Sunday, January 29, 2006

This is why I call the blog "et al."

(okay, "All Dorcasina, all the time.blogspot" was already taken)

Kazooist and teacher extraordinaire Terminal Degree has perhaps the smartest advice I have ever read for putting evaluations in perspective. Here's the most immediately relevant advice about student evaluations, but her post is essential reading in its original form for the generosity of her teaching and the general wisdom she shares with her student (and with her readers):

My comments start with perspective gained through one of my worst experiences from my first year of teaching college years ago. [...]

Luckily, my dean, a very wise man, read those comments first, and he gave me an "assignment." It was a painful assignment, but a useful one.

Part one: List everything you have accomplished (or ways in which you have grown) in the last semester that is related to work, professional development, and spiritual life/personal growth.
Part two: List the ways in which your class responded positively on your evals. In what areas do you demonstrate strength?
Part three: List areas in which you see you need to improve, either from your evals or from your own self-awareness. What goals will you set for next semester?I soon realized that parts one and two were MUCH longer lists than part three! (Whew!)
I also realized that there's something about human nature that makes us hear the NEGATIVE comments more strongly than the positive things we hear. (If a professor gets 99 great evals and 1 negative one, you can be assured that he/she is going to dwell on that one negative comment and forget the positive ones!) Why do we do this? Well, we tend to want perfection (which we'll never have on this earth), and we want everyone to like us and our work (and that's not going to happen, either!). So we dwell on those small, negative comments, to the point where we actually forget to listen for the positive comments. The negative ones can "drown out" the good stuff!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Weekend Blues

Yesterday, a friend asked, "What sucks so much about being single?" First of all, let me be abundantly clear that this was in response to my complaints as to my own newly "single" (i.e., widowed) state. This is not intended as a commentary on single-ness of any sort other than my own current post-marriage experience of it, nor is it intended to express anything categorical about anyone else's relationships or foibles but my own.

Where do I even begin to answer that question? There are perhaps a thousand moments in a day where the wretchedness of my current state catches up with me, and takes my breath away. Today being Saturday, however, I'm especially mindful of the bleakness of my 'single' weekends.

For me, one of the great joys of my marriage was a sense of pervasive contentment that was probably utterly annoying to my friends. For the first time in my life, I felt assured that everything I needed or cared about was at home, and I was able to put to rest the lingering sense (a constant companion in my own single days) that there was something Else, something Out There, that I was missing. I don't pretend that this is anything more than my own insecurity, Cinderella complex, or what have you. And in my pre-married state, I found the kind of tension produced by that sense somewhat exhilirating.

I am not suggesting that I was incomplete when unmarried, or that my life was bleak and meaningless before I took on some man's family name.

So perhaps what I want to say is that my married life made me feel replete, satisfied, and fulfilled--at some barely conscious, constant level--in a way that I don't feel when I am alone. Maybe it was the presence of someone who acted as both anchor and ballast for my admittedly fluctuating psyche. A large part of it was the particular man I married, who always knew just why something struck me as funny, or understood the concept of the wicked "internal DJ" who would splice Duran Duran into a Cold Play song and spin the resulting mess over and over inside my brain. As I've said over and over, to anyone who even appears to be listening, I had never expected to find that kind of understanding and communion with another human being.

This is all a prelude to today's entry on the "why (my now) being single sucks" list: the weekend.

Back when my family, the one my husband and I created for ourselves, was complete, the smallest weekend tasks were part of a rich experience. Without him, errands with my daughter (however fabulous she is for a three-year old) are less an adventure than a hassle. Without another adult, meals with a three-year-old are brief, frustrating affairs, consisting of battles over what gets eaten, when ("No, you need to eat some protein before I can get you a cookie"), and how ("Remember, honey? We don't pour milk on the floor--we poor it into our tummies.") Daily routines lack the simple joy and satisfaction they gained from being part of a nearly indescribable domestic happiness. I had someone to share with me the conviction that our daughter is the funniest, smartest, most beautiful child in the world.

Now when I take my daughter to her weekly activity, I'm the only one there by myself. The only one without a partner who can gloat with me about how much happier we are than any other couple we see. The one who sits to the side, too sad and lazy to make conversation with what I now think of as "the happy people" there. I know they have their secret sorrows and frustrations. But they also have something I don't.

