January 26, 2005

I Too Have NothingNothingNothing

I have been falling behind on my blogging. It is interesting (to me, anyhow) that no sooner do I make a space for it at mayoreric.com, I seem to lose interest in it. It may well be that I have been busy with things, e.g. getting MT installed on my server space and developing my new webspace. As usual, school is interfering with my plans; statistics keeps me on campus four mornings per week, and I typically put in some hours afterward.

Now that I have ultimate control over the files that I upload and can find paths to them, I am tempted to integrate the blog into the rest of the webspace. There are good reasons to, and good reasons not to, I suppose. I recognize that blogs are public reading, and that that is their raison d'être. Therefore, the more traffic the blog sends the way of the site the better. But I think I might be serving more than one public. Putting the site under one roof is a great start to figuring out what I am really about. At least digitally.

I am not sure what the significance is of the fact that the people that know me as a person rather than as their great hope for the future are most supportive of my next Lunatic Business Venture. I am sick to death of being a lousy grad student, and equally sick of providing no reason why I might be considered otherwise.

I am mindful of the story of a neighbor's nephew, a freshman at the U. He was snowboarding in Colorado recently, and had a terrible fall, breaking three vertebrae. Everyone is hopeful that he will walk again, and the preliminary signs are better than they were a week ago. That being said, within days of being told that he would miss his classes due to being traction and on a respirator etc, the U. called his mom and told her to pack up his stuff subito. The U. might have had some good reasons for doing so, like they were worried about its potential liability for the theft of his possessions or that they really needed the space. I would have hoped that they would have respected the busy schedule of a mother whose son (a customer of the U.) is on life support. In contrast, the ski resort where he fell sent a representative out to personally deliver his snowboard and personal effects that had been found on and near him. They told the mother that they knew he had not hit a tree after all, because they did not find any bark on him. The things one learns from the Ski Patrol.

The point of all this is that I should not expect the U. to allow me to exit gracefully. I think my departure will be more of the sort "Give us the keys and the laptop NOW. You will be escorted out of the building." And this is why I keep attending classes and registering for non-existent classes (thank God for pre-thesis credits!).

Shermanilla has been writing about the various places she would consider living, should the opportunity ever arise to get the heck out, at least for a while. Recently, we have been looking at Merced, California, of all places. Merced is a Central Valley town ala Fresno or Modesto that lies at the approach to Yosemite. It is also where a brand spanking new UC is going to open. Perhaps she and I are both something of real estate speculators. Every family has at least one, I suppose, and hers more than their share.

One of the nice things about a personal webspace, untethered to the U., is that the people who may want to follow up on me will be able to do so. One preserved friendship will be worth the expense and the effort.

Posted by webs0080 at 5:18 AM

January 22, 2005

Thank God for Snow Days

The snowthrower has been idle so far this season. I am not entirely sure the thing is a snowthrower and not a snowblower. It is the more powerful of the two, and I think that is the thrower. It has been a wimpy winter, precipitation-wise, here in Minnesota. This has caused some concern, because the roots of plants tend to freeze when the ground doesn't have a protective layer of snow. Now we finally have one. It began to snow lightly yesterday, but it did not stop. It got heavier as the day turned into evening, and now there is a 9 inch blanket of soft snow outside.

It is a great day to be a child: a Saturday free of care and plenty of snow to play in. I am tempted to take the toboggan we have packed around and stored for a dozen years out on its maiden voyage.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:41 AM

January 17, 2005

Restating the Obvious

Yes it is true that I have had my nose to an academic grindstone for a long time. As an undergrad at Maryland, I took summer and winter courses each year in addition to a full courseload during the semester (except for the first, when I was terribly unsure how much I could handle and I took 12 credits—still full time—instead of 15).

I had Spring and Summer 2002 off, but I sold a house, bought another one, and moved. Hardly relaxing. I took a week off last summer, after finishing up a summer class in German. Then came my boss' departure, the new boss' arrival, and less time than I had expected to prepare for my prelim. Then Mookie died. It was a pretty horrific semester, all told.

I have taken three courses each semester since I began grad school. I was told that this was a normal load, but I am beginning to realize that most grad students do not take this many courses each semester. Of course, it is hard to finish all the requirements in time to finish both prelims inside three years, as is required in order to guarantee funding. So far, I have not heard of anyone being denied funding as a result of failure to complete exams in a timely manner.

