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.

Working Back to Running

Operation: relax was a great success.  Spending a week away from my books has made all the difference in the world and I’m feeling much more capable of tackling the things that I left behind in Boston.

Unfortunately, getting back into my studying groove is proving more difficult than I had anticipated.  While I know that I couldn’t have maintained the pace I had achieved when I left, coaxing myself back up to running speed is not easy.

I also have found that taking a week away has done scary things to my sense of information retention.  I’m reasonably sure the information is still in there, just occluded in a way it hadn’t been when I left the Northeast.  I have to reach around the pleasant cloud of vacation to turn up the things that I need on any given occasion and that, my friends, is rather startling given the amount of effort I put into putting those select facts into my brain.

In addition, it seems I’ve brought the Florida weather back with me.  While it was still pleasantly autumn upon my departure, it now seems to be full-blown summer.  This makes my life slightly more difficult as while my apartment is many wonderful things, air-conditioned is not one of them.

In summary, while I know I needed the break and I am absolutely assured that it did wonderful things to my mental (and physical!) well being, it’s definitely wrecked some havoc on my studying habits.

Let’s go back to the marathon training metaphor I used earlier this summer.  Taking a

artistic rendering of my workspace at the local cafe yesterday.

artistic rendering of my workspace at the local cafe yesterday.

week off from any intensive training will give you time to relax and recuperate, but there is some inevitable back-slide upon your return.  I’m just feeling all kinds of sore from my workouts since my mind, over the course of the past week, hasn’t been as rigorously worked.

It is sometimes important to recognize that we are not machines.  Though the comps-study process is a great deal about becoming a sort of professional juggernaut, at some point we need to recognize and yield to our humanity.  Slowly working back up to break-neck speed after some time off is one of those things.  Actually taking time off is another.

I had promised myself that I would be as gentle as possible with my study habits while simultaneously pushing myself to do as much as I had to/could.  These goals, while they seem antithetical, are actually really important to maintaining both sanity and work/life balance.  In order to prevent myself from being anxious about all the things I’m not learning, I need to push hard.  In order to maintain my mental well-being and not turn into some kind of Gollum creature clutching books to my chest and muttering about French Neoclassicism, I need to preserve some semblance of equilibrium.  So without moving into the land of unrealistic expectations, this antithesis is just something I have to balance.

And on that note, I’m going to stop procrastinating and get to reviewing Medieval Europe.  If I do well today, which I should, tomorrow opens up early Modern to study and, since that means some quality time with my man Will, if I can’t get excited about that I should probably just quite now.

Party-induced Realizations; or; Why Academics Should not get their Hands on a Slip and Slide

Wednesday evening, at a party which answered the age-old question “what happens when a group of academics have access to a large house, copious amounts of booze, and a slip and slide?” (hint: the answer involved me re-evaluating how any child survived the

greasy little death-traps they are, but oh so much fun!

nineties, and mentally writing several obituaries beginning with the words “Promising academic [John Smith] perished in tragic slip and slide accident this fourth of July….”), I realized several things.

Realization one: Having survived my first year, I am now officially a “grizzled old-timer” of the department.  I’m debating investing in a flat cap and a cane.

Realization two: Come September, there will be a whole new crop of first-years, as wide-eyed and nervous and excited as I was last September, all ready and willing to begin their journey into academic theatrics.  This will mean many things in terms of atmosphere in the department, and I truly hope that those who do show (I’ve had the good pleasure to meet/exchange e-mails with/chat with some of them) add as much to the environment round these parts as we did.  Folks who pursue a PhD in Drama are interesting types; loud, smart, occasionally obnoxious, always eccentric, charming, witty, we’re all so very different from each other that when we’re put in the same room there’s the very real possibility of spontaneous combustion.  Here’s hoping we make fireworks and not forest fires.

Realization three: In just one short, arduous year, I too will join the ranks of those who have fondly galloped forth into the sunset of dissertation land.  Heck, a year from September and with any luck I’ll be ABD.  That thought is only vaguely terrifying.  Mostly because all thoughts about my dissertation at this juncture can only be vague.

