pages needed to write in 13 days: 25

Outstanding student papers I need to grade: 75

New Student papers arriving on Monday: 56

Trustees attending Friday's lecture: 3

Movies to screen before Friday's seminar: 2

Stressed out Stewgads: 1


Fabulous student quote of the day?: "Today's class was better than Christmas!!!"

(They played Textbook Trivia for a 48-hour paper extension. It's my favorite day of the year, too.)

Since Scrivener so nicely asked, I'll post a quickie little telenovela of my dissertation life in the past 3-ish weeks -- with more to follow tomorrow.

I've been informed by the PTB in my department that I need to finish or else it's the axe. Gulp.

Ok, I says. I transmit said information to the advisor and repeate my request (the one I've given for the past 10 years at least once a semester) for hard and fast deadlines. Along with this request, I turned in my new Introduction (!! horay!)

Miracle of miracles, I've received such hard and fast deadlines!

Oh fuck, said I, I guess this means I have to finish. In the next 6 months.

So, that's it in a nutshell. I'll wax a bit more descriptive about this nutshell tomorrow when I resume my daily dissertation posts and start the chapter-a-month countdown clock!!

By the way, I've missed all my blog friends since I've been on teaching hiatus!


I'm such a dope. After being terrified for three weeks about what was left to do on this Intro, I looked at the section that I was still working on when last I left it, and it was pretty darn good. So, I spent the afternoon and early evening working on it, and finished it. All that is left on the Intro now is to write one final concluding paragraph, to weave the narrative, significance and chapter outlines together (when I say weave, I mean cut and paste, of course), and flesh out the footnotes (by which I mean do them all completely from scratch).

The upshot is that I had convinced myself that there were miles to go on this introduction, when really, I've got about a day's more work to go. Which I will start on Thursday and probably finish on Saturday, thereby enabling me to send out the Intro to my friendly readers by Sunday morning and making it possible to see my professors sometime next week. I know it will need revision, but that's not the point -- the point is that I had convinced myself that I was in a deep rut with the thing, when really, I wasn't. Imagine that. I feel like such a chump. But, a very happy chump.

So there I was, sitting on the beach in North Carolina minding my own business, enjoying the crash of the surf when up swept this mildly deranged and yet sexy guy in dreadlocks, a bandanna, and excessive eyeliner who tucked me under his arm and put me on a sailing ship where all of the sailors turned into skeletons in the moonlight. We sailed around for a bit until they forced me to walk the plank and swim to a deserted island. After I burned (oops, I mean drank) all of the rum stowed in a secret dugout, I started walking on the island and ran into this crazy bunch of folk who insisted that if they didn't type these bunch of numbers into a computer stowed into a subterranean bunker every 27 minutes the world would end. I thought I shouldn't stick around too long with these guys, particularly because I found the fact that they seemed to have a limitless wardrobe and perfect makeup even though they claimed to have been survivors of a plane crash a bit suspicious. I kept walking around the island until I encountered another starved and crazy group of people who were organized into "tribes" that banded together to complete these random and ridiculous tasks to earn "immunity points." Since they insisted that the inanity that were engaged in was "reality," I just couldn't hang with that crowd. So, I spent a few weeks spearing and eating raw fish and coconuts, shredding my feet on the coral, and transforming a washed up Federal Express package into a raft that I then sailed back to my inland home.

What, you don't believe me? Damn. It was that last bit about the Fed Ex package that gave it away, wasn't it?

The real, more mundane version is that as soon as we got back from beaching it with the Unit family (which was delightful) I realized I only had 10 days until the semester started and hadn't even begun to think about teaching yet. So between the prepping for classes and the start of classes and the first rounds of grading turning up on my doorstep, I've been away from Dissertationland, and hence the blogoverse for quite a while now.

Finally today I've surfaced from the teaching enough to hide myself out at the best kept secret library on the Big University campus (it overlooks a wooded small lake with islands and abundant wildlife, could it be more idyllic? Plus, I'm the only one in here other than the librarian. How often does that happen at a R1 university library?) and am sitting down to grapple with what Spousal Unit and I are calling "That-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named."

So, Where am I with that damned thing? I don't know, really. I'm still trying to deal with the last few bits of the introduction. And, there's a bit of a rush on things now. I'm not registered, I'm not on leave, or anything official, I've just happily ignored all communication from the Big University for a while now. (I think that, actually, they think that I may owe them something like $20,000 in tuition. Hopefully, they'll hold off on sending the large men in black tracksuits with baseball bats for a few weeks.) In order to jump through any of those important bureaucratic hoops that maintain me as a legitimate PhD candidate, including completing the oh-so-humiliating "petition to extend time to degree" that they are telling me I need to do, I have to see 1. My Advisor. 2. My Whole Committee. I can't bear to do it. I've successfully hidden from #2 for two or so years now, I see no need to break that happy state of things at his stage just to get their John Hancocks on a piece of paper that is the graduate school equivalent of wearing a hair shirt. (What are hair shirts, anyway? Were they made of hair? Whose hair? Was it really so uncomfortable or was it just the shame of it all? Hm. Something to Wikipedia when I'm done with this post.)

Furthermore, I just don't feel like I can show up on these guys' doorsteps empty handed. So, I need something to show them. And that means at least having a finished Introduction. I would, of course, like to have MUCH more, but that's all I've got even close to ready right now and I don't think I can put off this official paperwork for another month or two while I putz around with the next chapter revisions.

I'm also in the middle of a not-so-healthy cycle of self-flagellation and whining about the dissertation, too. I just keep wondering, what is wrong with me? Why can't I seem to finish this? Everyone else I know has done it, why can't I? It's not like I don't have any reason to finish. I've got both negative and positive motivations for finishing. Here they are:

Negative #1. It has been strongly suggested to me by a person in position of power over me at my job that I "absolutely need" to finish. (Implication: My job could be jeopardized.)

Negative # 2. Spousal Unit is sick of living with this shit and has threatened dire actions if it doesn't wind up soon.

Negative #3. The Shame, shame, shame of being a decade+ dissertator.

Positive #1. I get a WHOPPING big raise when I finish.

Positive #2. SU and I feel like we're just waiting for our lives to start -- that this thing is holding us back in so many ways. We want a dog. We want a family. We want to travel without having to lug along a laptop and a crate of books and documents.

Positive #3. Once I'm done, I don't think I ever have to reveal how long it took me to finish, do I? I mean, it's like that old adage about the last guy in his class at medical school. The decade+ dissertator when done is still called doctor, right?

So, given all of these important motivating reasons, I once again, keep coming back to the question: what is wrong with me?

Well, I'm sure I won't come up with an answer today, or at least today before I start working again on the Intro. So, I'll cross my fingers, hold my nose, and dive in -- and hope that while I'm sitting here typing, some sexy deranged guy in excessive eyeliner will whisk me away to a deserted island chock full of stockpiled rum where no one has ever even heard of a dissertation.

Gone Beachin'

Tomorrow, Spousal Unit and I head off to a distant location for beach time... with 65 of Spousal Unit's closest relatives. It will look a lot like the painting above, except I won't wear black pantyhose and a dress to the beach, as reasonable as that sounds today as I contemplate the age-old waxing/shaving/chemical extraction-removal procedure involved in getting my hairy self into a modern swimsuit. (What is with that whole thing, anyway? Why do guys get these nice modest bathing shorts to wear -- consequently eliminating any need for removing hair from their sensitive acreage -- while we have to wear what amounts to floss for our netherregions, consequences and comfort be damned, and spend hours and big bucks to essentially sandblast our most precious parts?? Sometimes I REALLY fucking hate the patriarchy.)

