Sunday, February 10, 2013

Perfectionism as a Gift?

I guess I'll start this post like every other, with an apology to myself and to my readers (i.e. family) for being the world's most inconsistent blogger. I've written several posts in my head in the month-plus since I've blogged, but as it turns out, mind-posts are much harder to read than real posts. Another apology: I may or may not be listening to Radiohead's "Creep" on repeat, very loudly, as I write this. And finally: this may be the cheesiest thing I've ever written and posted publicly. Gag if you want.

I'll just say it. Perfectionism is kicking me in the butt this semester. 

After I left the chemistry program at Berkeley, I didn't really know what to do next. School was gone, and I didn't have a job. So I decided to spend a year trying not to think about it. I still wonder what the cashiers at Andronico's thought of me when I'd routinely go there at closing time and just buy whiskey and cat food. Some days I would refuse to get out of bed before noon, because I couldn't stand to see other people being productive, walking to campus, driving to work, going for a run. Going about their day with purpose. Okay, so I'm painting a bit of an unfair picture -- I was tutoring during that year, volunteering, and taking private classes. And fine, I even used to run. And I might have begrudgingly enjoyed a  sunset or two over the Pacific. There were more than a few good days in that year. But the point is, I felt like a disaster, and I didn't have a clue what I was doing with my life. Nothing makes me more miserable than lack of purpose.

One of the things that got me through that year from hell, improbably enough, was Arabic grammar. Day after day, I'd go to the campus library, the main stacks in the D-level of the sub-basement. Being there made me feel better, like I had a life, and I wasn't a drop-out and a failure. I randomly decided that I'd just sit there at a table in the corner and read books about 8th-10th century Iraqi grammarians. Why not? (heh).  I read about what their lives were like, how and why they studied the language, where they disagreed with each other's theories, and how their collective efforts over the centuries have shaped the way we study Arabic grammar today. Living imaginarily in their world was a way for me to get out of my own head. Occasionally, I'd crack open a few of the primary texts and try and pathetically stumble my way through the 8th-century Arabic. It didn't go well. Ever. I was a hack at it, but it used to give me chills to think that maybe one day I'd be able to make sense of that stuff.

Flash forward two years. This semester I am doing an independent reading with one of my professors. We're working through a 9th-century Arabic grammar book, one of the same books I read about in the D-level of the main stacks at the Doe Library, when I had no clue at all that I'd ever be in grad school again. And I'm making sense of it. I have to pinch myself all the time -- what I used to do for fun is turning into what could be a career. It's even still fun!

When I was growing up, my family used to go to my grandmother's house in Georgia every Christmas. On the wall in her hallway was the serenity prayer, embroidered and framed. (Ok so I have no idea if it was actually embroidered. But there was a frame involved. My memory is very fuzzy when it comes to these things, in the same way that when someone asks me if my own father has a mustache, I always have to think about it. But I prefer to think that it was embroidered. It might as well have been.) As a 10-year-old, I used to stand there and stare at that prayer on the wall, thinking how profound it was. I could do without the first word, but I'll stomach the God-talk just because these are some of the most useful words I know right now:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I wish I could tell my 10-year-old self thanks for reading that over and over. These 27 words (did I count right?) pretty much go on as a background process in my brain most of the time. That means I start to apply them in pretty inventive ways. Right now, the target is perfectionism. When I think I'll never live up to expectations, either someone else's or my own, I get paralyzed, I procrastinate, etc. We all know how it goes.

I've spent a long time trying to change the fact that I'm a perfectionist. I think our society tries to convince us that we can change it, with enough therapy and self-help books and positive self-talk. Here's where the wisdom part comes in: that's bullshit! The truth right now is that perfectionism is a thousand-ton boulder that's not going to budge. So there's no point in trying to change it. But that doesn't mean I have to sit here and let it make me miserable, or that I have to constantly feel inadequate. It's not about eliminating those thoughts from your consciousness; it's about how you respond to them. And my response -- that, I can change. I'm learning to see perfectionism as an opportunity to constantly remind myself, and I mean constantly, that I'm already doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be learning. I'm supposed to be making mistakes. Mistakes are okay, even if I make a whole lot of them.

I have this crazy, obnoxious, recurring thought that I don't deserve to be studying here. I don't deserve to live in Austin. I don't deserve to have a life that makes me this happy. I have this idea that, somehow, when I wake up tomorrow, everything I have will be gone. I know I'm only afraid of losing what I have because what I have right now is so good. (Yeah, to an outsider, my life probably looks really lame. But I don't care, because I have everything I could want right now, and my life is a billion times better than it's ever been.) But I feel like I have to earn all of it. And of course, in a sense, I do. I have to go to class, show up to teach, write my papers, pay my rent, and all that. But I don't have to do any of it perfectly. (All except the rent part, I guess.) I just have to show up and do the work. School isn't going to evaporate if I make a mistake.

