Wednesday, January 13, 2010


As I was driving across the country last week, I spent a little time (admittedly not much) composing in my head a short list of the things that I would miss about living in Buffalo, the seven years I spent there. It's a work in progress and not presented in any kind of order--emphatic or otherwise:

1. My friends. I've lived in a fair number of places, more than most of the people I know, though far fewer than some. In Ohio and Virginia, and a few others, I never really met the kind of people that I really felt represented my ~kind~ of people, for lack of a better way of putting it. Though I made one very dear friend in Ohio--who has since almost entirely vanished into marriage and miscellaneous adult life--most of the time I spent there proved very lucrative for a particular video store. The culture was really all about hanging on porches, playing poker, and drinking beer. Also dogs. I liked the people in the department, and in many many many ways, the academic culture there kicked the ass of the Buffalo academic culture. But I never really made connections in the way that an introvert like myself finds satisfying and meaningful. In Buffalo, I did. I made a few really good friends. Hopefully, lifetime friends.

2. The city. Being from Montana, I never have really lost my sense of wonder at living in places other than Montana. Buffalo was truly excellent for that. It had a distinctly northeastern cultural difference from my birthplace, and the cityscape always made me feel like I had really come a long way, if that makes sense. The downtown felt very distinctly ~urban~ even if most of the storefronts were empty. The city missed it's moment, essentially. It sprung up, had it's hayday, overextended, and then was over. Over. People in Buffalo liked to joke that they didn't really feel the recession because the city had already been in one for decades. Of course, this wasn't exactly true. Though this was certainly the case for the housing market, as it turns out, the same was not as true for employment and cost of living. Renting prices were going steadily up, as was food. Though I begin to linger on the bad stuff, I still always loved downtown Buffalo. I loved its kind of post-apocalyptic feel. It's as close as I ever want to be to living in a real eastern city. All the grit and towering skyline, none of the claustrophobia, expense, and shitty parking. I love it. It's the urban version of a Willa Cather novel, whose descriptions of space and sky make me want to climb into a warm tub and touch myself.

3. The coop. It seems stupid to miss one's old job like I do, but I really had a sense of community there. As banal as that sounds. I learned so much while I was working there. I changed so much. My life changed so much. Primarily, I never thought of myself as a person invested in food and food politics to the extent that I now am. With all its ups and downs, my time spent working at the coop went a long way toward instilling that in me.

4. The summers. Not only are they particularly beautiful in Buffalo, but this beauty is intensified tremendously by their contrast to the long, grey, persistent winters. I will never forget my first early Spring in Buffalo (which is almost the same as the summer). I had spent months in my tiny one bedroom, which had a great location but sucked in terms of space. I vowed afterward to always try to have a separate space for eating and living, though this is no longer the case! Also, we almost never used the dining room when we had one. I went out one afternoon to walk to the health food store on the corner for a cookie. Walking back, the sun came out for what felt like the first time in an eternity. It felt so good to be in it's light that I walked around sort of dazed for a while, like a mole, blinking at the sun. The intense pleasure of that epiphany of sunlight, though, can't be overestimated.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The List

Of resolutions, of course.

Be kinder--to myself. This encompasses so much. I had a very caring and insightful teacher in high school try to obliquely caution me about the tendency toward perfectionism she apparently noticed in my budding younger self. At the time, I didn't really get it. I thought she was merely passing along information, and, at the time, I didn't get that information is never innocent. I was also a Joyce enthusiast. Go figure. Only with time have I slowly begun to realize what it means to have these leanings, which in many ways are extremely compatible with the whole grad school enterprise. Grad students--and perhaps everyone in academia--are encouraged to be in a constant state of tension. This is also called staying current. The need to show oneself to be of superior intelligence and capacity, even in the very small pond of the department. I also think that perfectionism has a kind of positive connotation. It sounds like a solid, American value at some level. Why wouldn't you strive to be the best? All good things come from something like that, right? Financial success? Personal contentment?