These days, the weekend is a bleak stretch of trying to keep my daughter entertained, even as we are cooped up inside by apparently eternally foul weather. Without resorting too often to the "virtual playpen" of her carefully selected children's videos. With her to amuse, I can't even take refuge in the sedentary pleasures of single life: the bad matinee (at home or in the theater), or an entire day consumed by a book.

I have done a good job, I think, of planning events and outings for us both. But they require effort. For me, being a family (again, in the sense that we have lost our central member, not that a mother-daughter dyad is inherently an inadequte family) was an effortless but never invisible joy.


So cool:

As always, Badger (the ultimate cool kid) gets there first. Create your own.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Slippery Slope

Am I getting depressed? I have some of the telltale signs, for me, of incipient depression. Plus my doctor warned me about it, which gets my fertile brain obsessing about the possibilities. Let's weigh the evidence, shall we?

Evidence for:

Subject claims to experience a general lack of enthusiasm for life. Sense of defeat and helplessness. Loneliness not alleviated by time with friends.

Subject complains of bad dreams. Most of which involve the kinds of cataclysmic domestic crises (plumbing, car repairs, products of feline digestive systems) that should be laughable in the light of day. Subject explains that these dreams, however, produce all-day negative effects such as irritability and sorrow, and almost all end with subject crying uncontrollably and feeling alone and helpless in the universe, as she sits surrounded by the ruins of domestic life. [Dorcasina: Hey--I didn't say the dreams were mysterious or symbolic; that might actually be preferable to such psychological transparency.]

Subject has observed a weird and completely unusual ability to cry in real life.

Subject exhibits obsessive self-loathing and claims to be experiencing a lack of self-control; [Dorcasina: i.e., I say really, really stupid things. I don't seem to be able to carry on a conversation in which I listen to other people and respond appropriately. Almost everything that comes out of my mouth is stupid. I can't believe no one else has commented on this. I'm sure they will any day now.]

Reported inability to concentrate, including the inability to read. Given subject's professional field, this is a distinct problem.

Subject claims to be prey to bizarre feeling of detachment. Bad things happen, and she just...doesn'

Subject reports excessive enthusiasm for alcohol. So far, however, she admits to no excessive consumption of same, and no drinking alone. Just a disproportionate eagerness for those social events that involve a cocktail. Or two.

Evidence against:

Subject remains highly functional. House is clean (ish), daughter is fed, loved, and read to, students are taught, business is conducted. In fact, subject has been singularly productive with the bureaucracy of widowhood this week. And with minor departmental tasks and the various paraphenalia of academic life (conference proposals, etc.)

Current maintenance dose of Zoloft.

Ability to enjoy outings as they happen appears to be largely intact. Subject shows a consistent ability to arrange and follow-through on social events.

Diet: Unchanged. Could include more vegetables and less alcohol (see above).

Exercise: Somewhat improved from previous levels of inactivity; subject reports attending yoga classes regularly.

Situation: Subject has experienced in the past three years some 4 or 5 or 6 of the kinds of life-altering events that would be expected to cause major psychological upheavals: marriage, new job, completion of doctorate, adoption of daughter, illness and death of spouse.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

Embarrassing Truths

(number one of which ought to be that I don't really trust myself to spell "embarrass"--one "r" or two?)

My current favorite politically incorrect country song lyrics:

3. Tequila makes her clothes fall off.

2. I can't be with a woman, baby, who gets drunker than me.

1. The difference is, Jesus loves you; I don't.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Irony, or Oxymoron?

Am I the only one who thinks this is bleakly funny?

An opening for Adjunct Faculty in Business Ethics?

Sign(s) o' the Times

This morning, I saw a gigantic black Escalade (Cadillac's SUV)--tinted windows, those annoying trendy "spinners," booming bass emanating from deep within. On the back were two bumper stickers: "Bob Marley lives" (including a sketched image) and "Liberal=open-minded, etc., etc." (not enough time to read). I took it as my daily sign to beware of easy generalizations. But I still wonder what kind of "liberal" drives a Cadillac SUV (a wealthy one, obviously).

