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!