March 2004


Entrance to Keene State College, March 30, 2004

Just be grateful, Gentle Reader, that you don’t have to deal with me in person today.

I’m typing these lines from the library here at Keene State College. (I took this photo yesterday, when it wasn’t raining. I always chuckle when I see the sign for the “Keene Normal School,” which is the old name for Keene State College. Although I know a “normal school” is a 2-year teaching college, I cherish a fanciful hope that somewhere there’s a school that teaches students how to be normal…)

In the background of this picture, you can see Parker Hall, the vine-clad brick building that houses my office. At this very moment, I should be teaching Expository Writing in that building, but I’m not. Instead, I cancelled my morning classes so I can hole myself away in the college library where I’m spending a fretful time NOT WRITING the conclusion to my dissertation…

This morning Chris learned the hard way that husbands should never, ever nicely inquire about the wellbeing of their blocked, cranky, and sleep-deprived dissertating wives: I think the term “loaded for bear” adequately describes my mood. What I need right now, I think, is to wrap myself in a roll of that yellow CAUTION tape that cops and maintenance workers use to signal to people to STAND BACK from some lurking danger. Or perhaps I need a bullhorn to get the point across: “Please stand back from the writer! She’s blocked, she’s moody, and she’s dangerous!”

The problem with this present chapter–actually, the problem with the ENDING to this present chapter–is it’s the very end. Yep, I’m wracking my brain over Ch. 6, the conclusion to my diss: more specifically, I’m wracking my brain over the final section of that final chapter, a modest bit of prose that represents the end of the diss and, by extension, the end of ten years of PhD-pursuit. So as I sit here facing a blank screen with the words “The Upshot” emblazoned at the top, I find myself grappling with a single un-answerable question.

What the fuck is the point?

What the fuck is the point of this whole damn diss: what the fuck is the point of getting the degree in the first place? I’ve spent just under ten years working toward this precise moment; I’ve spent some six years, I think, planning, drafting, revising, and avoiding this dissertation alone. So now that I’m trying to figure out how to say “the end,” I’m left with this huge question: WHY? Why did I start it, why did I continue with it, and why, why, why am I finishing it? In a word, why am I bothering to finish this project, and why the hell should anyone else care about it?

What I’m looking for, of course, is The Upshot.

One of the texts I talk about in my conclusion is Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. In it, Leopold spends the first two sections describing various natural places: first, the environs of his reclaimed farm in Wisconsin’s sand country, and second, various places he encountered during his years as an outdoorsman and forest ranger. In the third section of his book Leopold waxes philosophical, expressing in an essay he terms “The Upshot” the whole damn reason why we should bother noticing and caring about the natural world. It is in this section of the book that Leopold articulates his famous “Land Ethic,” a manifesto which features an oft-quoted dictum of environmental conscience: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

There, in two sentences, Leopold sums up The Point of his entire career: in two sentences, he looks at his life and the places he’s been and he gives you The Upshot. “Here is why I give a damn about the environment, and here’s why you should, too. Here’s the basic tenet that rules my life, and the rest of this book has tried to show you why you should follow it as well.” There’s a reason, of course, why this particular statement in this particular section of this particular book is quoted time and time again by earthy-crunchy, tree-huggin’ wackos like myself: it’s difficult to come up with An Upshot of any sort, much less THE Upshot. So when we hear one that sounds half good, we latch onto it…

So as I’m revising this concluding chapter, I’m wanting in the worst way to have some sort of Final Statement that sums up why I care enough about Spirituality of Place in 19th- and 20th-century American Nature Writing to have spent some six years thinking, writing, and procrastinating about it. If someone is brave or stupid enough to read the whole damn diss, how will their lives be different because of it? What, in a word, should they DO with all the arcane intellectual insights I’ve gathered together in a 200-plus page document?

In a word, or several, I Have No Fucking Idea. Hence the block, the sleep-deprivation, the crankiness, and the cancelled morning classes. Holed away in this study carrel in Mason Library at Keene State College, I have the rest of the morning to figure out some semblance of an answer, something not-great-but-just-good-enough to close this damn chapter, this damn diss, and this damn ten-years of PhD-pursuit.

Once that is done and the dissertation is defended, I can resume some semblance of a Normal Life. Once, of course, I study up to discover what exactly that is…

Moral support

There’s good news and there’s bad news on the dissertation front. First, the bad news.

Yesterday I broke my laptop.

