Highs and Lows

Monday, August 27, 2012

I love that feeling I get when I send a finished piece of writing off into the ether, those few moments when I am officially, finally done and have a second to breathe before diving into the next project. Today I submitted my revised dissertation Introduction and Chapter 1 to my committee. Although my dissertation director has already read and provided feedback on both, this will be the first time my committee members are seeing anything, so I'm a little nervous. For now, though, I know I can relax, because I'm sure it will take them a little while to get through the 81 pages I sent them today. Tonight I can read guilt-free, and tomorrow I will be focusing on class prep and my first day of teaching African Literature and Culture. Wednesday I will be back to work on Chapter 2.

This past Saturday I taught my first four-hour comp class, and it went surprisingly well. I have a small class of adult students, which I love. I didn't even mind the early wake-up (too much) and 1.25 hour drive each way. The class is in State College, which is a lovely town that reminds me of Auburn. When T.J. and I went last weekend and were driving around, I kept saying, "Atherton reminds me of College Street," and "Valley Vista Drive is just like that stretch of University between Winn Dixies." These descriptions won't make any sense unless you've been to Auburn or State College, but if you have been to one of them, I bet you have a pretty clear idea of what the other one looks like now! It's the only town in PA where I've truly felt comfortable, and it's eerie how easily I can find my way around just based on how similar it is to Auburn. Basically, the campus, downtown strip, Wal-Mart, certain fast food restaurants--they are all in pretty much the same places. The drive to State College is along a beautiful stretch of interstate that runs through the mountains and above valleys, so I don't think I'm going to mind these State College Saturdays too much.

Although things are going fairly well with me right now, my poor husband has been having a really tough time at work the last nine days, which has been rough on both of us. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say this has probably been the worst week of his life, work wise and health wise, and it just seems like everything is hitting all at once. So although things are okay with me, I am extremely worried about him and really wishing we could just get away from this place soon (permanently, not on one of our trips). It looks like the house in Tennessee might have sold (only been on the market 2.5 years!), so that would be a step in the right direction. Fingers crossed for us, please!


The End Is the Beginning Is the End

Thursday, August 23, 2012

That title sounds an awful lot like my last one (which also references a song), but today's title comes from a Smashing Pumpkins song I've been listening to on repeat the last few days. 

It's a song I loved in high school and then somehow forgot about until it started playing on the Nine Inch Nails station on Pandora. Normally Pandora is locked on something pleasantly indie like Arcade Fire or Laura Veirs, so the fact that I've been listening to the NIN station all week (which plays mostly NIN, Marilyn Manson, Rage Against the Machine, Korn, and Tool) is a screaming indicator that I'm stressed and more than a little angsty. In moments of crisis, I regress to my fifteen-year-old self.

The music of my youth. How bizarre is it that Paul Ryan claims Rage as his favorite band? 
Whenever Marilyn comes on Pandora, I imagine myself in some sort of CSI lab montage, solving crimes and kicking ass nerd-style. I'm not sure why this is, but whenever it happens, I Get Sh*@ Done. 
That "crisis," of course, is the end of summer. Where did the month go?! It feels like we just got back from vacation, the second half of summer stretching ahead, and now I'm two days away from starting fall semester. That's right. I start teaching in two days. On a Saturday. This semester I'm only teaching two classes, African Literature and Culture here at SFU (traditional TR class) and English Comp at a satellite campus in State College. The comp class is for adult students in an accelerated business program, and it meets for seven weeks, Saturday mornings from 8-12. While I'm not excited about getting up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday to drive over an hour to State College (especially during football season--State College is the home of Penn State), I am excited that the class will be over by mid-October.

I've spent my last week of summer listening to loud, angry rock music (the benefit of working from home) and planning for my two courses: writing syllabi, assignment sheets, grading rubrics; setting up my Blackboard sites; selecting and scanning readings; and previewing short films for my lit class. Essentially, I had to build two courses from scratch, and I underestimated how much time it would take. My African lit class is going to be a lot of fun, I think, and everyday will be jam-packed with interesting essays, short stories or novel excerpts, short films, and presentations by students, but it's going to be a lot of work, for the students and me both. I'm ready for the challenge, though, and I hope they will be as well. The comp class should have been a bit easier to plan because I've taught comp many times before (though not in recent years), but teaching in such a strange, abbreviated format forced me to rethink the entire structure of the composition class and how to teach writing. I just finished my syllabus and assignments about an hour ago, and I'm satisfied with them at the moment, but I can see myself changing up the syllabus in the coming weeks as I learn more about what it means to teach once a week for four straight hours.