The big question remains: Is it fair to me expect that the nature of the stress or the amount of it will differ in any significant degree as a junior faculty member? Granted, not all colleges are not Research-1 universities, and the need to publish is not so great. But still, I will be expected to publish occasionally at least and to teach. And the stress of another large uncompleted project will inevitably loom ahead. Will I be happier then? THAT is the question.

Posted by webs0080 at 11:32 AM

Honesty Overrated

At one of the many low points of the past semester, I entered a seminar. This seminar was one where openness and honesty were actively encouraged. While the course is intended to be more practical than theoretical, the conversations often returned to the ethical concerns of doing research. I liked the professor, and when he had asked how things were going in the past, he sounded like he was genuinely interested in an honest answer. So when he said "How's it going?" I responded "Not so hot."

—What's up? School troubles?

—That too. But I just learned that a friend of mine committed suicide. We weren't close or anything, but the town we lived in has so few people that are willing to do anything to serve the community.

The exchange got me thinking about the role of honesty. Is it possible to be too honest? I don't think the professor was looking to start the seminar off on a depressed note, and really, neither was I. But he asked, and I was too tired of lying, telling people that everything was OK when it felt that the world was collapsing on top of me, to tell him that everything was fine. My need to be honest at that moment was greater than my concern that the class get off to its normally innocuous start. So I told the truth, and made everyone else feel awkward.

Sometimes life places us in the uncomfortable position of trying to strike a balance between telling people things they are comfortable hearing on side and saying things that square more completely with our own sense of reality on the other. I am not sure that any "rule" can be made that will cover when, how much, or to whom honest answers can be conveyed, but at this point if you ask, expect an answer.

Posted by webs0080 at 10:46 AM

January 15, 2005

Fortune Cookie

smfortune1.jpgLast year, I and a colleague met with two professors for lunch. We went to this Chinese-Vietnamese place across the street from the Carlson School. It was cheap, and they had a buffet. This indicates that the professors were buying. One of the professors astutely observed that most fortune cookies nowadays are not fortune cookies but rather "aphorism cookies." They provide no clairvoyance but rather sagely advice. I wonder which role the tiny messages are meant to provide, and if anything is really Chinese about them.

I remember seeing fortune cookies made through the window of a fortune cookie factory on a rare family trip to San Francisco when I was a child. A women wearing a hat peeled of round disks off a turret and expertly folded the cookies as they came around. She tossed them in a bucket, presumably to be wrapped.

smfortune2.jpgRecently, I opened a fortune cookie containing the aphorism "Example is better than precept." This seems to capture one of the problems I appear to be having with graduate school. Theoretical work is all about precept, to the extent that some political theorists (like Habermas) avoid examples altogether in their published work (even though they may and often do advocate in the outside world) and empiricists are criticized for using case studies (wherein entire situations can be understood in terms of the interrelated workings of their components) by "quants" who contend that for a theory to be valid it must be falsifiable. To sum up my longstanding of this latter stance I answer that human behavior does not follow exogenous "rules" as does celestial or atomic behavior. To be human is to understand, and to be incapable of understanding everything. And that includes understanding the forces that lead us to act and think the way we do.

On the obverse of the aphorism was a "Learn Chinese" phrase "Mayor &mdash Shi-zhang." Roomie took this to mean that I was destined to become active once more in the political capacity in which I once served. I prefer to think of the omen as a mere confirmation that the aphorism was meant for me and no one else. Who the heck needs to say "Mayor" in Chinese?

Posted by webs0080 at 12:53 PM

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

I heartily endorse a visit to the Mental Health Clinic as a source of literary inspiration. Since silence is implicitly (at least) imposed on clients, they have the opportunity to observe humankind at its most frail. The people a writer observes there are not there to have a good time. Including the employees.

I have a favorite receptionist at the Clinic. She seldom smiles, is matter of fact and dresses plainly. I think the way she has her hair cut is the only thing that really intrigues me. When I was there, she answered a phone call from someone scheduling an appointment. What I could hear of the end of the conversation went something like this:

—How are things going? [Pauses, stares expressionless, straight ahead.]

From this I took it that the person scheduling the appointment was talking about something other than his or her mental health.

—How are things going with the meds?

The receptionist's eyebrows raised, as if she were hearing a description of halluncinations. Then her lips tightened and its corners moved to the side of her face as her eyes opened wide, as if she were hearing most unpleasant descriptions of possible symptoms. At that moment, the problems which have been consuming every iota of my free time (and a good portion of my blogspace) seemed quite minor. By the time the psychiatrist came out to retrieve me for my appointment, I was more certain than ever that I was not going to walk out with a prescription for SSRI's.

