Reclaiming my Life

In a faster-than-light turn-around time, the fate of my PhD career has been decided: I have, officially, passed my written comprehensive exam!

There is still a long way to go on the road to doctorhood (next up: orals; after which I can (non-denominational deity willing) call myself a “Doctoral Candidate” instead of a “Doctoral Student” and, perhaps, take a much-needed and well-deserved BREAK).  That said, I’m champing at the bit for the next challenge and I’ve hit the ground running with the projects which had been sitting dormant just waiting for my exams to be complete.

I had been told that Comps would drain me.  That I should expect to not do much of anything for a week or so after I sat the exam.

I found that this was true for the day or two directly following my final turn-in moment.  I was dead tired.  But I was also aware, as only a Type A personality can be, that I had a long list of things waiting for me.  I had some deadlines looming; conference papers to write, blog posts that I owed people (details on that to follow!), and friends to catch up with.

While I was bone-weary, I was simultaneously caught in an existential loop of utter chaos.

a pretty shot of campus I took the other day

a pretty shot of campus I took the other day

My life had been built upon preparing for and taking this exam for so long; what was I supposed to do now without it?  Who was I if I wasn’t a book-reading machine designed only to take notes and choke down more theatre history?  And what did my academic career really mean if I, for some reason, hadn’t succeeded at this monumental thing that I just did?

That not-so-slowly faded into a wave of “OH GOD I HAVE ALL THESE PROJECTS TO DO!”  Luckily, since I had effectively proven to myself via the test that I’m an invincible super-girl, this did not panic me nearly as much as it would have in the days B.C. (Before Comps).  In picking at the sides of my projects, I have been slowly but surely making good progress on them and, after Tuesday, will have knocked a few things off my desk so I can move onto the next step: orals.

It also took me some time to reconnect with my social and personal life.  Towards the end of the comps process, I limited my interaction with the outside world.  Part of this was of necessity; since I was studying much more, I didn’t have time to see anyone.  Part of this was also a calming mechanism: as a terminal introvert, I just didn’t have the extra energy for social interaction.  Especially any social interaction that I had to think about (which, for an introvert, is a surprisingly large amount).  Because of all these factors (and the fact that I was still tired and brain-fried), I had to be very careful about re-introducing myself to my life.  I did not have a giant blowout bash; I made play-dates to see my close friends in small group situations.  I did not invite a ton of people over to my house; I went outside to smell the fresh air and not have to look at my desk for a while.

I cleaned my desk.  Oh god did I clean my desk.

I also hopped in to rehearsal to put together some stage violence. Because nothing gets me feeling like myself again like punching students.

I also hopped in to rehearsal to put together some stage violence. Because nothing gets me feeling like myself again like punching students.

I’m slowly returning library books, but as my last count was over 150 books and I can only bring them back in manageable loads (10-20 or so), it’s been taking some time.  At this point, I’ve gotten at least half of them returned (though I have picked up some more in the process to assist me with aforementioned projects).

I am, with more and more seriousness, exploring the idea of reading for leisure once more.  During the final stages of studying, it was all I could do to tumble into bed at night and, due to eyestrain and general brain fatigue, leisure reading was right out.  This unfortunately meant that To Be or Not to Be (Choose your own Adventure Hamlet) and William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope sat sadly in the corner mostly un-cracked.  The more days that go by, the more these volumes look appealing to me.  It’s like regaining your appetite after you’ve had a stomach flu; it feels so good just to want these things again.

I’ve been calling this process “reclaiming my life” because, really, that’s how it feels.  For several days after the exam, I walked around feeling not like myself.  Like a stranger in my own body.  These days, I’m feeling more and more Dani-like.  The whiteboard is back to its normal peacekeeping.  My tasks feel less alien and more comfortable (and comforting!).  I’ve returned to using caffeine as a morning stimulant and not a life-line.

On the whole, I’m doing great.  I’m not back to 100% yet, but I can tell that I’ll get there.  I’m also feeling ready to take on the next challenge which, really, is the most important part.

