State of the Minuteman

Alright, so I know that I have been MIA for a while (and I know this isn’t my usual blog fare), but I’ve got a PSA for local runners/outdoor enthusiast and since this is my blog, it’s also my rules!

On Saturday March 7, I ran the length of the minuteman bike path (that’s 10 miles for those who aren’t local). In preparing to make this run, it occurred to me that it would be INFINITELY useful to have a report of the status of the minuteman so I could prepare for running conditions. Would I need my cleats? Would it even be possible to traverse the length of the trail? Who knew; the internet wasn’t giving me answers.

So here’s my report of the state of the trail as of March 7, 2015. I would like to say as a disclaimer that I did not run the last .5 KM on the Alewife end because I was meeting my ride home at the Kickstand Café in Arlington, so I doubled back to Arlington center. I have no reason to believe that section of trail is any different from most of the rest of it, but here’s what I observed.

From Bedford to Lexington, the trail is mostly melted and clear. There are huge swathes of pavement interrupted by only the occasional ice patch. It is quite traversable and a pleasure to run (since the surrounding woods are still snow-covered silent and Robert Frost-like). I brought my Yaktrax but did not need them.

Taken at the end of my 10. I'm a lean, mean, running machine!

Taken at the end of my 10. I’m a lean, mean, running machine!

Right around Lexington Center, get ready to hit a bunch of large ice patches. These are extremely slippery and difficult to traverse. I saw a few folks run across them like they were nothing, but for me I had a hard enough time staying vertical while carefully picking my way across. After crossing Maple Street, there were one or two more large patches, but it was mostly clear until I hit the Arlington line.

Arlington is basically an ice skating rink. At this point in the run, I outpaced a guy on a bike (and I run about an 11:30 mile) because he had to get on/off his vehicle at every patch and I just had to speed up/slow down. It was treacherous, dangerous, and awful; this was the only part of the run that had me seriously questioning the decision to run the length of the trail (and also had me seriously concerned for my own safety). The ice is slick and smooth with no traction and nowhere to bail since the path is lined with hefty snow banks. Unless you want to trudge through snow up to your knees, you’ll have to pick your way through the ice. This was slow going. Enough so that when I hit Mill Street, I bailed on the bike path and ran up to Mass Ave to go through Arlington Center. As an aside, the sidewalks on Mass Ave in Arlington (especially on the sunny side of the street) are completely clean and a joy to run on (particularly after the treacherous icy deathness of the Minuteman). I took a chance on the last leg of the run and instead of running the rest on Mass Ave ran through the Arlington Center to Alewife portion of the Minuteman. This was a mistake. The first .75 km off of Arlington Center are nice and clean, but then you get into yet another skating rink session. I turned around right after I hit Spy Pond to head back towards Kickstand; I’m reasonably certain that the Alewife/Cambridge section of the bike train is fairly untraversible (though it does snake through Thorndike field which gets a lot of sun, so perhaps that end is clear). I wasn’t willing to find out.

On the whole, I think with a few more melt days even the icy patches of death will be mostly gone (provided we don’t get many more serious storms…. Please, please no more snow). I plan on doing my running on the section from Bedford to Lexington because, like I said, that’s pretty much fine.

I hope this was useful to some of you out there! Run safe!

The Marathon

In case you’re not tired of this metaphor already, writing a dissertation is like running a marathon.

Now let me be clear: I am a runner. I’m slow, but I’m persistent. That said, my longest distance goal at the moment is a half marathon (which I should hit in the next few months if I keep at it; I’ll be running a 10 Mile race on March 7th; the Salem Black Cat 10 Miler in case you want to join me).

Training to run a long-distance race has many striking similarities to the research and dissertation writing process. First: it comes in chunks. Neither a Marathon nor a Dissertation are finished the day after you decide that you are going to complete them. They take time, dedication, and commitment to accomplish. When you finally do cross the finish line, you will have done something that an overwhelmingly small portion of the population will ever have the opportunity to do.

They both require training and diligence. Increasing your running distance is a matter of patience, fortitude, and attitude; just like increasing your research banks. In both cases, you need to train both hard and smart to accomplish your goal. In both cases, you will often find yourself in vast swathes of the unknown unsure what to do next. In those instances, you need to look to others who have come before; trainers, other athletes, colleagues, friends; people who have been where you are and can advise you accordingly. You’ll need periodic check-ins with professionals; advisors, mentors, and coaches to ensure that you’re on track to meet your goal.

Marathon running, just like dissertation writing, can be an isolating sport. After all, much of the training you do is solitary and so specialized that few will be able to connect with it. But it is precisely for this reason that you need to keep in touch with your community of supporters.

Because not every day is a good day. Not every run is a good run, and not every research session is productive. While some days you’ll be crushing your book stack or your long run with relative ease, other days just putting on your running shoes or getting to your desk will feel like a marathon in and of itself. Some days you’ll be engrossed in what you’re doing and feel invincible; other days you’ll have to take frequent breaks and go so slowly that you’ll wonder if you’re getting anywhere at all.