The other side of that, though, is that perfectionism is extremely negative and destructive. It highlights and emphasizes the inevitable deficiencies of all of our lives. And it turns all of that negative energy inward. This is why one of my primary resolutions will be to try to pare back my own tendencies in this direction. Doing so, hopefully, will let me work on forgiving myself for the many many moments in my life when I've fallen so short of the mark. So very short. Apart from apologizing where I'm able, this is the best and most effective strategy--I hope.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Contemplating Resolutions

The very idea of them, really. This is the time of year when all the blogs I read and at least some of the people I know start generating these lists of promises they make both to themselves and their loved ones (but mostly just to themselves) for things they will do, behaviors they will modify, changes they will seek in the coming year. Will 2010 be a better year? Was 2009 a triumph or a disappointment? And so on. Though it's doubtless very soulless of me, my own celebration/resolution bit is always sort of stymied by how artificial it all seems. Why count our lives by years and not some other measure? Of course, this is likely just a bluff. I'm terrified at the necessity of having to measure my life by an kind of standard. Being in school for almost my entire life has to be somewhat to blame for this. The academic calendar is tightly tethered to the concept of measuring time and clicking off years. I guess what's happened is that I've run out of years to account for in this way. Even more, when I stop measuring my life by numbers and schedules, the future yawns out in front of me. As I think I've said before, in my good moments, this lack of structure looks like possibility and I get little thrills of excitement thinking about all the other directions my life might take. In my bad moments, I feel lost.

It reminds me a little, actually, of teaching Stephen Crane's "An Open Boat" in my comp classes a year or so ago. Or is it "The Open Boat"? It doesn't really matter right now. Anyway, this story is all about these 4 (4?) men who survive a shipwreck and end up tossing about in the waves. They can get close enough to the shore to see people on it, but they can't get to land without swamping their rickety little vessel. Most of the story takes place with them drifting in the sea, paddling up and down the coast, and ignoring the sharks. The journalist figure is the Crane stand-in and through this experience he ponders the futility of human striving in a godless universe. Gotta love the naturalists. I do. He repeats the phrase "If I am to die," over and over, and appeals to some sort of archaic sea gods. One of my students actually thought this meant that he was a devotee of Poseidon (what an excellent sense of history, right?).

I'm not sure why I'm rambling on about that here, except I kind of feel like I was on my own petty ship. And it wrecked. The metaphor works, I think, well enough that I needn't expand on it.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Solipsist, I

More self-focused ramblings today, I suppose. Because it's Friday. And it's Christmas. And I've been drinking scotch and watching movies all day. And something about the holidays brings out my (not so hidden) inner pontificator. And what better place to pontificate than a readerless blog?

Today I feel precariously balanced, as I have been for some time, between multiple distractions and the abyss of my future. Please note, I do not mean to reference the abyss here in any kind of self-pitying way. I do not intend it to resonate with the apocalyptic or to conjure up notions of a futureless future, whatever that might mean. Instead, I mean that for the first time in my brief thirty-something years, I don't know what the future holds. How cliche when I put it that way. Having always been working toward some goal or another, I now find myself goal-less, and I question whether my desire to patch together some kind of idealism is an effective survival strategy, a useful way of imaging the world to myself, or itself a kind of fatalism.

The last day at my job is coming up soon, and that feels very tactile, like a finite amount of something slipping through my fingers. I feel the sudden need to get organized. Like a kind of gasping desperation. What will I do? I need to make lists! And so I do. And for a time, as contrary to intuition as it might be, this quells the storm. My body relaxes ever so slightly once I have a good list. But the best thing of all about lists is how utterly replaceable and tenuous they are. I love that. My need to be organized is at some fundamental level tethered to the need for a replaceable present. Re-listing, throwing out, and listing yet again, offers the opportunity to re-affirm, re-organize, re-vision the future. I find this incredibly liberating.

When I was young and less troubled by nuance, I knew that the future was a function of a person's ability to prioritize--to some extent, anyway (I wasn't a sociopath). Yet I felt surrounded by people who refused this ability. Refused responsibility, in a way. As an adult, I reject this even while I recognize what generates it. In preparing for this new, unpredictable future, I make lists, I get organized, and I try to focus on the potential. Instead of on the waste. The lost years. The mistakes.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Recommitment Fail

So it officially happened. I was sucked down into the facebook K-hole, but it hasn't been all that bad. Status updates, like the ubiquitous tweets, are like blogging in soundbites. Little flash-captures of thoughts. I like them. I like keeping in touch with people I knew so long ago in some of my other lives. For example, I now regularly hear from the woman who befriended me when I worked at the electronics superstore in Billings. We used to go dancing at clubs together, eat at Dennys (!). Her little daughter loved me, and the feeling was mutual. She taught me how to take care of my eyebrows, though I don't always do so as well as I could. I'm also in touch with a guy who I knew really peripherally as an older man who dated a girl who was friends with my friends. He's now very vocally political and leans toward raw foodism. The less satisfying facebook friendships are actually those that were a bit closer to me than the above. My first and third loves, for example. Frustrating relationships that were inevitably disappointing and unrequited, in one way or another.

