31 August 2010

One inch

That's how tall the draft of my dissertation measures. Funny how so much work and so many opportunities can be tied to one inch.

I've been watching a lot of films to balance out the hardcore attention to detail I've had to maintain. Now, I will tell you which ones were good, which ones were terrible, and which ones were simply tolerable.

I'll start with the bad ones:

1. 500 Days of Summer: I've already gotten flak about this one. I really hated it. Actively. I found myself actively disliking this film from the first, self-referential scene. What didn't I like about it? Everything. More specifically: Zooey Deschanel, the uber-indie feel, the hypersaturation of hipster culture, the temporal bounds. I like Joseph Gordon Levitt, but this film lost me at: "The Smiths? I love The Smiths." Like Juno and any film with Michael Cera, this film was obsolete by the time it hit DVD. And someone needs to teach Zooey to emote.

2. Amelia: Good story. Terrible acting. Hillary Swank is a talent, for sure, but this film pushes her to vamp up her prairie accent, make much ado about everything, and cut a figure as the scrappy-but-still-elegant pioneer. Richard Gere is a terrible actor, all the time, but Swank doesn't have to be. This film could have been so much more without the melodrama. I wonder what it is about period pieces that cues actors to tap into their stage voices?

3. Gentleman Broncos: Another film from Jared Hess, the guy responsible for Nacho Libre and Napoleon Dynamite. I had high hopes for this movie, as I enjoyed Hess's past work. However, the awkwardness that makes NL and ND endearing makes Gentlemen Broncos simply uncomfortable. It seems as if American filmmakers have hit on this genre of teen films that relies on the site gag and crude jokes. Teen films have always hit these notes harder than other genres, but it does seem that, recently, they've been responsible for setting the bar for crude language and behavior. I'm no prude, but films like GB go a long way to dashing my hopes for American cinematic culture.

And move to The Good Ones
1. Creation: Focusing on the tense relationship between Darwin and his faithful and religious wife, this film, despite its Rotten Tomatoes rating, presented a complex look at a marriage forced to consider its foundation. Haunted by the death of his child--for which he blames himself--Charles works out his theory of evolution as he also deals with the provenance and resting place of his child's soul. A deeply felt, if not pathos-heavy, film with some insight into the background of a foundational scientific text.

2. Mother: A Korean film, Mother relies heavily on attention to detail and surprise endings. Do-joon is 27, oddly childlike, and lives with his mother. Their relationship relies on both physical intimacy and deep emotional entanglement to develop the backdrop for Do-joon's undoing. We follow as he is accused of the murder of a young woman and as his mother, who is viciously devoted to her son, works behind the scenes to protect her child, who she assumes couldn't commit such a violent act. At times grisly and uncomfortable, Mother holds up for question the bounds of maternal commitment. Never think that you know who killed that girl, because the ending will surprise you.

Before finishing with the Better-Than-Good One
Let the Right One In: I had postponed seeing this Swedish vampire film because it came out amid the Twilight hype. I was OVER vampires. However, in its subtlety and grace, this film crafts a story where the vampircism is backgrounded in favor of the human (and otherwise) relationships as they develop. With rich yet stark cinematography, Let the Right One In returns the genre to its roots: it subverts gore and sexuality to highlight visceral need and fulfillment (including psychological need in the face of loneliness, and who hasn't experienced that?). The trope of the unaged child is well rendered, and what blood there is, is presented with style.

Sadly, I've watched only one Better-Than-Good film recently. I have high hopes for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. (It's sitting on my kitchen table.)

23 August 2010

The Life of the Body

I spend so much time worrying about the life of my mind: reading, writing, making godforsaken (but really helpful) charts, making sure I know who said what about whom and when. "Chain-linked" citations are impressive but can be unethical, writes Bud Goodall, yet my field still swoons when someone pulls a 12-name list of authors out of their back pocket. TaDA!

This post isn't really about the constraints of the discipline or how I see the concept of expertise at work in my life. It's about my back. And my legs. And sometimes even my head (but only the muscles and connectives that attach it to my neck).

