Archives for category: PhD

TOOTHBRUSH

Back when Dave was my boyfriend, we drove a million miles in his Jeep Wrangler to visit his family in Virginia. After rattling and jouncing us like a mechanical bull for ten hours, that Jeep died a sudden and complete death two miles from our destination. First thing the next day, his dad took him to a car place which is how I was stranded with his mother and umpteen thousand teenaged siblings.

It would have been fine, really, like I’d told Dave when he left, except I discovered why I couldn’t find my toothbrush the night before: I hadn’t packed one. More than a temporary hygiene challenge: lacking dental insurance, I lived in terror of plaque. So it was an economic and mental health issue too.

A store was just a couple miles off and, carless for several of my adult years, I still considered walking to be viable transportation. But when I told Dave’s mom, Teresita, what I planned to do, she was all no, no—there aren’t sidewalks, the road is busy, it’s not a good walk. I’ll drive you.

I thanked her and, somehow under the impression we’d be leaving any minute, grabbed money and shoes from the guest room and reported to the living room with near-military hustle. Good to go, I perched on the couch and waited for my host.

And waited.

You should know that at this time in my life, simmering beneath every single interaction, every single thing I thought and did, was a consuming urgency intensified by grad school. For reasons outside of my control, I was a late bloomer with the sense that I’d die without doing whatever I was supposed to do in this life unless I rode hell for leather whenever possible. I couldn’t control how fast or slow ideas happened, but I could, by God, minimize or eliminate all other elements of life so I could sit in front of my computer pondering the blinking cursor until a story or essay emerged. I was like a house with a fire inside its walls, one that looked fairly ordinary on the outside but exhaled smoke from its outlets.

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So I was on that couch pretending to be patient because, hey, I barely knew these folks. But inside, I was writhing because how could I do anything productive when I was told we’d be leaving “soon”?

Yet whenever Teresita drifted by, car keys jingling, a different teen would appear from God knows where and—

Teen: Hey, Momi, you going out?

Teresita: Yes!

Teen: Can you take me to ___________ (location many miles in the opposite direction from the store)?

Teresita: Of course!

(Teen disappears and I discover later it’s to take a shower. Being a teen, it’s a long shower followed by, no doubt, much with the blow dryer and outfit selection.)

At no point does Teresita say to the assorted youth, “We’re leaving in an hour, go get ready or stay home.” Which is the sort of thing my parents would have said. Instead, each new addition to the errand-running party was daisy-chained until “soon” was a dwindling speck on the horizon.

Three hours after my initial request, we finally climb into Tere’s minivan and travel from place to place in a giant clump. I got that toothbrush, yes, and also learned which of my future sisters-in-law liked sparkle nail polish, that my future brother-in-law did yoga, why Pop-Eye’s chicken was a big deal, and that no one but me thought it weird to spend prime work hours driving in circles around Dale City, Virginia.

As an adult and parent, I now recognize that Dave’s mom may have had reasons for wanting all of us under her watchful eye. But at the time I was bewildered. As an adult, even though a guest, wasn’t I supposed to get some say in how I spent my time? How did signing up for a quick run for a toothbrush translate into being trapped in the back seat of a minivan for hours of overwhelming human contact?

TIME CLASH

When I was a kid, my family of origin occasionally went to the mall with a clock at its center. Memory tells me this clock looked like a giant Cogsworth from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, but kind of sinister and sans song-and-dance skills. Parent-people would declare a specific time at which each of us would report back to the clock. Then as if playing Kick the Can, we’d scatter, each taking a different wing.

As a loose federation of introverts, my family considered shopping, like everything else,  a solo act. Possibly a duet. Never an ensemble.

Even now, our gatherings tend to be bordered by Newtonian time. That way you can say, “Fascinated as I am by your theory of aliens being demons, it’s eight.” This means the whole thing is out of your hands: even if you wanted to hear another crackpot idea, by objective measure, it’s time to leave. Thus, the introvert may enjoy social gatherings secure that they will end.