But, I love the beach more than anything. Even enough to engage in the oppressive sandblasting procedures. The beach recharges me completely. It's that rhythmic wave thing, I think. And the Unit family reunion is always a blast -- despite astronomical differences in religious beliefs and political persuasions, the Units all love and respect each other so obviously it is a joy to watch and to be a part of. Plus there are like 4 or 5 really new babies to cuddle this year.

The only bummer is that I'm about 3-4 paragraphs away from being done with the first draft of my new introduction. I finally broke through that wall that was keeping me all stymied, and only have the gender significance section to go. Which feels great. I'm bringing the computer and assorted academic accessories and have told myself that I will do at least 2 hours of work each day at noon when it is too hot to be on the beach anyway. I really don't want to lose the rhythm I've got going now. I'm going to try to finish those paragraph tonight, but we're in the middle of a record heat wave, the laundry isn't done, and of course we haven't packed a damned thing even though we're leaving tomorrow. Ah, procrastination ... Ain't it grand?

So, Ta everyone. Blog you in a week or two!

In a Swoon

I think I’m generally pretty liberal about body stuff in public. I’m amused, rather than disgusted, by people making out in public. I’ll look away, but smile at the biological imperative that drives us so powerfully to stick parts of ourselves into parts of other selves, which, as much as I enjoy it myself, have always seemed strangely improbable when thought about from a purely rational perspective. Likewise, I think women should be able to breastfeed their babies absolutely anywhere, and while I may avert my eyes from strangers doing it, I do secretly enjoy the mysteries of the universe that enable someone to not only make a whole new human being with their bodies, but to also feed that new human for the first significant months of its tiny life. On other public-body issues, I’m pretty OK if you want to scratch, burp, fart, or pick your nose. It’s icky, but it doesn’t really disturb me. It’s all about being human.

But, in a horribly un-PC confession, and at the risk of gaining the reputation as an intolerant bitch, I’ve got to say that I draw the line at public injections and/or bloodletting. Twice now in my life people have just casually whipped out needles and given themselves an insulin shot or clicked away at the glucose meter in front of me in a public place. The first time was a few years ago at a very fancy restaurant where I was having an expensive meal. The second was yesterday at the café where I was plugging doggedly away at my introduction. Of the two, I think the first incident was the worst given the surroundings, the cost of the dinner, and the very small size of the restaurant. This incident today was less intrusive – I mean, it’s just the cheesy café at the giant bookstore conglomerate, not a posh eatery, so my $3.19 decaf iced mocha wasn’t really spoiled. But trying not to watch a guy repeatedly prick his finger at the next table with a hugely audible CLICK with each prick, I got more than a little woozy and had to get up and walk around the store for a few minutes to make sure that I didn’t pass out and conk my head on the floor.

In case you think I’m being melodramatic here, I’m really not. I’ve got quite an embarrassing history of doing exactly that.

The first time I fainted was when I was six and my grandmother, the orthodontist’s assistant, pulled my first baby tooth. One minute I was in her bathroom and the next I was in my aunt’s pink canopy bed. I’d passed out cold and regained consciousness sans dangling baby tooth and completely bewildered as to how I had gotten from the bathroom to the bed.

Occasional lapses of consciousness continued to happen at fairly regular intervals throughout childhood when I was injured or when there was some kind of blood involved.

When I was in 6th grade, for example, I was at a basketball game of my brother’s and whacked my arm on the wooden bleacher in some grade-school gym/auditorium/theater/cafeteria. I got this huge goose egg, actually the size of a goose egg, on my arm. Pretty concerned, I showed it to my ex-R.N. mom and she said “Oh, it’s OK, it’s just a hematoma.” Boom. Down I went. Hematoma. I fainted at the word. I didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded terrible. Next thing I know, my mom’s holding me under the armpits trying to keep me from sliding underneath the bleachers until she and my Dad could get me out to the car.

That was the last incident I remember until high school biology lab my freshman year. About midway through the semester we got to the human biology part of the class. The lovely school curriculum board decided that the students themselves made nicely economical objects of class experiments. So, they devised a simple labratory exercise whereby we all pricked our own fingers to produce sufficient blood to do a blood-type test. On the day of the lab, I did my best to participate. Knowing I needed to complete the lab to pass, I stood there at the lab table trying to psych myself up to prick my finger and type my blood, all the while trying to ignore the boys that had poked all ten fingers and were walking like Frankenstein around the lab bleeding and groaning for dramatic effect. (This was SO pre-AIDS-awareness!) The next thing I know, I’m waking up in the lap of Mr. K., a nice man who was not my teacher but by virtue of being closest to me was the one who caught me when I went down. As I looked up, I saw a ring of horrified faces staring down at me. In my school all of our science classes all met in one huge lab, so all of the science students -- from the seniors in Advanced Physics all the way down to the lowly Bio students like me -- were in the same room. And every single one was standing on tables and chairs to get a better view.

Unlike Helena Bonham-Carter in Room with a View, when I faint, I don’t collapse gracefully with a perfection that only enhances my loveliness. When I faint, I have a small seizure. My limbs shake and my eyes roll; it’s not pretty. As I came around back to the biology lab, I could see the reflection of exactly how frightening those seizures were in the faces of all of the students watching. I was completely mortified – the kind of mortified one can only be when one is fourteen and has just committed a major public faux pas. There was a pause as I looked around wildly, trying to think how to disappear as fast as I could, when in a moment of inspired genius I saw how to get myself out of the experience with a modicum of dignity. “Oh Shit!” I declared loudly. A roar of laughter went up around the whole lab. Not only had I fainted, but I had cursed – while in the lap of a teacher. Redeemed. Phew!

{As an aside -- the incident ultimately paid off because when it came time to dissect, no one wanted me near that damned fetal pig. So my teacher did the dissection for me and I wrote up the lab – a solution that relieved everyone, I think.]

Having done fairly well in that bio class as a consequence, the next year I registered for a Human Genetics class. It was mostly making little boxes on paper to figuring out inheritance patterns. But, one day our teacher, Mr. H. had to go to a conference. In comes Mr. K of the previous year’s famous Stewgad catch, and pops in a NOVA video on genetic abnormalities. It’s interesting, I’m into it, and then they get to hemophilia. They interview some people about how hard it is for hemophiliacs, and then to mix up the head-shots, they insert an action scene of a woman walking over to a refrigerator, getting out a bag of clear liquid plasma, and putting it into a mixing bowl on the kitchen table preparing to give her son a home transfusion. I wake up on the floor, barefoot. I’d kicked my shoes across the room when I fell out of my desk. Because a woman had opened a refrigerator on TV. Poor Mr. K had to, yet again, deal with my fainting fit. In a strange moment of embarrassing fatherly tenderness, he also collected my shoes from the other side of the room and returned them to me before he sent me to the school nurse.

Fast forward two years and I’m in Advanced Biology, which for the most part had meant using a microscope to catalogue the critters found in scummy pond water while I engaged in a mild, slightly mutual flirtation with the Star Basketball Player, hoping that any day he would realize that he didn’t really want to be involved with the head cheerleader because he truly had a secret passion for the gawky, awkward, yet outspoken feminist liberal who hung out with the kids with Mohawks and got her varsity letters in band, speech, and, horror of all horrors -- academics. (The fact that I believed such a thing was possible was clear evidence that I had watched WAY too many John Hughes movies.)