My students don't like to talk about sex. Not their own, not other people's. We were reviewing the argument of Foucault's History of Sexuality (grossly oversimplified, that sex is not so much repressed in Western culture as it is medicalized and made into a subject of scrutiny, investigation, and discourse). We were trying to talk about the dichotomy between the rational and the irrational, more largely, and I was trying to get them to see how that binary forces certain aspects of human-ness into the realm of the abnormal or pathological. Even my purportedly "queer" students were quaintly shocked by this discussion, and by the idea that one could understand human experience in other than strictly evaluative terms. [Okay, maybe it was my reference to "Penthouse" that shocked them...]

It is what I love and hate about this generation--or, at least, the tiny segment of it I see here at our semi-liberal campus. My students are sweet, obedient, docile--to a fault. Their loveliness of spirit and their deference to authority make them a great pleasure to work with (almost none of the whining and entitlement I saw at my former, big state institution), but get in the way of their willingness to "play" with the deadly serious business of their education. I am very conscious of certain students who resent the amount of class time I allot to what might generously be called "community building"--things like learning each other's names, getting comfortable in a group, considering the meta-levels of classroom discourse, pedagogy, and the room's layout. I see those few who, annoyed, stop writing 30 seconds into one of my tangential spiels, realizing, "Oh, this is not important."

I don't know if it's my age (rapidly advanced, once someone pointed out, unkindly, that my current freshmen were born in [gasp!] 1987), but I find myself not just willing but eager to shock them, and to stir them from their habitual complacency and diligence. They are so accepting of the social and political values around them, and so very cynical about any effort to make large-scale change in the world, even as they are acutely aware of injustice. They are suspicious of what they see as my ivory-tower naivete, or my incipient dementia. They offer me bemusedly tolerant expressions and polite laughter.

When I was their age, the only thing more important than actually having sex was talking about it--a lot. And not in Foucault's clinical analytical mode, but in outrageously "naughty" terms, as if to suggest that one's verbal lack of inhibition was matched only by one's wanton hedonism behind closed doors. It was one of the great pleasures of adulthood, for me--the freedom to make risque puns, and to imply an erotic life that was perhaps more vividly imagined than performed.

Like all of my favorite "adult" vices (cigarettes, bourbon, sheer stockings, disenchanted novelists whose prose and conversation were both peppered with the word "fuck"), the pleasures of talking about sex seem to have fallen by the wayside. For my poor students, or most of them, adulthood is a serious and deadly-dull job, one they feel compelled to take on far, far too early.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Unanticipated problems

1. Having no one to list as my "emergency contact" who doesn't live at least one hour away.

2. Being unable to close my husband's email account, which now collects spam. I realize that by keeping it and deleting the spam, I am in some way pretending--even to myself--that he will need to use it. I clean off the desktop on his laptop for the same reason.

3. Trying to avoid the calorie-boosting snacks I bought for him as his appetite failed. They are stashed in every cupboard, every drawer, the car glove compartments.

4. Not having realized that I don't know where the car title and stock certificates are. I have most of the paperwork, but not the physical documents of his ownership.

5. Suddenly realizing that everyone who meets me from now on will assume that, given my age, I am divorced. That this fact shouldn't matter to me, but it does.

* * *

I had the amazing opportunity to hear ABDMom's jobtalk in progress. It was brilliant. Her work is both intellectually insightful and personally charged, and it reminds me about how much I loved my previous field. She generates a serenity and quiet confidence that are really lovely, and make an extraordinary change from the hyper-self-consciousness of most professional talks. Her presentation manages to be incredibly informative and "engaging" in the truest sense of the word; it draws you in, gives you a few tools, and allows you to feel a part of the inquiry, and to care about the subject (and her "subjects") the way that she does.

As I read the above, I worry that my praise is "too femme-y"; that I should be saying more about the obvious mastery she demonstrates over her subject (she does--in fact, she is so comfortable and knowledgeable that her mastery is transparent), or about her "command" of the theoretical framework (ditto), or about the intellectual value of her findings (considerable). But what stands out about her talk, to me, is the way in which those "masculinist" academic strengths are perfectly integrated into a much more nuanced and warm persona. Perhaps because I know her as a sympathetic friend, mother, and fabulous teacher, I privilege in her work the qualities I associate with those strengths.