But that’s where the cheerleaders help. On bad days, they’re there to remind that

At the finish line of the Super Sunday 5 Mile race last weekend

At the finish line of the Super Sunday 5 Mile race last weekend

tomorrow will be better and that just by getting up and going for it, you’re getting somewhere. They’re there to reality check your foibles (I mean, really, who should rightfully complain about being able to run 2/3 your final target distance EVEN IF it was slow as molasses and felt awful; or spending an “unproductive” day rooting through archival material older than your country?). They’re there to support you in those bad moments and remind you of the good ones. And you have to learn to trust them and treasure them, no matter how crazy the things they tell you sound in the moment (“What do you MEAN I’m not a failure for missing my deadline/run!? I haven’t missed one YET and thus I FAILED my perfect track record! Never mind that I haven’t missed on yet!”).

Distance running, like dissertation writing, is about micro-goals. Getting out there and doing your short run in a week is just as important to crossing the finish line as your BIG LONG TRAINING RUN before you taper. Getting that first vomit draft out of the way is just as important a milestone as getting the final advisor “Okay” on your last chapter. If you don’t set and meet your micro-goals, there’s no way that you’ll be making it to the finish line.

Dissertation writing, like distance running, is inevitably something that has to give you independent fulfillment. At the end, you will be a leading (if burgeoning) expert in a field of your own devising. This means that few, if any, outside sources will be able to validate the worth of your research in way that will satisfy you if you can’t find that validation within yourself. If you don’t get validation or feelings of elation from running, you will stop before you ever make it close to that finish line.

At the end of the day, dissertation writing, like distance running, is hugely fulfilling. It will mess up your mind as bad as running will mess up your body. It will require self-care and heavy doses of aspiration, perspiration, and determination to conquer. It demands sacrifice, time management, and a strong dose of priority mindedness. But if you can manage it, you can (and will) walk away rightfully feeling like biggest winner the world has ever known.

The Doctrine of Kindness

I want to take a moment to touch upon something that should seem so logical it needn’t even be said. In my experience, however, that doesn’t guarantee that it has already been discussed: being nice.

Look; let’s face it; having a pretty face just isn’t enough to get you by in academia. For that matter, neither is having a pretty CV or the best publications or the most accomplishments or the most prestigious fellowships. It’s a tough world out there, and it’s a world full of pressure and stress. It can be really difficult not to let this get to you; but at least in public you need to have a smooth, unbreakable mask of niceness.

Being a nice, helpful person absolutely will take you far. Remember that tenure-track means an institution is ready to stick with you for the long haul (and that haul can be pretty long). They want to work with you; they want to see your smiling face in every faculty meeting; they want to share a hallway with you. Nothing will keep them from wanting to do that quite like being someone who isn’t pleasant to be around.

I see every interaction with other academics as an opportunity to be the kind of person that I would want to work with. Whether this interaction is via e-mail, skype, or face-to-face conferencing, each touch provides me the unique opportunity to make a good impression. That being said, I’ve had to learn how to put my bad day aside so that I can present a clean, professional image no matter what’s going on in my life.

Of course, this is sometimes easier to do than others. It’s a lot easier to be “on” in an e-mail than it is at a conference. Particularly if you are an introvert, finding the social energy to present the kind of image you need to can be rough. Make absolutely certain that you take the necessary measures to ensure success for yourself on this front (whether that means scheduling some off-time during a conference weekend, sleeping in a little later on days when you have big presentations or job talks, or making sure that you eat a good breakfast to fuel up for being your best professional self).

It should be noted that this extends to lateral networking as well as vertical networking. Networking with your peers is just as important as networking with senior academics. After all, these are the people with whom you will be looking to collaborate on book projects, grant proposals, and conference panels. These are also the people with whom you will have the most personable war-stories to tell. Knowing who else is out there doing the kind of work you are interested in also involves getting to know those people; and when you get to know those people you want to be the kind of person they want to connect with. There’s no call or need for off-putting theatrics or peacocking in lateral networking; nobody wants to be around that guy who can’t stop telling you about his AWEEEESOME most recent GIANT fellowship or job opportunity. Yea, you’re great, but networking with your peers is less about impressing and more about impressioning. Let your work speak for itself whenever possible; be proud of it, but don’t flaunt it.

Find yourself some good attitude role-models. Think about people you’ve encountered in the field who you want to see again not just for networking-related items, but also for drinks at the conference bar. What kind of qualities do these people have? What makes you want to be around them? Like I tell my acting students, keen observation is the first step to replication. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve encountered good models in this regard, and I’ve encountered bad ones. The trick is not to let the bad ones ruffle you; the more people who choose grace under pressure, the better we can make the ivory tower of the future. Try to be like the ones who kept you going and lifted you up rather than the ones who pushed you down. Imagine what it would be like for our students if we all chose to be “lifters” rather than “pushers”. It may sound idealistic, but I do think that we grad students have the tremendous power to shape the future of academia. It’s up to us to determine what things will be like round these parts when we grow up to be the people in charge. If we start practicing the doctrine of kindness now, think about how much easier all of our lives will be.