Posted by webs0080 at 9:09 AM

January 14, 2005

I Am Not a Quitter

People cannot know whether Ph.D. programs are right for them until they try them. Period. Even if all your friends can have Ph.D.'s, only by sharing seminars and discussions with peers genuinely suited for the task can you see whether you are their peer. Sometimes I am there, and sometimes I am not.

I envy my cohorts' interest and talent. And as much as I like the idea of a Ph.D., I am not so sure I like the reality of academic life. Giving up on one's dream is not an easy decision to make.

It is hard to say "I am not a quitter" when one is quitting.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:29 AM

January 11, 2005

Thanks for the Update, But It Still Doesn't Work Properly

The U. has made some features in its MT installation available to Mac users like myself which have been available to the Wintel crowd for some time. They are supposed to make boldface, italic, underline and urls more or less at the push of a button. These features copy and paste the entire entry however, making for [possibly redundant phrase] unpleasantly psychedelic reading.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:37 AM

Murmurs in the Blogosphere

I can't say I know what exactly is going on over at Generation Bob. All I can say is that a book is more like a tattoo than a balloon. And that blog content is easily exportable to book form. And that books and blogs are two very different media; it would be pretty amazing for a book to work as a blog. And if it did, it would probably work better as a blog than a book anyway. Some bloggers even get publishing contracts based on their material.

Photoblogs are popular, both at the U. and in general. And for genuine polymaths, blogs provide a means of bridging public and private lives. Most blogs have pretty short life spans; people get bored because they have no readers (ie the public function is not served) or they get in trouble because of them (privacy is violated). Thus, the "freedom of speech" which sounds so appealing is actually self-limited in the interest of protecting our private selves. Blogs are memoirs of the immediate past or the present even. They allow us to peek into someone's psyche not as they recall it years later with the benefit of hindsight but in real time.

Let us know your thoughts, but keep in mind that your mom (and mine) might be reading.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:22 AM

January 10, 2005

Undercover

smmoose.jpgWe set off for Cabela's to pursue a huge sale on Gore-Tex. That material is de rigeur for canoe camping in the Boundary Waters, since it appears true that it is always raining there. When it is not snowing that is. We used to receive the Cabela's catalog when we lived in Dunsmuir, and I remember wondering why they sent it to me, since I had never gone hunting in my entire life.

The good folks at the Pioneer Press had published an Outdoor Holiday Buying Guide, wherein various outdoorsy folks typed up the gifts they would like to give and receive. This was included in one of the free newspapers we get every so often in a losing attempt to win back our business. One of the people in the guide mentioned the Gore-Tex from Cabela's, at a price that was less than half what REI or LLBean has it for. After debating the pros and cons of driving 60 miles to Owatonna versus ordering through the internet, we took off for Cabela's fairly early, if not too bright.

smbufwolf.jpgAlong the way, we passed a mega strip mall which hosted a Gander Mountain. Gander Mountain is another hunting and fishing catalog like Cabela's, but without the caché. Once we exited I-35 and took a look inside Gander Mountain, it was easy to see that they lacked caché. They had a lot of camo furniture on display, and the prices were not that great. Not a stitch of out of season stuff was stocked. Much of the floorspace was occupied with what can be best described as "dreck": clocks and ceramic figures of labs and golden retrievers, acrylic throws, and ice-fishing setups displayed in plastic boats. There were people there, for sure, but it was not bustling inside.

Cabela's on the other hand, was something of a madhouse: in the parking lot, SUV's and pickup trucks competed to take up more space. A "Viet Nam Veterans Against Kerry" bumper sticker was displayed on the truck we parked next to. People funneled toward the entrance, which was marked by an enormous canopy. Assembled tree-stands stood out in the snow alongside mock trees, though each carried a sign telling would-be shoppers not to climb on them.

smbears.jpgInside the store, which was mobbed with people, a ring of deer trophies perhaps 30 feet across greeted us. Elk trophies were mounted on the wall above, drawing our eyes back to the 30 foot high mountain diorama at the back of the store. I could hardly keep up with Roomie once she was drawn into the mountain's orbit. There were stuffed bears (brown, black, grizzly and polar), lynx, bobcats, javelinas, red fox, grey fox, arctic fox, bull-moose battling, wolves gnashing at buffalo and chasing deer off a cliff, and the most elusive prey of all—grey squirrels. As we circled the mountain, I was both horrfied by the waste of life and the thought of the needless suffering of these poor creatures while at the same time appreciative that this was the closest I would ever come to seeing any of these animals alive. Except for the squirrel.

