You could be living

Ever since I moved to New England over 15 years ago, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. Whenever I travel to some lovely vacation spot, I realize upon coming back home that I live in a lovely vacation spot. Although I enjoy visiting and exploring the wonders in other folks’ backyards, the “Here” I find when I come back home is equally alluring and interesting.

Bay Bridge

The last time I was in San Francisco, I was unhappily married, stuck in the midst of a mired dissertation, and emotionally numb. Like Mary Austin, who walked in the deserts of southern California seeking to be “sobered and healed at last by the large soundness of nature,” I spent as much of that week as possible walking, alone. Staying by night as an invisible guest at the San Francisco Zen Center, I woke each morning before practice, slipped out to my car while other folks made their sleepy way to the meditation hall, and made my escape north of the city, where I did miles of solitary walking meditation in Marin County, the hypnotic regularity of “one foot in front of the other” being exactly what I needed at the time to return to my senses.

Bay Bridge with gull

I later wrote about that week I spent sneaking out of the San Francisco Zen Center, consistently choosing walking over sitting:

Over the course of five days in Marin County, I walked over 50 miles in day-trip long segments, walking each day until my legs ached and my sandal-clad feet were as brown as the earth. Every evening I’d return to the city to eat, shower, then sleep like a rock until morning when I’d repeat the process all over again. There’s nothing like a day’s worth of walking to tire your body and soul into deep, restful sleep; there’s nothing like a day’s worth of walking to bring you out of your academia-addled brain and back into your body, rooted to the earth down to your dust-covered toes.

Take a seat

This weekend, instead of staying at the San Francisco Zen Center, I was an almost-invisible participant at a literary conference where I presented part of the opening chapter of that once-mired, now four-years-completed dissertation, popping into a handful of sessions each day but otherwise sneaking off elsewhere. Five years ago, I used walking as an escape from the academic writing I’d grown sick of; this time around, I used walking (and the ever-present demands of my online classes) as an escape from the academic presentations that still seem so foreign to me.

How is it that professors no different from me can content themselves sitting inside all day reading papers to one another when their legs still work and the world outside beckons? In “Walking,” one of the texts I considered in the opening chapter of my dissertation, Henry David Thoreau marveled that his neighbors didn’t kill themselves from the monotony of having to sit in shops all day, “as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon.” This weekend I found myself wondering something similar. I can’t speak for other academics, but this much I’ve discovered about myself: I can’t think sitting down, much less sitting down being read to. If there’s anything of interest in the opening chapter of my dissertation or elsewhere, it’s insight I came to while walking, the sedentary writing of those insights being something that happened after-the-fact.

Transamerica Pyramid from pier

So given the fact that I live in a place just as lovely as San Francisco or other conference destinations, and given the fact that I seem constitutionally averse to the kind of mingling and intellectualizing that academic conferences deal in, I wonder whether I’ll ever find myself attending another one. One of the things I realized while walking in Marin County five years ago was that I didn’t want to live my live analyzing Thoreau: I wanted to be Thoreau, and it occurs to me that Thoreau wasn’t much for literary conferences. “You could be living in a place where people dream of vacationing,” a San Francisco real estate sign reminds passersby; “you could be living, rather than presenting and being presented-to,” I had to stifle myself from saying as I sat through the handful of academic sessions I attended each day, counting the minutes until I could escape to walk again.

Well-hydrated

I’ve settled into the conference I’m attending in San Francisco, where the hotel staff is keeping us well-hydrated with tables of glasses and urns of cold water outside each seminar room. Although I brought my laptop so I can keep in touch with my online classes via hotel wifi, the double demands of conferencing and online-teaching (and my occasional escapes to do actual sight-seeing) will keep me from blogging much through the weekend. I’ll see you when I’m able; in the meantime, don’t forget to drink lots of water.

Tennessee Valley Trail

I’ve spent a good part of yesterday and today–the middle portion of my spring break–tweaking my academic website. I’m presenting a paper at a conference in May, and I’m currently taking some tentative steps toward looking for more secure (i.e. non-adjunct) academic employment, so it’s good to have an “online presence” that actually reflects who I am and what I do.

This means uploading sample syllabi, fleshing out the portion of my website dedicated to scholarly research, and updating both my CV and resume (and yes, I have both: the former goes into detail about research and publications while the latter focuses primarily on teaching). All the stuff I’m tweaking, uploading, and organizing was already online, but when I moved this blog to WordPress, I also moved my website, and I didn’t immediately get around to moving, updating, and organizing these additional documents.