This is not to say that we should all be pushovers; you can be firm without being unkind. But taking that extra moment to think about your actions may save some student years of class-induced angst, and will definitely improve your cosmic karma score. And it will make you look better to potential employers and colleagues.

It comes down to a few basic precepts: be kind without reason, be smart without arrogance, be helpful without patronization. These qualities, if followed, will definitely leave an impression (…and not the kind that will have folks running in the opposite direction).

At the Finish Line

One thing I have emphasized as we go along (and that I feel the need to reemphasize) is the importance of cross training.

Getting a PhD is insanely taxing mentally and emotionally. You spend all day every day working out your brain (so… basically you can ignore those luminosity commercials that pop up in Hulu when you’re trying to kick back a bit). Moreover, your work becomes something that you’re invested in; there are huge emotional stakes in turning in a paper, chapter, draft, or even research proposal. Getting a PhD is tough on the psyche. But like working any muscle, it’s important to rest and relax between sets.

This is part of why I’ve taken up so many physical hobbies over the course of getting my PhD. When I was studying for my German language proficiency, I taught myself to play the ukulele because it would relax me and help me unjam my mind from words too long to fit on one line. When I was studying for my written comprehensive exams, I taught myself to crack a six foot bullwhip and spin poi because taking ten minutes to just step outside and do something in my own body really helped me to de-stress and uncram my brain so that I might fit a bit more in with each study session.

Workouts have also been an important part of this cross training. While I’ve been a long-time gym bunny, over the last year I’ve gotten serious about one workout specifically which has really helped me in a lot of ways: running.

It sounds silly because it’s something we learn to do as children. Everybody, after all, can run. But let me tell you, before I started my C25K program last year, I was pretty hopeless at it. I set in hoping to just complete a 5K (because who wouldn’t want to cross that completely doable task off their bucket list?). One Spartan Sprint later and I was hooked.

I’ve had to be careful; running is tough on your body and if you have any particular injuries or quirks it will exacerbate them (I, for example, have knee issues that I have to keep a close eye on). Since I started running outside, I also have learned to wear highlighter-colored jackets to avoid being hit by less-than-careful Massachusetts drivers.

But I’ve found that it’s extremely satisfying to train up distances. Nothing can turn around a bad day with my books like setting a goal and doing it; and my running goals are something I keep very achievable just for this reason. I upped the stakes this winter by investing in some cold-weather running gear and, despite being a general wimp about the cold, I’ve never enjoyed working out more. Cold-weather workouts mean that once you get warmed up, you have a pleasant (natural) coolant to keep you from overheating (… unless you accidentally put on too many layers which is a learning curve all to itself). Let me tell you, I was the most astonished when I woke up the morning of my most recent race to nineteen degree weather and thought “It’s not that bad out!”

feeling pretty beast at the finish line!

feeling pretty beast at the finish line!

This year, I’ve decided that to celebrate my achievements by running twelve races; one race a month in 2015. The races can be of any length, they just need to be chip-timed events (and it is, of course, preferable that there’s some kind of cool race-sponsored after-party to attend). On this Saturday past, I ran my first race of 2015: the Resolution Run to Kick Cancer 5k. I set a personal best for chip time, and even overheated in the nineteen-degree weather. Not a bad way to start my year of races!

In a world of hazy deadlines and work that has seemingly no end and no beginning, running these races gives me something to work towards, something to look forward to, and something to feel accomplished about at the finish line. If you’re in your writing phase and haven’t found that for yourself yet, I highly recommend that you do. It doesn’t have to be running, but it should be something that you can accomplish and feel proud about (and, ideally, share with the wide world of the internet; because what’s achievement without facebook fame?).

Next up for me will be the Super Sunday 5M (followed by the Black Cat 10M in March). I am really excited about it!

Productivity

So I’ve been working on my dissertation almost specifically these days (I say “almost” because I still have a few side-projects going on, including my ongoing work with the Folger Shakespeare Library and some of their digital initiatives, but that’s probably a tale best told later).  I’m only teaching one class this semester (my continuing adult ed. class for OSHER lifelong learning), and it’s a very odd thing.

It’s odd because I’m working almost entirely on my own time.  I have nominal amounts of meetings, and deadlines are pretty hazy.  It’s odd because I don’t have to set an alarm if I don’t want to, because if I sleep in a little bit it just means that I have to work a little later that day.  It’s odd because I have lost almost entire sense of what day of the week it is and how that effects the rest of the world (let me tell you what it’s like to try and make appointments with businesses or doctors when you have small sense of “normal people time”).  And it’s odd because I spend all day, every day, all alone with my thoughts.  It’s true.  If I didn’t cohabitate with another human being, I would go LONG SPANS without making eye contact or speaking with another human without the interference of an electronic device.

So how can one possibly hope to succeed under these conditions? 

 Well, I’ve set up some pretty strict regulations for myself to ensure that work gets done and, so far, it seems to be working.