Onward!  Into the Wild Blue Yonder! To Doctorhood; and beyond!

I’m Back!

I am back!  Did you miss me?  I can say, dear reader, with some certainty, that I missed you.

That and it feels like forever.  I can only describe with great trepidation the odd sensation of time over the past few weeks.  It would slow down and speed up of its own accord and my willingness to make it do otherwise had little or nothing to do with this.

For example: the week before my exam felt far too short to be a week.  The day before my exam was gone before I knew it.  The time that passed between arriving at the testing center and receiving the exam questions felt infinite.  The time that passed during the exam felt miniscule.  The time that has passed since I turned in the last portion of the exam feels monumental.

But I get ahead of myself.  Let me start here: I learned many things during this process.

This is obvious.  One does not simply read two hundred books over the course of three months and learn nothing (I’m not joking about this number or even exaggerating… I tracked it via library checkouts, loans from friends, and the extent of my personal library which got shuffled around over the summer).  I learned facts, dates, biographical details, yes.  I also learned how to learn, how my body reacts to extreme stress, and where the line is for me, personally, between “I’m Okay” and “THIS IS TOO MUCH” (for the record: that line is somewhere in between life-changing personal crisis compounded with life-changing exam compounded with the seeming requirement for shouldering the burden of household responsibility).  That’s something of itself as, really, who gets to push herself to her own personal limit?  Ever?  I can tell you for a fact that anyone with the letters “PhD” after her name has done so at least once and probably many times.

What I have hinted at here is the not-so-apparent aspect of what comps teaches you: it’s not just about memorizing and synthesizing information.  It’s also about the academic process and your personal process.

In many ways, comps was a series of alternatingly small and gigantic revelations about myself as a human being, myself as an intellectual, and myself through my work.  Once a revelation was achieved, then came the inevitable breakdown; I’d discover something mind-bending about the avant-garde, then cry about eggplant.  I’d unearth some fact about theatre history from my brain on complete impulse and relate it to whatever was going on at the time, then melt down because there were dishes in the sink.  I’d come to some miraculous understanding of Noh drama, then rage quit talking to anyone in the outside world because they just didn’t understand what I was going through in that moment.

Let me tell you, taking the exam puts certain things in perspective.  Day one of my in-

house, during my lunch break, I walked across the street to my favorite pastry shop to purchase a treat for myself in an effort to maintain my own sanity.  The gentleman retrieving

my desk on the last day just before I left to turn in my take-home

my desk on the last day just before I left to turn in my take-home

my delectable carb-bomb did so grudgingly, with much heavy sighing, and not a single smile or kind word.  I couldn’t help but think, rather viciously, that there was no possible way he was A) having a worse day than I; or B) more mentally taxed by his job on that particularly day than I.

The exam lasted for six days; two in-house and four to write a take-home.  Over the course of these six days, I had six (what I shall refer to as) “Golden Revelations”.  Allow me to take a moment to share those with you now:

Day One: I might just get out of this alive.

Day Two: I know a lot more than I think I know.

Day Three: My personal library contains a lot of books about my area of expertise and, moreover, these books are actually useful in paper-writing.

Day Four: Mostly, this process is about never being able to utter the words “I can’t” ever again.

Day Five:  This is how the rest of the world writes research papers (at the last minute under the pressure of a hair-triggered-gun-wielding-maniac ready to grade you down for the slightest mistake).  I never.  Ever.  Want to do this again.  Ever.  When this is over, I’m going to devote my time to ensuring that my schedule accounts for this new personal quest.

Day Six:  Against all odds, I might just be an intelligent human being with worthwhile things to say.  Particularly about things I know about.  I just used the same word twice in a sentence.  I may be tired.