Realization four: Summer is a time when academics get less work done than they had hoped to, more than they had planned to, and just enough to keep themselves going for the coming year.

while this is always what I imagine work-on-vacation to look like, it’s really not anything resembling reality.

Realization five:  Summer is also a time when academics are allowed to occasionally take a much-needed break.  When is the last time I walked away from my desk for more than a day and a half and not thought about work?  Normal people take weekends every week…. I’m allowed to have a day or two off (and should take them on a regular basis).  I also should not feel guilty about the week-long vacation I have planned.  I also should avoid bringing work with me (…but will I follow through on this?  Probably not).

Realization six:  When attending a party with colleagues, try to come armed with conversation topics that are not your work.  This is much more challenging than one may think.  Academia can be extremely isolating; most of my work is done at my own desk without anyone else around.  The true kernel of my research is not something that I have occasion to discuss very frequently.  As a result, whenever I’m around folks whom I feel will get it, I’m so eager to talk about it that I lose sight of all other topics of conversation.  Suddenly I become a machine, a cyber-man, a single-minded zombie of academia with only one thought to drive my actions: SHAAAAKKKEEESSSPPPPEEEAAARRREEEEE.  It’s extremely easy for me to forget that my colleagues are people too who may prefer to have real-life conversations than talk about work constantly.  Next time; pocket-sized cue cards with tips for things that normal people talk about.  What do normal people talk about?

Realization seven: Wow, I know some really smart people.  Like… really smart.  Like… totally smart.  God, have I told you how smart you are recently?  And pretty.  You’re pretty.

Realization eight: When drinking sangria, don’t eat the fruit.

Summer Days… Drifting Away

Can you believe it’s July already?  That reality check as I looked at my calendar reminded me that summer is in full swing and I had better settle into it and stop waiting for it to happen because otherwise I’ll miss it before it’s even occurred (…plug that into your TARDIS and parse it, I dare you!).

As I have previously mentioned, this summer my schedule is full to the brim with important self-propelled projects.  Large items on the docket include:

Learning to Read German: This requires the most tenacity of any of the projects which are currently on my desk.  Turns out learning a new language is, while not more difficult than I remember it being, more time-consuming.  This is likely because I’m attempting to cram the entire thing into my head in the matter of mere months.  Well… that’s not entirely accurate.  I’m attempting to cram the skills which I will need to read it effectively into my head in a matter of mere months.  These skills include: an understanding of grammar (a

This was my preliminary flashcard stack… it has since grown by at least 300%

little… complicated in German.  Very different from English, not so different from other things I’ve previous done, but definitely convoluted until you figure out how to break it down into its bits and memorize those bits… it’s the memorization part that’s tricky), an understanding of how to utilize a dictionary (not as straightforward as it sounds… curse you, German, and your crazy compound words!), and a giant vocabulary.  Vocabulary acquisition/retention is what takes up the bulk of my time.  Every day, I am learning between 50-70 new words.  That’s a LOT.  On my desk sit stacks of flash cards that grow and thrive between each passing day.  I have a pile system.  It’s nice to see things I know today that I didn’t know yesterday represented in such a graphic way.  However, problematically, since my class moves SO quickly, learning all the things in my “to-learn” pile just means I have to make more flash cards.  This has caused me no small amount of stress (since there’s CONSTANTLY something else to do and I can’t really ignore the giant stack of index cards that sits RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY FACE), but I keep having to remind myself that a language is all-inclusive.  I guesstimate that I have acquired the reading level of an eight-year-old.  That’s pretty friggen good for one month of hard study.