On the other hand, why should we "apologize" for integrating the feminine into our work? Maybe it's part of what I envy about ABDMom's work; she is in a field where such strengths are understood as legitimate and powerful, while I went back to a field where they are less inherently accepted, and where the agonistic model of the job talk-as-intellectual-superiority-as-evinced-in-excessive-and-mindlessly-parroted-jargon still reigns. So I project instantly the defensiveness I feel (not, I think, untowardly) when someone associates my work with the "feminine"--as if those values were innately opposed to scholarly quality or "rigor."

So I guess what I am saying is that what impressed me most, and perhaps most unusually, about her scholarship was its seamless integration into what else I know of her. In a perfect world, all of us would be able to frame our work with such elegance and clarity, and to have its intellectual merit function to include, not to exclude.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Big Chill

So this is it, that 'new normal' everyone warned me about. I can't say I think much of it. My days are filled with a busyness that feels, even to me, somewhat pathological. I'm fully of "plans"--minor house repairs, mundane academic tasks, unpacking the stuff that never got unpacked when we moved. I wade through the paperwork of death, settling our estate, moving money around for my daughter, changing the name on various accounts, arguing with our health insurance over the final sets of medical bills. It fills my days. But none of it matters, and even as I scurry around taking care of business, "coping," and "doing what has to be done," a part of me stands back and knows that it's all meaningless.

I worried that I would cry too much. Instead, oddly, I cry too little. My eyes don't seem to tear anymore. I worried that every small object, every photo, and a thousand tiny acts each day would bring waves of sorrow; instead, I wander around like a visitor (and a relatively uninterested one, at that) in my own life. My mind is wrapped in a thick scratchy blanket of detachment. I try to recall specific memories of my life Before, but they are locked off.

My friends are getting tired of my "processing." When I try to talk about how everything has changed, about how empty my life is, I see looks of compassionate boredom. They don't want to hear me speculate endlessly about how I am going to fill the rest of my life. I can't say as I blame them; I'm pretty boring these days.

Widowhood, for me, has meant returning to a largely female world. I have several wonderful male friends, but without the day-to-day presence of a man in our house, my daughter and I are stuck in a world of women, and desparate for the comfort of a male presence. Of course it's one man, in particular, that we are missing--but I've notice that we both gravitate to any man around in the absence of the one we really want. It's something I hadn't anticipated--I should have, maybe, but it didn't occur to me that one of my difficulties would be gendered in this way.

I keep telling myself to write about something else. I don't really want to. I don't feel like blogging--I have nothing to say. Worse yet, I don't really care that I have nothing to say. I'm writing this out of a kind of residual blogger guilt: "I should keep up my blog." But as with everything else these days, I can't say I really care.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Back to it all

I'm officially home from the conference, and trying to get back some semblance of normal life. I actually enjoyed the MLA, and along with torturing our hapless interviewees, I got to meet ABDMom and the marvelous Pistola. BH seemed like a lovely and kind man, but he hung back, as it was definitely a sort of "girls' night." Pistola is gorgeous and fully deserving of her pseudonym, and what ABDMom doesn't tell us is that Pistola gets those beautiful eyes from her mother. ABDMom is vivacious, funny, and wonderfully warm--talking to her was like catching up with a long-time friend. Given how smart and charming she is, it's no wonder she's been such an amazing hit on the job market scene.

* * *

Today is my husband's birthday. He would have been 36. In his honor, I am trying to rebuild my life, starting with a new yoga class I took tonight for the first time. My daughter and I lit a candle for him, and left it lit during dinner so that we could have him with us somehow. It was not enough, but it's what we have.

I don't really have the energy to blog anything else right now; I haven't since my return from the MLA, but wanted to acknowledge my wonderful meeting with another blogger--especially one who is as lovely and kind in person (or more so!) than on the screen.

Happy birthday to my wonderful husband--this should have been the start of another year of love and happiness together. I miss you always.