Despite the ever-present urge to draw a picture of Shakespeare riding a T-Rex while battling Godzilla, turn that in, and call it “good”, I managed to finish my exams without a single doodle (and narrowly avoided using the following phrases, all of which appeared in preliminary drafts of my essays: “not your momma’s authentic Shakespeare”, “fifth act wedding-palooza”, “as Ru Paul says: Don’t F— it Up”, and “one does not simply discover that she’s have an incestuous relationship with her own son/husband’s killer (same person) then calmly walk offstage to hang herself”).

"the other side" has given me room to do things like pontificate while climbing trees.  As you can clearly see.

“the other side” has given me room to do things like pontificate while climbing trees. As you can clearly see.

So here I am.  On the other side.

Or, I should say, here I am in the waiting place since it’s not really over until they grade the exams and release those results.  But for now; I’m going to revel in the fact that I did it.  I got through my exams.  For better or worse, I have walked through that particular fire.  It has changed me, but I’d like to think that it’s tempered me rather than melted me.

More on comps to come, but for now I’m just glad to be back.

…ergo sum

I am really tired.

Everything is funny.

Everything is beautiful, and nothing hurt.

No wait, that’s not it.

I am… a seagull.


I am… an actress.

I am… over-worked and completely stressed out.

I am attempting to find comfort in frozen yogurt and hard cider.

side-note: the acorn head at Tufts has been replaced by this dapper gentleman.  Whomever worked the sparkly tophat onto this deserves a good hardy handshake.

side-note: the acorn head at Tufts has been replaced by this dapper gentleman. Whomever worked the sparkly tophat onto this deserves a good hardy handshake.

I am reading and re-reading, copying information onto index cards, thinking deep thoughts, trying to make the puzzle pieces slide into place and keep them slid once they get there, trying to control the number of books I have in my house, trying to make sure I don’t rack up overdue fees on anything.

I am prepping my syllabus for Acting I, scanning readings, setting up my online bulletin board for my students.

I am bracing for the new semester and all the meetings that come with it.

I am evaluating my fall wardrobe and what pieces I need to acquire/dispense with.

I am both praising and cursing the coming of seasonal pumpkin flavored treats.  This is not going to be good for my diet but OH MAN DO I LOVE ME SOME PUMPKIN.

I am counting the days until this is all over and the next chapter begins.

I am cursing myself for counting the days because that means I have to face the reality of this test actually happening.

I am going back to work.

Lazy, Hazy Days

Yesterday, I meandered onto campus to run a few errands in what I will blissfully refer to as “the last golden days of summer”.

Summer (or any large break for that matter) on a university campus is a blissful time.  A peaceful time.  A time when graduate students can haul books around without fear of being held up by a large pack of care-free mozying undergrads taking up the entire sidewalk.  A time when a graduate student can be assured that librarians (or diligent hard-working student laborers) will be at the circulation desk and, thereby, will not be told that she can just “leave her books over there” when clearly she wants them checked in in front of her because she has 150 check-outs and can’t afford overdue fees due to some error or loss between her hand and the library’s tender cradle.  A time when on-campus errands can be accomplished in a breezy way since there are no lines at the public safety desk and thereby IDs and Parking Passes can be picked up in fifteen minutes rather than two hours.

In this last week of summer, I was smart enough to do all of my pre-semester business before the crowds arrive (a wonder in itself that I had the presence of mind since my brain is essential blown for anything that’s not theatre history right now, and even that is touch and go).  As I looked around I realized a few things:

1)   Wow, this was really smart.

2)   Some of these fresh-faced kids sporting around campus may be my students in just a few weeks.

3)   …I had probably better find somewhere else to practice my bullwhip.

Sixteen days to comps lift-off.  Headed back to the grind now.


Riding the Wave

Lately I’ve been doing what I not-so-fondly refer to as “riding the wave”.

It begins like this: it’s Monday.  I have all my books lined up for the week in neat bite-size piles.  I can totally do this.  I’ve learned so much already and I’m a rockstar.  No, I’m friggen invincible.  I’m bloody supergirl.  I can conquer not only this book pile, but maybe one or two from tomorrow’s book pile and OH MAN THAT EXAM BETTER LOOK OUT!