Well, more accurately, I lost two keys on my laptop. I was working at the library at Keene State, and I was severely sleep deprived. I had a huge stack of books I was going through one by one by one as I revised Chapter 1, the intro to my entire dissertation.

In the course of double-checking research citations, I grabbed one book and BAM dropped it right on my laptop keyboard. The “T” key and the “menu” key went flying off in opposite directions. Oops…

Now, I don’t think I’ve EVER used my “menu” key. But my “T” key is an essential bit: after all, nearly all of my chapters talk about Henry David Thoreau (henceforth referred to as “Horeau”), and this intro chapter talks about H.D. Horeau alongside Mary Austin (henceforth referred to as Mary Ausin).

So if I had to choose a key to sacrifice to the Computer Gods, it’s not like “T” would be the one I’d choose. Why not X, Z, or Q, for instance?

But, now for the good news…actually, several bits of good news. Last night was Chris’s birthday, so Chris’s brother took us out for a wonderful meal at the best restaurant in Keene. When we got home from being wined & dined, I planned to stay up finishing up that Chapter 1 revision before emailing it off to my committee. And believe me, I tried…

Ultimately, though, the influence of good food and fine wine cannot be denied. Around 9 o’clock I set that chapter aside, went to bed, and slept until 6 am. Yep, that’s nine hours of sound, oblivion-like sleep, which is exactly what I needed. I got up this morning, put the finishing touches on that chapter, and sent it to my committee. Today’s task is to revise Chapter 6, my conclusion, and email that first thing tomorrow. Then I format the entire diss, and then I draft my presentation for Monday…

I’m behind on my original schedule, I don’t have a “T” on my keyboard, and I still could use about a week’s worth of sleep. But looking at the world the morning after nine hours of sleep, life is good. The chapter I sent this morning isn’t perfect–they never are–but it’s pretty damn good. I’m proud of it, and I won’t mind reading parts of it at my defense on Monday. And after Monday, I can sleep and sleep and sleep some more…

And life without a “T” ain’t that bad. I’m slowly getting used to fingering the bare keypad. Once the diss is done and submitted, I’ll see about getting it repaired; in the meantime, nobody’s coming between me and my laptop. Chris already tried to fix the missing key, and he’s already offered to switch laptops with me, but I’m used to this one: we’ve seen many early mornings, late nights, and countless words, words, words (and millions of T’s) together. The two of us, my laptop and I, are going to make it to Monday’s deadline even if we have to lose the occasional bit or piece along the way.

In the meantime, the task for today is to revise Chapter 6, the conclusion, which considers texts by Leslie Marmon Silko, Aldo Leopold, and Terry Tempest Williams…henceforth referred to as Erry Empes Williams.

And after that, I think I’m going to allow myself another full night’s sleep. You know the best thing about sleeping for a full nine hours?

You don’t need a “T” to do it.

Flowering VW bus, Keene Flower Show

It’s official: I’m a zombie. Now that I have exactly one week (yikes) before my dissertation defense, I’m edging into the death-like realm of sleep-deprivation, caffeine-addiction, and slap-happy giddiness. I’ve sent revised versions of all four body chapters to my committee and am awaiting their last minute suggestions; I’ll be sending them a revised version of my intro chapter this afternoon. That leaves revision of my concluding chapter for tonight and tomorrow morning, then I’ll be cut & pasting all these various revised chapters into one huge document called Dissertation.

I’m really tired and emotionally all over the place. Chris keeps asking if there’s anything he can do to help, and I keep telling him there’s absolutely nothing he can do. Right now, all I want is the diss to be done, and that’s something only I can do. The world doesn’t have enough cookies, hugs, or backrubs to make the diss go away: I just have to keep my nose to the grindstone (still!) and just do it.

Yesterday we took a brief break to go to the annual flower show here in Keene, which several friends of ours helped organize. One of the exhibits featured a decrepit old VW bus covered with moss, lichens, and other greenery. As we were chuckling at this vegetative version of the “aging hippie” motif, we learned that the bus belongs to our friend Bonnie: it was her idea to deck it out in flowered fabrics, love-beads, a lava lamp, and lots of greenery. The sight of so much greenery was a treat for work-worn eyes: right now, the thought of taking a nap in a quiety, mossy place sounds delicious. But before I can rest, I have to face one more week of good solid work. Until next Monday, this rolling stone doesn’t have time to gather moss.