Brushing off Papers for Publication: Publish or Perish ain’t just an old sailor’s adage, folks.  In fact, many respected academics say that publishing is the most important part of a PhD candidate’s marketability as a job candidate.  The job market the way it is, I need to be as flawlessly perfect as I can be (and as attractive to potential employers).  And that means publishing.  And that means a lot of work on top of the work I’ve already done to produce these papers in the first place.  Unfortunately, since this task is slightly easier to ignore than the tribble-like flash cards that litter my desk, this doesn’t take up as much of my time as it should.  That said, I hope to have at least two papers floating in the publication ether by the end of the summer.  Three would be better, but I’m trying to be realistic and not drive myself absolutely bonkers trying to accomplish something that’s only kinda feasible if I stop sleeping and going to the gym.

Learning to Play the Ukulele: While recently attending the wedding of some dear friends, I

someday, maybe I’ll be as cool as Amanda Palmer

came to the realization that since I’m a less-than-mediocre guitarist, I’d probably be halfway decent at playing a ukulele.  The idea percolated and I realized that it was perhaps the perfect way to spend my copious amounts of free time (did you hear the sarcasm in my font?).  So far, I was right!  The ukulele is perfect for me because it is small, lady-like, has four strings (four strings for four fingers instead of six strings for four fingers… it’s like heaven!), and doesn’t carry the asshole connotations that a guitar does.  Also, it’s interesting.  “Oh, yea, in my spare time, I play the ukulele”.  Who says that?  (…other than me now….).  It’s also portable; I have handbags that are larger than my uke… and I don’t eve have a small uke! (she’s concert-sized, for anyone to whom that would mean anything, and her name is Jojo after the wonderful lady  who hooked me up with chord charts and learners’ resources).

Going to the Gym: A constant process, and one I’m trying to get better at before school devours me.  During my first year, I was pretty consistent about being a 2-3 times a week gym bunny.  I’m trying to bump this to 3-4 times a week.  Can she do it?  Let’s find out…

Starting a Podcast: If you haven’t visited the links section of the site in a while, you probably won’t have noticed that I’ve added a few (…and also a page for my sundry extracurriculars… in case you aren’t tired of listening to me rant about grad school here, you can see me do it at other places on the internet!).  One of these links is to the site that is going to host the podcast which myself and my partner in crime have been cooking up.  Several months ago, he came to me with the idea to start it and, always being game for things involving Shakespeare and things involving my partner in crime, I said “let’s do it”.  Well, we’ve been busting our butts to make the dream a reality and, in the next week or two, look for our first broadcast.  We’re going to be chatting about Shakespeare’s canon in approximate chronological-to-how-he-wrote-them order in 15-minute-a-week intervals.  Our first show: Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus.  Should be good fun!

Preparing for the Fall: At the back of my head, I’ve constantly been reminding myself of the

Last summer, I could get some R&R right at work (… Beach-Themed dance party at the studio)

mental fortitude required to live out a year in academia.  I need to get some R&R in this summer if it kills me or, come fall, it really will kill me.  I do have a tiny vacation planned, and have been orchestrating some exceedingly fun outings with friends (by the by, 5-wits events are TOTALLY worth going to especially if the idea of being a super-spy or steam-punk adventurer for the afternoon at all fills you with any sense of childish glee).  I’ve also been trying to take it as easy as I can between everything else, not beat myself up too much if my to-do lists are slightly behind, and enjoy some good ol’ fashioned vitamin D every chance I get.  With any luck, this will be enough to recharge my batteries so that I can be rearing to go come September.

So for now, I think I’m going to grab myself an iced tea with mint and blueberries, and return to this persistently propagating pile of plosives.  How’s your summer going?

The Blahs

Whether it’s the lazy, hazy days of summer that have hit us here in Boston, a general sense of overall fatigue from the semester that I haven’t given myself a chance to recover from, or the moon being in the seventh house and Jupiter aligning with Mars, I’ve found myself deep within a case of the “blahs”.

You know the blahs.  That thing that happens that makes you want to do nothing more than sit on the couch and be a lump.  That thing that whispers lazily in your ear telling you “just one more episode, you didn’t actually want to go to the gym today”.  That thing that puts a fire-blanket over productivity and makes it nearly impossible to keep up with your “gotta do it now!”s (forget your “should do it soon”s).