Tuesday morning dawns and I’m still riding the Monday high, rearing to go, totally ready for whatever the day brings with it.

By Wednesday I have to slow down a bit.  My zen isn’t completely blown, but I begin to experience symptoms of eye strain/brain overload/stress and I decide to take it easy for the day so I can make it through my week.

By Thursday, I’m completely frazzled.  I have (sometimes) multiple panic attacks, I don’t want to see or talk to anyone, I’m pounding my head into my desk singing “I suuuuck I suck I suck I suck I suuuuuccckkkk” (see: 2:48).  I often give up reading halfway through the day in lieu of watching filmed theatre or documentaries.  I have a fitful night.  Sometimes I drown my sorrows in ice cream.  Sometimes I opt for a beer.

Friday, I drag myself out of bed and a miraculous thing happens: I talk myself into doing it again.  Somehow, through sheer force of will, I sit back down at my desk, portion out some more books, and crack them and get to work.  I take it easy for the first few hours, but eventually I get going and when I really get going I’m hard pressed to stop.  I remember why I love theatre.  I remember why I’m doing this.  I remember why I picked this life style.  By the end of the day, my spirits aren’t completely revived but I am resolved to spend the weekend relaxing and recharging and getting ready to do it again next week.

The important part isn’t that we love what we’re doing all the time.  We’re not going to love what we’re doing all the time.  There’s always going to be some part of the job that we loathe, detest, or otherwise makes us utterly stressed out.  The important part is that, when this does happen, we pull it together.  We pick ourselves up and get back on the proverbial horse.  We charge back into the fray, guns blazing, ready to show that research who’s boss.

I am officially T-minus twenty days to comps liftoff.

Here I go, back into the fight.


In Nōh drama (an ancient Japanese style heavily laden with chanting and slow rhythmic dance), the desired effect of a piece is termed yūgen.  Sometimes, yūgen is translated as “grace” or “a mysterious sense of beauty”, but honestly it’s just easier to try and wrap your head around the concept of yūgen than to find a good way to define or translate it.

Yūgen, when achieved, is supposedly a symptom of “refined elegance” that properly executed Nōh brings with it.  Attempting to understand it is today’s metaphor for attempting to prepare for the comprehensive exams.

the book fort is growing

the book fort is growing

You don’t really know what comps are, despite knowing what comps are (just like yūgen).  Even when you think you may understand it, explaining it to someone else is extremely difficult and you find yourself resorting to all kinds of crazy metaphors (…i.e. this post).  While it may perhaps relate to something completely outside of its realm (comps prep relates to athletics like yūgen relates to comps prep), you can never truly pin down entirely what it is.  When you think you have achieved it, you can only understand that by a true inner calm and a self-assurance that you have done well.  While others may, by gazing from the outside in, observe the process within you, only you can be completely assured that you have truly done it.

Actors study for decades to achieve yūgen.  I have studied for decades to reach the comprehensive exams.  Japanese acting teachers are notoriously abusive in their training techniques; as is the world of academia (especially since the old guard had to walk fifteen miles uphill both ways in the snow to retrieve their library books and, of course, speak fifteen languages so thereby don’t need translations of foreign-language passages in their texts).  Japanese theatre is a man’s tradition (women were banned from the stage until the later part of the twentieth century, and even now there are extremely few female performers of the traditional theatre types; Nōh and Bunraku especially; Kabuki has a bit more).  Academia is still very much an old boys’ club.  Dressing in drag is discouraged in either setting (once they let ladies onto the stage, it took care of a lot of anxieties about what onstage cross-dressing meant for Japanese gender identity… and as much as I LOVE Ru Paul, somehow I don’t think she’d make the appropriate kind of splash if she showed up in full regalia to lecture “Theatre History 101”).