Needless to say, I've failed at every one of my goals for August. I haven't even completed revisions on Chapter 1 for my committee (due next Monday) because I spent this whole week prepping for the semester and the two weeks before that binge reading. I hadn't finished a book in two months before that because I was so focused on my dissertation, plus I just couldn't get motivated to finish A Game of Thrones and I hate starting new books before I finish the one I'm reading. I know it's like sacrilege or something to say that about George R.R. Martin's series, but while I love the show, I just Can. Not. Finish the first book. Finally, a couple of weeks ago I said screw it, picked another book off my growing TBR pile, and didn't stop reading until eight books later. My husband can attest to this. All too often during those two weeks he would go to sleep, leave for work in the morning, and come home in the evening, and I would be in the exact same spot, happily immersed in another world. I read the entire Mortal Instruments series (five books), Immaculee Ilibagiza's Left to Tell (for work), Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles (loved!), and Karen Russell's Swamplandia! All that fiction was exactly what I needed to deprogram my analytical, dissertation-writing brain and allow me to start thinking creatively again. I didn't get as much writing done on the novel as I would have liked, but I got a lot of plotting done and thought through some serious road blocks in the narrative. The story and characters are much stronger now. The only problem is that September is just a week away, and then I will have to put away my fiction to work on my dissertation.

At times like this I have to remind myself, just one more year. One more year, Novel, and this whole dissertation thing will be behind us, and we can finally, truly be together.


Every new beginning is some other beginning's end

Monday, August 6, 2012

It's that time again! You know, the time when I crawl out of the hole where I've been hiding these past couple of months and overwhelm you with information and pictures in an attempt to catch you up to speed. So let's begin, shall we?

It's been a BIG couple of months here. On June 29th, my full-time job at SFU ended and I officially joined the ranks of the unemployed. Well, at least until the new semester begins on August 25th and then I will be teaching a couple of classes. But still, full-time administrative work ended, and full-time dissertation writing began! (Or it did after a lovely two-week vacation.) Other than the whole no-paycheck thing, I vastly prefer my new situation. My husband comes home and gives me these sad, worried looks because he thinks I'm probably getting bored or depressed or lonely, shut up in the house all day by myself, so I have to keep reminding him, dude, I am living the dream. I think it's hard for non-writers to understand (and even some writers, who prefer to work in coffee shops), but I was built for this.

My blessing and my curse.
A friend posted this on Pinterest, and I thought, yup, I may not be the biggest Franzen groupie, but he gets it.
If I had my druthers, I would never work outside my house again. Sometimes I go days without even leaving the house (which sounds rather pathetic, I admit), but I honestly don't even notice. I'm sure I'd get out a bit more if I lived...well, anywhere else, but since I live in a tiny mountain top "town" (calling it a town is an insult to towns everywhere, but I don't have another word), and about the only excursions within a ten minute distance are to the post office or the university where I worked this past year, I'm pretty content just staying home, working in my kickass office. (One day, when it's clean, I'll post pictures.)

So that's where I've been the last three weeks, working in my office at home. The day after my job ended, T.J. and I headed to D.C. to begin our sixteen-day vacation, which included a day in D.C., nearly a week at Walt Disney World, and eight days in California. We had an amazing time, and after this blog my next few posts will be a series on our trip. (I promise they won't be as long as my Hawai'i posts, though.) When we got back, I began life as a full-time writer, and in 2.5 weeks I wrote forty-five pages on my dissertation. Forty-five pages! For those of you keeping track (i.e. no one), that's more than I wrote the entire previous year combined. So, yeah, the Single System that I've been preaching? WORKS. My critique partner Jamie and I text each other every morning to set an agenda (what we hope to accomplish that day), and then the next day we check in to see how we did and set a new agenda. Every couple of weeks, we exchange our writing and give feedback. On August 1, I had a sixty-page chapter to submit to my director, right on schedule, and we spent Friday emailing back and forth as she was reading it. I have some small revisions to make and some research she wants me to add, but nothing major. I can probably knock everything out in less than two days, and then I get to forward it on to my other committee members at the end of the month! So yeah, progress. The light is now clearly at the end of the tunnel, whereas before I was afraid I was going to be lost in the dark forever.

