Wednesday, August 31, 2005

My New Orleans

I've been at a loss for words lately. I'd been meaning to do the usual posts on the beginning of the semester, how my graduate class has turned out much better than I'd feared, how I rearranged my office, some thoughts about an upcoming conference opportunity.

But with the death of Mr. Badger and the devastation of Katrina, it seemed impossibly trite to write about my office. Others have been far more eloquent than I about the Badger family's loss; I just don't know how to express my sadness at having lost someone I never met.

But Phantom's comment thread about sharing New Orleans memories inspired me. I never knew Mr. Badger, but I did know the Crescent City, and I don't know of a better way to honor her than to post some of my favorite memories. I don't mean this as a requiem: New Orleanians are tough people, and I imagine the city will survive in some form. But I don't think it will ever be the same.

Just a few of the images that are running through my head:

Walking past Café du Monde when a sudden gust of wind stirred up a miniature tornado of powdered sugar from the beignets.

Joining spontaneous parades that would erupt out of nowhere in the French Quarter.

The week when my musician brother and one of his musician friends came to visit me over Thanksgiving; both were so inspired by the city that they could hardly contain themselves, and we sang and played and wrote songs for five days straight.

That same Thanksgiving, I invited over several friends who had no family nearby, and we had a huge potluck dinner. It was the first time I’d made my own turkey, and it turned out to be one of the most delicious we’d ever had. Only problem was that no one knew how to carve it! We hacked it to pieces, ate every last bit, and remembered it fondly as the Turkey Chainsaw Massacre.

Food. Every time I’ve returned to New Orleans, I’ve had to plan the whole trip around touching base with all my favorite places. Muffalettas, red beans, chicory coffee, beignets of course, crawfish, jambalaya, Cuban food, Caribbean food, every possible combination of ethnic background and creative preparation. There is nothing like food in New Orleans.

Several of my friends, including the Poet, lived in a neighborhood where people still sat out on their front porches in the evenings; none of those houses had central air. Everybody knew everybody; everybody had a story. They were from all parts of the world, many different religious and ethnic backgrounds; they all looked out for each other. When I started dating the Poet, within a week the whole neighborhood knew me better than most of my family does.

My first Mardi Gras, I went to several of the parades with one of my best friends, a Franciscan priest. He is one of the kindest, most gentle people in the world, and it gave me no end of delight to watch him caught up in the glee of bagging more Carnival loot than anyone else. (He’s over six feet tall, so his strategy was to stand behind the families who had little kids. The krewes tend to toss more beads at the kids; he’d just tower behind them and gather up all the stuff that went wide.)

Later that same Mardi Gras (the full New Orleans version lasts about three weeks), I was following the Krewe of Comus down St. Charles. There was a guy on one of the floats who struck me as remarkably attractive, so instead of watching the parade go by, I ambled alongside it for a while, a little ways back from the crowd. Cute Guy ducked into the float and reemerged with the prize of all prizes… a frisbee! (Usually the krewes throw beads and doubloons; other tosses, such as flowers or plastic cups or stuffed animals, are more rare and thus far more valuable. A frisbee was a treasure beyond compare.) The crowd surged around him, hundreds of arms in the air, begging for the frisbee. But no! Cute Guy paused, surveyed the crowd, and pointed at… me, a good thirty or forty feet back. Heads turned; the crowd parted. Cute Guy spun the frisbee in a perfect floating path straight to my hand; I made a flawless catch. I blew him a kiss; the crowd cheered; the parade resumed. I wore an irrepressible grin for three days straight.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The obstacle of perfection

Several people have discussed the challenges of dissertating lately, and finding the best methods for getting research & writing done (especially in environments where teaching is more immediately pressing and rewarded) is an ongoing topic for the academic folks.

Personally, I’m fairly sure that there *isn’t* any best method, since every person’s ideal situation is different; the book piles and loud 80s pop music that works for me will be nowhere near the spotless desk and soundless room that works for you. Not to say that the discussions aren’t helpful; they’re often both valuable and interesting. I just don’t think there’s a single magic exorcism for the age-old demons of procrastination & distraction.

I’m going to propose something else, though, and argue that even if you do come up with the perfect combination of desk condition, ambient sound, snack food, time frame, and whatever other psychological carrots and sticks get you going, that might not be as helpful as you think. First of all, you can burn up most of your research time creating (and/or waiting for) the “perfect” conditions. Second, it trains you to focus your attention on all the things that you perceive to be in your way: I can’t write until I get my desk cleaned up, I can’t write because my husband’s playing music too loud, I can’t write until the kids go to camp, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

While I was staying with my husband’s family for two months this summer (lots of people in a very small space), I had very little hope of getting much work done, aside from the mornings I spent in the archive a few times a week. We had one computer with an internet connection, shared by three people who needed to use it every day, and one laptop that my husband and I were sharing. There was no separate quiet space to work in; we had either the dining room table or (more often) the living room couch, with the TV tuned to Mexican soap operas. Family members would often drop by with small children, and both the next-door neighbors and the folks across the street had home-improvement projects going that seemed to involve a great deal of pounding. Oh, yes, and the chairs in that house are the most butt-punishingly uncomforable I’ve ever known.