For people with conventional jobs, while annoying, the blahs aren’t exactly life threatening.  You’ve still gotta get up, go into the office, do your basic functions, and come home.  You’re still accountable for your responsibilities to a boss, supervisor, team, company.  There’s going to be someone asking questions if your productivity takes a nose-dive for the bottom of the bar graph.

Unfortunately for me, summertime in academia is a very very difficult time during which to get the blahs.

Not only is there no one besides myself to whom I’m accountable, but I don’t even have any hard deadlines to work towards.  I’m awash in a sea of amorphous, ambiguous, and very large tasks which all require attention and diligence, but also provide the illusion that succumbing to the blahs could be alright.


My to-do list is no shorter than it has ever been, I’m just working on things that are long-term goals.  I’m trying to maintain better gym habits.  I’m putting a lot of effort into personal projects that fell by the wayside during crunch-time.  I’m trying not to give myself heart attacks while accomplishing my summer tasks, and I’m also trying to get in some of that rest that’s so crucial to being prepared for the fall.

But the blahs are not sated by ambiguous improvement, nor can they be fought with small accomplishment.

To help myself beat back the blahs, I’ve tried to create visual guides and land-marks for the things I’m doing.  I’ve created physical flash cards for my German vocabulary so that I can actually see how many words I know now that I didn’t know yesterday, a week, a month ago.  I’ve started stacking my used-draft-papers again to (hopefully) find some convenient fire in which to burn them when I’ve submitted the paper I’m polishing.  I’ve created a cheat-book of song chords for my ukulele so I can A) localize the songs I know and B) see how much I’ve learned since I took it into my head that I should learn to play a ukulele at a friend’s wedding a month ago.  There’s not much I can do about the gym other than pat myself on the back and have a nice shower when I return home, but endorphins and a few hours of temperature control (my place has many virtues, central AC isn’t one of them) are reward enough, no?


I, like this sheep, feel droopy about the ears

In my experience, productivity expands and contracts in direct correlation to the amount of time at one’s disposal.  Have A MILLION BILLION THINGS TO DO RIGHT NOW!? No problem, you will get them ALL done.  Have a lot of time on your hands and just a few projects with a bunch of space in which to accomplish assorted random other tasks?  Meh.  You’ll get done what you need to get done, but no more.

So as I struggle through my case of the blahs, I have every expectation that I will accomplish what I absolutely need to accomplish… but likely not so much as I had wished to accomplish.  With any luck I’ll be seeing some sunshine at the end of this gloomy tunnel and be able to kick my summer into overdrive as soon as I find some inspiration to do so.

Into the Abyss

So I have previously mentioned that part of my process come panic time involves a giant whiteboard.

This is a survival mechanism which I developed in my Master’s.  Often, a graduate student lives in three to four different worlds an each world is represented by a separate syllabus.  Each has its own deadlines, requirements, readings, library pile, points of interest on the internet, points of contact at the department, rules, regulations, and practices.  Often, meshing these worlds together is the cause of a great deal of stress come finals time (see my momentary freak-out about over scheduling myself towards the end of last semester).  Also, because a course can contain many little assignments in addition to a large one, often things can get lost in the shuffle.

To combat this, I developed the whiteboard technique.  Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by deadlines, I make a chart.  I list what the assignment is (and, if it requires further specificity which due to the nature of grad-school courses it often does not, who it is for), where to send it (if you’re talking about abstracts and publication submissions, often those e-mails can get lost in the shuffle as well), and when it is due.  Then I leave myself a place to check off when the assignment has been completed.  On the side, I create a list of ongoing projects with no due-dates, just things that I need to remember to do.

Getting it all down in black and white (and often also orange, purple, and green when I’m feeling whimsical) helps to assure me that a) I didn’t miss anything, b) I won’t miss anything, and c) I really and truly do have a handle on my life.