Porch chair

Yesterday was another beautiful day here in Keene: mild and partly cloudy. The local ice-cream stand in town is freshly painted and open for business, the college girls are out and about in tank tops and capri pants, and scruffy guys everywhere are barefoot or in sandals. You’d think it was summer in the tropics, but it’s only what-passes-for-spring here in New Hampshire. When the thermometer hits 65 degrees after a record-smashingly cold winter, everyone hits the streets.

On the one hand, it’s difficult to focus on the diss when the weather’s nice; on the other hand, I’m sorely in need of a break. Yesterday morning I did diss revisions on the porch, a tiny change of pace that allows me to get something done while offering a much-needed illusion of ease. Around lunch time Chris suggested we run some errands then grab a sandwich, so at long last I accomplished yet another necessary goal on the long and winding road toward the PhD.

I bought paper.

Now, this isn’t any ol’ ordinary paper. This is 20 lb. 100% cotton watermarked archival-quality stuff: the paper I’ll need to print “Bill” when he’s done. Northeastern like any doctoral program has rigorous requirements about dissertation formatting, paper, etc: the copy I print (and my committee signs-off on) will be bound and preserved for posterity in the library archive. If you try to submit your diss on any ol’ paper, the “Ruler Lady” in charge of checking dissertations will turn you away (yes, she measures margins with a ruler, and yes, there have been people who haven’t graduated on time because of her). No watermark, no diss, no graduation. Any questions?

I’ve been cranking so much on the content of my diss, I haven’t spent much time on the format: I figured I’d spend this next week worrying about that. Following the example of colleagues who have gone before me, I’m going to print a “dress rehearsal draft” on plain paper for the Ruler Lady’s consideration the day of the defense, then I can make any necessary changes (and any suggested revisions from my committee) in time to print the perfected version on the expensive stuff. The perfected, printed-on-expensive-paper version has to be submitted by Friday, April 9th, so I’ll have a couple of days after the April 5th defense to tweak what needs tweaking. In the meantime, though, I’ve had the occasional panicky thought: what if, at the last minute, some stupid formatting issue completely nullifies all the work I’ve done?

So you can imagine the relief I felt yesterday when we went to Staples return some computer equipment Chris had bought. Wandering over to the fine stationery aisle, I found tranquility in a box: Eaton/Southworth 20lb 100% cotton acid-free Thesis Paper. (Yep, it says “Thesis Paper” right on the box.) Eaton is one of the “approved” brands listed in the university archives’ specifications, so I was overjoyed to find it right here in Keene: I’d heard horror stories of colleagues shopping from store to store in search of the elusive Proper Paper. I bought two packages for a total of 500 pages: about twice as much as I’ll probably need, but I’m taking no chances.

And so I’m slowly but surely taking care of business as I head into the final week before the defense. Last night I had a moment of sheer panic when I realized my tried-and-true MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers doesn’t contain formatting guidelines for dissertations: for that, I need to get a copy of the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. “Oh, crap! What if I can’t find a copy? I’m under a deadline and I need this book: otherwise, the last 10 years of work goes down the drain!”

I’m learning that people in the final throes of completing their PhDs are like pregnant women: subsumed by weird cravings and always on the brink of complete emotional breakdown. Has anyone, I wondered, every throttled the Ruler Lady when she’s pointed out a discrepancy with margin size or an improperly formatted footnote? (In my mind’s eye, I can envision myself either breaking into hysterical tears right there on the spot or pulling a Bobby-Knight style tantrum: “Breaking news! Northeastern PhD candidate goes postal over paper requirements! Film at eleven!”) Having observed the emotional roller-coaster effect the diss has had on me over the past month or so, I’m learning how to weather the storm: “Okay, take a deep breath. We’ll find a copy of the style guide even if I have to send Chris all over New England to retrieve it. It’s okay…”

Within five minutes I learned that Keene State has not one but TWO copies of the MLA Style Manual: one on reserve and one available for check out. So today’s task is to stroll on over to the library and check out what I’m sure is going to be a thrill-a-minute page-turner.

It’s eight days and counting until the showdown we’ve all been waiting for. Ruler Lady, prepare to meet the Zen Mama.

Chris with new vihuela, March 27, 2004

Well, at least Chris had the decency to warn me that he’d be coming home with a new love.

I knew he was stopping on his way home from North Carolina to visit the luthier in New Jersey whom he’d hired to build either a new 10-course lute or a 7-course vihuela. Presumably the purpose of the visit was to help Chris decide between the lute and vihuela and to give Cezar a feel for how large an instrument would be appropriate.