Academics--especially those in training--boast impressive injury and illness rap sheets. I have friends with sciatica, migraines, ulcers, carpal tunnel syndrome, and less-serious-but-still-painful soreness and stiffness. I know people who are forever battling colds and the flu, hacking their way to a PhD, hobbling their way up and down Hodges library stacks, bent double like little old women carrying too many baskets of home-baked cookies. (The cookies were too much, right? I over-modify.) Until two years ago, I was an academic invalid too: stomach illnesses (which you can read about on this blog somewhere); a weak core from sitting too long at the computer (that one left me with lockjaw and legally blind for about two weeks. Yes, blind.); numbness in my hands from my keyboard position (wiggling the fingers every five minutes = strange looks from other lab users); and a host of sinus infections, eye infections, lung infections, and common colds. I was sick all the time, and my steady diet of processed food (Velveeta grilled cheese sandwiches were a staple), bargain-basement energy drinks, little to no exercise, and too much clicky clicky typing set me up to fail. Though I was committed 100 percent to working on my life of the mind, I wasn't giving myself a hospitable environment in which to do it.

The revolution was less of a bang, more of a whimper. I gradually switched to a diet comprised almost entirely of clean foods, started exercising with purpose, blocked out a least eight hours of sleep a night, and scheduled weekends off. That's right. I don't work on Saturdays at all, and I work on Sundays only when it's dire. Over the course of the last four years, I've steadily improved that plan, and this year, I've had only one serious illness--a terribly timed stomach flu--and a tangle with some antibiotics for a lingering stomach infection. In comparison, in 2006, I battled pneumonia for 6 weeks at at time 3 different times. (That's more than 4 months of being sick with pneumonia.) I sleep more soundly, I've dropped about 50 pounds, and I'm generally happier. In part, this change is attributed to the higher quality of food I'm consuming and because I block out time to exercise at least once a day, usually twice. However, I've also grown to realize that my time away from my work is just as important. I try to NOT work at home, so that all I have to do when I get home is relax. Work is for work. Home is for home things like watching films, snuggling, napping, and reading for pleasure. (I mention this point because many academics I know work from home, and I'm not saying that compartmentalizing tasks this way works for everyone, but it works for me.)

I guess it's safe to say that, while I value the life of my mind, I'm more interested in maintaining a healthy, sustainable life for my body so we can co-exist in peace. Without migraines.

20 August 2010

A Subtle Shift

It's the end of the first week of my last year as a graduate student.

For me, happy = busy. Good news for my satisfaction, but bad news for my blog. I haven't posted in two weeks (or more?), and I've felt a distinct lack (Freud laffs) of self-reflection and joy in writing.

Not that I haven't been writing. Oh I have: a syllabus (from scratch; I refused to copy/paste this time around), paper assignments, rubrics, scads of emails, and the rough beginning to one class assignment for a course I am taking. Hello, fall. And while I miss the unstructured days of summer, I welcome the organization forced by taking a class and teaching a class. I welcome side projects and brain breaks from the revision of the dissertation. By the way, I haven't started revising the dissertation yet.

Here's where I think my background in creative writing will pay off. I'm okay letting projects chill out. I'm fine with giving two weeks away to other projects while I gain both perspective on the diss and acquire new reading knowledge. But while this break is nice and necessary, my schedule has me revising come Monday. I'm excited to read what I've written. I've already forgotten.

Is is surprising that I can write something substantive and forget it? Maybe it's a feeling akin to how creative writers describe "inspiration." God breathes, right? But here, I find that another part of my brain operates while I write. Sharon Olds once described the feeling to me like this: "I was sitting at my desk, holding my pen, when a poem flew in through the window and landed on it. I'm excited to share that poem with you today!" While only part of the diss came in through the window--I fought hard for entire passages and one entire chapter--I am thankful for the parts that came to me like moving water. (I usually abhor metaphor in self-reflection, but sometimes I can see it working well.) I will never be one to deride the epistemological function of writing. I live that mess.

Here's what's different this year: After my summer spent writing, after feeling professionalized in out-of-department courses, and after much interaction with major professors in my discipline, I realized this week, the first week of my last year as a grad student, that I don't feel like a grad student anymore. I feel like a scholar and colleague, which is maybe premature, but as I taught my first upper-division course yesterday, I realized that I am where I need to be. The students seemed comfortable. I felt comfortable. I am able to use my reading knowledge and experience as a writer. And while I, like many advocacy-minded scholars, often question the relevancy of what I do to the broad struggles and suffering of the world as it is lived, on the ground, I celebrated this moment of coming into my own. It was a small non-event, in a rudimentary classroom in the education complex, and it was subtle, only I knew it had happened, but it was there. And I danced all the way back to McClung Tower.