At the end of the semester, when all is said and done, I leave the whiteboard there for a while with all of its check boxes intact.  It gives me a sense of accomplishment to see that I’ve met all my deadlines and, at the end of a semester, one needs all the sense of accomplishment one can find.

But the other day, I took the leap.

I erased the whiteboard.

It’s pretty freeing to be able to sit at my desk and have a giant blank slate hanging over me.  Of course, my summer projects are taking up a lot more of my time than I had anticipated (I dramaturge eight to ten hours a week, German class four hours a week, study approx. ten hours a week, have been trying to catch up on my sleep, my e-mails, my reading, my knitting, my life, and my gym schedule, I haven’t really had time to touch my papers that I wanted to brush off over the summer yet but it will come).  These ongoing projects, though, the kind with no deadline, they’re not exactly whiteboard material.  It’s like looking into a great white expanse of nothing.  My time is my own again.  I’m not working under pressure, I’m not working under any imposed or hard end-stop, I’m just working as much as I can as fast as I can.

…so I guess on the other hand not having white-board deadlines also means that I’m probably working more in between all the other things I do, but at this point I’ll just relish the change of pace.



So one of my summer quests is to learn to read in German.

One of the requirements for most PhDs in the Humanities (I know for certain English and Theatre Studies, other areas I’m not so clear on) is a reading knowledge of two languages other than English (alternately, a deep comprehension/fluency of one other language).  This requirement is often best taken care of in the early stages of your coursework so that it doesn’t hang you up when you go to do big things like comps and orals.

For me, I came into the program with a fairly solid reading knowledge of French.  German, while it seems esoteric, is a good choice for someone in Theatre Studies as the field was basically conceived in Germany, though like most things conceived in Germany fell apart during that big black hole in history that began in Germany.  Nowadays, the Free University of Berlin is a fairly happening place (especially for Shakespeareans and especially over the summer).

To assist in my quest, the school has hired one of my colleagues in the English department to teach a reading-in-German tutorial for anyone in the humanities required to pass such an exam as mine.

Learning to read in a language is a skill set entirely different from learning a language.  We did not spend the first day talking about our names, how we were, and where we lived.  Because we have a very limited time frame and are expected to retain a whole lot of information, this course is essentially a strategy guide for quick and dirty German.  Here’s how you recognize a noun, here’s a verb, here are common irregular verbs, now go learn all the vocabulary you can stuff in that little brain and come back later.  It’s a lot more technical; let’s break down this sentence (almost diagramming the sentence) and figure out which words we absolutely need to look up.  How many trips to the dictionary can we avoid?  How much can we clarify what you’re actually looking up and what you will find when you do?

This is made slightly easier by the fact that German, like English, is a Germanic language (and, to be even more technical, a West Germanic language).  It’s closer to English than a Romance language and thereby has a great many cognates which can help the English-speaking German-beginner.

It’s also made slightly easier by the fact that in my undergrad I decided to take a smattering of all kinds of languages.  Flash back to the first semester Freshman year, my brief flirtation with Latin.  I had a slightly longer affair with Italian, and the longest-lasting

This picture might best encapsulate my time in Dublin* *this is not entirely true… but that is a whole nother book of stories…

was with Irish (two and a half years of Irish Gaelic and a summer living in Dublin later and, while my Irish has decayed over the years from lack of use, I may still know more than native Irish people who don’t live in Gaeltachts).  Latin taught me grammar.  If you want to learn English grammar, go learn Latin.  I also taught me the meanings of cases and declensions, a building block for many of the other languages I’m working with.  Irish taught me how to deal with an inflected language (that is, a language in which word order doesn’t really matter).  This is the same in Latin, but since I lived with Irish longer I was better able to grasp the concept.  German word order is often strange and unusual because the rules governing sentence structure are not the same as they are in English.  Italian taught me to order in restaurants and buy a verb dictionary.  Seriously.  More irregular verbs than any language a sane person would actually want to learn.

So, while German is foreign, it’s not completely foreign.