(To this day I do not know how to choose a box of cereal if someone is talking at me—a real problem when stopping for groceries with a chatty kid.)

Stupidly assuming that my limited experience was a reliable teacher for how the world ought to be, I was stymied by the Jacinto-Hawkins method of toothbrush shopping. Decades later, I now can perceive something of the intricate webs of beliefs, values, and assumptions that inform a group’s time culture. The clash between my experience with Teresita and my assumptions about how time should be shaped and managed—even my assumption that time is something that ought to be shaped and managed—is an example of a culture clash garnished by a temporality twist. A time clash.

TIME & CULTURE

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, temporality is the state of being in and relating to time. It’s your time personality. And like other aspects of our identities, our temporalities are a confluence of factors, one of which is culture.

In this example, the dominant temporality in Dave’s family is what social psychologist Robert Levine calls “event time.” As Levine points out, cultures that place a higher value on the collective than the individual are more likely to run on event time than cultures that don’t. In Dave’s family, relationships, familia, get top billing in the list of shared values.

While my clan appreciates family, independence and autonomy usually outrank it. And these values aren’t just appealing to the introverts among us: they’re helpful for art-making. If you’re constantly on call for family whenever you aren’t doing paid work, how on earth can you get your projects done?

Not surprisingly, I have a lot of clock-loving German and Swiss ancestors perched in my family tree.

It’s also been pointed out that cultures in areas that are relatively unstable, whether politically, geologically, or otherwise, tend to rely on event time. Makes sense: you’ll just drive yourself nuts expecting a bus to run according to a printed timetable when monsoons flood the roads. That’s important to remember. Even here in the U.S., many people live in conditions that make time-related behaviors such as punctuality more difficult to achieve. Students and coworkers without reliable housing and food security may have to work around the schedule of a benefactor to get a shower or a meal. Parents of infants and children with special needs often need to show up late or cancel.

I think again of Teresita wrangling all those teenagers with a whole new appreciation. Seriously, I find the curveballs thrown by just two kids schedule-busting enough. If I had a whole pack of them, I might abandon the clock altogether. Especially since I have come to question the socio-political implications of marching to the minutes; i.e., Do I really want my kids to be so clock-ruled they’re unable to ride the flow of organic connection?

No, I want them to learn how to float on the twin pontoons of event time and clock time. I want them to recognize the context and lean one way or the other as needed. To be productive and connected—the temporal secret, Levine says, to The Good Life.

Footnote

Of course, a family is a multifarious, dynamic entity. My own has changed a great deal in its structure and operation since I was in grad school and even more since the time I internalized the temporality described above. For example, my mother has been known to shop with her daughter-in-law once a year, at Christmastime, when the malls blare good will music at tinseled trees and felt-dressed elves with nary a Cogsworth in sight.

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The restaurant isn’t busy, yet it takes forever before a young woman sashays over with menus. It bugs. I waited tables for years. Certain tempos are expected. And while my guy and I are here for a break from the week’s push and shove, I have budgeted one hour fifteen minutes for the pleasure, and waiting isn’t how I want to spend it.

Seated (at last), Dave looks around. Nods. “I like this place.” I’m reserving judgment. We choose the same dish, though he’ll ask for maximum spiciness. He updates me on a work thing. Asks how my temporalities project is coming along. It’s been several minutes and the server–the same person who showed us to the table–appears oblivious to our closed menus and my increasingly pointed looks whenever she saunters by.

But I am here to talk with Dave, so I tell him I’m not sure yet what, precisely, I’m looking for. All I know is that I need the contact with other, living minds to find my real questions about what I’ve come to see as a crucial diversity issue that’s all too often overlooked. Our ways of being in and thinking about time—our temporalities—thrum under the surface of our interactions. Often rumble. Sometimes erupt.

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“Working on the questions still,” I say. “For instance, some people get this one right away, others don’t: ‘When you think of a year, does a particular image come to mind?’” (For as long as I can remember, I see a year as a tilted plate: June and July at top, December and January at bottom. Different colors along the rim.)