So one day before class Mr. H comes up to me and tells me that since we’re moving into the human genetics section of the class, today we’re going to watch the same NOVA film on hemophilia. Did I want to sit outside and do an exercise or read instead of coming to class? With great bravado, I assured him that I TOTALLY had that fainting thing under control. And, in point of fact, I informed him with great dignity, I hadn’t fainted since that genetics class two years previously, so CLEARLY I had outgrown that particularly embarrassing stage of my development. I’d be completely fine, I said.

Yep, you guessed it. Damn PBS and their documentary accuracy. Refrigerator, bag of plasma, mixing bowl – and wham, I’m on the floor. I awoke to see that the students had all carefully moved the rows of desks into a circle to get away from me and give me room to flail. As I looked up into the shocked face of Star Basketball Player, who sat next to me in class by the miracle of alphabetical order but which I was convinced was fate, I knew that any hope I had of convincing him to buck the stereotype of his relationship with cheerleader for me had come crashing down as my body hit classroom floor.

So, given this history of fainting you may believe me when I say that I don’t have the highest tolerance for blood-related issues. Nor do I have many defense mechanisms that prevent me from losing consciousness in public. Given this past, I find it pretty fucking freaky when people casually stick themselves in front of me.

Don’t get me wrong -- I am completely sympathetic to diabetics. I live in abject fear that I will become one and therefore have to in some way produce some blood for examination multiple times a day. It must be a really shitty way to have to live your life. I can’t even imagine how hard it is. Thinking logically I absolutely see the need to check one’s glucose levels and adjust them, particularly after the consumption of food products. But, not everyone is immune to the horrors of needles, blood, and the casual creation of little holes that violate our critical structural integrity. Maybe, just maybe, blood extraction and injections are some of those body-related things that might benefit from being private? I’m thinking that there’s a reason there aren’t windows into the doctor’s examining rooms like there are at mom-and-pop pizza restaurants so you can watch the dough being tossed. I’m betting that pretty much no one enjoys watching blood being drawn in the Starbucks.

I don’t know. I know I’m crazy sensitive. And, for the record it really wasn’t all that big of a deal for me to get up and walk away for a few minutes. Far better that than have this guy lapse into a coma and/or die because he didn’t check his blood levels in time. Seriously, I wasn’t all that put out. But I do have to say that for a few minutes it was a bit of a near thing for me and all told, I’m really glad I didn’t do my own personal version of Stop-Drop-and-Roll next to the bookcase filled with helpful tomes on home decorating and pest-free gardening.

(Finally, I can post House photos!!)

We knew when we bought our house three years ago that it would need repainting. The previous owners told us that before they bought the house it was in such bad shape no one would even look at it, so the realtor paid to put a coat of paint on just to get the house to sell. Consequently, they hadn't prepped it in any way, just painted over 50 years of damaged paint. It looked awful. Plus, we absolutely hated the color it was something between yellow, peach, and pink, with an occasional nod to the fact that the house had trim with the addition of a dirty gray color.

We also knew that there were serious problems with the porch. It was falling, rotting, and the bizillions of local cats thought that underneath it was the best litter box in town. Plus, it had a lovely single rusty pipe for a handrail. Here's a good shot of the broken down porch (with my legs):

After just living with it for three years, we realized that we risked major damage to the siding if we let it live through another winter. We decided that this summer it had to be done -- but it couldn't just be repainted. We had to strip 100 some years of paint from the exterior. Which is a serious problem. If you own a house or have even bought a can of paint you'll know that lead paint is a problem. So, we had to hire a special painting company that knows how to correctly grind down the house to the bare wood.

To abate the lead paint, our painters tented the house, used HEPA vacuums to suck up all the muck as they sanded it off. Poor guys had to tromp around in HazMat suits in the sweltering heat. (See earlier post for images of the ground house with tenting) In the meantime, we hired a great carpenter to rebuild the underside of the porch, to replace the decaying sides with historically appropriate lattice, and replace the pipe handrail with two wooden ones that matched the rest of the porch. Here's the front of the house with primer, you can see the porch in process here.

A couple of weeks ago the final coat of paint on the porch floor went on -- meaning that our 2-month house painting ordeal was over.

Isn't it beautiful?

Here's the side of the house and the garage with its new spiffy blue accent:

And here Spousal Unit is enjoying our new porch:

We couldn't be more pleased.

Some days the universe is just out to get you. The coffeeshop's air conditioning is broken. There's a guy on the floor with his head in the machine showing his crack trying to fix it. Bet he's having a great day too.

On the plus side, it gave me just the excuse I needed to get the frozen coffee beverage that is the caloric equivalent of a milkshake, because who wants to drink a hot drink in zero air conditioning?

I put in 2 loads of laundry, so am steadily making my way toward having clean clothes. Congratumafuckinlations to me for dealing with my own stupid shit.

Had an AMAZING lunch with an old friend in town for a couple of days at my favorite restaurant -- seared tuna crusted in cardamom and black sesame seeds on coconut cous-cous with a mango-cilantro sauce. I almost pulled a Sally at the table. It was that great. I told the Chef, who is an almost friend, and he said that he loved how I always ordered the most interesting thing on the menu. He said I was one of the most adventurous customers. So, I got great lunch, and a nice compliment! (And, no he wasn't coming on to me if that's what you're thinking. His wife works with my husband.)

The great lunch gave me the courage to phone the Insurer. Who told me that there is a 24 month waiting period on crowns. 24 months. SO, you're supposed to wait for 2 fucking years before you fix your broken tooth. I lived with this one for about a year and had reached the point of intense pain constantly. What the hell kind of insurance is this? Devised by those nice folks FROM HELL? Ah, welcome to the American Health Care system. The best in the world, if only you can afford it. I can't even imagine what people do who don't have incomes. Live with constant pain. Be ill. Lose teeth. Not get the things that they need when they need them. What a shitty world.

On that happy note, now I'm going to walk to the coffee shop where it is air-conditioned, get myself an iced something, and deal with this introduction.

For two fucking days I've been trying to complete a photo post on the gorgeousness of our newly painted house, but Blogger is having some serious buggage with the picture upload function. So, I can't finish the post. It's pissing me off.

For two fucking days I've been pounding away at the significance section of my introduction with markedly little progress. I feel like there's this huge concrete wall and I'm kicking it, and punching it, and bashing my head against it, and leaning on it, and pleading with it, and yet, there it remains between me and my goal. Not sure how to go around it or over it or under it. I think I have to go through it. So, I can't finish the introduction. It's pissing me off.

For two fucking days I've had to wear dirty or ugly or too-tight clothes. All of my clothes that fit are dirty, half of which have been sitting in the back of the car for a month waiting to be taken to the dry cleaner when we had the money, the other half of which are in the basement waiting patiently for someone to put them into the washer. I just got done washing them all last week, so I'm annoyed that they need it again. Talk about high maintenance. Not to mention the backlog of sheets and towels that seem to always be in the hampers down there so that I can never actually FINISH the laundry. Oh, and some cat managed to push open a basement window and pee in our basement somewhere so that the whole place smells like cat urine, so it is markedly unpleasant to go down and actually do the laundry. Yep, you guessed it, it's pissing me off.

Oh, and for two fucking days I've put off calling my damned health insurance even though I have to. They are refusing to pay for the crown (A.K.A. Cylontooth) that I had to have put on because my tooth was cracked. Something about time and policies etc. It's pissing me off.