Deer on coastal trail

This week’s website-tweaking has also involved a strange sort of re-visiting. One of the things I wanted to re-post on my academic website is an essay I call “The Upshot,” which was the final section of the final chapter of my PhD dissertation. (I also re-posted the abridged and complete versions of my dissertation proposal in case anyone is interested in that.) “The Upshot” tells the story (in an informal and decidedly non-academic tone) of how I began, got stuck on, and ultimately finished my dissertation. In a word, “The Upshot” recounts the long, strange trip from the project’s initial stages to its completion.

In my own teaching, I typically ask students to write a final reflective piece that talks about their writing process, and I often find these informal essays to be the most insightful and enjoyable part of students’ final portfolios. How can you know what you learned until you look back on where you’ve been? In my own case, “The Upshot” is my favorite section of my entire dissertation; not only did I write it when I was (thankfully!) almost done, it’s the portion of the project that feels the most personal to me. The rest of my dissertation is me trying to sound like an academic; “The Upshot” is where I take off that formal guise and talk about what initially inspired me to start the project and what I came to learn from it.

Tennessee Cove

Re-posting “The Upshot” forced me to read it again: it’s been nearly four years since I finished my dissertation and then promptly deposited its massive, still-boxed bulk atop a bookshelf where it’s been gathering dust ever since. The process of finishing a dissertation left me feeling overdosed on academic discourse, so I haven’t wanted to re-visit my own foray into that field. And yet, the paper I’ll be presenting in May is a chapter from my dissertation, so there’s something inside me that is dipping a tentative toe into the familiar (albeit still murky) waters of scholarly prose: presumably the interests that led me to start a dissertation are still a part of me even if I burned out on the actual act of completion.

I’d initially illustrated “The Upshot” with a handful of photos I’d taken during a lonely trip to San Francisco I’d taken in the summer of 2003, approximately six months before I finished my dissertation and almost exactly a year before my then-husband and I separated. As the ironies of the Universe would have it, that conference I’ll be attending in May will take me back to San Francisco. All roads, it seems, lead me back to the same themes, the same places, and the same images, the process of pilgrimage being an out-going trip that always seems to circle back to self and home.

Needless to say, I am not in California’s Marin County this week: today’s pictures are the same ones featured in the very essay I’m talking about.

Whale mural with Ferris wheel

The sleep I lost getting ready for last weekend’s trip to Los Angeles along with the aftermath of jet-lag has caught up with me at last. Even though I got nine hours of sleep after a full day of teaching on Tuesday, the principle of “too little, too late” seems to apply as I woke up this morning with a sore, raspy throat: for me, the first sign of an oncoming cold.

Most folks can and do work through colds, but in my case, full-blown colds almost always lead to laryngitis, and as a teacher, laryngitis is the one sickness I can’t afford to have. After spending too many winters fighting colds that developed into laryngitis then bronchitis, I’ve learned to lie low–very low–at the first sign of a cold, quarantining myself in my apartment away from germ-laden college students and imbibing as much hot soup, tea, and Vitamin C as I can swallow.

Boardwalking

Missing one day of face-to-face classes at the beginning of a cold, I’ve learned, is better than fighting the full-blown consequences for months thereafter. In the case of my online classes, calling in sick isn’t a problem; I can and do use sick days to catch up with online teaching tasks, one benefit of a job that allows you to teach in your pajamas. My face-to-face classes are a bit more problematic: at the college level, there are no substitute teachers, so if I’m home sick, class doesn’t happen. That being said, both email and Blackboard make it possible for me to communicate with my face-to-face students while I’m sick, and right now, typing feels much better than talking. Although it troubles me to cancel classes so early in the term, I’ve taught–and dealt with my laryngitis-prone body–long enough to know that we can make up next week the material we didn’t cover today…but only if I take the time and care to get well between now and then.

Beach

And so today I feel like I’m submerged in my own life aquatic, soaking in plenty of fluids while I swim in warm oceans of blankets. Lying low–very low–at the first sign of a cold is a bit like diving, my body protected by a bathyspheric bubble from whatever illness is floating about. Whatever bug is out there, I tell myself, isn’t going to get in here…and I’ll wash out the initial inklings of an existing invasion through an intentional overdose of chicken soup, fruit juice, and Emergen-C. Only then, I tell myself, will I be ready to respire among the sleep-deprived, immunity-compromised, and germ-laden college students I normally share a diving bell with.