Appreciative audiences often sleep through Nōh productions (the desired

a better/alternate shot of the book fort

a better/alternate shot of the book fort

viewing state is the place between wakefulness and dream, so this activity, unlike in the Western theatre, is not at all discouraged).  Sometimes I take naps on books (especially if they’re not particularly engaging, or alternatively too mentally taxing).

Achieving yūgen is essentially achieving a divine state.  I can imagine that completing comps will feel the same way.  I only wish that there would be an ensuing audience to give me a GIANT round of applause while I take a triumphant bow when I turn in the final portion of the exam.

I am officially one month away from my test.  I think I’ve finally defeated the six-day stress headache that made me slow way down last week to accommodate the ailment (…though I won’t say that too loudly in case the headache-from-hell hears).

…let’s try to achieve some nirvana, shall we?

The Care and Feeding of your Comps-Taking PhD-to-be

As we launch into August, it has come to my attention that I will have to take the comprehensive exam.

“Well, duh!” You say, “Isn’t that what you’ve been studying for since June?  Isn’t that the cause of your extreme stress, and the true root of every single nightly anxiety dream you’ve been experiencing?  Don’t you already know this?”

…yes, I know this.  In theory.  Comps, much like any other part of this process of becoming, is something that is effectively fiction until it’s reality.  You know that it’s listed as a degree requirement in the Graduate Student Handbook, you see its wake in the eyes of your senior colleagues, you understand that it is a thing that does happen, but until you have some confirmation that it will happen to you it still seems like you roommate’s imaginary Boyfriend who lives in Canada*.

For me, the concrete proof came in an e-mail from our department admin this week announcing the dates of the exam, some details about the exam, and the locations where we will each be subject to our individual torture hell anguish trial.  This, combined with the realization that it is, in fact, August and thereby the summer will, at some point, end has added some heat to the proverbial fire and kicked my already-overblown stress level into overdrive.  The anxiety dreams have gotten more pressing (though, sadly, more routine and so affect me less when I wake up), the fatigue has gotten more dragging, and the day-to-day realities of comps studying have

Another cute picture of a cat that's not mine with books that are mine.

Another cute picture of a cat that’s not mine with books that are mine.

gotten more mind-numbing.  I’d love to say I was in the final stretch, but I’m really only cresting the mid-point.  I’ve got about a third of the way left to go.

This in mind, I would like to take a moment to address the care and feeding of your beloved PhD student.  If you’re reading this, there is (in some capacity) someone in your life who has, will, or is gone through or going through this process.  As such, please bear in mind the following fundamental truths of comps studying:

Truth the first: every small adjustment, change, or mishap is suddenly a GIANT CALAMITY.  Right now, there are very few things that we can control.  Changing a SINGLE THING which falls inside that realm is simply disastrous.  In the past week, I’ve burst into tears over eggplant because it wasn’t in the fridge when I expected it to be.  No joke.  Treat your PhD student gently and if something ABSOLUTELY HAS TO CHANGE, make sure it has the smallest effect on his/her existence.

Truth the second: We don’t have enough hours in our day.  Do not expect us to go above and beyond for anything right now (note: “above and beyond” can just mean “hey, can you take out the trash AND recycling because of completely reasonable reason y?”  See truth the first for further explanation on this point).  Also, do not expect us to be capable of organizing, planning, being in charge, helping, assisting, or taking care of anything no matter how menial it may seem.  We simply can’t do it.

Truth the third: Small words.  Please.  Use small words.  And unless you’re talking to us about our field, don’t expect to engage us in any conversation that requires more than grunts, nods, or Neolithic fist pounding.  If you do expect such engagement, also expect that we will almost immediately find a way to turn the conversation back to whatever it is we’re studying.  Example: I found clear references to eighteenth century acting technique in Pixar’s Monster’s University.  When my companion asked what I thought of the film, it was about all I had to add to the conversation.

2013-07-28 21.36.58

and another picture of my desk. This time in PANORAMA!