1)   I sit at my desk to work.  After breakfast, I put down the iPad and phone, and go plant myself at my desk.  And that’s where I stay until lunch.  I allow myself an hour for lunch, then I sit back at my desk until it’s an appropriate time to end the day.  I also allow myself a break to work out when I’m in true brain-fry space; but when I’m back and showered, I sit back down at the desk.  If I’m reviewing a show in the evening, or going to a rehearsal, or doing some other kind of legitimate work, I let myself “leave” a bit early just to provide enough cool-down time between jobs.  But other than that, I regulate my desk habits.  I find that if I don’t, I spend more time cleaning my apartment than conducting research.

2)   I set micro-goals.  Every day, before I leave my desk, I try to give myself a sense of what needs to be accomplished the next day.  Whether that’s “read this stack of books”, or “finish drafting another draft of this chapter”.  I always try to visually represent these goals for myself because otherwise the things I do become too theoretical to make me feel accomplished.  Sometimes this means setting out a stack of books for myself that I’m allowed to move to the “done” pile when I finish them.  Sometimes it means leaving the red pen on top of my draft so that I know it’s time for drafting.  Sometimes it means writing a list that I can cross off when I’ve completed tasks.  Whatever it is, I make sure to give myself the satisfaction of literally seeing accomplishment on a daily basis.  This keeps my morale high, and also gives me a sense of my pace and what I can reasonably expect from myself in a day.

3)   I update my social media feeds.  I know that, for some people, this can be a time-suck and a distraction rather than a boon, but for me it’s really refreshing to be able to post about funny things I read in my research books, or small accomplishments throughout the day.  Also, it keeps my twitter feed relevant and, as a result, refreshes the content on my blog which is directly linked to my SEO.  In other words: it kills a lot of marketing birds while simultaneously making me feel connected with the outside world.  I do make sure that, once I’ve posted my update, I minimize my browser windows and turn my phone upside down on

This guy helps.  He's my new office buddy: Sir Henslowe Fishigills; First of his Name; Lord of all the waters he swims

This guy helps. He’s my new office buddy: Sir Henslowe Fishigills; First of his Name; Lord of all the waters he swims

my desk.  This way, I have to work to become re-distracted by whatever’s going on on the internet.

4)   I evaluate situations fairly, but I don’t take excuses.  Since I’m essentially my own boss, I don’t let myself off easy.  I think this is probably a personality trait that most at the Candidacy stage share (if not, you probably wouldn’t have successfully reached Candidacy).  That said, there are sometimes things that will happen which will prevent productivity for a short time.  This winter, I’ve been dealing with some car troubles (for example) that will sometimes take me away from my desk for longer than I’d like.  On days when I am stuck out waiting, I take as much work as is feasible with me (pre-planning helps with this), but I also don’t beat myself up because I couldn’t read two books instead of one while waiting at the garage.  Know your limits, know your work habits, and know when it’s acceptable to push and when it’s acceptable to slack a little.  Also have a plan for when/how you’ll be able to make up missed work at a later date.

5)   I combat anxiety at every turn.  There are some well known psychological consequences to writing a dissertation.  Imposter syndrome, stress, anxiety, and occasional bouts of depression pretty much come with the territory (no, really, they’ve done studies on it).  Learning to manage these things for yourself is a personal journey that you’re going to have to accept and grow with.  Understanding for myself, what helped, what didn’t, and who I could turn to for what kind of help was HUGE in terms of my productivity.  Find your allies, find your coping mechanisms, and use them repeatedly and often.

6)   I take care of myself.  I’m writing a dissertation.  This is probably the biggest thing I’ve so far done in my entire life.  It’s a hugely taxing endeavor mentally and physically.  In order to get it done, I need to feel my best; and in order to feel my best I need to eat right, work out, drink plenty of water, and get enough sleep.  Period.  Nothing comes in the way of those things for me (and if it threatens to, I execute it before it executes me).  You have to make you a priority; even though it means sacrificing things you might want to be doing (like… say… social engagements).

 7)   Weekends are weekends.  I don’t work on the weekends.  I try not to even turn my computer on on the weekends.  I am entitled to two days off a week (…I will often review a show or FD a project on the weekends, but to me this doesn’t really count as “work” in the same way as working on my dissertation does).  The point is this: it doesn’t matter what your boundaries are, just find them and stick to them.

Those are the big ones for me, but obviously everyone is different.  Keep on plugging; that’s the real trick.  I hope that your writing is going as well as mine is!  Stay warm out there, everybody!

Drunk Shakespeare

Since I’m in dissertation land, time flows in strange bobs. For example: we returned from New York City over a week ago and I still haven’t managed to blog about one of the best parts of the trip: a performance of Macbeth by the Drunk Shakespeare Society!

When my mom proposed the outing, I was a bit dubious. The evening bills itself as a small ensemble of actors getting drunk and doing Shakespeare. “Well”, thought I, “This will either be completely insane and amusing, or a train-wreck of a disaster such that I simply won’t be able to look away and I’ll have no recourse but to blog about it passive aggressively in hopes that one of the actors googles himself and my blog entry pops up in the search results.” Lucky for all of us, it was an experience of the first degree.