For two fucking days I've been depressed and grumpy and mean to Spousal Unit for no good reason except that I can't make a Blogger post, I can't finish my introduction, our basement smells, I'm in debt to my dentist, and I'm in holey underwear and old, long, pleated shorts circa 1990 that ride. Some days everything seems so easy and requires no effort. Some days everything is just hard. Even easy stupid shit like laundry and phone calls and blogging. So, I'm going to put on a skirt I teach in, a tee-shirt with Malcolm X on it that my sister-in-law left here three years ago and that I delinquently never mailed to her because I suck but that I kept my virtue intact by not wearing, hold my nose, and go down and put in a load of laundry. Then, I'm going to return to bashing my head against that wall and hope that this time, I break through.

On Monday night last week as we're getting into bed, Spousal Unit says, "So, Stewgad, how much did you do on your dissertation today and how much time did you waste not working on your dissertation?" (or something along those lines -- it's been a whole week, so my memory is a little unreliable.)

Needless to say, this was not a happy thing to say to Stewgad as she's crawling into bed after a morning of dissertation writing and an afternoon of intensive house project work with her dad in the 90-something degree heat. AND, since it was the second night in a row that S.U. attacked me with a serious issue as he was already in bed and I was stumbling toward it, I was starting to feel ambushed in my own bedroom.

I cried, and yelled (in a whisper since Dad was asleep on the Aerobed** in the study next door), and told him it was none of his damn business and to butt out and that he didn't get to patrol my work, it wasn't his job. He replied yes, ok, but that he didn't think I was demonstrating sufficient gravitas about the dire situation I was in with my dissertation. So, then, I let him see exactly how worried I was about my dissertation. That shut him up right and proper. Yup, sufficient gravitas there.

But, after we both talked it through, we realized what was going on. He didn't want to know how many words I had written or pages I had typed, but he wanted to know how I was FEELING about my dissertation. This led to a bit of a relationship breakthrough -- my dissertation isn't his to worry about, but my feelings are fair game. It was good.

Since then, we've developed a Buffy Derived System, where he asks me how I'm feeling about the dissertation and I give him a number. (For the total geeks like me out there: (Season 5 - "Intervention") Buffy is talking to Giles about feeling dead inside and incapable of love, and wants to go on a vision quest. Giles asks her how serious she is. Buffy replies: "Ten. Serious to the amount of ten." ) I like the arbitrariness of assigning a numerical value to something that has absolutely no quantifiable qualities.

So today, after a week of short-spurt writing periods (which were actually really pretty productive) and visiting with my Dad, I sat down to write the "why my dissertation will change the world" section of my new intro. Boy, does that suck. Because I know without any doubt that my dissertation will not change the world, it isn't important, and certainly won't change my academic field because of its brilliance. How do you fake your way through this "significance"? I don't know, and so today was just frustrated and unhappy and miserable and couldn't do it at all.

When Spousal Unit came home he asked, "so, how do you feel about your dissertation today?" I said "Three." He sagely nodded. I asked him how he felt about his work. He frowned, "one." "Oh, boy, that's bad. Let's take a walk." So we went to a beautiful nature area nearby that we had only vaguely known about. We walked and talked for half an hour, saw a lost baby fawn, a great blue heron, and indigo bunting, two belted kingfishers, and the outline of a green heron as it flew over the treeline. Then we went to our favorite Vietnamese restaurant for noodles. We always have great conversations there because the tables are so small you can really get into it with each other. I started talking about my Significance section and ideas started flowing. I wrote them down with SU's pen on the split open paper chopstick wrappers. As we left, SU told me that he's just been stuck at the same place with this paper he is writing, but now has to do some more programming before he can analyze data for the paper, so he was frustrated and unhappy.

I don't know if it will go any better tomorrow, but at least I've got some garlicky illegible notes to draw from, and Spousal Unit is currently working on his programming, so maybe tomorrow I we can both be worried to the amount of zero and happy to the amount of ten. Oh, hell, I'd settle for a five and a half.


** Thank you all for weighing in on the mattress question. (AND, to the one person who voted to rearrange the furniture, I SO know it was you, Spousal Unit, nice try.) We decided to buy a mattress. So, I went to the skeevy chain mattress store, found the bed that I liked, and while I was hanging out on it to see if it was really the eight-hundred dollar petroleum-based fibers, foams, and set of steel springs for me, in comes a dude complaining that the mattress he was promised three weeks ago still hadn't arrived. Hm, I thought, not a good sign for our chances of receiving one by Friday. Then, I went to a local furniture store, found another one I liked, but they didn't have any in stock, so it would be weeks to get one. Finally, I drove 20 minutes to yet another local furniture store, decided on a third utterly incomparable mattress, and found out the only one I could get immediately would be the only slightly battered floor model. The nice older woman who owned the company for 30 years has to wait until she has sufficient numbers of mattresses purchased to put in an order with the company. So, yes, again, weeks to wait. At this point, I had invested something like 3 days of my damned time, and it was something like Wednesday, and I was totally freaked out. That night at home S.U. and I were trying to decide how to rearrange, when a dear friend dropped in to bring us a cake. (How cool was that?) As we were talking, I mentioned my mattress hell, and he said, "hey, why don't you just borrow our Aerobed?" It was, of course, one of the first things I had thought of before I remembered that it had a leak and so didn't work. He informed me that they had a SECOND Aerobed that someone had given them just the week before that was fully intact. I burst into tears. Both he and Spousal Unit were a little taken aback. I think they hadn't realized how stressed I was about this. Anyway, Cake Bearer dropped the bed off the next day, it fit perfectly in the upstairs study, and Dad claimed he slept great the whole week. All's well that ends well. I didn't have to arrange the furniture, and Spousal Unit didn't have to spend money. Everybody was happy!

Only YOU can help save my marriage.

Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but probably not far off. Spousal Unit and I are at a bit of a standstill.

It's about a mattress.

Here's the background:

For the 12 years of our marriage, and the 1 year of living in sin before that, Spousal Unit and I have slept on a futon. The first one we had was free, so that seemed like a no brainer. It sat on the floor directly. That got a bit cold, so I think we bought a very cheap low frame at a garage sale. A few months later, I found a home-made bed frame in a dumpster at work (it was a construction dumpster, not a garbage dumpster, and technically the frame was next to the dumpster, but it's so much more dramatic to say that it was in the dumpster.) I brought it home, did a little construction, and presto-chango we had a raised bed. Over the years, we've cut it down to size, and added a backrest, and now I'm contemplating nifty decorative balls for the end of the posts...but I digress. Since we found the dumpster bed, we've had 2 different new futons. We liked them. They were firm, solid, and cheap. And, as an added bonus, when Spousal Unit rolls over in the night, I'm not flung 6' into the air by spring recoil. It was good.

But, you know, what is good for you when you're 25 just isn't quite as good for you when you're 35. My back hurts. My neck hurts. I can't feel the toes on my right foot. (Yep. Seen a doctor & physical therapist. L-5 disk is pressing on my nerves somewhere in there.) I'm sick of rolling toward the center of the bed if I face right, and having to hang on for dear life to the high outer edge as I sleep if I face left. Spousal Unit agrees. It's time for a new mattress. (He's not quite willing to give up on the dumpster bed frame and I'm not sure I am either. It's perfectly serviceable, really.)

So, if we both agree, where's the marriage destroying crisis?