It’s also delightful to be learning something new and different.  I’ve spent so long with a certain kind of schooling (namely: go home, read this book, do some research, come back and talk about it, write a paper) that having a new way to exercise my mind is almost salivatingly good.  Last night, the teacher handed out worksheets!  I haven’t had a worksheet to do since the 90s! (…almost as long, by the way, as I haven’t done higher-level mathematics…. I think I may see a corollary here…)

So, yes, they basically throw you in the deep end clinging desperately to your dictionary like a lifeline.  And there’s a lot of vocabulary to memorize.  Like… all the vocabulary.  The more vocab you know, the fewer trips to the dictionary you need, and thereby the faster you are at translating.

But it’s fresh, it’s interesting, and it’s extremely different from the kind of learning I do during the year.  While I can’t really call it a vacation, I can call it a drastic deviation from my regularly scheduled programming.

A good old-fashioned purging

Over the weekend I cleaned off my desk.

We’re not talking about a superficial re-piling like I’ve been doing over the course of the semester; we’re talking full-fledged move everything, wipe down under it, file all papers, put things in their proper places sort of clean.  The kind of clean that leaves one with that warm, squeaky, shiny feeling.  The kind of clean that lets you know that one series of projects has been completed and another is due to start.  The kind of clean that’s well and truly food for the academic soul.

There was a great amount of catharsis which went with this cleaning.  Certainly on a superficial level my papers had been piling up since September and really needed to be moved off of my little rack thing and into some more permanent storage solution.  But along with those papers went the deeper feeling of satisfaction.  Yes, I made it.  And more than that, I can wrap up all the loose ends and have a desk that’s fresh and ready for something new.

I sorted, I vacuumed, I recycled.  I tidied, I stacked, I neatened.  And, by the end of it, I was feeling less cluttered in the mind and more ready to take on what was next (a polish of the paper I gave at CDC for submission to their publication Text & Presentation and an abstract for submission to ASTR’s Shakespeare in Performance workgroup).

I also realized that I have a whole lot of desk toys and maybe I should consider cutting

the pertinent portion of my desk

back on the random things that I put in my work area to remind myself of sundry other things.  But every time I consider curbing my collection of desk doo-mah-hickeys, I inevitably get wrapped in the sentimentality which caused me to hang onto them in the first place.  How could I move my favorite childhood toy horse, or my jumbo-the-stress-elephant?  How could I banish my littlest pet shop creatures which saw me through my six-month-stint in a cube farm?  How could I even think of moving desk-thulu, or shakes-cat, or jojo the fluffy tribble?  And don’t even mention the possibility of culling my rubber ducks.  Every single one on my desk was given to me by a close friend, and thereby has deep emotional significance.

The bottom line is, my desk is my home base.  This is where I come to work, this is where I (basically) live.  The state of my desk is indicative of my mental state; is it tidy?  Is it a wreck?  Are there fifteen million things on it?  How are those things stacked; neatly or haphazardly?  Are there documents waiting for me in my printer tray?  When I feel like my desk is out of control, I feel like my life is out of control.  My desk is the first and last line of defense against mental breaks and it’s something very real, very tangible, and very large.  I visit it every day.  It’s my altar of academia.  It’s my corner of the Ivory Tower.  Perhaps most importantly, it’s an extension into the physical realm of everything that goes on in my head.  The things upon it, whether they be permanent desk ornaments or temporary passing-through papers, are the things within my mind.  My desk is a physical manifestation of the crazy, wild, tempestuous happenings of the inner monologue and must be treated as such.

…and god help you if you touch my rubber duckies.

The Only Pretty Ring-Time

For the past few weeks, I’ve been dealing with some pretty intense stress – deadlines, personal engagements, the general bump and grind of academia.  I’ve been managing to keep it together (for the most part) with only a few minor explosions which were quickly cleaned up and left nominal scorch marks on my desk.

There has, however, been a new complication.

Summer is in the air here in Boston.

