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.


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


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.



Happy, Merry, Healthy!

For those who were unaware, I really really love Christmas.

This may not be so odd until you consider that I’m an agnostic raised by Jews.

My deep love of all things Christmas extends to food, music, lights, celebrations, traditional flora, decorating, movies, gift giving, literature, and theatre.

This year, to celebrate the holidays with you (my wonderful readers) I was determined to

Yankee Candle has this beautiful display to help you get in the Christmas Spirit.  It's up year-round at the flagship store.

Yankee Candle has this beautiful display to help you get in the Christmas Spirit. It’s up year-round at the flagship store.

provide a list of opening lines to my favorite Christmas tales.  While I am a little bit late on this, you’ll have to forgive me (Santa seems to have brought me a nasty cold).  Since literature is ever lasting anyway, you can perhaps consider this as your first step towards detoxing from egg nog and Yule logs.

A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore (1823):

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there…

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843):

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail. 

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868):

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. 

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (1957):

Every Who Down in Whoville Liked Christmas a lot…
But the Grinch,Who lived just north of Whoville, Did NOT!
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason. 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Romeo Muller and Robert May (1964):

If I live to be a hundred, I’II never be able to forget that big snowstorm a couple of years ago.  The weather closed in, and, well, you might not believe it, but the world almost missed Christmas.  Oh, excuse me. Call me Sam.  What’s the matter?  Haven’t you ever seen a talking snowman before?

A Charlie Brown Christmas by Charles M. Schulz (1965):

It was finally Christmastime, the best time of the year. The houses were strung with tiny colored lights, their windows shining with warm yellow glow only Christmas could bring. The scents of pine needles and hot cocoa mingled together, wafting through the air, and the sweet sounds of Christmas carols could be heard in the distance.

 Fluffy white snowflakes tumbled from the sky onto a group of joyful children as they sang and laughed, skating on the frozen pond in town. Everyone was happy and full of holiday cheer. That is, everyone except for Charlie Brown.

The Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton (1993):

 ‘Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams.  For the story that you are about to be told, took place in the holiday worlds of old.  Now, you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from.  If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun.

Strawberry Banke Candlelit Christmas Tour; SO lovely.

Strawberry Banke Candlelit Christmas Tour; SO lovely.

Love Actually by Richard Curtis (2003):

 Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport. General opinion started to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy but it’s always there.

Obviously I could go on, but I’ll leave it there lest you wind up reading until next Christmas.  I hope you had a wonderful holiday, and that you were gifted with everything you could have possibly wanted!

Please note: I will be away for a week celebrating with my family.  I won’t be checking in here, but I’ll be back in the New Year to continue coverage from the front.  Have a happy and healthy one, and catch you in 2014!


Now is the Winter of our Discontent

In these, the waning days of my winter break, I am taking stock of all the sundry things that I have managed to commit to for the semester to come.  And let me tell you; apparently I don’t know how to have a quiet semester.

I’ll be taking one class, TAing a second, working on my usual assortment of personal projects having nothing to do with work, dramaturging Measure for Measure, brushing up on my German, passing my German exam, in a show (this is my semi-secret-not-so-secret-not-yet-ready-to-be-released-to-the-world project), podcasting, and blogging.

No wonder I’m already going through all the stress symptoms I usually associate with the end of the semester.

For that, I think with a good system of organization in place, I should be able to hit everything I need to hit without overmuch stress on myself.

At least I hope so.

So, since I’m still working on enjoying my break, I’ll leave you with this truncated post and some pictures from my trip to New York over the holidays.

Happy Break, y’all!

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Not Yet Dead

This is an obligatory “I’m not dead” post (also, incidentally, my first post of the post-apocalyptic 2013…. If we think of this year as “post-apocalyptic”, it’s guaranteed to make no matter what happens at least 50% more magical and 25% more awesome).

Since I got home from New York, things have been rather quiet.

I’m clearing off my desk, I’m sending e-mails that I had been putting off, I’m having meetings that had to wait until after finals, and I’m catching up on quality me-time.

I’m getting my knitting docket all lined up for the semester, I’m kicking off some exciting projects (can you say “eight person Twelfth Night”!?  Stay tuned!), I’m ordering my books, I’m obsessively checking online grading system, I’m trying my darndest not to think about German or Comps for another week.

I’m getting my gym and eating habits back on line, I’m catching up with old friends who

my favorite shot from New York: the Union Square Holiday Market (best experienced while sipping Italian Dark hot Chocolate from Max Brenner's which, by the way, I was)

my favorite shot from New York: the Union Square Holiday Market (best experienced while sipping Italian Dark hot Chocolate from Max Brenner’s which, by the way, I was)

got sacrificed under the finals bus (and were nice enough to understand), I’m mentally resetting and preparing for the last semester of coursework for my PhD.

I’m learning to use my brand shiny new cappuccino machine (thanks, mom and dad!), I’m getting my new computer set up with my docking station (again, thanks to the best daddy on the face of the planet), I’m trying to figure out how to get icloud to sync my calendars without fubaring things (surprisingly difficult given apple’s generally idiot-proof interfacing).