I was intrigued by the display of camo baby clothes across the aisle from the mountain. An entire line of them were embroidered with "Daddy's Little Deer" across the bib. A generous interpretation is that camo is appropriate for both boys and girls, but the double-gendered phrase is possibly confusing. Daddy is out shooting deer, isn't he? "Look at Daddy's other deer, bleeding all over the back of the pickup, tongue hanging out, eye gazing at the sun."

Lest you think that a trip to Cabela's converted me to militant veganism, I should note that I left the store with not only an armful of Gore-Tex (two suits costing me less than one complete set from the competition), but a rabbit fur lined hat. I wore it, tags and all, right out of the store.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:25 AM

January 8, 2005

Message from the Geriatric Ward

I am sober now. Roomie heroically drove out in the sub-freezing temperatures on the chance that she would see me exit the Loring Pasta Bar. This is what is known as True Love, especially since we have been out of gold stars to place on her side of the ledger for a week now. Approaching her third pass in front of the LPB we met up where the River Road meets University. I drove for two blocks, then Roomie took back over.

It was really fun talking about Italy. Your reason for holding off on Italy for a longer separate trip makes a lot of sense. But Italy cannot be rightly snubbed for any length of time. Plus, Austria is already in some sense his, whereas in Italy you can share the language barrier. And he will like Brixen (Bressanone) and Bolzen (Bolzano) since his Austrian-inflected German will serve there quite adequately. Check out where Stilfserjoch (Passostelvio) is on a map. Then yodel.

Burning Man vs. Coachella is another dichotomy upon which I pontificated. The two events share dust, discomfort, lots of people, and entertainment galore. Coalita appeared at both Burning Man and Coachella, but she was born at the former. BM requires a commitment to actually participate in some small way. This replaces the passive "entertain me" component with an active "here I am and this is what I am doing" role. However, by no means do you need to come up with something on your own. There are probably hundreds of people going to the Burn from the Cities, and many are likely toting person-powered craft. A quick search of the listings can put you on to a smorgasbord of groups doing all kinds of wicked crazy theme camps. A friend of mine in San Francisco sets up a croquet lawn, complete with wickets and mallets, and kicks your butt. And then there is always Pedal Camp. Burning Man is a transcendental experience: The hardships are universal, there are no garbage cans (you pack it out), and Black Rock City is a giant collective. If you go to Burning Man, it will be a project. But it is one that I think you will really really enjoy. But what the heck do I know?

Previously in this blog I have already blathered about the relative merits of scooters and motorcycles. You may also want to check out the Susan Synarski Interview, where I ask her all about her experience as a new rider and purchaser of a Vespa LT150. I think Susan may have mentioned it, but I will reiterate: Women who ride motorcycles are HOTT.

Posted by webs0080 at 8:41 AM

January 5, 2005

Small Wonders

I rub my eyes at 7:43 this evening and wonder why I am so tired. Oh that's right: I woke up at 2:07, 3:07, 4:07 and 5:07 this morning.

At 9:35 this morning, I walked in the 2 degree weather across the river to the Physics Building, where I chaperoned advanced placement high school students working on public policy. Better they not know that political science has nothing to do with policy. Or very little. My cohort was lucky enough to be excused. I sat in a hallway for 45 minutes. It was kind of fun.

Posted by webs0080 at 8:47 PM

The Perfect Little House

In trying times, I am easily distracted by shopping. And, like many men, the bigger the item the better. Thus, real estate becomes a siren calling out to me. Friends are looking at real estate in Montana, giving Roomie and I the opportunity to vicariously experience the thrill of real estate shopping.

While we were shopping for our house in Takoma Park, we came very close to buying the Perfect Little House. It was in our price range, and the neighborhood was ho-hum. The house was a mock-Tudor built in 1949 and had been occupied by the original owners since then. From the entrance foyer, there was a small living room on the left and a small dining room with a built in corner-hutch on the right. At the back of the living room, a tidy screened in porch projected from the house. Behind the dining room, a smallish kitchen with breakfast nook had all its original cabinetry.

Upstairs, there were two bedrooms. The larger of the two had a small additional room with a window coming off of it. The capacious closets had lights and were lined with cedar. The woodwork throughout the house was immaculate. This couple must have made the kids remove their shoes in the house. Or maybe, like us, they didn't have kids.

Downstairs from the kitchen was the rumpus room. It was finished in black and red linoleum tile and had an electric fireplace. I don't think there was a bar there, but there could have been. The water pipes were orginal and copper. The previous owner paid for top quality stuff.

