Archive for September, 2011

Raise Your Cup of Joe: Celebrating National Coffee Day!

Yet again, I have Twitter to thank for reminding me of the existence of arbitrary holidays: today, National Coffee Day!

As is probably glaringly obvious (see blog name), coffee is my elixir—a daily blend of ritual and routine without which my physical and mental state would probably be more chaotic than it already is. I begin each day with it, rain or shine; during the work week, it’s the source of fuel that sets my gears in motion; on a Saturday morning, it’s the lazy luxury I linger over as I check e-mail, read a book, or just sit on my porch and drink in the details of the morning that all too often I find little time to appreciate in the workaday whirl. A friend once suggested to me during a year when I had difficulty deciding what my Lenten sacrifice would be, that I should give up coffee, to which I pointed out that spending 40 days in a comatose state would do little toward enabling me to experience the spiritual benefits of Lent. Besides, the purpose of Lent is penitence and spiritual growth; prompting my friends, family, coworkers, and students to contemplate murdering me because of my under-caffeinated crankiness would do little for their spiritual welfare, let alone mine. As my brother is fond of saying, Jesus suffered so we wouldn’t have to.

Coffee, at any rate, has filled every aspect of my life with its aroma; many a cup has kept me company during long, sleepless nights; it fills the cracks in my heart with comfort when I’m feeling low-spirited; some of my most memorable heart-to-hearts with my best friend have occurred over a cup of Joe; I saw immediate relationship potential in my most recent boyfriend during our first encounter at a local coffee shop (two years before we even considered dating). Any man who can defend Dunkin’ Donuts coffee over Starbucks with the fervor of political debate and logically argue his preference for mountain-grown coffee over coffee produced at lower altitudes is worthy of consideration as the potential father of my children.

Are you a coffee drinker? What role does coffee have in your daily routine? Is it a perky afternoon pick-me-up? A morning wake-up call? Do you drink so much of it that you’re in the market for an intravenous caffeine drip? Whatever, whenever, and however you take it: have yourself a cup of Joe and celebrate the full, flavorful, aromatic awesomeness that is coffee!

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You’re Pretty Observant for a Blind Girl: Out of the Mouth of my Mother

Random observation #140584: my mother is nothing if not an endless source of amusement.

Not too long ago, she called me up to report the following:

Mom: “Listen, I just want you to know that in spite of not being sighted, you really do have good taste in men.”
Me: “OK, I suspect I know where this is leading, but why? What happened?”
Mom: “Well, there was this woman on the morning show, and…”
Me: “Which show?”
Mom: “I can’t remember.”
Me: “When were you watching this?”
Mom: “I can’t remember.” (For all I know, this could have happened ages ago; for two people who talk at least once a day, it amazes me how little we actually remember to tell each other, but I wouldn’t want anyone thinking my family has communication issues.)
Mom: “But anyway, there was this woman on the morning show, and…”
Me (interrupting): “And she was talking about Colin Firth, right?”
Mom: “Yes, they were actually talking about the most well-dressed celebrities and showing pictures, and I don’t remember who she picked for the women, but she picked Colin Firth for the men, and he was, I think, #1. So I just want you to know that…you have very good taste.”
Me: “Well, I’m glad you approve.”

If nothing else, I suppose I should appreciate the fact that my disability is a source of amusement rather than one of embarrassment to my family.

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A Renewed Resolution: Post-a-Week 2011

Not unlike almost everyone in the blogging community–or at least everyone I’ve come across–one of my resolutions for 2011 has been to Blog more frequently and prolificly on topics other than cataloguing my dissertation word count, bad bus driver jokes, and what I ate for lunch. While I realized I’ve been doing considerably better at updating this blog in 2011 than I did in 2010, my presence in the blogosphere still leaves much to be desired. As much as I enjoy–or at least take pride in–academic and scholarly writing, sometimes it is, to be frank, an awful drag. I likewise realized that much of my animosity toward my dissertation has largely to do with the fact that I’ve allowed it to consume my enthusiasm for writing like the blood-sucking vampire it is. I’ve discovered recently that this blog offers me a space for channeling my creative energy; when I felt like there was no place into which I could direct it, I just let it seep through the cracks in my brain. Since I vowed at the beginning of the semester to try to manage my stress levels with blogging once a week, I thought I might as well join the host of other bloggers here at WordPress participating in this challenge.

So here’s to my renewed endeavor to make 2011 the year of the blog…or at least, the year that I don’t completely cross over into insanity.

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Never Give up on Your Dissertation, For It is Crunchy and Goes Well with Ketchup

A little over a year ago, my dissertation committee chair shared a link to a blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website: The Rule of 200 by Erin E. Templeton. She presents what I think is a practical, accessible approach to the challenge of balancing the varied demands of a career in academia. She writes that in the swirl of semester activity,

We have to find a way to balance research with teaching and service, and that can be very difficult to do.