I used to try to change this thought that I don't deserve any of this. I can choose to distract myself from it, or to ignore it for a minute, but it always comes back. Maybe one day it will go away, but for the moment I'm giving up trying to change it. Here's what I can change. I can follow that thought with: If I have something I don't deserve, that means it's a gift. And it's a really good gift. So I'm going to appreciate it, enjoy it, and be grateful for it. All of it. I don't even have to know where it comes from, and I don't have to care.

No, I can't change some of the crap that comes into my head against my will. That doesn't work. But I can try to change how I react to it. It makes my life a lot easier. And that is a good use of my energy.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Reading, writing, and finally getting a break

Remember how I titled my last blog post "End of a Semester"? Yeah, that's because I thought the semester was over. Turns out it wasn't. Well I mean, according to the University, it was. But that apparently didn't mean I was finished. I want to say it's a long story, because it somehow makes it feel like I've gone through much more trouble and been much more inconvenienced than I actually have, but it's really not that long of a story, so I'll just tell it. Whatever. Also, in my last post, I said I'd see you in 2013. Fake-out. Here's another post.

I've mentioned before that I had no business studying Arabic at the graduate level. Someone once told me that no one who isn't a native speaker has any business studying Arabic at the graduate level, which both made me laugh and made me feel a little better, but it didn't change the fact that I only have one year and a couple summers of Arabic under my belt, and two months spent in the Arabic-speaking world, compared to most other people's four-plus years, and year plus living in the Middle East. That, combined with the fact that sometimes I'm just a huge baby trapped inside a 25-year-old shell, made me throw more than a few temper tantrums in my head during class this semester, sitting there with my arms crossed, refusing to respond to questions with anything other than "I don't know." I had my good days, too, but the bad days were pretty embarrassing. I'm laughing out of shame as I write this. So my professor called me out on it a couple times during the semester, but she always just told me that my frustration wasn't helping me, and that I should lower my expectations. She told me I shouldn't worry so much about trying to participate all the time, and if I just contributed a couple good things in each class meeting, I'd be fine. All that's nice and stuff.  But she's started comparing me to herself when she was a student. And apparently she was a self-proclaimed "lousy student" who really did occasionally sit in the back of the class and respond only with "mish 3arifa." Apparently she applied to Harvard in the first place just to get her parents off her back. Sounds a little familiar. (Dad, this is really me giving you credit, not blame, that I'm here right now.) But her professors had faith in her and at some point her Arabic took off, and she's now highly regarded in the field, loves her job, and is generally great and it's hard not to like her even if you try really hard. So her comparing me to her is kind of like "you really suck sometimes, and I kind of question your validity as a human being, but I think you're extremely smart, and you could be really great at all this stuff, if you just, you know, stop being a total screw up." Interpreting her ambiguous "compliments" has become an exercise in seeing the glass half-full. But there are some that just make me angry, and there isn't even any water in those glasses. But I'm not even going into that.

Oh. I haven't started the story yet, have I? The story is: The day after the semester "ended," she sent me an e-mail saying she would count my final research paper (which I was thrilled to be done with--7 pages in Arabic is still a big deal to me) toward making up for my relative lack of participation, and that I should write another research paper over break before I could get a grade for the class. I had to sit down and breathe for five minutes before I crafted a sentence-fragment of an e-mail response, worded in such a way that when I sent it I felt like I was throwing a billion sharp (but harmless) objects in her direction, while staying completely appropriate and professional. So I agreed to write the paper, on the condition that I'd write it in English, on the topic of language use in vulgar Jordanian satirical cartoons. So I spent days laughing hysterically to, and in spite of, myself, while scouring YouTube for such videos. I ended up with a 12-page paper in which I tried not to explicitly say that the characters in animated Islamic children's propaganda are aliens, and that profane Jordanian semi-criminals are fucking awesome. Anyway, I spent a few days reworking the paper, hating it, backspacing and control-Z-ing, then at some point yesterday I decided I just didn't care anymore, and why am I doing this on Christmas, so I sent it. She said it was "excellent," which is a big deal for her to say to me right now, and I managed to finally get out of the class with a decent grade. But Jesus Christ. Really?!