I’m podcasting ( in case you hadn’t heard), I’m rehearsing, I’m web committee chairing, I’m reviewing syllabi for my Spring TA assignment.

On the whole, I’m doing my best to rest and rejuvenate.  I’m also aligning things so that all of my projects are on a roll before the semester starts and thus will not need extra kicking to begin rolling down long bumpy hills when I’m in the middle of paper-drafting or midterms-grading or any number of inevitable things that the semester brings with it.

I highly recommend that you do the same.

The semester will soon be upon us and we all need to be prepared for its onset.

After the End Times

If you are reading this, it means that I have survived finals.

Well, actually, it means that the programming on my website didn’t fail me as I scheduled it to post this entry at a time after which I would have turned in my last paper and during which I would be in a car driving home to New York for the holidays and, since blogging while driving is not something that computers have figure out yet (I’m confident that Siri will change this soon), decided that was my best course of action.

Life: I'm doing it right

Life: I’m doing it right

Here is a still-life I managed to capture of my desk the other day (completely not posed, just how my desk looked at the time).  Yes, that is my ukulele and those are my chord charts.  Yes, that is a nineteenth century print of an engraving depicting Act V of As You Like It sent to me by my Academic Fairy Godfather.  Yes, my tape dispenser is in the shape of a black platform stiletto.  As far as I’m concerned, this picture is proof-positive that whatever life choices I’ve made which lead to this moment are absolutely correct.  A pretty validating thought for the end of my last fall semester of coursework.

This semester’s been tougher than I thought it would be.  That said, I learned a lot, met some really interesting people, and have some shiny new projects to get me through the winter/Spring.

So, since I’m done, I’m taking a short break to be with my family for a week.  I promise I’ll be back after the holiday.  For now, have a watch of this “holiday card” I prepared for you (…when I say I’m only a “passable ukulele player” I really do mean it, so please take this as a sort of “amusing anecdotal internet offering” rather than any sort of masterpiece…. I know I messed it up at least once).

Happy holidays, happy finals being over, and happy take-a-friggen-break.  You deserve it!

Lost of love,


A Christmas Rant

With the holidays coming up, I feel the need to put my two cents into the universe about where your hard-earned money should be spent should you decide that purchasing theatre tickets for your loved ones is a worthwhile endeavor.  It totally is, by the by, and if you’re not considering this course of action, maybe you will now.

For those long-term readers, you may recall my rage-inducing trip to the

I know it's that time of year because I got to help put up a Christmas Tree!

I know it’s that time of year because I got to help put up a Christmas Tree!

Harvard Revels last year.  Now that we’ve come full circle (as I write this, I’m sitting in the Houghton Library reading room at Harvard and can see that they’ve once again decorated the square with vibrant twinkling lights), I find myself revisiting this rage every moment I so much as think of the experience, the institution, or the fact that hundreds of people will (once again) flood to this theatrical venue.

So let’s get one thing straight: the Harvard Revels, while it may have started out as a benign force of the community, is currently the most deplorable form of theatrical spectacle.  The travesty that I had the misfortune to witness (and pay WAY too much for) last year should never have been allowed to be birthed into the realm of theatre.  The acting was atrocious, the costuming was spotty at best (there were people wearing PAINTER’S PANTS and SNEAKERS onstage in a PERIOD PIECE), and the institution builds into its traditions a forced standing ovation for every show.  I have never in my life witnessed something more manipulative, more upsetting, and more betraying to its hard-working loyal audience.

And here’s the worst part: because this is a Christmas Tradition for some people, this institution will (once again) have an audience.  Despite putting on a product that I would describe as “an aborted attempt at holiday cheer”, they will once more play to a PACKED HOUSE.  Audiences are so intoxicated by the rosey-hued glasses of Christmas tradition that it will not matter if the Revels had an off year, people will pay anyway.

Because of this, the Revels has no impetus to change.  They will be a commercial success no matter what show they put on.  And that, my friends, is where theatre goes to die.

Okay, I take it back, maybe this is the worst part: this show is the only show that I would venture most of those hundreds of audience members will see in a given year.  That means that their theatre budget is allocated specifically for a show that does not care about them.  This show will be flat, stale, uninspired, and continually produced Christmas schlock until someone does something about it.

Theatre is only interesting and vibrant when it is fighting for its life.  The

...and, for the first time ever, a Christmas Village!  Much more exciting if you consider that this is about ten feet off the ground in a window ledge and required ladder-work to assemble...

…and, for the first time ever, a Christmas Village! Much more exciting if you consider that this is about ten feet off the ground in a window ledge and required ladder-work to assemble…

Revels have not, as far as I can tell, had to do this for decades.  Give them a year scrounging on Community Theatre budget and they will get creative or die.  And from that will be birthed something real, genuine, and amazing to see.

So I beg you.  I implore you.  Do not support this abuse of the name of “theatre”.  If you would like to take your loved ones to see a show, consider one of the many other productions going on in Boston at this time.  Here are just a few…

The ART is producing Pippin (which, I’ve heard, is spectacular and I will be going to see).