The Drunk Shakespeare Society performs six shows a week in one of those NYC spaces that, through careful diligence, transforms from a hole in the wall to a magic fairy land of entertainment. They’ve annexed a room in the Lounge at 400 West 43rd (right next to a seedy Comedy Club) and transformed it into what feels like a society subscription library. Books are arrayed in every corner, splayed on oak bookshelves, and arranged by color. You’re basically sitting inside a Victorian library that had a bit too much Pride to be stifled by the social restrictions of alphabetization.

The premise is that one of the actors gets completely ferschnockered before your eyes, and the ensemble then performs a 90-minute cut of one of Shakespeare’s more famous pieces. The drunken actor generally takes the lead (so for us it was the gentleman playing Macbeth who took the dive) and is supported by the rest of the talented cast. To enhance the experience, you can pay extra to participate as the King and Queen for the evening, which entitles you and one guest to a crown, throne, a bell to ring and effect the play’s action, champagne, caviar, and home-hade chocolates. We didn’t spring for the throne,

And, of course, you can totally just steal the throne for pictures after the show.

And, of course, you can totally just steal the throne for pictures after the show.

but it was fun to watch others as they made the play for it. Apparently you can pre-purchase it; though the evening we were there it was up for auction before the performance.

In terms of talent, the company is not to be missed. Forget the gimmick, improv, and the smart additions to the script; these are some pretty well trained classical thespians with acting chops to match their colossal livers. And trust me, I don’t say that about everybody I see bark out a sonnet onstage.

What was most exciting was to see how these actors engaged with the text in a way that got their audience similarly engaged. And the folks in the audience weren’t necessarily folks I would expect to see at your run-of-the-mill production of Macbeth. At one point, as I was watching an actor and an audience member race to shotgun a beer while the fate of the play rested in the outcome of the race (…I learned all kinds of things that night… including that “shotgunning a beer” is a thing that not only exists, but can be included in sportsmanship competitions), I realized that this was perhaps one of the most noble arts endeavors I had seen in recent time. Here was, writing a dissertation on how Americans made Shakespeare their own in the post-Revolution years, and I was witnessing first-hand the modern incarnation of the age-old phenomenon.

Because, you see, Edwin Booth didn’t perform Hamlet “AS SHAKESPEARE WROTE IT”. Edwin Booth performed Hamlet as Edwin Booth wanted to perform Hamlet. Nineteenth century American actors basically re-wrote the text to conform to cultural norms of the time. Heck, King Lear as written by Shakespeare was removed from the repertory for hundreds of years because it was simply too sad (…they instead performed a version written by Englishman Nahum Tate somewhere around 1681 which wasn’t eradicated from the stage until circa 1838). So what were these slightly intoxicated actors doing if not following the noble line of history in updating a cultural phenomenon to make it more appealing to a mass audience?

And you know what, anything that anyone can do to make Shakespeare appealing to a mass audience while remaining hat-tippingly respectful of the text is fine by me. As much as I tout myself as a “purist”, I’m a purist who enjoys a good laugh like anyone else. So long as you’re not billing yourself as “AUTHENTIC SHAKESPEARE” but rather some kind of adaptation or alteration, so long as you’re enjoying and having fun and making art to help others do so as well, so long as you’re not causing trauma to unsuspecting middle schoolers and forcing them to swear off the bard for the rest of their earthly existences, do that voodoo you do. The world will be a better place for it.

Anyway, if you get half a chance, you really need to check out Drunk Shakespeare. It’s a hoot, holler, and everything between. I think it would be particularly useful/inciting for those who don’t feel that they enjoy Shakespeare, or perhaps that they haven’t yet found some kind of understanding of it. DS is definitely a good gateway drunk to the world of all things Bardy. Especially if you enjoy one of their (admittedly overpriced) cocktails with the show; that will definitely get the brain wheels greased and ready for action.

How can you know what you want till you get what you want and you see if you like it?

On Christmas day, me and my vaguely Jewish family* joined the stereotype and, before our large dinner of Chinese food, went to the movies. Of course, being theatre dorks, there really was only one choice of film for the day. My mom wanted to see Meryl Streep, and I was dying to see pretty much everything about Into the Woods, so off we went.

My social media feed has since exploded with folks who saw it and their opinions of it. It’s kind of inevitable when you’re friends with a lot of theatre-types (many of whom are professionals and/or academics). For the most part, people have positive things to say about the experience with the occasional hater mixed in for good measure.

For my part?   Haters gonna hate (…hate hate hate hate), but you just shake it off, Stephen Sondheim.