Click here for more photos from cloud-shrouded Santa Monica. Although embarrassed locals insisted it “never rains in LA,” I myself like the moody look of cloud-covered beaches.

Seagull

It was mostly rainy in Santa Monica this weekend, so I returned to New England with many memories but not so many photos from a whirlwind weekend revolving around the wedding of friends. At the Friday night rehearsal dinner, Saturday wedding and reception, and Sunday morning brunch, J took hundreds of pictures, illustrating once again his skill at taking non-invasive candid shots that capture the at-ease personality of his subjects. I have no doubt his pictures will be as good and even better than those by the professional photographer who chronicled the wedding and reception.

As for me, I enjoyed making new friends and keeping my camera off during the festivities, my shyness about taking pictures of people giving me ample excuse to enjoy myself rather than hiding behind a camera. In the case of bold seagulls, though, I made an exception, figuring a one-legged bird that literally posed upon approach didn’t see my camera as an invasion of privacy. In Santa Monica, it seems even the seagulls are accustomed to paparazzi.

Clear skies

On Monday morning’s crack-of-dawn taxi ride to the airport, our driver asked if we’d seen any celebrities: apparently, a common topic of conversation in Santa Monica. “No,” J answered, “not a one,” even though several celebrities were in attendance at the wedding: family and friends of the happy couple. To J, a longtime friend of the groom’s parents, the folks in question aren’t celebrities; they’re family. So J and I kept our lips zipped while our cabbie described the time he saw Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Lopez waiting for separate rides outside the same upscale hotel. When it comes to friends who happen to be famous, it doesn’t seem fair to talk and tell.

When you see the softer side of any celebrity–the groom’s famous sister tearing up as she described how happy she is that he’s finally landed with a woman who makes him happy, or a famous friend echoing the same sentiment–you realize the thinness of celebrity skin. On Friday night, I hadn’t met any of J’s LA friends; by the time the rehearsal dinner was over, they all felt like family, the congratulatory speeches and funny stories they shared demonstrating how loved and loving the happy couple truly is. I’ve been to a few non-Hollywood weddings that felt like big performances with expensive flowers, fancy finery, and gourmet meals all screaming “look at us, and be impressed.” This weekend’s wedding felt entirely different. When you are a celebrity, you don’t have to flaunt that status; when you are a friend or relative of a famous person, you know and love their unseen private side, who they really are. Equipped with that knowledge, you have no need or desire to brag.

Sweet Dreams

After Monday morning’s crack-of-dawn taxi ride to the airport, J and I arrived in Boston in time for Monday night’s rush hour; after spending most of Monday night grading papers, yesterday morning I left Newton at the crack-of-dawn in order to teach my 8:00am Expository Writing class here in Keene. Only when I came home from teaching a full day of classes yesterday afternoon did I feel like I’d finally landed, this weekend in Santa Monica coming so close on the heels of the start of classes and my weekend trip to Ohio.

The groom’s famous sister and her equally famous husband jet-set between LA and New York, having apartments on both coasts; as for me, I belong to the Subaru-set, zipping between my workaday apartment here in Keene and my weekend home at J’s place in Newton. Is being an actor, professional athlete, supermodel, or other celebrity more exciting than teaching a handful of face-to-face classes in a quiet New England town or a couple more classes in the anonymous ether of the Internet? Or do they each offer their own challenges and satisfactions?

Perched on the pier

At the wedding reception, after having met and briefly chatted with the groom’s sister on Friday night, we had a longer conversation about her in-progress English degree, something she’s interrupted every time she’s landed a movie or television role. Some might envy the lives and lifestyles of the rich and famous, but as for me, I’m grateful for the peaceful obscurity of life in a quiet New England town and the knowledge that I can take (and teach) college classes without weathering the ogling stares of passing classmates and cab drivers. After learning that I teach online, the groom’s sister peppered me with questions: could online classes give her the schedule flexibility and personal privacy she needs? I suggested they might and offered to answer any questions she might have, proof that even professors have their own hungry public if not an attendant paparazzi. Celebrity skinned or otherwise, we’re all human souls underneath.

Yummy

The third picture above shows the box of goodies, assembled by this company, the bride and groom provided for out-of-town guests. When ours arrived at our hotel, the desk clerk admired the packaging, and I have to say the contents were equally tasty.

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