Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Grad Student's Lament

Adam Gopnik has this bit about writing in his book, Paris to the Moon, that I absolutely love:

Writing isn't the transformation of stuff into things. It is just the transformation of symbols into other symbols, as if one reads recipes out loud for dinner changing the proportions ("I'm adding fifty goddam grams of butter!") for dramatic effect. You read out the recipe and the audience listens, and pretends to taste...Sometimes, if you change the proportions dramatically enough--nothing but butter! no butter at all!--people gasp, as though they really could taste it. (This is the way Burroughs and Bukowksi write.)...Writing is a business of saying things about stuff and saying things about things and then pretending that you have cooked one into the other.

And that's just it, this week: I've been sitting around, trying to finish (okay, fine, start) my papers, and thinking to myself, what am I doing with my life? I can spend an entire day--like today--working hard: reading Australian language grammars, writing long lists of Indonesian words on the whiteboard, staring at the wall while thinking about morphology, and then, fianlly, get to the end of the day and realize I have done nothing but say things about stuff ("privative suffixes are cool") and stuff about stuff ("Indonesian morphology is cool") and pretending that that was not a total waste of a day.

It was not a total waste of a day. Oh, wait: yes, it was. What am I doing with my life?!?

And I can't think anything, at the end of the semester, but how tired I am of thinking. I never thought I'd say that, but it's true: I can't wait for my papers to be finished (badly, but who cares?), turned in (without staples or the needed appendices, but who cares?), and forgotten (which is not supposed to happen in grad school, but who cares?). I can't wait because when my papers are done, I will not have to think; instead, I will get to do. I'll move apartments, go to Bakersfield, visit with The Dancing Newt, go to Boston, tour San Francisco with The Duke, work on a dictionary, run a half marathon, teach phonetics to California Indians, and go to Jordan.

Only one more paper stands between me and a glorious month of activity. I can do this. Yes. I. Can. But until then? I'm adding fifty grams of butter.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Song of Experience

Most days I know what to expect from the day: I think about it as I eat my morning oatmeal, making a list of everything I need to accomplish that day, organized into two columns, "school" (read, write, think, solve) and "other" (clean, cook, wash, email, call, tutor, run--you know, the basics). Most days go like the list, with a little bit more playing Facebook scrabble, a little bit more emailing friends, but for the most part just as I imagined over breakfast.

And then there are days like yesterday, days that always seem to fall just right at the end of the semester, when I'm convinced that I won't make it through, when I'm strung out on lack of sleep, catching three-hour chunks here and there, curled up on the floor of my bedroom or a couch at the institute building, when I'm realizing that there is just. no. way. I can actually finish my final papers by their due dates, when I am already, I think, stretched to my breaking point--those are the days that spin out of control further, and I suddenly find myself, instead of reading and writing in my sterile little ivory tower, spending most of my afternoon and evening calling emergency shelters in Berkeley and Oakland, trying to find a place that a scared 19-year-old can be safe from her violent boyfriend, who tracked her down to the friend's apartment (where I took her before).

The problem, I think, got solved: I offered her my own bed for the night (after persuading my non-religious roommate that this random stranger wouldn't rob us blind, based on the dual arguments "I prayed about it" and "I don't know what else I can do") but then, at the last minute, she found a shelter, and so all I had to do was walk the mile through downtown to give her money, food, a listening ear, lots of comforting hugs, and another promise of future help if she needs it.

As I was walking home after money/food/hug duty, shaking with exhaustion (having only slept three hours the night before), stress (having three papers due in the next week, and not having done anything on them all day), and hunger (having eaten, that day, a total of one bagel and four saltine crackers), I stopped into a store for food, where the guy in front of me in line ranted, loudly, about how his close friend was in JAIL for MURDER even though it was SELF DEFENSE and that frat boy started it and DESERVES to be DEAD, good riddance, may he rest in peace. And right outside the store was an old woman, bent and grey, staring into the window of a downtown restaurant, a scene right out of Dickens, and a block down was a wino getting himself drunk for the night, and just after that was a homeless man settling himself down into a cardboard box to sleep. I gave money to all of them and wished I could do more.

I didn't get anything done on my papers yesterday: by the time I got home and ate, it was 11 p.m., and I was $60 poorer, five times more exhausted, and 500 times more heartbroken. Basically, by the time I got home, phonology didn't seem to matter too much anymore.

Some days I check everything off the list; some days I wake, eat, think, read, write, solve, cook, clean, email, call, tutor, run, get, spend, talk, pray, sleep; some days I am stable; some days I am happy. Other days things fall apart and I throw out the list; other days I feel tears pricking behind my eyes all day and know I am about to lose it, any second, know I am about to feel my skin split with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly; other days I just want to curl up and cry for the world. Some days I know linguistics. Some days I know church. Some days I know my friends. Some days I know routine. Other days I know God.