This happens to me every year.  I don’t consider myself the kind of person who is deeply affected by the weather, which is why it always takes me by surprise when it does affect me.  I think part of the problem is that I’m a survivor.  No matter what’s going on, no matter if it’s snowing, no matter if it’s gray, no matter if puppies are falling from the sky, I will get my stuff together and do what needs doing.  I may grumble and whinge about it, but in the end everything will get done to my satisfaction at an appropriate deadline (and usually the quality of what I produce is rather high to boot!)

So really, some sunshine?  Birds chirping?  The perfect amount of not-too-hot not-too-cold wind?  Bah!  My work is more important than any of that!

…but it does mean that I get to break out the flirty skirts, and flip flops, and capris, and my tattoos see the light of day, and it’s pedicure season, and I can sit outside and work, and I no longer mind walking places so I’m much more inclined to do so, and going outside seems like a treat not a chore, and if I drive somewhere I can do it with the windows down so I’m more likely to take the long way somewhere…

Aw hell, I’m stuck in full-tilt end-of-semester summer fever.  I can see that my syllabus comes to a big scary close in just a few short weeks.  I can just taste the freedom at the tip of my tongue, and it tastes glorious… like rosebuds and ice cream.

This doesn’t do anything to help the fact that I’ve still got an abstract, one in-class presentation, two “here’s my work” in-class presentations, and three final papers to go until I may truly free myself from the shackles of repression keeping me hedged to my desk.

….can you cool it, mother nature?  Just for a few more weeks?

How Shall I Share Thee on a Summer’s Day?

Alright, fine, I’ll admit it.

After writing a list of summer reading that included absolutely nothing on or about my man Will, I’m tweaking out a little bit.  In my incredibly biased opinion, summer isn’t summer without a requisite dose of Bard.  And, since I’m still making up for my little indiscretion with Jane Austen last year  (he just won’t drop it!), I’ve decided to create a second list.

Will is rocking a summery look with his D&G glasses and ruff by Hermes

Here is my Shakespeare-centric summer to do list.  Since I am a firm believer that plays should not be read except by those with a true penchant for masochism (academics mostly, literary flagellation is a requisite skill for the wanna-be literati), I am re-focusing the primary task of my list.  There will be reading on here, certainly, but only as an added bonus to alternate activities.  This is a three dimensional interactive list which, hopefully, will provide you with some Shakespearey goodness and me with a much-needed break from a long-dead playwright breathing down my neck.


1) Go see some Shakespeare!  ‘Tis the season for the free outdoor variety!  If you’re in New York, obviously you’re going to want to see Shakespeare in the Park.  This year, they are re-vamping last year’s popular repertory style and performing All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure (a theme, by the way, which will repeat itself…).  Performing a season in “repertory” means that one cast rehearses and performs two or more productions simultaneously (before you start having visions of a Midsummer Night’s Hamlet, allow me to clarify that I mean “simultaneously” in a fairly cosmic fashion in that the shows are performed at separate showtimes during the same season).  Back in the day (Elizabethan times, that is), this was how all theatre was performed.  A company would have a bag of plays from which they could pull on any one given night and all the company actors would be used in whatever production was performed.  In my opinion, repertory is the most robust and interesting way to produce theatre.  It keeps the actors hopping, keeps the moments fresh, and really allows everyone involved in the process to flex their theatrical muscle.  You haven’t learned lines until you’ve learned them for two shows… in meter… simultaneously.

If you happen to live in Boston, they have their own version of this time-honored summer tradition.  This summer, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company will be performing All’s Well that Ends Well.  This year will be the first year that I’ve had the opportunity to attend a CSC performance and I am very much looking forward to it.  As such, I cannot currently vouch for quality of production, but I will report back to you as soon as I can.

My good friends at the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre will be putting up a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor this summer, so stay tuned for further details there.  In case you missed my rave review of their Henry VIII last summer, you should be made aware that Artistic Director/Executive Producer/Everything and a bag of chips man Bob Colonna is a true-blue GENIUS.  I would watch someone read the phone book if he directed it.  Make every effort to see this show.