The garage was a stone one-car affair. Cute as a bug, but too small for our needs. Something would have had to remain outside, and it was not going to be the motorcycles. Because the garage was smaller, the yard was decently-sized. Furthermore, it was fenced and well-maintained to boot. The dogs would have loved it.

Alas, the house was one room too small for our needs. But it was a real one-owner cream puff, the single-family residential equivalent of the car that the little old lady drove only on Sundays, when she had it waxed. We went for a larger house with a larger garage and a smaller yard. Compared to the PLH, the place we ended up with was a dump when we took possession. Once the floors were done and the interior was painted, it was nice in its own way. But it was restored, rather than conserved, the latter making even the wallpaper at the PLH tolerable. The thought we could live in such a place filled us with the idea that we could be a couple worthy and deserving of stewarding such a home. I think we are over it now.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:44 AM

January 2, 2005

The Counsel of Good Intentions

I have been receiving a lot of counsel this past semester. Some of it has come unsolicited, notably from people who are not academics. One well-meaning person, who has exactly one year of graduate school under her belt (albeit from Harvard) gave me the following "pep talk."

I remember when I graduated the last thing I wanted to do was study any more. I wanted to be out in the world, doing things. I had been working hard for four years and I was tired. But finishing my degree was the smartest move I could have made: Every door that opened for me in my career is due to having that degree.

Although her degree opened a lot of doors for her, it took 20 years or so for it to do so. Following that patterm, I should start making use of mine by the time I pick up my first Social Security check or mandatory IRA distribution.

Another well-meaning fellow made the following tautological argument: "If you finish the degree, then you will have something that you didn't have before."

Both comments share the following premise: All things being equal, it is better to finish up than to bail. And I agree with that, so long as all things are indeed equal. But they are not. It is not equally easy, fun, or productive to engage in something that makes you so miserable that you contemplate suicide or become unable to do the remaining things that bring you joy. As I had to point out to the latter interlocutor I have little sympathy for those people that stick with things merely because they have started them, willfully or ignorantly disregarding their own happiness.

I have no doubt that these two have my interests at heart, as do my friends who consider me generally competent to teach—on questionable bases, however. The problem for me is that I am not so sure of what I really want. One friend thinks that I have already made my decision, that I am a goner.

I give more credence to people who have been through the academic wringer. (And I don't mean people with a one year's Master's—sorry.) Here, the experts are split: One Ph.D. tells me that I should stick with it: she gives the same advice to her own daughter, an ABD who is struggling with two small children, a looming dissertation, and a job that cuts deeply into the time she would like to spend on the other two missions. Her advice resonates with my non-patented "regret prevention" approach. Having made some horrendous personal decisions in the past I fear most of all arming myself with the "If only I had stuck it out for another couple of years; I had funding, I was almost done" bludgeon.

A second Ph.D. specifically rejects the blanket "stick with it" advice. He tells me that he has seen more than a few academics sacrifice non-academic aspects of their lives—family, friends, relationships—upon the altar of pursuing a career in the ivory tower. He himself regrets similar decisions that he has made. Since making those decisions, he has committed himself first and foremost to his family. In a sense, he has committed a quiet professional suicide. Which is what I am contemplating, really, though much sooner in the process.

The third Ph.D., whom I pay for his counsel, appears to think that pursuing a Ph.D. may not be the right thing for me. The hours are long, the work inherently isolating, the benefits—in terms of things which I value, like friendship and service—fleeting and abstract. In response to my regret prevention argument, he tries to show me that some of the decisions I made were not really blunders: I managed to live a good life because of not in spite of, the decision to abandon or delay an undergraduate degree. Still I lived under that particular cloud for a long time, and I fear that not finishing this degree will put me a under a similar one.

A young woman grinding through her first year of law school told Roomie her father's tale: He was in an Ivy League history Ph.D. program back in the 60's. He did so poorly there for a while that he was placed on academic probation by the graduate school. He did, eventually, graduate, go on the market, get a job, and obtain tenure. My wise young friend put it succinctly: graduate school makes you face your demons.

And this may be where I am now: continue to do poorly until they force me out. This can take a long time, as in the case of the grad student who basically made the department go through every conceivable hoop to get her out of the program (blogged about here). She eventually matriculated.

It may be that the particular work I am doing this semester is about as far away from my research interest as I am likely to get. Perhaps once I start the Big D., things will improve. The only possible way to test the hypothesis that researching a dissertation will improve my mental state is to complete my incompletes, get through the theory prelim, and get that Master's en passant. And from where I am standing, it is a steep hill indeed.

Posted by webs0080 at 9:35 AM