Often, because the research goals are long-term rather than immediate, they get the short end of the stick.

OK, I thought; she and I are at least on the same page; someone who actually gets it. After laundry-listing several techniques for increasing productivity in the writing department, including the “first half hour of the morning” and 750 words.com, Templeton admits

I am simply not a morning person, and I’m often so busy that 750 words seem insurmountable when I finally do sit down to write. At the end of the day after my teaching and service obligations have been met, I’m usually fried. So in order to maintain my writing pace (which is, albeit, slow), my
system is slightly different. Instead of writing 750 words, I follow The Rule of 200. It has gotten me through my dissertation and the writing that I have done since. There is no website or digital tool (save for your trusted word-processing program), and rules are pretty straightforward.

The Rule of 200 works like this: my document word count must increase by 200 before I am done for the day, no exceptions. 200 words is a modest goal. It isn’t even an entire page of double-spaced 12pt font. It’s a grocery list, an email, a series of text messages.

I could accept this; I probably write more than 200 words a day collectively via text message, Twitter, and Facebook complaining about the drudgery of dissertating; why not redirect that energy into a more productive channel? So I vowed to give Templeton’s tip a fair try, and a year later, I still follow the “rule of 200,” albeit with a few modest adjustments of my own. Firstly: I make whatever writing project I’m focusing on—dissertation, journal article, etc.—the first priority on my to-do list each day. While I am not a morning person and firmly believe that there should be a tax for perkiness, by the time I sit down at my desk, I’m usually too overly caffeinated to grumble about being vertical and mobile. Secondly: I usually allow myself one day—what I like to call my “get out of jail free card” day each week to set my project aside, mostly because, like my mother’s spaghetti sauce, all good ideas need time to simmer, and I’ve found that, at least for me, stepping away from something—covering the pot and turning down the heat, if you will, on the mental burner—allows me to return to it later with renewed energy, or at the very least, graceful resignation.

I found myself struggling to recall Templeton’s practical advice a few mornings ago when I noticed that as I went to update the file name of my current dissertation chapter with the date, I’m approaching the six month mark; that is, I’ve been working on this chapter, off and on, for nearly six months. Excuse me while I rummage in the pantry for my emergency chocolate supply; I’m dangerously approaching the depression point. The draft is, as a dearly-beloved professor of mine once described the difficult draft, “like a very slow, painful bowel-movement”. Normally recalling this analogy makes me laugh; that day it just induced the urge to cry, vomit, and cry some more. (I once described the process of writing a dissertation as like being pregnant; all I do is eat and cry). Obviously, I realized I needed some fresh inspirational material. I turned to Anne Lamotte’s visualization technique in “Shitty First Drafts” of taking all of the negative voices in my head, pretending they were mice, dropping them into a jar with a nifty little volume control, and pressing mute. This unfortunately proved ineffective. I took a walk to the lady’s room to relieve a non-existent urge to pee; I coaxed my guidedog outside for a few minutes of fresh air (as it turned out, he didn’t need to pee either). I returned to my desk and checked the word count on my document; I still had 130 words left to write before I could close the document for the day. I considered calling my boyfriend until, in a horrifying, Bridget Jones-worthy realization, I remembered that I don’t in fact have one. I rolled my shoulders a few times, said a quick prayer, put fingers to keyboard, and tried again. It was Friday, I told myself; if I could just write 130 more words, I could move on to bigger and better things. I tried Anne Lammote’s visualization technique again; no go. I tried pretending that if I wrote my 200 words, I would win a coffee date with the celebrity of my choice. This only inspired unproductive fantasies and a humiliating imagined scenario involving an uncoordinated me spilling hot cappuccino in Colin Firth’s lap. Closing my eyes and massaging my temples, I waited patiently for the word fairy, who had apparently gone on holiday. Well, I’d just have to manage without her prolific pixie dust then. Laboriously I began to type, experiencing a sensation not unlike that of upending a nearly empty ketchup bottle to squeeze out what little there is left. I typed; I paused; I squeezed; I typed again; lather, rinse, repeat. OK, so this description is conjuring up the bowel movement analogy yet again, but I think my visualization is equally colorful and perhaps slightly less offensive.

In short (and because this post is considerably more than 200 words and funnily enough took far less time than the above exercise)I did in fact produce my 200 word count for the day, and I am now considering keeping a ketchup bottle on my desk to remind myself that however empty I might feel, sometimes all the brain-bottle needs is a little shake to get the juices flowing.

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Did You Want Coffee with Your Monday?