Dave mulls before saying his image of time is oceanic. “When I think about time I feel like Pip, floating alone in the neverending blue.”

This being a date, I don’t suggest this is why he forgets to put his events on our family calendar. The thought crosses my mind that this may be why he also doesn’t care that the server still hasn’t taken our order. Meanwhile, my inner clock is getting noisier by the minute. I left my desk thirty minutes ago. At what point should I propose we leave and grab a quick sandwich somewhere else?

I drag my mind back to our conversation. As I said, some people don’t have a ready image for a year. Case in point: I ask and get a reference to Moby Dick and a shoreless ocean for all of time. I try again, asking Dave about his early years in Brownsville, Texas. Did different times of year affect how they dressed, what they ate, what they did?

The server appears at our table. We ask for iced tea and noodles. She vanishes.

I repeat my question. “Not at all,” Dave says, explaining that the weather was fairly steady. There were holidays like the Day of the Dead, but no big changes. Now, living in Utah, he feels there’s summer and not-summer, with blurs of transition between. Profoundly different from the template in my head, where each season is as sharply delineated as a kindergarten teacher’s flashcards: Flower. Sun. Orange maple leaf. Snowflake.

As we talk, an understanding forms. Dave prefers time as a sublime, indivisible force, not a resource to be harvested. And while I have my moments in which I wallow in wide-open, unbounded, nonproductive hours (usually with a trashy novel), the only way I know to execute my job for money and be able to pursue independent scholarship/art-making and be a wife-mom-human is to parcel and protect my time. To me, my work log, planner, Pomodoro timer, and written goals are Queequeg’s coffin. Something to cling to so I don’t drown in eternal possibility. But Dave—I realize his irritating and persistent disregard for time management has deep, philosophical root. And this root may be necessary to the kind of person he is. We might both lose something invaluable were he to lean closer to Ben Franklin than, say, Rumi, who tells us that “Lovers are patient and know the moon needs time to become full” and “This moment is all there is.”

Is this why he’s more patient than I am? Why he’s here, now, enjoying the ambiance and, lucky me, dilating with the conversation while I’m calculating how late into the night I’ll have to work to balance this ever-expanding lunchtime?

Forty-seven minutes since I left my desk. Twenty-eight remaining until I meant to be back at it. Where is our iced tea?

At one restaurant I worked in, a manager tested us with a stopwatch on how fast we responded to each round in a service. Draconian, yes, but the discipline helped me earn more money—money I badly needed in those precarious times. Has anyone told our server to deliver drinks promptly so diners don’t stare at the wood grain of the table, contemplating their dwindling life force amid the swells of time?

Eventually she appears, not with drinks, but with our food. Mine has an ingredient I can’t eat which wasn’t mentioned on the menu. My plate drifts back to the kitchen no faster than it arrived. I encourage Dave to go ahead and eat. At this point–fifty minutes in, twenty-five remaining–I’m more amused than annoyed. Clearly, the universe is not interested in my urgencies.

I surrender. So I’ll be working until 10 tonight. Whatever.

“This is good,” Dave says, plunging his fork into his meal. “I like this place.”

Our server never brings the tea, but I see she’s sitting down to a plate of noodles at a back table. As Dave makes happy noises over his food, I wonder about the resources and challenges the server has brought to our encounter. Does she have a screaming hangover? Did she pull an all-nighter for a major test? What is her notion of a year, a month, a day? How does she suppose time is or should be shaped–its rhythms and pace experienced? No doubt we have vastly different notions of how the instants are passing, should pass, on this day, in this place.

Watching Dave savor his meal, gratitude opens in me. How lucky to be here with one I love thinking about one of my favorite topics. How lucky he isn’t like me. I mean, I know there’s a cost for having a clock in my head. This noisy, noisy clock that ticks and clangs to warn me that time is always running out. My stark, perpetual terror that my strength will fail before a ship arrives to pull me from these waves.