Dinero, dinero, dinero. OH, and my Dad is coming to visit for about 10 days this Friday. Why does this matter? Well, in our house currently, we have 2 futons -- and that's it. One on our dumpster bed and one on the couch in the living room. (which was also free -- a friend was moving and couldn't take it with him... sensing a theme, here?) I don't want my Dad to sleep in the living room for a week. For chrissakes, the man's over 60. He should be able to have some privacy. Plus, the living room in the new site of my morning work corner, where I sit and do my first morning's writing each day. I'm sure he's not interested in waking up every morning to the sound of computer keys while on his vacation.

So, as far as I can see it, there are 2 options for solving our problem: (And, here they are, presented in a very clear, unbiased and scrupulously honest way:)

Option 1: Go and buy a freaking mattress. Move the futon into my study, hence giving my Dad a private place to sleep. (We have another nice frame for it leftover from the days that SU and I lived apart and each needed a bed.)

Option 2: Move the futon from the living room couch into the study. Move the frame from the living room futon into the garage. Move the 20-year-old made-from-a-kit loveseat with the ass-destroying center post it into the living room and warn everyone who attempts to sit there to lower themselves very, very carefully.


Option 1:
Pros: We have a new bed now instead of 3 months from now when we'd planned to buy one. We don't have to rearrange every room in the house. No heavy lifting on my part is involved. (Those nice mattress mover folk will have to do that.) Oh, and in two weeks when my Sister-In-Law visits with her roommate, they'll each have a place to sleep that's a real bed.

Cons: It will add between $800-$1000 to our already awe-inducing and increasingly monstrous credit debt, depending on which stupid mattress we buy. (Which, don't even get me started. What a fucking crock of evil shit it is that mattress companies tweak the name of each bloody mattress for each damned store they send it to so that it completely and utterly destroys any attempt that you, the customer, might make to comparison shop.)

Option 2:
Pros: It doesn't cost us anything. We get out of debt faster. We get more time to bash our heads against the utter impossibility of choosing a stupid incomparable mattress. Do we want The Aruba? The Antigua? The Sleeperpedic? The Highlander? The Exeter? The Crown Queen Luxury European Deluxe Pillow Foam Back Support Optimator?

Cons: We pretty much have to move every freaking item of furniture in our house. We still have to sleep on the futon (which, did I mention is 6 years old now?). Two weeks from now, we'll have to the whole rearranging thing all over again, and then still have a guest have to sleep on a regular couch that doesn't in any way resemble a bed. (But not on the ass-destroying love seat, thankfully.)

So, sweet readers, help us solve our problem. I've added a handy-dandy little poll at the sidebar. Vote early, vote often!! Save My Marriage!


For those of you longing for a report on Dissertation Progress:
I had a little less productive of a day yesterday, not surprising given the productivity of Sunday. I did get stuff done, so I'm moving along -- and I still feel pretty good about the introduction and am moving forward today.

For those of you longing for a deeply personal, psychoanalytic post:
Perhaps I'm fixating on this mattress thing because this will be the most time I've spent with my Dad since I was in high school and so I want everything to be comfortable for him and for us. Damn those personal, psychoanalytic insights that make what I thought was a perfectly logical and reasonable head-based argument turn out to be neither reasonable nor logical. Spousal Unit will love this one. He'll tell me that Option 2 is absolutely necessary so that I can "get over my issues." Damn. I hate when that happens.

Mine, All Mine

Three years ago, riding that wave of confidence and excitement that only completed writing projects can give, I bolted up four flights of stairs, strode through the isles and isles of books, and arrived at my advisor's library carrel to turn in my first completed dissertation chapter.

He looked up from his work, raised his eyebrows at me, and accepted the stack of paper I handed to him. Then, he gestured for me to sit down. There were two chairs in his carrel, the wooden desk one upon which he sat, and the sad, sagging, vaguely orange fabric armchair that smacked of Army surplus and that he had to have dragged into there in 1949. This chair was clearly a beloved chair, since it bore the evidence of thirty years of heavy use by a heavy guy, so that when I sat in it, I sank in enough to be able to comfortably rest my chin on my knees and dangle my feet. Once marginally situated with great indignity, I looked up and across the very little room at him, as he asked me about the next steps. I told him what I had planned for the second chapter. He asked a few questions, and then told me to go to it.

As I was struggling to remove myself from the chair, he stopped me and made me promise that I wouldn't show my dissertation to anyone else until he had approved what I had written. Struggling awkwardly with my tangled legs and elbows, I looked up at him and promised. Of course I wouldn't show it to committee members until I had received his feedback. I wanted to make sure it would be the best it could be, and I knew that it would only get there with his guidance. This seemed to satisfy him. Finally, having managed to surface from the chair, as I headed for the door I asked him when he thought he'd have his comments to me on the chapter. He then told me that he would not comment on my dissertation until it was complete. That he wanted to see it as an organic whole, before he took me to task for not doing something in the first chapter that I was planning on doing in the last one. Neophyte that I was, having never written a dissertation, this seemed pretty reasonable. I mean, who'd want to be critiqued for something that you planned to do already? So, I said fine, and walked away.

Six months later, depressed, overwhelmed, and struggling with the burden of writing a whole dissertation in one fell swoop and with the directionlessness that I had stumbled into and that he had cultivated, I returned to the carrel to give him a modified version of the same chapter and ask for feedback. I was nervous, but at least this time knew enough not to get sucked into the orange octopus chair. I stood in the doorway (where there was the most space) and asked him for feedback. I told him that I needed help and thought that if he could comment on what I had already written, it would really help me to know where to go next. I admitted weakness, abased myself to a greater authority, and asked for help. He gave me some vague answer, took the chapter, and then turned and dropped it onto a small table stacked 3 foot deep in manuscripts still in their cardboard printer's boxes and loosely differentiated student papers. As I watched my own paper disappear into the anonymity of the stack, my heart sunk. I would not get his help. I would not get his feedback. I was on my own.

So, I did what I could. I struggled through for another year or so and wrote a pretty crappy whole dissertation. 200-some pages. Without feedback. And, because he had made me promise and because I was crazy enough to keep my word, I didn't show it to anyone else other than friends and family.

Of course, six weeks later when he sat me down in the library conference room (he seemed to realize that this wasn't exactly and orange-chair kind of occasion) to tell me what he thought of said complete draft, he had complaint after complaint about how bad it was and how repetitive and how thick and wooden and unclear and how I made the same mistakes over and over from the beginning on. Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. Then, in a total surprise move, he told me he was retiring and that I needed a new advisor and he had found me one in his replacement. (Which, despite the assholishness of this move, was the best thing that has happened to my dissertation.)

But, the point of telling this story is not to grouse about my old advisor. (Although, it is an added bonus) The point is that i think that yesterday, I finally threw off the psychic chains generated by those encounters.

The first sign of this sea change was that yesterday morning, as Spousal Unit slept in, I woke up with dissertation ideas. Nagging little interesting ideas that arrived without agony and that needed to be expressed, recorded, acknowledged. So, I got out of bed and wrote them down. Interesting, I thought.

Then, later that afternoon I talked on the phone for hours to my best friend from grad school about our respective manuscripts. (She's way ahead of me and is writing a book.) In that conversation, I sorted out this major organizational problem with my introduction that I had been struggling with for a couple of weeks. When we got off the phone, I sat down and started to write.

And the words poured out like water. I couldn't type fast enough. I crystallized ideas and wove through important connections. I could see patterns emerging and outlines forming. I was swept up. Finally, things slowed down to a trickle, and I realized an hour had passed. I took a deep breath, and stopped to read over what I had written. As I read, I saw that something huge had happened. I found my voice. In all of the new material I had cut all of the bullshit "this dissertation" passive constructions and just said "I." I did this, I found this, I had these questions. I found the answers. And then, just as suddenly, I felt like the dissertation was mine. My dissertation. Mine.