Nearly every Monday morning, for various reasons, I find myself reflecting on the truth of a passage from Christopher Isherwood’s novel /A Single Man/–the passage describing George’s arrival at the university for yet another mundane day of teaching:

So now George has arrived. He is not nervous in the least. As he gets out of his car, he feels an upsurge of energy, of eagerness for the play to begin. And he walks eagerly, with a springy step, along the gravel path past the Music Building toward the Department office. He is all actor now–an actor on his way up from the dressing room, hastening through the backstage world of props and lamps and stagehands to make his entrance. A veteran, calm and assured, he pauses for a well-measured moment in the doorway of the office and then, boldly, clearly, with the subtly modulated British intonation which his public demands of him, speaks his opening line: “Good morning!”

And the three secretaries–each one of them a charming and accomplished actress in her own chosen style–recognize him instantly, without even a flicker of doubt, and reply “Good morning!” to him. (There is something religious here, like responses in church–a reaffirmation of faith in the basic American dogma that it is, always, a good morning.

I’ve always loved the sarcasm with which Isherwood questions the social convention of wishing someone a good morning—especially on a Monday—the very existence of which seems to counteract the “goodness”. I couldn’t help smiling as I recalled the above passage this morning. I shuffled into the kitchen, switched on the light, rummaged through my pantry for the necessary coffee, cream, sugar, etc. In happy (or at least anxious) anticipation of my morning dose of caffeine, I set the coffee brewing and stumbled outside to let the dog relieve himself, sniff the grass, bark at birds, and otherwise show his superiority to humankind in his ability to embrace morning before sunrise.

The dog completed his business efficiently; we came back inside; I reentered the kitchen, reached for my coffee cup, and…alas! For some reason unbeknown to me, the coffeemaker hadn’t actually started. Fine; Monday is the day I usually go into work a bit later. I wasn’t in a rush, so refusing to be frazzled, I reset the machine, checked the water, and wandered back into the bedroom to check my e-mail while my fresh, fragrant elixir of consciousness brewed. I sifted through my mail until I heard the percolation process winding down. I retrieved my mug, added cream and sugar, took my first much-anticipated sip and…*splutter*. Horror of horrors! I was sipping boiling water laced with cream and sugar. Note to self: when making coffee, the desired result is usually best obtained if you actually add the…coffee! I was now approaching half an hour of being mobile and semi-conscious without caffeine. My limit is usually somewhere around ten minutes, and this is on an exceptionally slow day. So: dump the mess in the sink; reset the coffeemaker; lather, rinse, repeat. They say third time’s the charm, and thankfully that statistic proved accurate in this case, as I was fast-approaching under caffeinated, premenstrual, homicidal psychobitch.

To make a long story short, I have to agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Isherwood here; the implication that mornings (or at least Monday mornings)are good is a highly questionable one, and I’m thoroughly convinced that there’s a niche in the market for a coffee machine with an attached hand that reaches out to slap the under caffeinated human who is negligent enough to forget to add coffee before attempting to brew any, or even better, one that will conveniently add the essential forgotten ingredient, and possibly deliver it to the caffeine addict on a tray, Jetsons-style.

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Mark Darcy’s Gourmet Grocer: Specializing in the Most Increddible Shit

for quite some time now–possibly the last five years or so–I’ve been searching for solid, verifiable proof that prolonged exposure to graduate school
has long-term, negative effects on brain function. Finally, I think I can safely say I have it.

last night, I fell asleep with three things bouncing hither and thither in my brain:
1- the fact that my kitchen cabinets were dangerously approaching empty.
2- a conversation with a friend about the film “Love Actually” and the talents of a certain Colin Firth.
3- hesitation about whether or not to suggest cooking this weekend for a friend who’s never been exposed to my culinary experiments.

These three things in combination prompted perhaps one of the strangest dreams I’ve had in living memory. I was standing with a friend in front of a grocery
store, over which was posted the sign: “Mark Darcy’s Gourmet Grocer: specializing in the Most Incredible Shit.” Anyone familiar with “Bridget Jones’ Diary”
will recognize my brain’s reference to Mark Darcy’s description of Bridget’s botched attempt at cooking: “I have to say, this really is the most incredible
shit”. My friend and I stepped inside and found ourselves surrounded by items like stuffed olives and enormous blocks of cheese in roughly five-pound increments.
I haven’t yet decided why anyone would want five pounds of cheese–we’ll just file that under life’s mysteries. I realized immediately that, on my very
small graduate student teacher pay, I couldn’t afford to shop at such an upscale grocer and insisted that my friend and I leave immediately, because we’d
somehow managed to catch the attention of the proprietor–Mark Darcy himself–naturally played by a rather dashing, somewhat overbearing Colin Firth. Fortunately
we escaped before he could talk us into purchasing several pounds of some unpronounceable cheese and a very appetizing-looking bread that I think would
have cost my entire paycheck. At which point, fortunately–for me–I awoke.