But love, of course, works in mysterious ways. All it took was some conversation, lunch, and a personal check, and Chris walked out of there with a not-entirely-new 6-course vihuela, Cezar’s own personal baby. Not only is Chris a player, he can be quite charming when he needs to be.

So now I’m doubly widowed, competing with Chris’s now-old lute and his new-to-him, stunningly gorgeous vihuela. Vihuelas, if you don’t follow early music, are Spanish Renaissance double-strung guitars. They are, as you can see, small and ornately decorated. The 5 sets of double strings provide volume; the 6th single bass string provides fullness. Unlike lutes, vihuelas are flat-backed, which makes them perfect for self-accompanying singers: now Chris has real incentive to learn Spanish so he can perform a whole new repertoire of Spanish Renaissance songs.

Reggie as research assistant, March 26, 2004

As for me, I’m still working on dissertation revisions and trying to catch some sun where and when I can. Yesterday it reached 70 degrees here in Keene–a spring heat wave–so with the help of a couple extension cords, I did diss revisions with the dog on the back porch. (It’s becoming more & more apparent that I need to get a new laptop battery!) As I worked, those Bohemian waxwings I’d first seen over a month ago flitted from tree to tree in various neighbors’ yards: after having sought them far and wide, now they’ve come in droves to my own backyard.

And so, it looks like each of us, Chris and I, will be hosting our own personal menage a trois: Chris with lute and vihuela, me with Reggie and “Bill.” With the diss defense just over a week away and several chapters (still!) to revise between now and then, perhaps it’s best that Chris has a new love to occupy him. His lute might feel jealous at first, having been (temporarily) cast aside for a vihuela, but I’ll share those secrets I’ve learned on how to be a patient widow. Now that spring is in the air and that title of “Doctor” is within tantalizing reach, I’m finding there’s plenty of love and patience to go around…as long as the extension cord reaches.

Neglect

Some Photo Friday themes have my name written all over them. Two weeks ago, I didn’t even try to post anything for the theme of “Clean.” I mean, for weeks now there’s been nothing clean in this apartment except me and my undies, and I’m not prepared to show you that sort of photography…

But this week’s theme of “Neglect” is something I know all about. With all the time I’ve spent toiling on the dissertation these past few weeks, I’ve neglected housework, student papers, book-keeping, you name it. So this photo of both Buddha and Bodhisattva calmly meditating amongst stacks of unopened mail, ungraded papers, and dusty journal articles pretty much sums up my life.

Annie Dillard once said that all her house-plants died when she was working on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and I can relate. The aloe vera in the photo is the only house-plant we have, and it’s looking mighty sad these days. Aloes, of course, are desert plants: who knew that even they need upkeep?

    Apologies for the darkness/shadows in the photo. It was before 4:00 am when I took this shot, so it was dark outside and it’s not like I have spotlights & other professional photography equipment lying around. The fact that I took this photo at 4 am on a Friday morning probably says something about my pathetic recent lack-of-a-life. Hey, I told you I know something about neglect…

Back door, Keene, NH

Those of you who know the way my mind works and who read my blogroll know there’s really only one thing I can write about today.

Yep, if you’ve read Kathleen’s recent posts over at unsettled, you know where this is headed. How could I possibly not blog about Joe-the-waiter’s wonder-working ass?

But first I need to provide a little, um, backstory.

This entire week while Chris has been in North Carolina fingering his lute (?), I’ve been behaving myself so well. This time last week I had glorious visions of the wild and crazy times I’d have while I was temporarily Single and Fabulous. I’d go out. I’d get together with friends. I’d go dancing and drinking and carousing. I’d have droves of men (and maybe a couple of women) fawning over me. In a word, when Chris got home, I’d remark, “You were gone? I didn’t even notice, I was so busy being Single and Fabulous!”

Instead, of course, I’ve spent the past week working on dissertation revisions.

In the week that Chris has been gone, I’ve consumed no more than 3 pints of beer. Last Wednesday, I consumed a Saint Patrick’s Day pint of Guinness in the company of a handful of teetotalers who solemnly watched me over their ginger ale, Shirley Temple, and a cup of tea. Last Thursday I consoled myself with a lunchtime pint of Sam Adams while poring over a stack of boring journal articles. And on Monday night I enjoyed a local microbrew with Kathleen.