Anyway, now I'm really finished with the semester. On a cold and rainy Austin day, I hopped over to the godsend of a neighborhood coffee shop to sit with my computer and write what I want rather than what someone else wants. Incidentally, the vibe in this coffee shop is... strange. I live in East Austin, which I suppose I could describe as the part of town you'd probably visit to buy cocaine, if you were into cocaine. I mean, not all of East Austin is like that. My neighborhood is safe enough that I felt comfortable going for a run after dark last night. Two comments here. (1) That I went for a run is earth-shattering, and (2)  I did come home to find a bright yellow piece of paper on my next door neighbor's door informing him that there were four warrants for his arrest and that he'd better get his a** to a police station like seriously right ****ing now, or else. But this 'hood is getting 'hipster-fied real quick. So the patrons of Cherrywood Coffeehouse are just a weird mix that I'm not socially attuned enough to even have the words to describe. Also, I'm lazy and don't care. But really, when it's a 30 second walk from your apartment and has portobello burgers that are worth strangling a shrieking baby for (whoops, I didn't mean that) you just go there and kinda stop caring who else is there.

Among my Christmas gifts from family was an iPad mini, which I really believed was an utterly useless device and mentally criticized those who bought it (YES, a sentence in English where a resumptive pronoun is almost legitimate, yessss, though resumptive-pronoun-legitimacy is probably a great litmus test for a really bad sentence). That was until I had one. I've read exactly three books on it in the last three days. Reading drastically increases my writing speed (which drastically increases the entertainment value of my typos. "spead"). The genre of whatever I'm reading also screws with my writing style in a way that, if I thought about it, could probably make me understand more stuff about how brains work. But when I start thinking about things, I stop doing them. So even if I didn't know that I've been reading silly memoirs, including one by an ex-pillhead pharmacist who now supposedly has found Jesus and is magically cured, and another by the author of "Shit My Dad Says", I'd be able to tell just from the way I'm writing right now. And from the fact that, when I was talking to myself in my head earlier today, I caught myself saying "yer guys's," which I have no idea who I could possibly have been addressing in my head, and, just... why. (Incidentally, that relative clause I just wrote is another sentence construction that's totally ungrammatical by most native English speakers' intuitions, but I for some reason love it and use it whenever possible.)

I sometimes think getting gifts from people who know you well can be a good reminder of truths about yourself, or at least an opportunity to think about all that. Example: my mom got me three beautiful journals for Christmas. This made me think about whether I really like writing or not. I've always thought I hate it. Which is kind of funny, considering that I even make half an effort to keep a blog, which is a totally voluntary form of writing, and I occasionally actually write in real live paper-and-pen journals. Like I probably have gone through six of them in just the past few years. But really, I just think I hate writing because I'm convinced I suck at it. And because most of the writing I do is school-related. So the trick for me lately has just been to stop caring whether or not I suck at it, because come on, what does it even mean to be "bad at writing"? I guess it's possible to suck at writing lab reports (actually, I know this), and it's also possible to really suck at writing academic papers (I know this too). But if you're writing for yourself (for me, this blog is for myself, I don't care if people read it, I just hope if they do, they're entertained, whether or not the entertainment comes from laughing at my expense doesn't matter) there's no such thing as being bad at it.

My parting thought is another beautifully crafted piece of ambiguous feedback regarding my school-related performance. I read my teaching evaluations the other day, and a student had written "She's a future university professor for sure." The proper interpretation of that comment depends strongly on this student's perception of university professors. Maybe it gives more insight into my magically negative brain that I didn't even notice the "Great job" directly preceding this comment until the third time I read it.

See you in 2013, for real.

Monday, December 17, 2012

End of a semester

Disclaimer: This post is selfish, even moreso than usual. But again, it's my blog. I'm allowed.

So I'm having an internal debate on how long I can go between posts without my blog being considered dead and revived, Lazarus style. Morbid thoughts aside, I've finally finished school work for the semester and have time to sit down in my hammock chair with a cup of tea and breathe. I mean, not a cup of breathe. You get the point. My syntax course this semester has, to paraphrase Steinbeck, been a bitch that has laid pups in my brain, preventing me from reading an ambiguous sentence without (1) immediately noticing the ambiguity, and (2) drawing syntactic trees on the fabric of my brain. (For the record, I will deny ever having drilled a rod into the beam bisecting my living room in order to hang said hammock chair.) Also, having just finished up a fellowship application, I'm in writing mode, and might as well channel the extra words floating around in my head into a blog post, since I'm procrastinating much-needed, much-dreaded journal writing.