Into the Woods was a great film adaptation of a tricky complex story. The beauty of the play is in its tightness; the multitudes of tales that become inevitably intertwined by the greater dramatic events of Sondheim’s allegory. Director Rob Marshall and script/screenplay writer James Lapine did a masterful job of cutting the sometimes unwieldy piece into a slim two-hour film version that translated into the film medium with grace. Think about the scope of Into the Woods for a moment: you’ve got giants attacking townships, you’ve got birds pecking out peoples’ eyes, you’ve got cows dying and subsequently coming back to life who need to be milked onstage (and need to be able to eat props), you’ve got a character who needs to be cut open so that two other characters can come out of his belly, you’ve got a magic talking tree that showers gold and jewels and fashion onto a main character, you’ve got beanstalks growing, palaces thriving, balls balling, and markets selling. The show itself is cinematic in scale, and that’s even before you talk about taking it to the movies.

Film allowed Into the Woods to be its delightful self: quirky, magical, spectacular, and (yes) dark.

In the woods, you may encounter a Brussels Sprouts Swashbuckler who looks suspiciously like me.... alright, look, they shouldn't put weapon-shaped food on the shelves if they don't want people to fence with it, okay?

In the woods, you may encounter a Brussels Sprouts Swashbuckler who looks suspiciously like me…. alright, look, they shouldn’t put weapon-shaped food on the shelves if they don’t want people to fence with it, okay?

Now to the comment that the film was inevitably “Disneyfied”. Come on, people, what did you expect? You really think that a film being billed as a “mish-mosh of cute little fairy tales” would confront the reality of Sondheim’s allegory? Yes, “Hello, Little Girl” was a stranger danger song with no consequences beyond being followed home and eaten, and “I Know things Now” didn’t have the connotations of a sexual awakening. The Little Red plotline was kept very literal, at least on the surface. But let’s get real. Little Red Riding Hood is a story that bears the cultural burden of sexuality and has for hundreds of years; I hardly think that one film adaptation can undo all of that history. Besides which, the film doesn’t run from Sondheim’s lyrics. If you listen, even for a moment, the allegory is still there. The wolf still makes Red “feel excited… Well, excited and scared” and she still ponders “though scary is exciting, nice is different than good”. Johnny Depp as the wolf is slimy enough that I was made uncomfortable. I personally think that the sequence worked on a level innocent enough for kids, but dark enough for the adults looking for something more.

I’ve seen a lot of hubbub about the play being feminist or anti-feminist. I would like to remind audiences that this play isn’t new news. It debuted in 1986. If you want to have a discussion about what is/is not “feminist”, you need to go back and take a look at what else was being performed and/or talked about in that year, not this one. Moreover, the capable female characters who drive the plot can hardly be called “damsels”. Yes, Cinderella is a character in the play and yes, she still has a love story with a semi-disinterested Prince Charming who stands for all things machismo…. But this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Again, I refer you to the long history of the Cinderella myth and the myriad of popular culture icons and tales which have been produced about and around it. Sondheim’s Cindy is kind, driven, and determined; all of which are salient qualities which prove invaluable to her as she deftly navigates the woods. Let’s not forget that she leaves her “perfect happy ending” because she finds out that her husband has cheated on her and that she chooses to do this despite the fact that her life will be monumentally more difficult without the Prince’s wealth and power to back her.

Musically, I think the film lends more clarity to Sondheim’s complicated lyrics than any stage play I’ve ever seen. Because of the magic of cinema, every single word of these often tongue-twistered songs was crystalline (I finally understood a portion of the witch’s rap that, despite years of trying, I had not yet gotten… who knew that “rampion” was an edible root?). Because the filmmakers were able to slow down some of the thicker passages, they read much more readily to the waiting ear. If historically you’ve taken issue with Sondheim’s music, I’d strongly recommend giving this film a shot; I think it will clear up a lot for you (and perhaps be able to provide a gateway to some of his other work).

By far my favorite portion of the film was “Agony”. Film as a medium just lends itself much more readily to satiric melodrama than stage. Which is not to say it’s impossible to pull off on the stage, just slightly more difficult. Anyway, I was in stitches the entire number and it’s well worth the price of a ticket to see two handsome princes compete for audience attention amidst a slew of water effects. I was slightly sad they cut the reprise because the number was so good that I wanted them to do it again.

There were, I will say, a surprising number of children in the audience. Let me reiterate that while this film is based on fairy tales, it is not a children’s movie to any extent. It deals with heavy and dark topics (rape, murder, infidelity, body mutilation…), and has big scary man-crushing giants. Your young children will be bored and/or scared, and will spend the entire film kicking the back of someone’s seat while you sit there pondering what, exactly, it was that you thought you were getting into.

Really all I can say about the experience is, to quote the witch, “Go to the Woods!”. Just leave small children at home. And don’t expect something the play didn’t give you; that’s just not fair.

 

*We’re cultural Jews rather than folks with any particular religious bent.

Holidays are Stressful

The hardest things about the holidays is letting yourself walk away from your desk.

This year, we’re going to be spending some time with family (a week of it away in New York). I’m really looking forward to seeing my family, I’m really looking forward to being in New York, but I’m not looking forward to the inevitable pile-up and feelings of guilt I will experience while I’m gone/when I return because I took some time off and didn’t work on my dissertation.