Truth the fourth: Any small kindness will be taken as earth-shatteringly wonderful.  This includes meal-cooking/meal-providing, hugs without conversation, and pretty much any unobtrusive reminder that you’re there, you love us, and you understand we’re going through a rough time but don’t worry it’ll get better soon.

Truth the fifth: Treat plan-making with us as a precarious process which may or may not come to full fruition, and please PLEASE don’t take it personally when we have to stay home and read, work late for some reason, etc.  This also includes unanswered/unreturned texts or phone calls.  We still love you and we promise that we’ll get back to you come September when this ordeal has come to its inevitable conclusion.

Truth the sixth: As odd as this may look from the outside, this is a life-changing process which (literally) determines the fate of our future.  Our entire careers will be changed by the outcome of this exam.  Dealing with that reality every day is daunting, dizzying, and frankly terrifying.  We are essentially training our brains to think like professional academics and this is something we will use for the rest of our lives.  Please don’t compare our stress over this to your bad day at work, the failures of your dating life, or burning dinner.  It will just make us angry and frustrated that you don’t really understand what we’re going through.

Truth the seventh: Pretty much just treat us like cranky three-year-olds and you can’t go wrong.  Simple things that provide amusement are appreciated, tasty treats will always be greeted with gratitude, ignoring us when we’re having a temper tantrum is perfectly acceptable.

I assure you, we will repay the favor tenfold when we’re no longer living in the seventh circle.

*Please Note: My current roommate doesn’t have one of these, but I understand from contemporary satire (i.e. Avenue Q.) that it could be a thing which a hopelessly single person might say in order to convince his/her friends that he/she is not, in fact, hopelessly single.

And Knowing is Half the Battle

Since I seem to be writing nothing but theatre reviews lately (…mostly because I’m seeing SO MUCH THEATRE!), I figure it may be time for a reprieve from the “mundane” (or at least routine) around here.

Here is an unexclusive, incomplete list of things that I learned this week.

Thing one: Cyrano De Bergerac is a tragedy… and actually really sad.  This would be fine except I saved it to read for when I needed a pick-me-up… suffice to say it’s been a rough week for many reasons (only one of which being the sheer amount of maudlin tragedy I’ve had to choke down this week).

Thing two: Peanut butter, when put in a saucepan, burns really quickly.  If you want to melt it to… say… pour over your ice cream, you need to do it low and slow.

Thing three: Early Russian theatre sometimes consisted of “serf theatre”.

Shot of my desk... and my book fort.  Yup.  It's a book fort.

Shot of my desk… and my book fort. Yup. It’s a book fort.

The Russian feudal system persevered long after it was abolished in other countries (my mostly uninformed hypothesis about this entails factors such as geographic distance from anywhere that may have been interested in creating a mercantile class, a sure-fire way to abolish feudalism, and the many puns one can create using the word “serf”).  Russian landowners, for lack of better things to do, sometimes trained their serfs and created theatre companies with them to perform for said landowners’ amusement.  This, for some reason, is both fascinating and wonderful to me.  Probably because I’ve never been a Russian peasant.

Thing four: When held in contrast with other nineteenth century pieces and scholarship about said nineteenth century pieces, melodrama actually makes for surprisingly engaging reading.  Go go Pixerécourt.

Thing five: I think if Victor Hugo had actually written the playscript to Les Miserables rather than just the novel that it was based on, it would have been markedly more wonderful, decidedly more Spanish, and never would have run on Broadway for a record 6,680 performances.  See for evidence: Hernani.

Thing six: If you hope hard enough, despite all natural barriers to the contrary, you can make it be autumn in New England even in July.

Thing seven: You could very feasibly murder people utilizing nineteenth century stage technologies and hide their bodies in places that would never be found, even within the theatre itself.  Unfortunately, once I had this thought, actually enacting such things was the only notion on my mind as I flipped through my well-illustrated guide to the nineteenth century French stage.  As such, I’m earmarking this idea for a potential future novel; sounds like a great historical detective case to me.