The scene this morning, accompanied by imaginary blasting of Queen's "We are the Champions": I smugly walked past the Tower and across the West Mall, opened the unnecessarily heavy door of Calhoun Hall, climbed three flights of stairs, and unceremoniously slipped my epic 10-page take-home syntax final under the door of my professor's empty, dark office. (This final, Jesus H, took me 20 hours to complete, over the span of 48 hours.) I guess I expected it to "bang" when it hit the floor, but it just kind of whimpered. I guess that's the way the world fall semester ends. (Look how much I amuse myself. It comes from spending weeks living entirely in my own head, and being born with terminal nerdiness.) I don't think it's hit me yet that I've finished 25% of my coursework for my Master's. Here's a shameless self-pic, in which my expression communicates my feelings about the end of the semester better than my words can, and in which I inadvertently show off my alien hands. No really, check out how long these fingers are:

As is clear to anyone who's been a semi-loyal reader of my blog, the theme of my life this year has been change. And lots of it. I'm like shockingly good at dealing with change, so long as I stay busy and don't have time to process it, but now that I have nearly a month off from school, I have nothing but time--to work on knitting my winter cardigan, to watch silly documentaries on animals invading places they shouldn't, and, yes, to start figuring out how to adapt the narrative of my life to account for all this change. (Life narratives: one of the most revolutionary concepts I've picked up over the past year. I somehow had always implicitly thought that there was absolute truth regarding definition of self and interpretation of life events. How silly of me. And how silly that it took me 24 years to figure this out. Got it now, and waiting on the next revolutionary epiphany.) Rewriting the story means stepping out of the forest for a minute and walking far enough away to take a good look at it. Since I'm on a roll with allusions, let's quote Kill Bill: "Revenge is never a straight line." Wait, no. Let's take out the revenge part and just say the rest. "It's a forest, and like a forest, it's easy to lose your way. To get lost. To forget where you came in." In case you forget what a forest looks like, here's one near Dripping Springs, Texas:

And if you're forgetting where you came in, you probably came in on a path of some sort. This is what a path looks like:

Yes, it curves, and no, you can't see where it goes. Tough luck. We deal with that. And it's more fun that way. There's adrenaline and puzzles and guessing and being wrong and then figuring it out and stuff. And if you've never been to Hamilton Park, you should go there, and here's why:

Luckily, I can read old blog posts when I need to remember where I came in. In particular, this post, in which I told you to stay tuned, and to come back and ask me at the end of the semester how I felt about studying Arabic. (Incidentally, I'm just as naive as I was when I wrote that, and I know this because I'm looking forward to spending large parts of my break reading LOTR in Arabic and letting Mahmoud Darwish poetry seep into my normally poetry-repellent bones.) Reading that post takes me back to where I was when I wrote it, what I was thinking, what my expectations were for coming to UT, what my fears were and what my hopes were. I've taken to writing down fears around big changes like this, so that I can go back later and write next to them how either the things I was afraid of never actually happened, or how they did but everything still turned out just fine. I guess I expected to feel more like a fish out of water. Or, since I really need an excuse to post these next photos, a grackle off a telephone wire:

But I'm just a fish in a new pond. As usual, I'll vomit if I take this metaphor too far, so I'll let you infer that the algae is different, the other fish swim differently, and all that. But there's more sunlight here, and more oxygen. In real-life terms: Yes, it's been difficult. Yes, it's taking some time to adjust to, in a way, reinventing myself. But the decision to come to UT, and to get on a path to making a living doing something I love, has been so rewarding already, and now that I'm starting to get settled in somewhere I'll get to stay for a while, I can't wait to see what the next year will bring.

So maybe I can't change the fact that I need to do some absorbing, some processing of all this change. But I do have the power to change the backdrop. So I'm going to get away for a few days over Christmas and take a mini, week-long camping trip in southern Arizona. Something about long drives and wide open spaces. Deserts and quiet. I was born with a little bit of that in my blood. We all were, I think. And the only cure is more... Christmas cookies! Wait, what?

I went to a cookie decorating party the other night--here's my favorite of my creations:

And the happy family of Christmas cookies when we were all done:

And, just to shake things up a bit more, I've accepted a TA position for Analytical Chemistry lab next semester. Didn't see that one coming!

The end! See you in 2013!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Idiot Rabbits and Inbound Balls

I haven't written in over a month. I hadn't even journaled in almost that long, until I sat down to write last night. I stared at a blank page for ten minutes -- it was like I'd completely forgotten how to write. Things that used to "flow" like central Ohio freeway traffic now "flow"like Austin traffic on I-35. Really, this city has the worst freeway system of anywhere I've lived. Austinites should stop telling everyone else how cool this place is, because no one else should move here unless we add another freeway, or another bridge across the river. What should be a 15-minute drive home from campus turns into a 45-minute drive around rush hour -- and that's not even freeway driving!

