Saturday, December 15, 2007

Here Comes Santa Claus

I finished my last paper of the semester mid-afternoon on Saturday, bringing my grand total of pages written over the course of this semester close to 160, single spaced of course, meaning that if all those pages had been on the same topic, I basically just wrote a book in four months. I mean, granted, it's a book no one wants to read--heck, I don't even want to read it--but, still, pondering that number of pages makes me feel just the tiniest bit proud. If only quantity and quality were the same thing.

Having emailed my paper to my professor, I gathered my books and left the public library, where I had been sitting on the floor for the last hour or so, having decided that shivering on a cold tile floor was, for some strange reason, more comfortable than sitting at a desk. As I walked towards the library door, I began to think about what I would do with my newfound Christmas break freedom: bake Christmas cookies! Decorate a Christmas tree! Shop for Christmas presents! Dress up like a Christmas gypsy! With schoolwork out of the way, I could finally think about the season.

The first thing I saw when I opened the library door was a guy dressed as Santa Claus. And behind him, a girl dressed as Santa Claus. And behind her, a whole group of people dressed as Santa Claus. As I rounded the corner into downtown, I realized everyone was dressed like Santa Claus: milling around on the main drag of downtown were about, oh, five hundred people dressed as Santa, pouring out of the metro station, flitting in and out of bars, and standing in the middle of the road. It was a Santa invasion, and it felt like the universe had conspired to show me not just a good time, but a wonderful time: the most wonderful time of the year.

I walked up to one of those imitation Santas and asked him what was going on; "SantaCon!" he said, slightly drunkenly and with his mouth full of pizza. I wish I could say that that explained everything for me, as that would imply I'm somewhat hip to counterculture--or pop culture, or flash mob culture, or maybe just culture, period--but of course I had to ask some more questions, learning that this was a group of people, dressed in cheap Santa costumes--including a Hanukkah Santa (all in blue and stars of David and carrying a Menorah), a bikini Santa, and a Santa Claus that was definitely not just kissing Mommy--that was moving across the East Bay, basically getting progressively noisier and drunker. There may have been some lists, and some double-checking of said lists, but I doubt it; this group was mostly into drunken singing, or, at the very least, drunken shouting "Santa loves you!"

I love Santa too, and that was pretty much the best welcome to the Christmas holiday ever, even if I did have to wonder whether the bikini Santa was a man or a woman. (Man. Mostly.) I must have been nice to deserve this sight, and, trust me, there won't be any crying or pouting this year, not from me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Grad Students Who Know

with apologies to Julie B. Beck

Grad Students Who Know Write Papers

Grad students who know write papers. While there are those in the world who decry the old values of "publish or perish," in the culture of graduate school good students still believe in writing papers, preferably as many as possible. The wisest advisers teach that first year graduate students should not postpone writing papers, and that the requirement for righteous graduate students to multiply and replenish the library remains in force. There is academic power and influence in writing.

Grad Students Who Know Honor Academic Obligations and Commitments

Grad students who know honor their academic obligations and commitments. I have visited some of the most prestigious universities on earth, where grad students fulfill all their responsibilities, despite walking for miles or using sketchy public transportation. They drag themselves onto campus no matter how little sleep they got the night before or how unfinished their course projects are. These grad students know they are going to classes and seminars, where free food might be offered. They know if they are not going to class, they are not impressing their professorial colleagues, and, also, they might go hungry.

Grad Students Who Know are Studiers

Grad students who know are studiers. This is their special assignment and role within the plan of a university. To study means to observe, analyze, contemplate, or learn about. Another word for studying is procrastinating. Procrastinating includes blogging, talking to friends, and, sometimes, in times of greatest stress, washing clothes and dishes, scrubbing floors and toilets, and keeping an orderly apartment. Studying grad students are knowledgeable, but all their education will avail them nothing if they do not have the skills to procrastinate. Grad students should be the best procrastinators in the world.

Grad Students Who Know Do Less

Grad students who know do less. During the last few weeks of the semester, they permit less of what will not bear good fruit academically. They allow less media in their homes, less distraction, less social activity, less leisure reading, and less time devoted to the basics of hygiene, nutrition, and exercise. Grad students who know are willing to live on less so they can spend more time with their homework: more time thinking, more time reading, more time writing, more time talking to their adviser. These grad students choose carefully, and do not try to choose having a life outside of academia. Their goal is to get their PhDs, so one day they can prepare a rising generation of grad students who will take their pet theories into the entire field. That is influence; that is power.

It is my sincere hope that we all, in these last days of the semester, can strive to become graduate students who know, and I testify that the dean will reward us for doing so.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

In the Bleak Midwinter

I dashed around the corner to my local grocery store for some sustenance items, which here means "hot chocolate and cookies to keep me awake and happy during an all-night paper-writing spree." While paying, I briefly chatted with the man behind the counter, who commented on how delicious hot chocolate is, especially on a cold December night. I agreed with him, and noticed that the door to his store, which is usually wide open and welcoming, was closed tonight, presumably to keep out the cold, right? We complained about the weather for a few minutes together, discussing how much we were looking forward to curling up with a warm blanket and, in my case at least, cup of hot chocolate. I handed over my cash, saying "stay warm!" in lieu of "goodbye," and headed home, shivering the whole way.