When I think back on the rules my old advisor imposed on my dissertation -- no feedback, no other readers, give me the whole thing all at once -- it seems patently clear to me that not only was this abusive, but that he was absolutely trying to control it, make it HIS. And I let him because I believed that whatever I would produce would be such shit that no one would want to see it until he had fixed it. Because of this, the dissertation became something that I was ashamed of, because I thought that he clearly was. So, who was I to argue? He was the freaking expert, after all.

To survive this miasma of badness, I distanced myself from my dissertation, and built up methods of survival that kept it away from me and me away from it. But, Saturday morning when Spousal Unit told me that I was holding back, and that I had to put my whole heart into this or else I would never finish it, I realized he was right. And, so I decided to do it. To give myself over to this. The only explanation I have for Sunday is that In the process of giving myself to the dissertation, I broke my dissertation out of the old advisor's grasp. It was like that scene in A Wrinkle in Timewhen Meg frees Charles Wallace from IT by loving him. I think that by giving my heart to my dissertation, I broke it away from old advisor and brought it back to me.

In fact, the more I thought about this today the more I think that his attempt to control my dissertation was not a sign that he expected it to be shitty, but that he expected it to be something great. So great that he wanted a part of it, somehow. And, yesterday and today, as I put my whole heart into writing the story that I want to tell, as I want to tell it, I am also starting to think that it could be something great. Something that I like and am proud of. But, regardless, I know that from now on, whatever else this dissertation is, it is mine.

Thanks all so much for the wonderful comments and support. I particularly loved Scrivener's "Hi, I'm Stewgad and I'm addicted to my dissertation." And, hey, I got quoted to myself! That was really cool. Thanks, Weezy! Anyway, thanks to my blogofamily for the encouragement. It totally helps.

Today, I'm back in the Cage again. I had a very L.A. Story moment in the elevator on the way up -- it wasn't exactly talking to me, but damn near enough that it made me wonder if I was in a movie or on Punk'd or something.

There I was, feeling a little grumpy about coming to work on the fucking dissertation on a sunny, cool Saturday, with only a yogurt and a can of V8 for lunch because I need to lose 5 lbs. And, to add insult to injury, I'm coffeeless because I've given it up (again) after 2 migraines this last week. So, needless to say, I'm pissed. As I push the elevator button for my floor, I notice right underneath it a button that says, I kid you not, "Help is on the way."

This made me wonder. For what purpose is this button? Do you push it when you need help in the elevator? Or does it just light up automatically when the elevator repair guy is leaving the Dunkin' Donuts with his bucket of tools to come fix the thing? And, then, I got to wondering if it worked in all situations. Could I get into the elevator and push it when I'm stuck with the dissertation and then down would rappel a team of helpers in their S.W.A.T. team gear and kevlar and teflon and shit with shirts that said "D.O.D.A." (Department of Dissertation Assistance) and utility vests chock full of the perfect tools to clear out clogged writing arteries, or to help tweak a frustrating clause ? I came awfully close to pushing the thing, just because it was so tempting to see what would happen -- just in case it really was an all-purpose help function that is now standard at major research libraries to help poor dissertators like me.

It is probably instead an example of the inflated prose that runs so rampant today -- the kind of prose that William Zissner lambasts in On Writing Well. Instead of saying "Help" on that damned button, they squeezed in "Help is on the way." Maybe it was to reassure the poor slob stuck in the damned elevator. But it just seemed ridiculous to me, unless it could live up to its implied promise at all times and could really deliver the guys from D.O.D.A.

I mooched my mom's copy of Zissner a few weeks ago when I visited her, but I only picked it up yesterday when I was stuck with the significance section at one point. It was amazingly helpful and reassuring. In the first few pages I read yesterday he said something that really moved me. He said "Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by typewriter, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can't write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first. But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense." (5) All writers are vulnerable and all are tense. This really resonated. Damn straight, we're tense!

Which, of course, Spousal Unit has noticed. This morning, he decided again to weigh in on the state of my dissertation. (Man, that guy is on a roll -- it's like the floodgates have opened and I can't stuff all that well-intentioned criticism and insight back into that emotional levee.) After he got done interrogating me about why I was doing what I was doing and why it wasn't working for me, he said something amazingly insightful. He told me that every dissertation writer he knew went into a period as they were finishing it where it was all they did and all that they thought about -- that they gave themselves wholly to it. He said that he thought I wasn't giving my whole self to it because I was afraid of getting hurt. (Added bonus that this conversation took place while I was in the shower, and so truly naked as well as emotionally laid bare. The man's got great timing.)

But, what he seemed to be saying, in Zissner's terms, was that I had the tense part down cold with this process, but I wasn't making myself vulnerable in it. I wasn't giving myself to it completely.

And, dammit, I know he's right. And I know exactly why I'm not. When I started grad school at this institution, I was thrilled. I felt like I'd made it into the Major Leagues. It was beyond wonderful. I came in confident, excited, and completely passionate about my project. I threw myself into it whole-heartedly. I was in my twenties. I did everything with my whole heart then. I whole-heartedly enjoyed my seminars, I whole-heartedly prepared for my exams, I whole-heartedly wrote what I thought was adequate, while undoubtedly flawed, answers to exam questions. I whole-heartedly went into my oral exams expecting the kind of critique that you would give to someone that you cared about, but could see is misguided. Gentle, respectful, yet firm. I thought I was going to get guidance and help. God help my poor little innocent self, I really did.

As I'm sure I've told you by now, I was eviscerated. Or maybe, more accurately, shot through that whole heart that I had laid open for the committee to see.

Absofukinlutely, I haven't given myself over to the dissertation process. My whole heart isn't in it because it took me three years at least to stop bleeding from that wound. And, frankly, I don't know if that poor stitched up little thing can take it again. In fact, I've spent years and years building up resistance to giving my whole heart to this -- creating defenses and sneaky strategies to protect myself from them, and from myself -- from my own inclination to be open and passionate and wholly invested. In fact, for a few years after the exam whenever I had to meet with my advisor, I'd spend a moment beforehand visualizing a suit of armor for myself. You know, those huge metal ones for knights. I'd put it on and walk into his office clunking so loudly I was always a bit surprised that he didn't hear it. Of course, so many things have changed since then -- my committee, my advisor, my status as a professor, my perspective on my project. But, still, I have this fear.

Spousal Unit is SO so right. I'm terrified of becoming vulnerable to the project again. Maybe it is enough to know it, and to recognize it. Or maybe if I get back into that elevator and press the magic button, help will arrive and teach me how to let go of my defenses, how to trust myself and my project and my ideas, and to forgive myself enough for being open at that moment in the past that I can relearn how to do it again, only this time with a little more wisdom and a little more strength.

Sitting here in the cage trying to get myself to work, I'm having a vicious battle with myself. And right now, I don't know who is winning, but we aren't really liking myself much.
Me: "I don't want to do it."

Also Me: "Tough shit. This is it. Suck it up. Buck up little camper. Just Do It, and all that. But, out of curiosity, why not?"

Me: "It is hard. It hurts. I can't do it. I don't have anything to say. It is hard. I hate it. I hate that I'm not done, and that I feel like such a chump that I'm not done. And, did I mention that it is hard?"

Also Me: "Oh. That sounds good. So, let's run with it. Ok? You don't want to do it because it is hard. So, don't. There. You're done. You've quit your dissertation. Good job."