Basically, as much of a curmudgeon as I've become in my early-middle age, facebook offers the veneer of contact. It is an immediate avenue for contacting people who otherwise slip into the void of personal history. I almost wish that absolutely everyone was on facebook. One could friend them or not, but at least they would be there. For this reason, I have a handful of names that I periodically search for, just to see if perhaps they've popped up. No luck so far. Some people just resist social networking, and that for reasons familiar to all of us.

I've recently started to miss my blog more acutely, however. I'm in danger of confusing it for a journal in which I might write more or less completely uncensored. This is the peril of having no audience. I'm hoping to pick it back up. We'll see if I can do better this time around.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I'm giddy today. Positively giddy. After three pretty good classes, as such things go, I submitted the last three hard copy drafts of my entire dissertation. Now I have only to wait a little less than a month for the defense date that will, I once thought, put the perfect seal on my terminal degree. From what I can gather from talking to my director, the defense should be really pro forma, not anything to worry about or prepare for. In spite of this, I'm sure to torture myself for weeks in advance, reading over the copy obsessively and imagining endless questions that they might ask that I wouldn't be able to answer. This is my particular form of self-flagellation. Not that it works out very well for me. Indeed, you'd think in my early adulthood I would move on to other forms of masochistic torture, but this has proved a long-lasting and painful habit. I can fondly remember being an undergrad, and even at the beginning of my grad career, fantasizing excitedly about being asked questions that I would be able to answer and that would showcase my "considerable" knowledge to best possible effect. What does it say about my life now that my fantasies are rather a darker version of this?

Friday, March 6, 2009


One of my students passed away this week. It's been a few days now, and I guess I'm still processing. This is the first time this has happened, really, and it's the strange little details that are the most disturbing. I was sitting in my office holding conferences all damn day yesterday after receiving an email from campus judiciaries. All day long I was looking at his name on the sign-up sheet and wondering what would happen at 2:00 when he wasn't going to be there. Every time I flipped through the stack of graded papers I was returning to people in these conferences, I would see his paper. I suppose the obvious thing would have been to remove it from the stack, but I just couldn't find my way to doing that. It's the weirdest thing. We weren't friends, of course, by any stretch. By his own admission, he didn't like me. (As a matter of principle, due to childhood trauma, he didn't like any English teachers.) In class he was erratic and off-beat, unpredictable and slightly disruptive. He was quite bright but not extremely motivated. He wanted to major in philosophy and admired H.P. Lovecraft. Other than those tidbits and a partially completed paper on which he'd received a C-, I don't have anything else. All my comments on his work went something like this: "Jack (not his real name), This is a very engaging and promising discussion of these texts. I'd really like to see where you would go with this if you expand it to fulfill the page requirement for this paper. [and so on]." It's refreshing, really, because most of the papers I get are so deeply uninspired and banal. This not because the students themselves are either of these things but because they're not sinking much of themselves into their 4-6 page paper for composition. In short, he was the kind of student you noticed.

I've been thinking that if there's a memorial service I'll attend. As far as talking about this with my class? I don't know. I need to, of course. While I work really hard on a rather jovial and cool rapport with my students, I wouldn't describe it as in any sense touchy-feely. A lot of the advice I've gotten from people is targeted at a different kind of teacher, I think. A collage? A collaborative epitaph? A heartfelt outpouring? I'm not sure yet what I'll be able to manage. The one thing I know for sure is that I can't say nothing. You know? I might send an email this weekend just to make sure every one knows. Then, when I bring it up in class on Tuesday, perhaps it will be less...surprising? Abrasive? Otherwise unexpected? Truly, I'm at a loss and very much grateful for the intervening week that will let me gather my thoughts. David, I think, was right on when he said to me earlier that there really is no right thing.