The problem? It's 55 degrees out. We are so spoiled.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fork It Over

As I was walking home from school yesterday evening, I thought I heard a homeless man ask for a spare.

I turned, and, taking out the headphones which were blasting an audiobook of "The Portrait of a Lady," asked, "A spare what?" I had just been to the laundromat for quarters, so I actually had change to give, but what if he wanted, I don't know, a spare tire? A spare cigarette? A spare bedroom?

He shook his head. "Not a spare, a spoon. Do you have a spoon?"

Who carries a spoon around with them? I thought to myself. "No, sorry, I don't," I said. "But I do have a fork."

He considered for a moment and said, "Okay, that will do. Can I have your fork?"

I pulled it out of my backpack, handed it to him, and turned to go.

"Wait!" he said. "This is a nice metal fork. I can't take this."

I told him it was no problem, but he insisted. "I live in a hospital, and if I come home with this they'll think I've stolen it."

Oh. So I stopped and waited while he ate the last few ice cream bites of his root beer float and told me all about how the neighborhood has really gone downhill. When he was done he thanked me nicely, handed back the fork, and ambled off to who-knows-where.

And that, friends, is why I like living in a city.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Let One Interpret

I never know how I get involved in these things. One minute I'm sitting in Indonesian class, nodding yes, yes, yes, Ibu Professor, I am listening, and I do understand you, and the next minute I'm doing simultaneous interpretation of a traditional Javanese shadow puppet show (or wayang) for an audience of about 500 people.

I think I should be more careful when I nod.

This wayang show was mostly a performance of the university's gamelan group, but, to make gamelan music sound ever so slightly less intolerable to a Western audience, they had invited a dalang to put on a wayang show. (The translation for dalang that Indonesians tend to prefer is "shadow master"; that sounds more like a badly-translated Japanese video game villain than a mild-mannered Javanese artist, so we'll stick with the Javanese word, okay?) That way, the show would not simply be two hours of random banging. It would be two hours of random banging AND PUPPETS!!! That distinction is key.

(I should note, here, that gamelan is an intricate and ancient art form that is certainly not just random banging. Even if it does sound like it.)

In any case, those running the event realized that wayang isn't any fun to watch if you don't understand it, so they called up my professor to ask if she would translate. She agreed, and then instantly assigned three of her students, myself included, to do it instead. Because, really, what are grad students for, if not doing the unpleasant parts of a professor's job?

I've done simultaneous interpretation before, but never quite like this. The dalang and his shadow screen were up on stage, along with the gamelan players, while I and my classmates knelt at the side of the stage, with a laptop, typing, in English, what the dalang was saying, as he was saying it. The laptop was then connected to a projector, and everything we typed was displayed on a screen hanging on the back of the wall. Yes, that's right--everything. I've never seen my typos so, um, huge before.

The dalang was kind enough to give us a script in advance, so we had a rough idea of what was going on, but, of course, true to both Indonesia and the art of wayang, he started deviating from the script about five minutes into the performance and never went back. Also true to Indonesia, he refused to stick to only Indonesian; even though he knew none of his translators spoke Javanese, every. single. conversation started in Javanese, at least for the first two sentences. That means at the beginning of every. single. conversation the translators looked like idiots and the audience was confused. And every time he did it, at least when I was translating, he looked over at me, made eye contact, smiled, and started in on (to me) gibberish.

I forgive him his little bilingual jokes, though, because he put on such a good performance. I've seen plenty of wayang, and, frankly, once I get over the initial "hey, this is cool and foreign!" factor, I get bored. That happens, of course, when you don't understand what's going on. With this wayang being in Indonesian, though, I actually understood not only the plot, but also the jokes. And, it turns out, wayang can be funny. Maybe I was just punchy from the stress of simultaneous interpretation, but at one point I laughed so hard I cried. (Okay, fine, at several points. I just don't want to have to admit to laughing at the fart jokes. Though, come on, farting puppets? Hilarious!) The performance was made even better, if I may say so myself, by the interaction between the translators and the dalang--whenever he spoke English, we typed commentary on what he was saying. As one character recounted what you'd need to get to America, my classmate typed a bullet point outline on the projector screen. "First, you need to get a passport." ($$) "And be sure to apply six months in advance, since getting a passport takes time." (Time=$$) "Then, you need a visa." ($$) "Then you'll need a plane ticket." ($$) During another segment, a long fight scene, I "translated" the dalang's fighting noises: Bam! Pow! Biff! Ka-zow! Holy fighting puppets, Harjuna Sasrabahu!

Now, of course, we weren't perfect; I did need the occasional whispered vocabulary item from my professor, and at one point I missed the line in which a character said the name of the gamelan song that was about to happen, and was then highly confused as to why all the musicians on stage were suddenly hissing "Golden Rain! Golden Rain!" at me. I think, though, that I have a decent excuse for the occasional mistake: three and a half hours of kneeling on a hardwood floor concentrating with all your might is no cakewalk, people. The performance was supposed to be two hours, closer to the attention span of an American audience, but, again, true to the Indonesian idea of time ("jam karet"), the dalang had other ideas; a real Javanese wayang performance begins around sundown and runs until sunrise the next morning, so, frankly, we were lucky to leave before midnight. In fact, I feel lucky in general: lucky to have seen such a performance, lucky to have translated it, lucky, even, to speak Indonesian.

But I'm still going to be more careful about nodding in class.