I flag down another server and ask for tea. Wait with something almost like patience.

Fresh on the heels of listening to the recording of “You’re Already Good Enough: How Embracing Imperfection and Cultivating Confidence Frees You to Influence and Lead,” I’m putting together an expressive arts project for homeless youth. As I work, I’m thinking, “That’s what these kids need to hear: ‘You’re already good enough!’” Then I pause. While I suspect this is, in fact true, is there anyone who can’t benefit from a bit of reassurance?

I know I need it. Lots. Most of the time, I have some in stock. I just reach into my mental pantry and grab a jar of Hey, I got this. Or a whiff of the idea does the trick. I glimpse evidence that some part of my life is OK and get the needed boost. This is why I love having a clean kitchen and a stocked fridge. It reminds me that whatever chaos is going on, I’ve got decent prospects for survival.

[photo of B Morton]

Dr. Beatrice Morton, mother of three grown children, earned her doctorate at the University of Utah in 1968, when she was in her Fifties.

As a creative writing teacher, a lot of what I do is help people manage fear. Putting your ideas out there for the world to see (or ignore) can be terrifying. I coach my students to reduce the unknown by reading and research. To outwit their inner critics by breaking projects into bite-sized chunks. To nurture their momentum by celebrating small victories like hitting a word count or completing a session. I remind them as often as necessary that if they do these things consistently over time, their work inevitably improves. As a writer, this mental practice runs alongside and through my writing practice. I rely on it daily, whether I’m working on a short story, a grant proposal, or (ahem) a blog post.

Yet there are times when I’m too freaked out by the enormity of the gap between me and a goal to apply my own advice, like when I started studying for my doctoral qualifying exams. The written component I was fine with. I’m a writer. I have a decent idea of how to make written things happen. The three-hour oral component that I had to pass first was another story. Have you ever seen that Food Network show, Chopped? In my department, oral exams consist of committee members taking turns giving you questions, each of which is like a basket of mystery ingredients that may not go together. Your job is to whip up a cohesive, tasty answer that includes the basket items while your judges look on and, well, judge. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel at least some passing discomfort at the prospect of undergoing this rite of passage, but I couldn’t have been more nervous if you’d told me I’d be giving birth to twin Buicks.

My husband, a lovely and encouraging partner, tried to convince me I was already good enough to pass my oral exams. He meant that I already had whatever skills and knowledge the occasion required. I told him (strenuously) that I wasn’t good enough. In a sense, I was right: I was still preparing when we had this exchange. I wasn’t merely nervous: I really wasn’t ready. But in the sense meant by the panelists in the “You’re Already Good Enough” event, I was: the need to build my oral exam skills and master some content wasn’t a reflection of my worth past, present, or future. It was just a stretch along a path I could choose to keep climbing if I wanted to reach a particular destination.

This time in my academic life required me to truly, deeply understand, accept and embrace the distinction. I was good enough—regardless of the outcome of the test. I don’t mean this acceptance was perfect or complete. On a good day, I was maybe 84% sure my worth as a human had little to do with that exam, with the remainder varying between suspecting that it did and ignoring the question altogether. But it was sufficient to let me see how even my mental outlook could be just one more subject in which I could, with knowledge and effort, improve.

This took extra, ongoing labor, which included adapting some exercises from a sports psychology book to my academic goals, then doing them almost daily. This was not my idea of fun. My idea of fun is watching Chopped with my nine-year-old, who makes hilarious and astute observations. But I thought of this like doing reps at the gym so I can run farther without hurting myself. While I wasn’t transformed from a neurotic basket case into a serene professional academic, I was settled enough to do my job: read, review, remember (repeat daily for numerous weeks). On the fateful day, I performed with at least enough poise and wit to convince my committee to let me through to the next challenge.

Would I love to have had an effortless self-assurance in facing those exams? You betcha. But my confidence for that particular challenge had to be cooked from scratch. The goal was important enough to me to invest that effort and not to worry that the cool kids in my department didn’t have to go to such lengths. It was worth accepting the radical notion that imperfect me was perfectly good enough to take the next step I needed toward my academic dream.