Anyway, I have not a clue what to make this post about. I'm thinking elephants, rabbits, flying objects, and fire are about as good as any, as far as topics go. So. I have a professor who specializes in bringing personal problems into the classroom and projecting them onto students. Like a madwoman. "Mad" in both senses of the word. The other day, she told me I needed to "change my attitude". I'm a perfectly reasonable student (keep in mind that being a perfectly reasonable student can be a very different thing from being a perfectly reasonable human being). I appreciated the irony, but I did have to leave the room so I wouldn't tell her to fuck off. (I also appreciate the irony there.) She also thinks I'm stressing myself out too much, and unless I change what I'm doing, I'm "going to have a heart attack". I also apparently need to move, because I'm "wasting my time living too far away". I live three miles from campus. Too far away? I think not. Okay, so the above mentioned rush hour traffic... Still, I think not. Also, I "want to live near students, and have coffee shops within walking distance". I'm so glad I have someone I barely know who can tell me what I want. Since, you know, she's so qualified in that regard.

I have a tendency to listen everyone. Not that I necessarily do what they say (okay, I rarely do what they say), but I listen. Despite the left-field nature of this professor's comments, it was a useful reminder that I need to make time for myself. Whether that means writing more, camping more, or remembering that stars exist. Stars are my favorite things in the entire universe. And they ground me more than anything else. Even though they're... you know... in the sky and stuff. So I'm starting to try to do that more. At the beginning, as with any beginning, I suppose, it's difficult. And it looks absolutely pathetic. It means letting myself use swinging doors when I go into the library, rather than using revolving doors, which I despise. Seriously, everyone who goes into the door before me is stronger than me, so I have to practically run once I'm inside the claustrophobic-death-compartment so I don't get knocked over. Then I have to perfectly time when to slow down my pace once the world class weight lifter has fully exited the death compartment. Then I have to be mad for the next twenty minutes. That's at a minimum.

It means things like taking time to appreciate the Jewish-eyed elephants who are gracious enough to lend their trunks as purse hooks on the back of bathroom doors:

It means trying to come up with a name for this sky-color, which I fail to do, and then realize it's better that way, that there are some things that just shouldn't have names. Ever. Because names change things. They add and take away. Sometimes we should just let things "be". See? I don't know how to write anymore. I'm losing track of how many times I've used the word "thing" in the past five minutes. Incidentally, the "things" in this picture that look like clouds are actually rays of sunshine. (Hmm. That's enough metaphor for a whole new blog post, just right there.)

Sometimes this means taking a camping trip and finding animals that I'm embarrassed I don't know the names for, though I don't object to their having names. This picture makes me think egret, although as with ibex and bobcat, I have no real idea of what egret means. I didn't even know that cougar, puma, and mountain lion were the same thing until two years ago. And that was only because one of them wandered into my neighborhood. (Then it got shot by a cop, causing a week-long North Berkeley outrage, which culminated in a lion shrine by Walgreens.) 

But even then, most of the camping trip looked more like this:

Which, though caffeine-less and on fire, bears a striking resemblance to the rest of my life:

One thing I've been working on lately is improving my Arabic writing by adding more transition words/phrases to my repertoire. There's a book of transition phrases called Adawaat al-Rabt, which literally means something like "tools of connecting". My advisor likes to refer to this book as the "Idiot Rabbit" book. How does this relate? Like at all? Something like tortoise and hare and which of them is being dumb. Hint: It's not the one with the shell. What's the point? One: Life isn't a race. Two: Don't run so fast you get lost. If you do, you won't win the race that doesn't exist. Three: Life isn't a race. (Did I make the point yet?) One thing that makes it feel race-y to me is homework. Well, not really homework, per se, but the American educational system's insistence on discretizing the fluid learning process. Weekly assignments are about "getting it done". Education is... not. It's a process. It's about learning how, not learning that. Actually, maybe it's not even about knowing. That's a very goal-focused way of framing it. I mean goals are great, as long as I realize it's not actually about getting there.

Something I've surprised myself by doing better with is staying focused on what's right in front of me. I've occasionally been attending juggling club meetings, both on campus and out in the community, and that provides such low-hanging-delicious-metaphor-fruit that I can't keep my hands off it. One of the many amazing jugglers in Austin (and there are many, and they are amazing) has been helping me with ball passing drills, adding more balls into the pattern, and picking up the pace. If I start to lose focus and my throws start landing in frustratingly wrong places, he'll say "watch the inbound ball". This objectively helps with the complicated physical-mental-hybrid process that is juggling, but it also reminds me that I can't control where my tenth throw will land if I don't focus on catching the ball that's right in front of me. This whole beast of a semester is kind of unmanageable if I call it a beast. But it's really just a series of baby beasts. Baby beasts are totally manageable. As if that means anything at all.