In other words, all the circumstances were lined up against getting any kind of work done (and, besides, we were mostly on vacation, so I didn’t have big plans to get a lot done anyway). But I tried to sneak a little work in here and there, everything from class prep for the fall to actual thoughtful writing. What’s odd is that I don’t remember doing much work; I don’t remember even having tried very hard. But every time I open up a file, thinking “Oops, I’d better work on getting x done in the next couple of weeks,” I’d find it finished. When the hell did I do that? Oh, yeah, during the episode of Clase 406 when Fercho got shot by the guy on the boat.

I’ve noticed something similar going on, oddly enough, playing tennis, which Husband and I do every morning. When it’s a rare perfect day, no wind, not too hot, hair perfectly tied back, clothes comfortable… I don’t play so good. But give me a twisted sock, a sweaty lock of hair in the eye, an unraveling seam in my shirt sleeve, and that’s when I start making the killer shots, again and again. WTF? I was really baffled about this for a long time, until I thought about it alongside the amount of work I got done this summer under equally difficult circumstances. If everything’s perfect, I get scatterbrained, as if thinking only about what I'm doing somehow becomes an obstacle in itself - sort of a mental hall of mirrors. If something’s in my way, that makes me focus on the thing I want to get done, and I’m thinking of how I can instead of why I can’t.

This has been particularly clear in the last two weeks since we’ve been back. I’m back to my quiet house, my own speedy computer, my comfy office chair, my perfectly-ordered desk, and I can’t focus to save my life. Unfortunately I’m not sure if this leads to any kind of solution or recommendation – somehow I suspect that engineered distractions won’t work quite the same way.

Where are my mother-in-law and her Mexican soap operas when I need them?

Saturday, August 06, 2005

All wet

There have been a lot of great posts lately about various forms of positive thinking: Yankee Transplant talks about optimism, Tiny Cat Pants on choosing to be happy, and jo(e) prefers to call it “a willingness to accept your own fallibility as a human and make even poor decisions into growth opportunities.”

Whatever it is, I’m not sure to what extent I was born with it, though I know there have been more than a few moments in my life where it’s been consciously cultivated. I think optimism is a much a habit of thinking as anything else, and habits take some work to build.

One of those moments was when I was eleven or twelve years old, out on a summer bike ride with my best friend K. As we were heading back, about a mile from home, we realized that the formerly bright and sunny morning had given way to rapidly approaching storm clouds.

The first fat cold drops of rain began to hit the ground, and my first reaction was to do what anyone would do in that situation – sprint full speed for home! But just as I started to stand up on the pedals to give it all I had to make it home safe and dry, K. called to me – “Hey. Don’t speed up. Slow down and enjoy it!”

I wheeled a big slow circle back to where he had stopped his bike, arms out, head tilted up to the sky, welcoming the rain. And I instantly felt foolish – why run away from this? It was August, hot and dry, we were twelve, who cared if we got soaking wet. And it felt soooo good, that cool wash of rain, and it smelled even better. I felt a sudden rush of smug complicity – everyone else had run back to their cars or houses, thinking they were successful if they avoided the rain, or being irritated if they didn’t, but really they were all missing out on the best part. And I’ve been grateful ever since to K. for teaching me that lesson.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep an eye out for the prizes that might be lurking in apparently unpleasant situations. Granted, I may have taken that to extremes – many years later, K. commented, “You know how people describe themselves as seeing the glass half full or half empty? With you, not only would it be half full, but if it fell off the table and smashed into pieces on the ground, you’d pick up the little pieces and say ‘Hey, look, I could make a pretty necklace!’”

This isn’t to say that I deceive myself by ignoring the ugly parts of life; I don’t blindly accept injustice or stupidity by pretending there’s something pretty to be found behind them. It’s just that some situations are unpleasant because they really are hurtful or destructive, but most are unpleasant because they’re simply not what we wanted at the moment. In the latter, in my experience, there’s almost always something else there, like the rain, that isn’t what I thought I wanted, but turns out to be even better, if I only have the sense to appreciate it.

It’s a little odd to write about this, because there’s something about this attitude that many people find irritating. (Happy people can't possibly be serious, productive people! Being cheerful is a sign of great simplemindedness, nothing more!) I’m not sure why that is, except that it reminds people that if they’re unhappy, it might have more to do with their attitude than their actual circumstances, and it’s so much easier to blame your circumstances. For as much as people claim to want to pursue happiness, they’re awfully unwilling to catch it. I suspect this has a great deal to do with capitalism, which relies on engendering dissatisfaction… the constant message that you’re really inadequate, but you’d be happy and successful if only you had a bigger car! or whiter teeth! or sexier shoes! Nobody wants to hear that the secret to happiness is actually appreciating what you have… and letting yourself get caught in the rain once in a while.