My next chapter isn't due until Nov. 1, so the pressure is off for a little while. Even though I'm still going to be researching and reading this next month (and revising Chapter 1), I'm not going to start writing Chapter 2 until September because I'm participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this month. For those of you who don't know, the folks behind NaNoWriMo run two similar programs in the summer months, during the months of June and August. As I've mentioned before, I usually attempt NaNoWriMo only to give up after a week or two. November is a hellish month for teachers, AND it only has thirty days (and a major holiday), so it just never works out for me. But the stars aligned this August and I said, if I'm ever going to finish a NaNoWriMo, now is the time! I've got 31 days to work with this time around (1613 words a day instead of 1667--trust me, it makes a difference), school doesn't start until the 25th, and we don't have any trips planned. I'm starting a bit behind because T.J.'s parents were here visiting since Thursday and we went away for the weekend, but I'm confident I can make up that time in the next few weeks.

Because no post of mine would be complete without a ton of travel pics, I'm going to conclude my post today with a few from this weekend, when we hit up the Harrisburg/Hershey/Lancaster area:

We had lunch at Hershey Pantry Saturday, which was muy delicioso.  Everything we tried was nom-worthy. (I had the turkey and cranberry sandwich with Swiss on cinnamon bread. Seriously, every sandwich I eat from now on must be on cinnamon bread.) The main decorations in the little cafe are ceramic coffee tumblers, which you can purchase. This one grabbed my attention because, even though it's about breast cancer, the message resonated all the more in light of recent chicken-related events. (And that's all I'm going to say on that topic.)
After lunch we had a surprise for T.J.'s dad--a visit to the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum, one of the biggest and best collections of antique cars in the country. I'm not a car person, by any means, and even I enjoyed the museum thoroughly. Very cool cars throughout, and I was snapping away at some I thought I might use in historical stories. 
One of the first Corvettes, parked at the drive-in, natch. I can just see James Dean in it now.
'75 Chevy Caprice, which had a starring role in one of my short stories from my undergrad thesis.
Our next stop was Hershey's Chocolate World, where sadly I took few pictures. It was  a nasty, rainy day, so Chocolate World was super crowded with people taking refuge. That may have been partially why we were disappointed in the place; there were just too many people and it was a bit disorganized. We did the "factory" ride, the tasting class (basically just the pre-wrapped Hershey's chocolates anyone can buy at the store), and the make-your-own candy bar station. Here is my white chocolate base being filled with yummy inclusions.
And now proceeding to the chocolate coating station.
Now on to the giant cooler.
At the end, you get to design your own label and the bars are nicely  packaged. I was pretty proud of mine, and the bar inside was surprisingly yummy! I included butterscotch and butter toffee in mine, so I was a bit worried how it would turn out, but I needn't have worried.
Chocolate World and the Make-Your-Own Candy Station weren't quite what we were expecting (everything was assembled on a factory line and behind glass, even though we had to wear hairnets, aprons, and gloves), but I still had fun. Once the rains cleared, we headed to our hotel in downtown Harrisburg for the night and ate at a wonderful little Irish pub, McGrath's, a couple of blocks away. If you're ever in the area, check out the Shepherd's Pie. Definitely the best I've ever eaten!

Obviously not a picture of Shepherd's Pie, but the trees outside our hotel which were FULL of black birds. They were screeching so loudly I was sure I was in a scene from The Birds and was about to be Tippi Hedroned.
The next day, it was back to Hershey to tour Hershey Gardens...

Inside the butterfly house.
The butterfly house wasn't the best I've visited, but it had lots of unusual butterflies I hadn't seen before (like the zebra swallowtail), and the coolest thing was this case of cocoons, where you could actually see butterflies being "born" (breaking out of their cocoons). These are two new butterflies.

Then we drove over to Lancaster to tour the Amish House and Farm and take the bus tour around the Amish countryside...

Back of Amish House, built in the early nineteenth-century (1805, I think)
Amish schoolhouse
One of the many covered bridges in the area. We saw this one on our bus tour, which we all agreed was the highlight of the weekend. We learned so much about the Amish community and culture, and since it was a Sunday, we saw dozens of young Amish couples out in their "courting" buggies, kids on their scooters, Amish teens playing volleyball, and families out visiting. No pictures of any of that though, of course, out of respect for their beliefs.
All in all, it was a great weekend! But it's good to be back and working again today. I'm excited about the progress I've made and about all the projects I have left to complete, so it's a good life right now. :-)


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