There's a department non-alcoholic happy hour tonight (I wanted to put the "non-alcoholic" before "department" to modify the whole noun phrase, but that would be ambiguous and might suggest that there's actually an academic department devoted to absence of alcohol. Hmm.) and I think happy hour, and not my Hebrew homework, is Friday night's baby beast. I'll leave you with campus's brightly-colored reminder that it's okay to treat a Friday like a Friday:

Oh yeah, and I'm moving across town next week...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

It's not my fault! Except it is.

Disclaimer: this post turned out 100x more depressing than I intended for it to be. So, here's a picture of a beautiful sunrise to compensate for that, and also for the fact that I'm not posting pictures.

There's a difference between a groove and a rut. Maybe there's also a difference between routines and habits, although I think I just want that to be true because it would be nicely rhetorical, and I love when things are parallel. I'm starting to get into a nice routine as far as school is concerned. I finally sorted out my class schedule, and I'm figuring out where (and when) I work best. I've been fairly good about not working after 10 pm. If I try to write too late at night, I start thinking school is the priority. Turns out, life is more important than that. And if you don't do the things you need to do in order to have a reasonably sustainable lifestyle, you're not gonna do very well in school anyways. I'm re-discovering something I think I knew in college, which is that I am useless if I try to write at home, but if I'm at the library or at a coffee shop, I'm almost always laser focused. The classes and the teaching seem to be reasonably under control now. But other parts of life? Not so much. Socializing and figuring out how to eat well are the two main things. Part of it has to do with long days at school -- most days, I'm on campus from 7 am to 7 pm, and when I'm done with class, I just want to go home, finish up my homework, and collapse. But a lot of it has to do with just not being proactive. I start blaming anything -- or anyone -- else for the fact that I'm not doing the things I should be doing, instead of just doing the things.

Within the department, I'm "No, not that Katie, the brunette one. Oh, you mean the one who's in our class and barely says anything? Yeah, that one." (This is the class that's entirely in Arabic. I've been getting surprisingly positive feedback on my writing assignments, but the improvement in speaking is slow. Steady, I think, but slow.) I've been invited to dinner or to other social events several times in the past couple weeks. I almost invariably decline. It's like an automatic setting. A horrible habit. It doesn't even occur to me to think about going. I was raised that way, I guess. And what do I do instead? I go home and stare at my computer screen and feel pathetic because I only have two friends here, and everyone else seems to know each other. And somehow, this is everyone else's fault. Really, it's just (1) me being egocentric, and (2) me not accepting that I actually really truly live here now, and will for the next x number of years, and therefore, need to make friends and find food. 

And this is a domino effect. (Does anyone even play dominoes anymore? Or do they just play online dominoes? Is the next generation going to understand what the domino effect even is? Oh well.) One domino is that I take it personally when I have to park six rows away from the entrance to the grocery store. Everyone else is getting the close parking spots, why can't I! And then, in a really effed up Freudian way, I choose to park at least four spots away from the closest available spot. But the fact that I even went to the grocery store is huge, never mind that I've lived here almost a month and had to use Google Maps to figure out where the grocery store even is. And then there's the "not buying vegetables" thing, because I think vegetables are what real adults buy, and somehow since I don't believe I qualify as a "real adult" (basically because I don't do things like buy vegetables) I didn't buy vegetables. But, I did buy Viva paper towels, which, like dryer sheets, I don't feel entitled to, for equally effed up Freudian reasons. I've been this way as long as I can remember, but I usually don't realize how delusional and insane these kinds of things are until I say them out loud. Robert calls it "Katie sense." Well, awareness is the first step to change, right? Hmm. At least I no longer get upset if people don't take me seriously when I say nonsensical things like that. And, maybe more importantly, I don't take myself seriously when I catch myself thinking this way.

Then there's other stuff, peripherally domino-caused kinds of things, like buying buying a bunch of cookie dough I don't have any intention of turning into cookies, and buying nail polish... I know I just painted my nails half an hour ago, and I know this color looks identical to three other ones I already have, but it's different, I promise! It's a different brand! And, in the right lighting, it's sparklier! And the driving thing. My California response to times like this was to impulsively drive hours to my favorite beach and go camping. I'm trying not to do that tonight, because it somehow feels like an avoidance tactic or an isolation tactic. And I should try to get better about acting (rather, not acting) on impulses all the time anyway. But, camping at the Gulf does seem really appealing, and long drives seem to work magic as far as clearing my head goes... Anyway. 