NO one wishes more than I that this was made up; I’d dearly love to tell you that this has all been some ridiculous fabricated story cooked up by my overactive
brain to make you all laugh–and give you a concrete reason to have me chucked into the nuthouse. Admittedly, this was, in fact, cooked up by my overactive
brain, but I swear truthfully that it was not consciously done. I have thus reached three very important conclusions:
1- must acquire food.
2- Must attempt, whenever possible, to get eight hours of sleep (insert derisive noise of your choice here)
3- adopt new mantra: say yes to Jesus, no to graduate school.

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I’d Kill for That Reflection: the Vampire and Body Image

Several weeks ago, I asked the students in my Writing through Media course to view this video on youtube and comment upon it in their course blogs. While the video—a tutorial on how to look like a vampire, ostensibly for Halloween—claims to pay homage to the vampires of Anne Rice, the fact that it was posted only a year ago clearly suggests an attempt to capitalize on the current resurgence of interest in vampires popularly dubbed the “Twilight Phenomenon”. I asked them to consider such issues as the motivation behind the video’s creation, the video’s intended audience, how it draws upon and/or responds to our archetypal image of the vampire, etc. I’d hoped that such guiding questions would encourage them to interrogate the cultural fascination with the “vampiric look”, and while the majority of the class leaned, rather predictably, toward the opinion that this was merely a fun video intended for anyone wanting to dress as a vampire for Halloween, several students pointed to a deeper motivation that I confess I’d overlooked myself.

When we consider the appeal of vampirism to the young, naturally we think of the immortality, the intensity of passion and emotion in which the young and the misunderstood revel; the tendency toward transgression—especially sexual—etc. (This last is, at least in my opinion, perhaps the most appealing for young people exploring or experimenting with sexuality; the vampire, after all, transcends sex and gender boundaries; it doesn’t locate itself within the confines of heterosexual, heteronormative relationships). This boundary-transcendence, the idea that the vampire is and can be anything, is the freedom so exciting to the young—that and the fact that teenagers are especially attracted to the idea of straying outside conventional norms, if only to enact rebellion for rebellion’s sake. As Nina Auerbach proclaims in her much-revered /Our Vampires, Ourselves/: “Vampires…promised protection against a destiny of girdles, spike heels, and approval”. James Patterson’s novel/Violets are Blue/, in which Alex Cross hunts a gang of serial killers claiming to be vampires, similarly interrogates this issue of the vampiric lifestyle as boundless.

I noticed little of this in my students’ responses to the video; the emerging trend in their responses, interestingly enough, gestured toward the idea of the vampire as embodying physical perfection. We know this, of course; Lucy Westenra, Carmilla Karnstein, Lestat, and that sexy and sparkly Edward Cullen—all seductively attractive, perfect physical specimens—or so they would be if they were “alive”. What struck me was my students’ equation of the vampiric body with the perfect body—a haunting reminder that we still find ourselves spellbound by images of the airbrushed beauty. With the exception of our foul-smelling, coffin-dwelling Dracula, most of the vampires we’re acquainted with are uncommonly attractive. Have you ever seen an overweight vampire? A wrinkly vampire? Of course you haven’t, because the vampiric body is perfect and perfectly preserved; untouched by illness, death and decay—the things we fear most. How paradoxical that the creature who casts no reflection is the very reflection of what we long to be.

What interests me here is not specifically my students’ association of the vampiric body with the ideal physical type, but the fact that the observation was made equally by male and female students alike. I need hardly point out that—in terms of physical fitness and beauty—we have traditionally been subject to a gendered double-standard, with women undergoing far more scrutiny. Yet I begin to wonder whether, given some of my male students’ observations, we might be noticing somewhat of an equalizing shift. It isn’t only the female audience after all who has fallen victim to the cult of Edward Cullen; young men too, if not of their own accord, have likewise been exposed to the phenomenon by way of sisters, friends, girlfriends, etc. they might well question what it is about Edward—and specifically Robert Pattinson’s Edward—that attracts young women. Might they feel a certain inadequacy in the face of such matchless masculinity? We can argue that this is merely fiction, of course, but we likewise cannot deny that Hollywood sets the bar of beauty, for men and women alike, almost beyond the reach of mere mortals (quite literally in this case). I’ve read the Twilight saga of course, and am teaching the first novel and film this semester, and I’m beginning to wonder whether or not it might be interesting to interrogate the ways that Stephenie Meyer handles issues of body-image alongside her treatment of gender and sexuality, morality, etc.—all complex issues with which teens and young adults struggle. Somehow the idea of approaching a discussion of the text and film from this angle looks appealing; I’ve been giving considerable thought to how I might make the story more accessible to my boys—or at least to encourage them to participate in our discussions—and I think, or at least I hope, that using this approach, they might just bite.

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