A certain Shakespeare company is producing Two Gentleman of Verona and, while I have no particular love for this company, I do love this show.  Support struggling Boston Shakespeare!

The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater is producing Arabian Nights which I’ve heard great things about.

The Improv Asylum is doing a Holiday Show if you want something a little more traditional.  They always have great programming (and classes!).

Theatre is a struggling art form.  Your ticket-buying is the life-blood of the struggling company.  Please consider that, while the Revels loom large and ugly, the money spent on their over-priced Holiday travesty could save a small company and create a better theatre community here in Boston.

Bah Humbug

It’s funny, but being in Graduate School has taught me one thing very very well: I know the fastest way to end a conversation.

With the holidays approaching, this is a particularly pertinent skill. Holidays mean parties, they mean family, they mean seeing people who have a concern for your life and who, while they may know and care about you, don’t necessarily talk to you every day of the year. That means you have to do the inevitable “life-news shuffle” which goes a little something like this:

Family Member: How are you doing?

You: Really well, and you?
Family Member: Well. What are you up to?
You: Oh, you know, in Graduate School… getting my [Master’s/MFA/PhD] in [_____].

When I was getting my Master’s, this was sure to develop into the dreaded:

Family Member: Oh, well, what are you going to do with that?

Or perhaps the even more dreaded…

Family Member: Oh, well, what are you going to do with that?

To which I would reply (depending on my mood and where I was in my work) in either a good-natured way (“get a PhD and become a professor”) or an embittered way (“I don’t know, never have a real job I guess”).

Since I’ve been in a PhD program, very often the conversation turns a different direction.

sometimes, you just hold onto each other for dear life. Christmas last year. We are now both in grad school.

The minute I say I’m getting a PhD, people will usually ask “what in?” (which, by the by, is a flawed question anyway because while you are in a department for your PhD, you don’t really get a PhD in anything per say but rather have an area of expertise, so if they actually knew something about the higher education process they would stop using terminology that treats it like an undergraduate degree and thereby devaluing all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into this process with their anti-academic rhetoric… but I’m not bitter). When I tell them that my area of specialty is Shakespeare (usually I leave it at that because a) the specifics change weekly, and b) I don’t really want to have to explain hundreds of years of specialized history to someone who doesn’t entirely care about it), they immediately stop talking.

Conversation effectively ended.

The thing is this: most people don’t understand what it means to be getting a PhD. They don’t understand the amount of work that goes into it, they don’t understand the kind of work that goes into it, and they don’t understand the day-to-day realities of your existence. Moreover, they don’t really care. A distant relative asking you this question at a holiday party is small-talk; the same way we ask people what they do for a job when we first meet them. It’s a way to make conversation and supposedly human connection in a socially appropriate fashion.

And here’s the bad news: more often than not, people will think that “being a graduate student” means living off of loans and reading books all day without doing any real or meaningful work.

Get ready for the judgment. Get ready for the bewildered glances. Get ready for people not really caring about the intricacies of this very specialized field that you know a whole lot about and seems really important to you because you spend all day every day working in it.

The truth is, the real world doesn’t have a paradigm for understanding an academic lifestyle. The bench-markers are different. The measurements of success are different. The politics are different. There are a lot of things about this profession that are downright medieval (and, let’s face it, a lot of things that haven’t changed since the invention of academia by the Bolognese in 1088). Your relatives and casual acquaintances (and heck even some of your close friends) will know nothing about this and, moreover, will not care to know anything about this.

So how do you navigate that? How do you get through the holidays without letting them crush your academic spirit, completely staunch your work ethic, or turn you into a raging alcoholic?

You can choose to adopt one of several attitudes:

Attitude the first: You don’t understand me or value my profession and that’s okay because someday I’ll have letters after my name so HAHA to you society, what’s your job anyway? “A Consultant”?

these are my siblings. And these are the faces they make at nay-sayers. Go on, nay say. I dare you.

Attitude the second: You may not understand me, but that’s fine because I’ll be teaching your children about [your field] someday and, thereby, will have the power to mold and shape their little minds and bend them to understand and value me in the way my parents never did.

Attitude the third: I know something you don’t know and my life is better for it, so say what you want I’ll just smile here serenely and pour myself another glass of wine.

Attitude the fourth: My DEPARTMENT respects me and that’s all that matters!

Attitude the fifth: Yes, thank you for this lecture on how to live my life. If you don’t mind, I have some very pressing research on my desk about a life-changing development in [obscure field] that I really must return to. See you later; hope you don’t trip and fall into Dr. Evil’s shark tank.

No matter which of these options you choose, just remember this: their judgment comes from ignorance, not from any sense of validity or reality. They can’t know what you’re going through because they don’t see you every day. They have no connection to the world you live in and, thereby, their commentary is nothing but a fantastical expression of a perceived fairy-land where you sit on giant gilded lilies with your book and tea and do nothing but turn pages all day (if only, right?).

…and if all else fails, I know some undevelopable land and have an SUV that hoses out really well.