Making art while making a living & a life is, I’ve found, trickier at some times than others. Whatever parts of me need to come together to make writing a good story possible require an ever-changing blend of opposing forces: generosity, fury, patience, diligence, sloth–you name it. Becoming an artist, for me, is as much a matter of mastering myself as it is understanding craft and delving into my material.

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Sometimes you do need to give creativity a big, clear space to roam. This is Centennial Valley, MT.

I’ve been working on a new group of short stories for a collection that I’ll submit as my dissertation at the University of Utah. One of the new stories, “The Whiskeyjack,” recently won first place in the Utah Arts & Museums Original Writing Competition’s Short Story category. (Thank you, Jon Billman, for selecting my entry!) While that story was a long time coming from the initial idea to the execution, it was mainly built during the one-hour personal writing sessions I engage in before my day job.

Trial and much, much error has shown me that one hour of the cream of the day–for me, the very top layer of coffee-enhanced optimism and quiet alertness I experience before I have to talk to people–usually trumps multiple hours at any other time of the day when it comes to creative (imaginative, expressive) writing. I get more done and the quality of the work seems better.

Yet I have to be honest with you: limiting personal writing time to only one hour a day ever would be like attempting yoga in a phone booth (remember those?). I also take the occasional weekend day when instead of haranguing my kids to clean their rooms or battling the beast-mountain of laundry that perpetually hulks on a table downstairs, I put on headphones and slog away while my lovely husband takes the kids to a movie or something.

And then once in beautiful while, I get away for a couple of days and see what happens when I make a story my whole business for good long string of hours. A couple of years ago, my friend Heidi (amazing poet!) and I took off to the desert for two days. We holed up in a bed and breakfast, wrote and hiked, and otherwise were away from our kids and jobs and everything else.

One of the poems Heidi worked on during our retreat has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize! You can watch her talk about form and her book, Self Portrait as Betty Page here.

Last summer, instead of writing a blog post, I was part of an artist’s colony. With 15 other writers and visual artists, I spent nine days (!) in Centennial Valley, Montana, where cell service and Internet is just rumor and bear spray is something people actually carry. I worked on “The Whiskeyjack” there, and two other stories I know will be in the collection, plus something that may or may not become an essay. By the end of my stay I was really, really ready to go home–see my guys, drink my preferred brand of coffee, NOT THINK ABOUT MY WRITING ALL DAY–but having all that time uninterrupted by ordinary responsibilities was essential for allowing me to sense the shape and weight and possibilities of the work. To see where I needed to get braver, go deeper.

Since returning, I’ve been galloping along with the mostly happy busy-ness of making a living and making a life. Making art is back in its one-hour square on my schedule, with a notable exception: after learning about the prize, I found myself facing the half-built lump of a new story and thinking, I’ll never write another good story again, will I?

Never mind that the point of writing, for me, isn’t to win prizes or even to publish. That’s a desired outcome, but it’s not why I do it. Never mind that I have seen the power of brute force in accomplishing goals: ass in chair for x hours = more & better writing. I found I just couldn’t stomach the thought of bellying up to the computer first thing in the morning. What was happening to me?

My calendar held the clue. Work had heated up. I had two business trips and several high stakes deadlines packed into about three weeks. Maybe the prize had nothing to do with my reluctance to write. Maybe the pendulum was swinging and my inner sea needed to roll in the direction of making a living for a little while.

So I took a break from stories. I drank my coffee while watching TV and planning my work projects instead of facing off with another story. I told myself I’d take a month off from morning writing, but after about thirteen days, I found myself itching to get back to this (stupid, truculent) story I’ve been working on (struggling with). So here I am again, coffee beside me, file open, the scene I wrote yesterday looking not too bad.

Not too bad at all.