This is a REALLY cute kitten taking a nap (about palm-sized for the record).  He's not mine, but I like him better that way. I don't have to clean his poop.

This is a REALLY cute kitten taking a nap (about palm-sized for the record). He’s not mine, but I like him better that way. I don’t have to clean his poop.

Thing eight:  I wasn’t just whistling Dixie when I told people that German would be a useful language to have in my back pocket in the field of theatre history.  Just this week I’ve encountered several books and one play (the play, unfairly enough, was Russian in its original language) which entail lengthy/important passages in both French and German that the scholar/translator couldn’t be bothered to render into English.  Academic superpowers activate!

Thing nine: For this reason, I will really be screwed when I enter into the land of Japanese theatre.

Thing ten:  I’m really grateful to have friends who will push me to tell them about what I read on any given day.  Also friends who will go with me to the theatre.  Also friends who will pester me via text message until I leave my cave and socialize in the real world.  Also friends who will let me call and cry/whine/complain about neoclassicism and why it’s an abomination against art… even if they don’t really understand what neoclassicism is.  Also friends who speak Shakespeare to me as a means of comfort.  Thank you, friends!

Thing eleven:  Restoration comedies are WAY funnier performed than on the page.

Thing twelve: I should probably consider taking a break sometime soon lest I devolve into some sort of Gollum creature mindlessly repeating pertinent names, dates, and phrases that would only make sense in the context of theatre history.

A Request

Over the course of the last several years, I’ve noticed an epidemic.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a professional researcher (amongst other things), or perhaps it’s because I’m naturally less inclined than others of my acquaintance to ask for help, or perhaps it’s because self-sufficiency is a valuable character trait to me.  Whatever it is, this epidemic is prominent enough to bear mentioning.

People would rather ask than find out.

It starts off simply enough; rather than dig through an instruction manual, you ask a friend how to accomplish task X utilizing tool Y.  Since tool Y is something you are less familiar with than said fried (who perhaps uses tool Y in his work), this just makes sense.  The friend tells you the straightforward answer to your straightforward question and you go on your merry way.

This quickly escalates into phone calls at 2AM from technically unsound persons asking you to effectively tech support their vaguely described problem over the phone for an hour when you should be sleeping.

In my case, I get asked questions about theatre.  A lot.  Generally I don’t mind these questions because it shows that my friends A) respect my field of expertise, B) like me enough to listen to me talk for a while, and C) are genuinely interested in something I’m passionate about.  “Which play should I take my out-of-town friends to see right now?”, for instance, is a great question that I’d love to spend time answering during even my most busy days.

The only time asking questions is really an issue is when I have absolutely no time, every second I spend answering texts is a second I’m not spending reading about Weimar Classicism, and the question I am asked is one which I’ve already answered in a blog post.  Recently.

Look, I would love to chat with you about theatre and, chances are, if you have

yet another comps studying still life

yet another comps studying still life

my phone number you’re someone I like enough to talk to.  But right now, I really can’t spare the moment it will take to give you a well thought-out answer to most things.  Especially if you can’t be bothered to do the preliminary research yourself to find out that the question you just asked me is something I’ve already taken time out of my day to write a nice, long, thoughtful post about.

So before you text to ask “what do you think of [x Shakespeare movie] or [y local theatre production]?”, take a moment to do your research.

This question, unfortunately, is just a symptom.  It’s a symptom of the same disease that causes my students to ask “what does [x word] mean?” instead of looking it up in the dictionary.  As a society, we’ve become complacent.  I would like to say that this complacency is the death of intelligence, but that sounds far too chicken little for my tastes.

Here’s a care and feeding tip for all of you with over-wrought PhD students in your life: before you ask anything of them, keep in mind that they are working.  Hard.  All the time.  Every little question/text is a moment out of their day.  If you would like them to give you information, do them the courtesy of at least performing preliminary google searches for the information which you require before interrupting them with a question that could easily be answered via the internet.  These questions entail you asking for a moment of your PhD student’s time; this is a professional commodity.  Just like a shopkeeper sells wares, an academic makes her bread off of research skills, knowledge, and the time in which to accomplish these.   Chances are, your PhD student is are happy to lend said professional commodity to you because she likes you.  But if you’re basically asking for free labor, at least meet her halfway and show that you are respectful enough of her time and energy to utilize this time and energy for something worthwhile.

