Books Don’t Keep you Warm

Here is your obligatory complaining about the weather post: on Tuesday it was warm enough for a run outside.  Today I’m going to have to shovel my driveway before I leave for class.  Because I live in New England.

I’ve spent the week looking yearningly out of windows and hoping that the words “Spring Break” would actually mean something to the weather gods.  Unfortunately for me, the weather gods are tricksy jerks and care not for a university schedule, or even the pleas of a desperate doctoral candidate looking for some small way to salvage what’s left of her sanity.

On that note, I don’t know why I’m continually surprised at the revivifying quality that exercise has on my mind.  No matter how many times I prove it to be true, I am consistently astounded by the fact that if I go for some kind of physical activity right at the point when my eyes get bloobity and I can’t really read/comprehend what’s on the page in front of me, an hour later I’m raring to go again.  This re-realization only compounds my yearning for the warmer weather; convincing myself to go outside for an hour is so much easier when “outside” is a pleasant place to be.  I do break down and move my workouts indoors during inclement weather, but even walking from my door to the gym can sometimes be a fight when it’s bitter and leaky out there.

If anyone knows anyone who has a hookup with someone who can make spring come faster here in Massachusetts, I’d be ever so grateful.  I’m plumb tired of being cold.

Dissertation work is draining, and my book fort doesn’t seem to be moving one way or another.  This is mostly due to the fact that the minute I manage to reduce my “to read”

artistic desk shot.  This doesn't really expound the extent of the book fort, but it does look pretty.

artistic desk shot. This doesn’t really expound the extent of the book fort, but it does look pretty.

pile to workable number, I get another dose of ILL books from the library and stack them on top again.  Despite diligently hacking away at the pile on my desk (which at one point this week was tall enough to literally bury me), I’m still surrounded by things that need to be read.

I suppose I should look at the other end for any indication of real progress: it is true that my “have read” book fort is steadily growing larger.  It has, at this point, expanded to the point of walling me into my desk.  I have to traverse an obstacle course before I can actually sit down these days.  The scary part is that I haven’t even really begun to work on the bulk of the project; I’m still just picking at the edges.  I suppose that means I’ve chosen a topic ripe for exploration, but it does leave me a wee bit nervous about just how many library books I’m going to be held accountable for before this is all over.

And that’s not even to consider the archival work ahead of me.  I’ve identified piles upon piles of things that I’ll have to sort through; but at least those items won’t follow me home.  Well, they will, but in neatly sifted digitized form so that they won’t take up any room on my floor (just on my hard drive).

And on that note, it’s time to re-launch today’s attack upon Research Mountain.  Wish me luck!


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.

Surviving October

The past week has been a bit odd here in Dani-land.

Coming off a show is a strange experience in and of itself. I don’t feel the need to say more on the matter since you’ve already had your fill of my prattling about post-show depression (which, in my head, often becomes “post-part-um depression”; with “part” being a play on it meaning as a synonym for “role”… har har). Coming off a show and diving into three weeks of hell because you’ve been leaving work to pile while you survived tech and performance with lingering deadlines hanging Damocles-like over your head is a special kind of hell.

I’ve been scrambling to re-assemble the pieces of my life and tame the piles which have grown on my desk. Tomorrow (or, I suppose, today as it brinks on midnight as I write this) I give my big semester presentation (on the history of Magic and Magicians which, while it has been fun to research, has presented its own breed of historiographical troubles). After that, I have a week and a half to prep for ASTR (during which I will also be putting the cast of Measure for Measure through what I’m calling “Shakespeare boot camp” to ensure that they all have some agility with the text before the Director sinks her teeth into rehearsal), then a week after that to put together some written work for the Measure playbill, and I still need to keep up on my class reading and research and pitch two disparate final papers to two disparate professors.

It’s no small wonder I’ve become a little bit of a frazzled nut case.

In my MA, this was my idea of a “day off”

I’ve been fondly referring to October as “hell month” and counting the days until I can get out of hell free and roll downhill towards the semester’s end in hopes that I don’t hit some snag or bump which causes me to careen wildly off course. So far, outlook is positive for a relatively smooth trip, but the skies change every day so stay tuned.

I have previously blogged about the techniques which I turn to to help myself get through times of normal stress loads. I will, however, take this moment to discuss what happens when those techniques erode. Anyone who has been through a nightmarish schedule knows that there are times to stress and there are times when you feel like you’re being torn apart by rabid tigers while carnivorous spider-monkeys do the macarena on your masticated corpsicle. For me, October has become a time of the latter and, in that regard, let’s talk about surviving October.

Here are some things that may help you survive your own flavor of the spider-monkey/tiger paradigm.

Thing One: Make a list. It’s often helpful to me to just sit and write out, in bulleted form, all the things that I need to accomplish. It helps me to understand how much I really need to do on any given day and, in so doing, helps me understand how best to plan my time. When can I do small ten-minute tasks? When do I need to block off hours for the big stuff? Sometimes I make a list the night before a long day of work just so I can sleep better knowing that I won’t forget anything because I took the time to write it all down. Oh, and forgetting things? I’m less likely to do that when it’s all listed in front of me. Also, I get the greatest feeling when I can cross something off the list. Built-in reward mechanism.

Thing Two: One thing at a time. My therapist perhaps said it best; “no matter how busy the bee is, it can still only attend to one flower at a time”. There ya have it folks; it doesn’t matter how well you think you can multi-task, you are still an old-model desktop lacking a parallel processor. One thing at a time.

