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Archive for May, 2007

Chex Mix and a Paean to Dr. Wildeman

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

The cumulative products of my first year of grad school can reasonably be compared to a bag of Chex Mix (the sweet ‘n’ salty caramel variety, to be precise). There are shorter, sweeter papers on an early twentieth century French poet and Baroque paintings of women painting. My paper on nineteenth century Native Hawaiian resistance through landscape painting is chock full of clustery goodness. The paper on Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the internment — and the agency of her subjects in actively limiting her choices as a documentarian — is a pretzel and the paper on Eva Leitolf’s post-wall photographs of marginal violence in middle class neighborhoods is surely a bagel chip. And the seminar-paper-turned-thesis-topic on Lynne Yamamoto? Caramel popcorn, I hope.

As written products, the papers are hardly spectacular. I was told I write “elegantly,” but I think that my mini collection of cool ballet flats may have influenced the professor’s word choice. What excites me, though, is that I’ve found the rhythm of making writing work for me. In the one-two whammy of Advanced Writing and Modern Literary Criticism — both with my favorite, lovable grump, Dr. Wildeman — I began to understand the attraction of writing to learn. My paper-writing has grown increasingly messy since then.

It starts with a couple of files heedlessly named things like “leitolf paper ideas.doc” and “leitolf ideas 2.doc.” Close descriptions of the images in question, mixed with spurts of inspired, ellipse cushioned musings, trickle down the page. I am loathe to delete anything, even when it becomes clear that the paper will not be going down this or that promising path. By the time “leitolf paper draft 2.doc” becomes a reality, I’ve cycled through several theses, despaired over ever writing an introduction, and started throwing in bold text notes like “Benjamin should go here” or “I think Bhabba says this.” Dr. Wildeman’s injunction to always write what you know first and then frame it in scholarship still strikes me as somewhat profound and eminently useful for preserving your own voice. Somewhere in there I may even cut up twenty pages worth of ideas and rearrange them on the living room rug.
In writing and reorganizing and self-contradicting I figure out what I wanted to say in the first place. And while I’ve finally learned to delimit a seminar paper and just turn the durn thing in, I’m nerd-ishly excited about the opportunity to go back and revise it later. For a lowercase type-a personality like myself, the ability to see graded papers as ‘idea investments’ rather than completed, self-contained products is a significant shift.

Also, let’s be frank. Thinking about seminar papers as Chex Mix rather than, say, perfectly crafted, enduring artworks helps relieve some of the pressure — real and imagined — that accompanies this academic moment. Is it a problem that grad school is teaching me to lower my expectations?

A Fortnight’s Preparation for a Pacific Journey

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

Back when my predilection for historical fiction was deep and true, I used to revel in the unending descriptions of “preparations” for heading west. I can’t entirely explain this fascination, but I adored the lists of supplies and the painstaking details of curing meat and finishing quilts. I had no idea what 10 yards of blue calico looked like but, by golly, I knew you needed it out west.

And why should the farthest west be any different? Packing to go home to Hawaii can be something of an endeavor. About two or three weeks out, my mom approaches me with a list of goods she needs me to transport to her island home. Most of her requests are for gifts, but they’re all items you can’t get in Hawaii: Bath and Body soaps, Trader Joe’s bottled bruschetta, packages of dried cherries, and canned boysenberries. Oh, and really cheap Gap t-shirts. While the list’s content generally remains steady, quantities fluctuate — or generally trend upwards — for the remaining time until my departure.

Though the time allowance may seem generous, you have to allow for the unexpected. Trader Joe’s might only have six bottles when I need twelve. I need to locate bubble wrap. Canned boysenberries can be hard to find and require grocery store hopping. Suitcases need to be weighed, but we don’t have a scale. How, exactly, does one pack a dozen bottles of antibacterial soap in assorted scents to prevent leakage? And, by golly, someone needs to get those 10 yards of blue calico.


Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

My first year’s end lacked definition and instead blurred into a rush of opportunities, aches, and other life business. Still, in an unexpected grad school perk, I did get to meet Ansel Adams’ son. Can that go on my CV?