And now back to your regularly scheduled comps studying.

DISCLAIMER: It should be noted that this particular issue is one which I’ve noticed over time and a broad cross-section of people.  In other words: this post isn’t a passive-aggressive attempt to respond to any one text or e-mail I’ve received over the past few weeks, but rather a generalization about the root of this problem.

Lateral Thinking

My friends, I have discovered the secret to comps study longevity.

Lateral Thinking.

“Lateral Thinking” is a concept introduced to me by the great John Basil when I was studying with him at the American Globe Theatre.  John contended that it was the key to comedy.  He had a hard time defining it, but gave us the following example to help understand it:

He once saw a televised game show akin to family feud in which contestants had to reply to a prompt with something which they think might be a popular answer.  So for instance, if the category was “things you would take on an airplane”, the contestant could say “suitcase”, “neck pillow”, etc.  There was a time component to this particular round so the contestant had to be the first to press his buzzer and answer.

The category was “things you sit on.”  One contestant, feverish in his

Working the other day while hiding out from the heat.

Working the other day while hiding out from the heat.

pursuit of fame, fortune, and a cruise, instantaneously pressed his buzzer and shouted the first thing which came to his mind: “BROCCOLI!”

“Lateral Thinking” it turns out is a fairly recent development in logic.  A phrase coined by Maltese physician Edward De Bono, it refers to the method of solving problems by way of creativity.  Rather than a “vertical” approach (solving a problem step by step, with each step logically leading to the next) or a “horizontal” approach (throwing out idea upon idea without concern for implementation, a process often linked with imagination over logic), lateral thinking encourages ingenuity and attacking a problem via completely indirect means.

In terms of comedy, we can see how this appeals.  Comedy, the axiom goes, comes from recognition and surprise.  We laugh at something because we either recognize the situation which is being presented to us, or we are utterly surprised by the seemingly illogical response of the individuals/things within the situation (think of every Charlie Chaplin sketch ever).

In terms of comps, Lateral Thinking is key.  I can spend several hours a day with my books, but when I recognize that I’ve hit brain-melt o’clock, it is time to implement something drastically different.  Often, I can work for six to seven hours at a clip before I just can’t work anymore.  At this point, I need to walk away from my computer and engage in a physical activity of some kind.

Because of this, my running schedule has been wonderfully regular, and I’m picking up some extra party tricks to add to my “fun, cool-looking, dangerous things that Danielle does because she was allegedly raised by circus gypsies”*.  I’m learning to spin poi (…mostly so that I can light them on fire and add this to my list of fire tricks; I already breathe and eat fire so really, what else is there to do but weave the stuff around my body in complicated and death-defying ways?), and my sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law have finally convinced me of the merits of the bull whip as a viable form of physical relaxation (Okay, I know what you’re thinking, and it probably has something to do with corsets and

my haul from Tisch complete with HELLOPHANT!

my haul from Tisch complete with HELLOPHANT!

dungeons, but please believe me when I tell you that bull whip is actually more of a martial art than a… ahem… personal art form).  If you consider the fact that I have to bike about a half mile to get to anywhere where I can legally play with the whip (and where it’s safe to do so), that’s a fair amount of physical activity I can sneak into my day.

I’ve found that this serves as a combination stress-reliever, mood enhancer, and diet-booster.  I’ve also found that if I take a break like this for about an hour, I can come back and sneak in another few hours of work.

So there you have it: physical activity saves brains, and always eat your vegetables.

Lateral thinking: not just for problem-solving logicians anymore.

*only partially true; we’re more like the Partridge Family meets a Renaissance Faire