Thing Three: I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” Except replace “fear” with “worry”. Worrying does no practical good. It does not behoove you to waste your time and/or energy worrying how or when something is going to get done. If you are taking a break, leave your work at your desk, take a few deep breathes, and brush up on your favorite meditation technique. Find some way to get your mind off the work mountains. If you absolutely cannot take a break because you are worrying, then go back to work and get something done. It will make you sleep sounder. Hell, that’s why it’s midnight on a Monday and I’m sitting at my computer blogging instead of snuggling in my warm bed with a book and a mug of tea.

Thing Four: Conserve your energy for the things that well and truly require it. Just like worry will suck that energy right out of you, so will a great many other items on your list of scheduling baggage. Cut out the things that will take and give nothing back. It’s like running a marathon; you need to make sacrifices to get to the end. I haven’t been to the gym in a month because October has been too intense to give up eight to ten hours of my week at the iron church. The gym is a lifestyle. The gym gods will forgive me (though I may hate myself for a week after I do go back).

Thing Five: Work hard. When you do work, close all your safari (…or firefox… or I.E.)

These days, my desk is more likely to look like this.  Though you can see that I am pointedly ignoring some of my own advice.

windows. Silence your cell phone (or turn it off… or to iOS6’s handy dandy new “do not disturb” setting). Don’t answer the door. You will get more done if you prevent yourself from being distracted. I find that, when I’m well and truly in the zone, the tiniest interruption can pull me right out of it and, for every thirty seconds I spend in the real world dealing with something that cropped up outside of my work, it takes me about five minutes to get back to where I was before the interruption. Cut this off at the head and remove the temptation to do anything but get your hands dirty with your research.

Thing Six: When you’re done, you’re done. Be honest with yourself. Can you go a little longer? Will it be productive? If the answer is yes, then read another chapter (or write another page, or research for another hour). If the answer is no, put it down and walk away. You’re done. You are not helping yourself by pushing yourself past your limits and, in fact, you may create a mess that takes more time to clean up later. Note: this tactic only works if you can well and truly push yourself to your limits and be strict with yourself about them. If you stop just because you’re a little distracted or you would rather be watching your netflix, it will not help you get your work done. Push through the moments of weakness, and know what you’re actually at your wall and when you’re just being a weenie.

Thing Seven: Take care of yourself. Water, sleep, vegetables, gym if you can manage it. If you are not feeling your best, you will not work your best. When I have the most work is when I need the most sleep and, if I don’t get it, my work suffers. Make time to take care of your basic human essentials, and ensure that you are as comfortable and healthy as you can be.

Thing Eight: Don’t deny yourself what you need to get the job done; be that coffee, a shower, a walk, or a cupcake. If it’s really crunch time, this won’t last for eternity. You could probably use the extra pampering if you’re working as hard as you should be.

And on that note, I should to bed. Goodnight, dear readers! Here’s hoping that your crunch-times are as short and painless as possible!

A Sudden Kink in the Plan

I will be the first to admit that this past semester has been rough.  PhD work is hard, and it’s not an easy (albeit pajama-clad) lifestyle that I have chosen.  I’ve done a lot of struggling since September, but I’ve never, for a single moment, looked back.  All of this has been with the certainty that I’m doing the right thing, I’m exactly where I need to be, and if my confidence wavered at times (and you, loyal readers, can attest that it has) it was never with a deeply imbued sense of wrongness, simply a general feeling of inadequacy.

But this weekend, something occurred which made me cross that line.  Something occurred that forced me to reevaluate my life choices.  Something occurred which made me believe that perhaps I had not made the correct decision.  Perhaps I should never have moved to Massachusetts.  Perhaps this wasn’t what I needed to be doing with my life.

much like this guy, I am the most melancholy snowman.

On Saturday, for the first time ever, I had to shovel out my own driveway.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, you may gasp in awe that my twenty-five year-old self has never had to accomplish something so mundane, but recall that for the first twenty-odd years of my life, I was a New Yorker.  You don’t have cars in Manhattan (unless you’re crazy).  I did do a brief stint in Massachusetts between grad school and my undergrad, but both occasions situated me somewhere comfortably where the driveway was someone else’s responsibility.

Not anymore.

My driveway is fairly heavily sloped as I do park in a garage beneath my house; so not only was I shoveling, but I was shoveling uphill.  Both ways.  In the snow.

And as I stood shivering, knee-deep in drifts, that was when I first began to question the choices that had led me to this place.  I could have chosen many other places in the country to make my academic home.  I could have gone to California.  Or Florida.  Or somewhere where there is no snow.  Or somewhere where the driveway, once more, wasn’t my responsibility.

Of course, then I wouldn’t be living in a gorgeous apartment with wonderful friends, a fireplace, and Jerry, but somehow in that moment these things seemed small to me.  Small prices to pay for not having to freeze my fingers off before I could go anywhere.  Small concessions to make for the ability to not have to worry about potential multiple shovelings given heavy snowfall.  Oh so small.

I have already, of late, succumbed to the pangs of homesickness.  As I have said time and again, Boston’s great but it ain’t New York.  This little incident simply drove home the fact that Dorothy has left her driveway-free Kansas.  And, as much as I love my car, I absolutely hate being cold.

…I knew the honeymoon had to end eventually.