(Incidentally, the title of this post reminds me of when my sister and I were teenagers and I asked her if she deleted all my AIM contacts, back before Facebook, when people actually used AIM. She said, "I didn't do it, it was an accident!" How can my little sister be 22 now? And how can I be 25? I had a dream last night that I was 25 and hated it, because I thought I should have accomplished something in my life by now. And then I woke up and realized, wait, I am 25. My dream self seems to be a lot more worried about that than my real-life self, though.)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

To Do: Breathe

Once again, it's been too long since I've written a post. Life has been chaotic, to say the least, since I got back from Jordan. I got to spend a few hours at my parents' place with the whole family -- human, canine, and feline -- before hitting the road and driving to Texas. Road Trip Part 2 was much less eventful than the first. Made a beeline for Austin, finished the drive in two days. I stayed in a hotel downtown for the first week and a half and moved into my sublet the night before classes started. Between compulsively making lists (really, you should see them) and checking things off the lists, I feel like I hardly have a moment to breathe. It's like I need to constantly be busy either running errands or doing school stuff, or else I feel guilty because I know there are so many things I need to get done. Is it okay to put "relaxation" on a to-do list? I would, but I don't think I'd be able to check it off. Ha.

My good friend drove down from California to keep me company the week before school started and to help me move into my new place. On the weekend, we went to a beach near Corpus Christi, a little over four hours south of Austin. Would you believe that you can drive down there on a whim and camp right on the beach without a prior reservation? It was a Friday night in August and there was hardly anyone there! A perfect weekend getaway. Tailgate camping meters from the water. Falling asleep to the sound of the crashing waves. Waking up to the sunrise. 

And the water is warm enough to swim in! As much as I whine about missing the ocean and the redwoods, there are more than a few good things about being here. This is one of them:

I learned that it's actually possible for me to get a sunburn. There must be a limit to how much sunlight my body can absorb, but I apparently haven't reached it. Just when I think I can't possibly get more tan, this happens:

I'm starting to get settled into my new place. I'm staying in a fully-furnished sublet for a few months until I find somewhere more permanent. Because I found out about this place the day after I left Austin during my visit in May, I didn't get a chance to see it until the day I moved in, and I knew almost nothing about the neighborhood. I got really lucky. It's a great space. Nice to have my pillows back, my teddy bears, my books, and the alarm clock my mom got me when I was in high school:

The one downside is that it's almost an hour commute from campus. A mile walk to the bus stop, then two bus transfers. And, as luck would have it, I have class at 9:00 every morning. But the walk is a nice chance to force myself to slow down and breathe, and the bus rides are convenient for last-minute Hebrew vocabulary review. A positive about the location: it's a five-or-so minute walk from a beautiful park with an amazing jogging trail. The trail tracks with the river on both the north and south sides of the city. I've hesitantly started running again, after giving myself a few months off to recover from the pesky IT band injury, and it will be hard to take it slow at the beginning, and frustrating to be slower than I used to be. But I look forward to getting my mileage back up and enjoying this scenery on weekend mornings.

Getting adjusted to being in such a demanding graduate program after a year of being unemployed and lazy is decidedly more difficult than getting adjusted to living in a new place. When I think about all of the school-related responsibilities I have, whether it's doing the reading for my linguistics class, or studying for my first content course conducted entirely in Arabic, or leading discussion sections, my brain automatically goes to its familiar negative place. I tell myself there's no way I can possibly pull any of this off, much less all of it at once. There's a little objective justification for that sort of thinking -- for instance, I don't have any of the prereqs needed for my linguistics class. Half of the students in my Arabic class are native speakers, and the other half have been studying the language at least twice as long as I have. I have almost no background in the material for the course I'm TA'ing. Etc. Despite all that, even if it's true, what good does it do me to tell myself I can't do it? I used to think humility meant putting myself down, telling myself -- and others -- that I really wasn't much good at whatever it was I was doing. I thought I was the least egotistical person I knew, because I never believed in my ability to do much of anything. But it occurs to me now that maybe ego isn't just false confidence or self-seeking.  Maybe this sort of "humility" isn't really humility at all; it is just another manifestation of ego. Who am I to say whether I'm smart enough or organized enough or experienced enough to be here? Who am I to say that my efforts are destined to fail? Maybe the truly humble thing to do is to stop telling myself I'm going to fail and start accepting the reality of the situation and just do the best I can with what I have. I just made a huge career change and am now studying something I have very little experience in but have an interest in and an aptitude for. And I'm at the very beginning of this new thing. (Is there a square before square one?) Of course I feel overwhelmed and inadequate sometimes. But I also know that I don't have to take those feelings too seriously. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wherever you are, there you are

I've been incommunicado for a while, since my laptop charger died a couple weeks ago and I haven't had Internet access in my apartment. It bugs me when I go two weeks without writing a blog post, so I opened an old notebook labeled "Poetics" from when I used to read about analysis of Arabic poetry and started writing whatever popped into my head. (This notebook now has very little to do with either Arabic or poetry.) I wasn't going to post this one, because I didn't plan it out, and I didn't edit it. But I'm doing it anyway, just for fun.