Me: "Um. Oh...kay... But, well, I don't think that's what I meant, really. Yes, it sounds good, and part of me feels relieved. But, then there's this other part that is oddly disappointed."

Also Me: "Why disappointed?"

Me: "Well, because then I'd have to quit the job that I really like, that I'm good at, and that I really want to do. And because then I'd have given up on this thing that was once really important to me, even if right now it seems far less important than walking outside in the sunshine and going home to where the Oreos and the videos are waiting for me. I still have a memory of what it was to know it was important. And, I kind of still have this nagging sense that it is a story that needs telling."

Also Me: "So, then. What are you going to do about it?"

Me: "Shit. I guess I have to do it. And, by the way, fuck you for always being right."

Also Me: "Right back at ya for making my life so hard."

Yes, half of me has a brilliant career ahead as a therapist. Half of me is on the fast track to looserville. Throw in a dash of ambition, a healthy heap of disappointment, and a pinch of shame, and you've got a moment in my dissertation.

I think that anyone writing a dissertation has had this conversation with themselves. Perhaps over and over and over again. I used to tell myself that it was healthy -- a good way to re-up one's commitment to the project, to the process. To confirm whether or not you wanted to keep doing this. I used to tell fresh-faced hopeful young dissertators in my department that if they didn't ask themselves every day why they were doing it, or alternately, if they actually wanted to be doing it, then they were cruising blind on autopilot and were headed for a crash. I thought of the dissertation as a relationship -- one that you have with yourself, I guess, but still a relationship that took emotional work to keep going. It wasn't always fun or pretty or exciting or sexy, but if it was the right thing, then it would always be important.

Now, I'm not so sure. I've been wondering lately, maybe you shouldn't have to fight yourself into doing it. Maybe it shouldn't be a struggle. Maybe it is a relationship that shouldn't be work. Or, phrased more accurately, maybe it shouldn't have to have so much of my emotional energy. I kind of had that revelation last Sunday (the day before my 35th birthday --so a good time for revelations...) I realized that I didn't have the emotional energy to call my goddaughter or my best friend or my family. I didn't have the emotional energy for anything, really. I wondered about this, and wondered why I didn't. I realized it was all going into the dissertation. That it was getting EVERYTHING I had. (Which was doubly frustrating, because I feel like I'm not making much progress.) Then, it occurred to me that maybe it shouldn't. Maybe it shouldn't get all of my emotional energy. That, the burden of it, like fear, grew with feeding.

And, it turns out, I wasn't the only one to notice that the dissertation was getting everything, and leaving not much behind for anything else. On Monday, for the first time in 10 years, Spousal Unit finally let slip (or explode, same difference, really) that he was sick to death of my fucking dissertation and why didn't I get off my ass and finish the motherfucker? He phrased it much more diplomatically, but put through the Stewgad Dissertation Self-Esteem Translator, that's what I heard. He was concerned at the lack of work I was getting done, and wanted to express it. But, also, it seems, he was tired of the emotional energy I've been giving to it. It was also a bit of a revelation for me. He said that he felt like MY dissertation had taken over his life too. That he didn't have any control over it, but that it got to control him. I didn't know he felt like that, which was a bit of a blow. Of course, my first reaction was to be defensive. And to cry. But, then I tried to listen to what he was really saying -- which was that he loves me and wants me to be done with this really hard thing.

It didn't help, I think, that his writing process is so much different than mine. He never had to do revisions that weren't technical. He never had to sit down and rethink his whole approach to the question. Plus, he's a scientist, so all he had to do was spend 5 years getting data, and then spend 4 months writing it up. (All?) I'm not saying it wasn't hard for him, it was. It was hard on me, on us, and it was horrible. But, it was fast. And over fairly quickly. Like peeling a band-aid fast or slow. His was fast. Me? I've been ripping off that bloody little adhesive strip millimeter by millimeter for a decade in order to preserve and prolong the pain. And, he was trying to point out that this was what I was doing, and to tell me that I, hey, by the way, there are better ways to remove band-aids.

The fact that this horrible, emotionally charged conversation took place at the produce section of the grocery store was an added bonus, really.

So, on the walk home from the store I did my best to explain to him where I was at with it. (I've finished 1/3 of the new introduction -- which is where I'm trying to reconceptualize the whole project so that its disparate parts connect more seamlessly. I've got now the "so what, what does it all mean?" section and the chapter outline to go and I'll be done with this round of the introduction.) I did my best to explain my writing process. (I seem to need to screw around for a few hours before I can pull my brain into it, but then I do and can usually write for 2-6 hours at a stretch.) I did my best to hear his concern. Which seems to be the same as mine: Why am I not finishing this? As far as I can tell, the only answer so far seems to tie back to the emotional energy stuff. That I'm not done yet because it is emotionally hard, dammit. (Maybe they should call it an Eh.D.)

But, I'm rapidly losing patience with the part of me that is holding on to that answer. I think I'm holding on to the burden and the fear of the dissertation like a habit -- one that is particularly hard to kick. Academic Heroin. But, I'm not sure I know how to quit. How do you stop giving everything emotionally to something that has consumed you for a decade or so? AND, how do you do this while still trying to give most of your time and intellectual effort to it? Maybe it is a conservation of energy problem -- that the more time and intellectual effort I give it, the less emotional energy I invest. That is probably the first step. I don't know. Maybe the first step is to win this fight with myself. Or maybe the first step is to simply stop fighting. I don't know. But, I'm hopeful that just recognizing that I've got a problem is a good start.

For years now, I've had a yellow sticky post-it above my desk in the Cage with a great piece of advice from one of the umpteen books I've consulted on how to write, how to write well, how to write analytically, how to write a dissertation, how to finish a dissertation, how to survive a dissertation, how to live a real life while doing a dissertation, how not to kill yourself while writing a dissertation, etc.... I'm sure they're all the same books that you all have read. Anyway, this sticky note tells me loud and clear:

"First you make a mess, then you clean it up."

I honestly can't remember which brilliant advice book it came from, but I put it up there to remind me not to worry about perfection the first time around when writing -- to just put shit down on the page and move on. I can always fix it, clean it up later, revise, amend, repair.

As a fierce perfectionist, this is almost always advice I need to remember. I should probably have it tattooed somewhere obscene just so it becomes a permanent component of my personhood. I have a VERY hard time doing this. Almost the minute I write something down, I go back and look at it, chop it up, move it around, rearrange it, change it. At times it works well -- it means that when I have a draft, I generally have a pretty good draft. Other times, however, this mode of production gets me into big trouble. I'll end a day having produced nothing more than a sentence or two, at best.

For the past two weeks, though, I've been following a slightly different pattern. Still struggling with transitioning from the narrative section of my introduction to my analytical section of my introduction, it seems like every day I have at it anew, write myself into a complicated little knot, manage to get myself out of it, and then break for lunch. After lunch, I come back, read what I wrote before lunch, and then completely bugger the whole thing up again by rethinking the solution that I had just found.

Essentially, I've been inverting my handy little post-it's advice -- I've been cleaning up, and then messing it all back up again. Needless to say, this means that I have been ending each day frustrated, angry, unhappy, and discouraged. Not a great space to be in.

So yesterday, I tried something new. I woke up, I read some stuff, I had lunch with a friend, then I went to the local mall to sit at the chain bookstore's coffee shop to write. (While I was there, the power went out at in the whole mall during a thunderstorm -- very exciting. And shockingly, while there was minimal power routed to lighting, the cash registers still functioned normally. Imagine that.) Anyway, once the lights went back on, I started to grapple with one of the problems I had gotten myself into yesterday. I found my way out if it, closed my computer and walked away.