There’s a lot to hate about reality TV. Even if you avoid the shows that feature alliances and gossip, the declarations “Go big or go home” and “Failure is not an option” seem as central to the genre as the premise that these are real people doing real things. Setting aside the role of constructed events, failure is an option. Saying otherwise doesn’t guarantee success. And spouting clichés during breakaway spots doesn’t infuse a ritual challenge with drama—it just makes you sound like somewhere behind the scenes, a producer is saying, “You sound too wishy-washy. Can you say, ‘I’ll crush these losers’? No? How about ‘go big or go home’?”

Despite my dislike for reality TV in general, a couple of years ago, I got hooked on Food Network’s Chopped. At first, I was just looking to watch something relaxing that wouldn’t require a channel change each time a young kid walked through the livingroom. Then I noticed similarities between my life as a grad student and the chefs on the show.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the premise. Each episode begins with four chefs and “chops” one chef per course—appetizer, entrée, dessert—to get a winner. Every round is strictly timed and starts with the contestants opening a picnic basket of mismatched ingredients. Then they cook a dish that includes these Mystery Ingredients and whatever they need from a well-stocked pantry. The Mystery items can lead to some amazing innovations (gummy worms melted down and acidified with balsamic vinegar for a vinaigrette) and some horrible-sounding failures.

Like comprehensive exams, the challenges require the chefs to come prepared to improvise. From what I’ve gathered from watching more episodes of this show than I should admit, those who emerge as Chopped Champions generally arrive having internalized such a range of recipes, techniques, and ingredients (some very esoteric) that they can swiftly unite the random ingredients in pleasing arrangements. Some of the chefs say they prepare by practicing various recipes beforehand; others have traveled extensively or apprenticed themselves to many different master chefs. Whatever they do, they often need to treat at least one Mystery Ingredient as a substitute for a standard ingredient in a familiar recipe.

Another feature of the show that seems relevant as I prep for my qualifying exams is the critique the panel of judges deliver after tasting each chef’s food. The judges often disagree about the merits of the dishes, but they rally around three criteria which are more or less consistently understood:

Taste. It’s arbitrary and conventional, so you should try to understand your judges’ palettes. In one episode, a Chopped chef zealously stuck to her health-conscious cooking style. Had she watched the show before, she would likely have understood that the judges tend toward the “full fat, full flavor” principle. They axed her in round one. Making sure I’m aware of and able to account for my committee member’s perspectives while authoritatively representing my own might be challenging at points, but that’s part of the job, I think.

Creativity. The Chopped judges like being surprised as long as the thread of innovation isn’t pulled to snapping. If a chef calls a squid ink and corn chip dessert French Toast, then the judges will expect it to resemble traditional French Toast*. But if they serve just plain old French Toast, then they get a shrug. This may be more relevant to my field (Literature) than others, but the advice I’ve received from a committee member to “be interesting” as I demonstrate how I’ve engaged with these texts seems relevant here—but, I caution myself, this exam is not the occasion on which I want “interesting” to edge into “incomprehensibly eccentric.”

Presentation. Although no one ever seems to win Chopped because they led the pack in visually engaging plates, this element is sometimes used as a tie-breaker. It’s also used to weed out chefs who simply can’t get their food composed and delivered on time. There’s a lot of latitude given for the chef who manages to get all the required ingredients on the plate in perhaps a less-than-stellar way versus the chef with the pretty plate that lacks Mystery Basket ingredients. From this, I’m thinking—hoping—that even if I don’t answer every exam question as gracefully as I’d like, I’ll still pass to the next round as long as I show I understand my field of inquiry.

I notice other affinities between my position as a Humanities grad student and the chefs. One is that the majority of them appear to have chosen their field out of a genuine love for the alchemy of their work and the good things it makes possible. I keep returning my own love because–to pull another phrase from the Reality TV lexicon–that’s what matters at the end of the day.

Though I want that $10k too.

*Incidentally, far too many chefs on Chopped appear to think French Toast is an acceptable dessert item. It’s not. Even when you call it pain perdu.

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