So what's the difference between this and a journal entry? Not much, in a way. But in my journal, I somehow manage to put a negative spin on events that in reality are neutral, or even positive. I started a blog primarily for myself, since I find that when I'm writing online I'm able to put a positive spin on events that might even be considered negative. It's always interesting to me when I go back and skim through my journal entries and my blog posts from the same period of time. Sometimes it's as if they're written by two different people.


A half-attempt to hand write a blog post instead of using the prohibitively slow Qasid computers. an exercise in writing something straight through, stream-of-consciousness, no cutting, pasting, or rearranging. Sitting in the stairwell above the 4th floor of our class building, which we've come to call the "Haramadan Lounge." A place where we can comfortably drink water or Coke and eat snacks, out of sight of the Muslims, so as not to offend them. Also, now that classes are over, a quiet place to sit and reflect, a change of scenery from the apartment, as dingy and uninviting as it may be up here. Listening to the music (it's really almost music) of the elevator as its doors open. The sound that welcomed me to school every day for the past two plus months. A pleasant sound, one that I think actually improved my mood. A contrast to the much less welcomed noises of the outside world. School was a refuge from the constant honking of cars. The "get out of my way" honk directed at other cars. The "get out of my way" honk directed at pedestrians. I miss Berkeley traffic. Cars stop for you when they see you trying to cross the street from a billion miles away. The worst kind of honks, the "you are female" honks. (Okay, that phrase is stolen from a friend.) And the creepy ice-cream-truck music of the trucks that deliver propane tanks to our houses. Houses, not homes. Creepy in the way that clowns are creepy. (I really hate clowns, I think.) The soundtrack to my summer. The Quran recitations played over the loudspeakers at the grocery store. They can't play music during the day, that'd be haram. (The Quran can't be music - what is music?)

My apartment is in disarray. Half-packed suitcases, piles of books whose volume is undeniably larger than the empty space in my suitcases, even if I squint at them. Our shower head broke a month ago. The shower door collapsed in on me as I was showering the other day. (Sounds dangerous, but more just funny.) I almost electrocuted myself while plugging in my washing machine this morning. (Again, sounds dangerous, and I suppose it was. What can you do but laugh? Laughter is the best coping mechanism I know.) And there's the ice cream truck again. What a life it's been here, what a summer.

Funny how when I know I've only got a few days (now, a few hours) left here, I think I can get away with hating the things I hate about being here. Funny how the memories from the last few days of being somewhere can color your perception of your entire experience there. I watched an awful movie yesterday in which a girl died of leukemia at the age of 12. What a horrible death, at the end. "Don't think her whole life was leukemia, because it wasn't." Jordan was heat and harassment. But Jordan was also kunafeh, Petra, desert stars and Bedouin tea, Roman ruins. New friends. Perfecting the art of blowing smoke rings with shisha. It's actually not that difficult once you realize that it's just a glottal stop. Like the way British people say the "t" in the word "bottle." And that's actually a letter in Arabic, if such a thing can be considered a letter. Smoke rings and horses eating out of dumpsters. Stray cats. Some of them have such weird bone structure. They're stocky. They're like lions.

A week ago I asked my friend when he starts school in the fall. I loved his response: "I don't know, I'm still here." (He's not anymore, but I am.) I could spend this time being worked up about moving, starting grad school again, being insecure about it. Dreading the humidity and the blackbirds and bats. Remembering how a prof once told me he's never seen someone torture themselves during the process of writing a philosophy paper as much as I used to. I'll feel landlocked away from the Pacific.(But when I first moved to the west coast, I envisioned a map of the United States and I was afraid I'd fall off the edge of the world, so I suppose I can adjust.) I'll have to deal with either supporting one of the worst teams in the National League, or learn to tone down my hatred of the Rangers, even though Ron Washington in recent years has made some of the worst managerial decisions I've ever seen, with regard to pitching changes in the post season. I could worry about all of that, but why?

I'm still here.