Though Holidays also meant I got to meet this guy: my Birthday Present was an encounter with GreenBlack the African Penguin!

Though Holidays also meant I got to meet this guy: my Birthday Present was an encounter with GreenBlack the African Penguin!

December is a tough month to work through. The inevitably jerky start/stop rhythm necessitated by finals, end-of-semester celebrations, holidays, birthdays, etc. does not lead to the most productive environment for the academic writer. Especially the academic writer who is out of coursework and thus has no excuses about why end-of-semester is so tough on the brain.

Working at your own pace on your own calendar with only the loosest of deadlines set and agreed upon with any kind of higher authority can be taxing this way. It means that you are your own boss and, as everyone knows, being your own boss means that you have to answer to yourself. Your harsh, slave-driving, judgmental, over-achieving self.

The problem with this stage of the Ph.D. is that, by this point, you know your own limits because they were pushed and tested so hard by the rigors of your exams. During my peak Comps. studying time, I was reading 4-6 books in a day (…and watching at least one documentary or film as a sort of “cool down”). I was also, of course, not-so-slowly having a nervous break-down about the stress of studying for these colossal exams, and the pace at which I was cramming information into my head. Let’s just say that it wasn’t exactly the most healthy time of my academic life (… and that seems to be the common experience amongst humanities Ph.D. candidates).

Unfortunately, this also means that I know it is entirely possible for me to work at that pace and sustain it for four months. And because I know that, I know that when I’m not working at that pace I’m not working at top capacity. And because I’m my own boss and can’t hide anything from myself, excuses don’t really jive with me. So when I don’t output at that level, I feel like I’ve “wasted a day” unless I do some pretty serious sanity checks about what I actually accomplish in a given period.

Perspective is a hard thing to maintain when you’re staring down the eyes of something as big as the Dissertation beast. At the moment my beast and I are still friends, but I am fully aware that at any time it might turn on me savagely and tear my arm off. My only hope of survival is in keeping up with the deadlines I’ve imposed on myself. Ensuring that I don’t tire myself out with irrationally-placed demands while at the same time balancing the amount of work that I need to accomplish is key to winning the long game here.

So, while I’m not going to feel entirely good about it, I am walking away from my desk for a week. When I come back, I’ll be refreshed and good to go for another year. Or at least another several months until I can justify taking another break longer than my workout.

I hope you find it in yourself to put down the keyboard and leave the book stacks to themselves for a few days. I also hope that you have a wonderful holiday season full of warmth, love, and delicious food! I know I will; there’s a maple-glazed bacon turkey in my future.

Christmas Hot Cocoa Cookies

I am still alive. I am still hard at work. The semester being over, I have officially taken a headfirst nosedive into dissertation work in hopes that I can turn out a draft of a chapter by January sometime. Things are looking pretty good for this writing schedule (though, I will admit, that’s definitely aided by the fact that I’m writing a chapter about a project which I’ve been working on for two years now).

The problem with working around this time of year is that, inevitably, you’re going to be interrupted for the holidays. We will be leaving to spend Christmas in New York with my family for most of next week, thus meaning that I have to wrap any major work I was doing here before end-of-day on Monday. It’s sometimes tough to balance things like that: you know you need to go deep, but not so deep that you can’t ear-mark it in a place that’s feasible to return to. My research, much like my plants, will need to be glutted with sustenance so that it can self-sustain in my absence.

So I’ve been reading up a storm and ordering ILL books on delay so that I’ll have something to come home to (…other than my awesome bed).

In the meantime, I made the following Hot Cocoa Cookies for our department Holiday gathering. I thought they were incredibly awesome, and I hope you do too! I took the recipe from Rachel Ray but, as usual, cut it in half (her recipe makes 60 cookies… who in their right mind would need to make 60 cookies at a clip!?). Here’s my version, complete with serving suggestions at the bottom.

Ingredients 

2 oz. unsalted butter (half a stick)
3 4 oz. bars baking chocolate: two semi-sweet, one bittersweet.
¾ cup flour
1/8 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¾ tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
¾ cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract (I tend to use vanilla paste because I find it more flavorful)
15 large marshmallows

Procedure 

Chop the semi-sweet chocolate bars into small bits and melt them along with the butter in a saucepan. Stir frequently and melt over medium heat lest you risk scorching the chocolate. When this is good and melty, allow it to cool for about 15 minutes while you do other things.

Whisk together your flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt until the mixture is a uniform color.

Beat the sugar, eggs, and vanilla together (I use an immersion blender for this, but you probably should use an electric mixer if you have one) until the mixture is smooth and consistent. Mix in the cooled chocolate until everything is just blended and an even consistency/color. Slow the mixer down to a low speed and add the flour mixture in at least two batches until everything combines nicely. You don’t want to overwhelm the wet ingredients with the dry (it creates batter lumps if you do), so just add slowly and evenly until everything is nice and mixed.

Allow this to sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes, then shape into dough balls (I use a cookie-baller to do this, but you can also use a tablespoon if you want). These are RICH AND INTENSE, so you don’t want your cookies to be too big.