For the rest of the night, I worked on other things. It was great. I stopped myself before I could mess up the solution I had just found to a tricky problem. It may not be the perfect solution, nor even the best, clearest, or final one. But, it left me today starting in a much better space emotionally. I feel like SuperDissertator -- Hey, I Solved a Problem! Rather than SuperScrewUp, where I've been living most of the time these days.

So that's my new goal for each day -- not to make a mess out of the cleaning up I have just done. I think it's a pretty solid goal. I'll still try to hold on to the notion that my writing can be messy, that it doesn't have to be perfect. But, more important at this stage is, I think, to not self-sabotage in the interests of perfectionism.


Pact Update:

DBG (Dissertating Bug Guy) and I have been really good at checking in AM and PM to make sure that 1. We're working, and 2. that we've accomplished something. It has been a good motivator to have SOMETHING done, because of the shame factor. Don't want to shame oneself in front of one's friends! It's also nice not to feel so alone in this miserable dissertation wasteland of doom. (just a little ray of sunshine, aren't I?) Anyway, so far, I'd really recommend it.

Saw this at Sfrajett's

It is uncanny. From snackfoods and preferred textures to the exact prefered sleeping positions. Scary.

I am a toboggan!
Find your own pose!

Spousal Unit hates this, by the way.

Corners & Pacts

Last week I got myself back into a writing rhythm, and then promptly wrote myself into a corner. I hate when I do that. You know that thing that happens when you write and write and write and things are going along just fine, and then suddenly, it's like, you hit this wall. Not with the writing, but with the thinking. I don't know what happened, but I created this major thinking block about how to connect the narrative introductory story to the analysis and major questions in the project. I couldn't see a way out of what I created. I backed up and tried again on a different approach, but that didn't work either. I repeated this process over and over, but nothing worked and finally I got really overwhelmed about where to go next and what to do.

So, I did what any overly-anxious, time-pressed, depressed, hypochondriac, agoraphobic dissertator does (only the time-pressed is an official diagnosis...) I panicked. And then sat on the couch for three days reading fiction. (By the way, the Anita Blake vampire hunter novels by Laurell Hamilton are nice little bits of bloody, violent, slightly repetitive brain candy.)

Spousal Unit has been at a conference at work every day and night for the past two weeks (except Sundays), so he didn't really clue into what was going on with my little Howard Hughes-esque vacation from reality, which I like to call a "retreat."

But, in one of those nice moments when the universe provides you with what you need just when you need it, a friend who has recently moved back to town to finish his dissertation stopped by the house and caught me at 4:00 in the afternoon sitting in my living room freebasing Oreos watching a Joss Whedon production of some sort, with a novel in my lap, while my backpack chock full of dissertaty goodness sat safely zipped up in the hallway. He seemed to think that this was an indication that I wasn't working. Go figure.

DBG (Dissertating Bug Guy) decided that he and I, both 10+ year dissertators trying to finish this summer, needed to help each other out by reporting in to each other about what is going on. Sometimes, only another person in the same situation as you can understand the sheer terror that happens when you have this huge internal mental block and this enormous fear that you aren't good enough, can't do this thing that you've set yourself up to do, will never get this bloody thing done and off your back, and clearly will have to live with the consequences of personal failure for the rest of your whole damned life. Wait, where was I?

Oh yeah, help. So, we made a pact. DBG's going to call me every morning by 9:00 to make sure that I'm up and working and at the computer. Then, at the end of the day, we're both going to report in to each other about what we've accomplished that day. We promised we'd be brutally, completely honest. He's got to tell me if all he's done is walked around and chain-smoked, and I've got to tell him that all I've done was read 800 pages of fiction and consumed 2000% of my saturated fat for the day. But, ideally, we'll tell each other instead that, "Hey, guess what? I wrote some stuff. I accomplished something!" Either way, we'll have some accountability.

Yesterday, didn't count, though, because I had to go have Frankentooth replaced by Cylontooth (almost impossible to tell from the real thing, but yet something is not quite right. Just a little to slick to be believable...) So -- accountability begins today.

Anyway, the other day after DBG left, I decided that one of the things I needed to return to work was a writing space in the house so that I don't have to be in the Cage constantly. Spousal Unit wrote his dissertation at a tiny little antique typing table that belonged to my parents and held their typewriter until we got an Apple II+ in the '80s. Anyway, S.U. put this table in the dining room, which in that apartment was the center of the whole house. It was a great thing for him because it physically shifted the whole focus of the house to his dissertation -- it was in the heart of our lives for the three or four months it took him to write up. (Bastard Scientist.) For some reason, even though I have a whole study of my own, I've never been able to work in my study. I think it is too lonely and too far removed from all of the action. I'm always wondering what is going on while I'm up in my study, and I feel like I'm missing out on the BEST stuff if I'm up in the study. Even if there's no one else in the house.

I've been eyeing this little corner of the living room as an ideal work space for a while -- but it held a huge bookcase filled with oh-so-useful stuff like cassette tapes. (Yes, we still have our cassette tapes. Neither of us can bear to chuck them until we find out what is on them so that we can replace it on iTunes, but who has that kind of time?) The typing table of S.U.'s dissertation fame was sitting in the entry by the front door holding bills and junk mail and crap. So, I got this genius idea -- put the cassette tapes in a box to either toss or deal with another time, and swap the bookcase for the table. It was a little challenging since the bookcase was too tall to fit through the door and I was moving it all on my own, but I got it done. Now, we have a lot more storage space in the entry for even more junk mail, and I have a nice little workspace in the living room -- at the heart of it all.

And, oddly enough, finding a little desk in the corner inspired me yesterday to sit down and write myself out of that corner that I had gotten into. I found a way (a nice tidy little way, I think) to link my narrative to the central questions of the diss. So, I think today I can get out of my pajamas, take the Kleenex boxes off of my feet, and return to the reality of dissertationland.

Hey all. I've been working away for the past few days, but had evening commitments so didn't blog the progress. Mainly, I've gotten back into the writing rhythm. I forget that it takes me a while to do it, but once I'm there, I'm much happier. I spent the week grappling with the narrative opening with my introduction, and I think I've finally wrestled it to the ground. So, that feels good. Today, I'm in the office on campus (Man, does it feel weirdly empty and cavernous after the Cage!) working on student stuff, classes for next semester, and meeting with my .... RESEARCH ASSISTANT!! Yes, I got some bucks to have someone else shlog through microfilm for me. Huzzah!

But, I finally uploaded house painting pictures, so thought I'd pass a few along. We've been pretty much sweltering, waiting for the OK from the painterinos to untape the windows that had been sealed up for the lead extraction process. So far, no word. So, we're sweating it out. (And smelling it up. Man, a house that doesn't get any air circulation at all for a month is pretty manky. Although it could be the garbage, I'm not sure.)

So -- Photos! These are a little old -- from last week. By the end of the day, I think they'll be done priming. So the whole thing is one ugly grey solid blob. I'll post those photos soon.

The Front:

The Side:

The Front With Side Tenting:

Detail View: This siding is probably 100 years old, at least. Very exciting. (To old house geeks like me, anyway.)

Well, back to sorting through the stack of papers waist high that I had left behind me in my office on campus. Why, oh, why do I keep every piece of paper that I've ever written on?

Happy Friday, folks!