If you’re looking for something further North, on Sunday, August 14th Lowell Summer Music Series brings back the New England Shakespeare Company to perform Measure for Measure.  NE Shakes is an interesting company with a unique production style.  They perform in what they claim is a more authentic style (I could dispute this claim, but that’s another entry I think…) and don’t do much rehearsing at all.  They read roles from scrolls carried into performance and focus on a “rough and ready” aesthetic which allows them to perform just about anywhere (usually in parks and things like that).  I would highly recommend catching a performance of theirs just to experience the quirkiness.

If you live in one of the ten million places that I haven’t mentioned above, I advise you to employ the services of google and find somewhere near you offering such an evening’s entertainment.  These places exist just about everywhere and I can nearly guarantee that you will find something suitable.  Free Shakespeare?  Outside?  Bring a picnic and catch a show.  It’s culture!

2) Read some Shakespeare fan-fic!  Okay, so you shouldn’t read a Shakespeare play, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t soak up some bardy goodness from the page.  Many authors have appropriated Shakespeare’s stories (and even Shakespeare himself!) into their work and it makes for a cute little nerd-read.  Here are some of my favorites:

*The Shakespeare Stealer Series by Gary Blackwood; This is a YA trilogy designed to introduce young audiences to the nuts and bolts of Elizabethan theatre.  I LOVE YA books and thus absolutely adored them.  Blackwood’s research is well done and the stories he crafts are engaging (if predictable).  So cute!

*Interred with their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell; The Da Vinci Code meets The Eight.  It’s a Shakespeare mystery set in present day and sure to give any geek who thinks they know their Shakespeare a run for their proverbial money.  The plot isn’t exactly inspired, but it’s fun to follow the Shakespeare mystery!

Gaiman's Shakespeare along with Morpheus

*A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Neil Gaiman (third comic in Sandman volume 3: “Dream Country”); Gaiman is an EXTREMELY literary writer and hides allusions to various texts within his work all the time.  There’s a great deal of Shakespeare in Gaiman if you look for it, but the most blaring example is this little ditty.  I’m not a huge comic fan (something about the genre just doesn’t jive well with me), but this one is totally worth it.

3) Watch a Shakespeare movie!  Despite the fact that I am still angry at Julie Taymor for

Imogen Stubbs as Viola and Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia in Trevor Nunn's film

her egregious behavior surrounding her Giant Broadway Flop Money Sink, she did make a pretty good Titus.  There are also a plethora of Kenneth Branagh films to choose from (some of the best are Henry V, Much Ado about Nothing, and (snobby academics be damned) Love’s Labour’s Lost).  Trevor Nunn directed a Twelfth Night which ranks pretty high on my Bard-o-meter (and stars Helena Bonham Carter and Imogen Stubbs… how can you go wrong?).  If you want to go more classic, you could watch the Zeferelli Romeo and Juliet (not to be confused with the Baz Luhrman Romeo and Juliet (you know, the one with Leo and Claire where nobody knew how to speak verse?)).  Find one, rent one, grab some microwave popcorn and a glass of wine to class things up.  A good way to hide in the air conditioning on your own couch for an evening while still soaking up culture.

4) Memorize a Sonnet!  The sonnets, since they’re poems, break the don’t read Shakespeare rule.  Read the sonnets!  Love the sonnets!  Pick your favorite sonnet and learn it!  Guaranteed to improve your snob factor by at least 10%, and really, everyone should know at least one poem by heart.  It builds character.  (My favorites, by the by, are 43, 50, 97, 98, 110, and 118)

5) Play a Shakespeare Game!  Yes, they make Shakespeare games.  My favorite so far has been Shakespeare: The Bard Game.  You’re going to want at least three people to play it, but don’t be shy!  Knowledge of Shakespeare, his works, and his times is helpful, but not crucial to enjoying this game.

Go on.  Let your inner geek show.  I promise I won’t tell anyone.