At this point, I set the dough to chill in the refrigerator overnight. You don’t have to, but it does prevent the cookies from spreading out too much when you bake them. You’ll want to fridge them for at least an hour if you opt for the instant gratification baking.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and arrange your dough balls on cookie sheets. I line my cookie sheets in parchment paper, but you could also use a Silpat if you have it. I also spray with cooking spray just for extra slippiness and ease of removal upon baking. This recipe yielded 32 cookies for me which went on to two cookie sheets of 16 cookies each.

Bake for about 12 minutes or until the tops of the cookies begin to crack.

While the cookies are baking, cut your marshmallows in half. Take the bittersweet chocolate bar and divide it into 32 small squares. Place one small square on the sticky side of each marshmallow.

When the cookies have hit their crackling stage, pull them from the oven. Insert a marshmallow, chocolate-side down, into each cookie pressing gently to ensure that you’re surrounding the chocolate with almost-baked cookie batter. Once every cookie has a marshmallow hat, put the whole shebang back in the oven for about 4 minutes, or until the marshmallows are a little bit gooey and a little bit golden.

You can garnish with grated chocolate over the top at this point and it does look really pretty! Allow the cookies to cool for about five minutes in the pans before transferring to a cooling rack. I would, honestly, serve these babies warm if at all possible (I’m picky about my marshmallows and only like them when heated to gooey perfection). If you can’t serve them right from the oven, reheat them for a few minutes before putting them out and encourage guests to eat them quickly. Nom.

 

 

FaceSpace

It’s the end of the semester which means that I’ve received what I’ve now come to regard as an end-of-semester tradition: the Facebook friend requests from students who were in my classes.

Since my students are millennials who grew up in the digital era, and since I do spend so much time speaking about social media in my classes, it’s not strange that they should seek me out or otherwise find me on the Internet. Let’s get real: when’s the last time you’ve had someone be a part of your life for any significant period of time and didn’t bother to Google or Facebook them? As I’ve so often said, the Internet is a monstrous facet of the modern era and it’s not going away. We can either embrace it, or be doomed to obsoletion.

This shot of the BPL can, for instance, be found on my Instagram. And yet? I fear it not.

This shot of the BPL can, for instance, be found on my Instagram. And yet? I fear it not.

So yes, I do connect with my students via social media. My twitter feed is public (as is my Instagram, this blog, and most of my Pinterest boards), my Facebook profile has enough security checks on it that I am comfortable with what’s available to the world being public information. If and when students find me, I approve friend requests.

I know that this can cause no small amount of anxiety amongst teachers of any age. I think the vast amount of social media anxiety in regards to one’s students stems from either a lack of understanding about privacy features, or a lack of understanding about digital boundaries.

So let’s discuss how and why I keep my feeds so public.

Social media is an excellent networking resource. I have personally met future employers, kept track of contract employers, and connected people I know who could usefully utilize each others’ talents via Twitter and Facebook (connections which otherwise would have been difficult or impossible to make). I have made a digital portfolio available to potential clients via my Facebook and blog updates (I always make certain to blog or micro-blog from projects to keep this sort of record on hand). If you want the best summary of why I’m the right girl for a job, just spend some time looking at my social media feeds; they’ll tell you how hard-working I am, my relative fields of expertise, and enough about my personality that you’ll know if you want to work with me but not so much that you’ll feel like you’re looking at a tabloid.

It’s important to understand that social media doesn’t have to lay your soul open for the world to see. Social media is, very much, what you make of it. Do I occasionally do and say things which might not be construed as the most professional/that I wouldn’t want my students to find out? You bet I do. I’m human; it comes with the territory. Am I going to discuss those things or even advertise them via the public forums that are my social media feeds? Absolutely not! If I don’t put it on the internet, then it’s not magically out there waiting for someone to find.

I can understand the argument that, sometimes, others will post things to your feed which might hint at previously mentioned not-so-awesome activities and that might keep a working professional from connecting with mentees in cyberspace. This is truly a matter of knowing thy privacy settings. There are ways to ensure that content others post either doesn’t turn up on your public feed, or must be approved before going public. Understanding these options will allay the fear of being exposed in a way that you’re not ready (or willing) to be.

Social media connections are not synonymous with unhealthy mentor/mentee boundaries. In fact, I look at these connections as an extension of my mentorship. In a world of poor Facebook-public decisions, I hope that my students can view my social media feeds as a good example of how to handle a digital persona. After all, how are students meant to understand the best way to build themselves a valuable digital presence if those skills aren’t taught, discussed, or demonstrated to them? This is a teaching opportunity which can assist my students in developing life-skills which will carry them into the job market, far past their careers at the University.

This is not to say that it’s “wrong” to keep your social media feeds private. Everyone has their own comfort level with technology, and that needs to be respected. But just as the choice to maintain a locked-down internet presence is valid, so is the choice to curate a public online persona and to utilize that persona to further enrich the lives of your students.