The pint with Kathleen was by far the most fun since the two of us can’t seem to get together without busting a collective gut over some bit of insanity. Kathleen, you see, might not be Single, but she’s definitely Fabulous. She’s a self-admitted potty-mouth, but she also knows how to use the word “perfunctory” properly in a sentence. She also, I’ve discovered, is terribly generous, gifting one of her favorite bloggers with a particularly handy gift. (Hmmm. Seems to me that completing a PhD is a particularly gift-worthy occasion, and I’ll probably need a way to unwind after the defense. Heck, if I’d had the USB version, I wouldn’t have minded spending a lonely week with “Bill” and my laptop…)

Anyhow, it was only natural, I guess, that the thoughts of two beer-swilling women would eventually turn to their waiter’s ass. The sad thing is, though, I didn’t even notice our waiter’s ass.

Yes, it’s true. Not even a single look.

Now I’m normally a great noticer–some might even say connoisseur–of the male backside. In college in Ohio, for example, my girlfriends and I used to frequent an on-campus Mediterranean restaurant whose waiters were particularly blessed in this regard. These fellows were tall, dark, and handsome, and they wore great pants. Unlike too many of their American counterparts, these Middle Eastern waiters wore tailored slacks that were comfortably loose in the leg and oh-so-delightfully form-fitting across the backside. I can’t count the number of times that one of my girlfriends “accidentally” dropped a fork or knife just so “Ahmed” or “Yusef” would bend over to retrieve it…very, very nice. You’re getting an extra generous tip for that one, my man.

You would think that 12 years of marriage would have quelled my wandering eye, but not so. As my good Irish Catholic mother would say, “I’m married, but I ain’t blind.” Over the years Chris has had to tolerate my random “appreciative comments” about various and sundry celebrities, acquaintances, and male passers-by. “Hmm, nice pants” is my preferred euphemism, something (again) that I seem to have picked up from my otherwise-proper, married-for-49-years mother. (This is the woman, after all, who recently started watching televised golf tournaments because she likes to “see what Tiger is wearing.” Yep, we all know what she’s looking at.)

Tiger might be fine, but Nomar Garciaparra is my favorite piece of celebrity activewear. Yep, the Red Sox’ shortstop is a mighty fine looking man in my book, and damn does he fill out his pants very nicely. Every time we watch a Red Sox game together, Chris knows to point out whenever Nomar’s at bat: “Here’s your man!” And although it’s always exciting to watch #5 knock one outta the park, the true thrill is when he’s infielding. Damn, he’s trim, muscular, and flexible: the perfect ingredients for a pleasing rearside view. So whenever Nomar leaps, reaches, or (oh yeah) lunges to make a catch, I silently pray that they’ll show a slo-mo instant replay…from the outfield camera.

Anyhow, it’s thus terribly shocking that I didn’t take the slightest peek at Joe-the-waiter’s backside…and I even thought he was cute, for goodness sake. But alas, Joe was young enough to be one of my students. In a town the size of Keene, many of the young folks I encounter waiting tables or bagging groceries are my students, so I’m ever-mindful of how I act in public: it’s kind of embarrassing to have one or several of your students see you ogling your 20-something waiter. So the entire time that Joe was quickly, seemingly miraculously filling our drink orders, I was watching him with a single niggling question in mind: “Hasn’t he been in one of my classes?” I don’t think Joe-the-waiter was ever in one of my classes, but I can’t be entirely sure about that. He didn’t seem to recognize me, so I’ll let it pass. But in the meantime, though, I also let pass every sweet opportunity I had to get a quick glimpse of his ass. Having taught college for so long, you see, I find that either I’m getting older or my students are getting increasingly younger. So even when I do have a thought of how cute a particular college-aged guy might be, almost immediately thereafter is the sobering thought, “But you’ve flunked guys older than him!”

And so it looks like I, like the BigHominid, won’t be seducing any students anytime soon. It looks like I missed my chance to check out Joe’s ass, and I’ve pretty much squandered my week of Single Fabulousness: Chris, you see, is leaving his Cape Hatteras beach rental today, having dinner with his cousin in Winston-Salem tonight, then potentially visiting the guy who’s making his new love in New Jersey sometime tomorrow. So Friday night or Saturday morning, I’m off to Vermont to pick up the hubby, thereby ending my pathetic week-long attempt at being a Merry Lute Widow.

In the meantime, though, I still have tonight. Thursday is Ladies’ Night at our local Mexican cantina, so I’ve one last chance to gorge myself on enchiladas, down a couple margaritas, and check out some cute young waiters and bartenders. Can you say, “Bottoms up”?

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