Monday, June 28, 2010

metal and the academic mind

The smartest thing I ever did in my life (no, it's not finding and tying up a wonderful woman to a contractual obligation...that was pure luck) was my move up north to enter doctoral school. While the career thing hasn't worked out quite as I planned, the other benefits are too numerous to count. I have the best friends in the world, I love my job, and I love thinking about and figuring out my occupation! It's truly glorious.

There are, however, downsides.

I'm sitting in front of my computer, pulling out (as usual) all of my work-evasion tactics. I've already completed a full round of my daily web browsing, and neither Twitter, Facebook, or Reader has anything new to offer. I've done some audio editing on one of my band's demos. I've played enough games of Spider Solitaire (which is in a daily work-avoidance rotation with Tetris). And, notably (for the purposes of this e-mail) listened to music.

Today's pre-writing/avoidance music is Dio, which has been fairly regular in the playlist since the singer's death. I love Dio. I saw him on the Sacred Heart tour, and it was one of my first shows. It was awe-inspiring. They had a friggin' fire-breathing dragon on stage!

I always remembered Dio's lyrics as being one of the major draws. They were, as opposed to those from most hair metal acts, actually clever. They were actually about something.

But one of the dangers of being who I am, a trained academic with a culture and media specialization, is that the critical mental tools are always at work. When the song "Sacred Heart" came up, I started to pay attention to the words. The song start off with:

The old ones speak of winter
The young ones praise the sun
And time just slips away

Running into nowhere
Turning like a wheel
And a year becomes a day

The first stanza shows possibilities...a metaphoric examination of how the various age-related intellectual obsessions cause us to forget to see the true minute to minute joys as we live our lives? Cool. But then there's that damn "time turns like a wheel" cliche. Folks, bad Jungians have destroyed that as a legitimate phrase. It's simply hippie crap nowadays, and fairly uninsightful hippie crap at that. Moreover, hippie lyrics have no place in metal!

I still have hopes for something intelligent, though, if not a critical take on human existence. Later in the song, Dio sings:

You can see tomorrow
The answer and the lie
And the things you've got to do

..and I'm now expecting some good resolution. Hell, if I can see the answer and the lie, and if there's something I have to do, then it's gonna be notable, right? You're gonna tell me, and it's gonna be good...right? Right?

So, according to Dio, what do you have to do now that you know the truth of the world? Well,

Sometimes you want it all
You've got to reach for the sun

And find the Sacred Heart
Somewhere bleeding in the night
Oh look to the light
You fight to kill the dragon
And bargain with the beast
And sail into a sigh

It seems the grand answer, now that you know the answer and the lie of existence, is to lose yourself in a nice, long, geeky game of Dungeons and Dragons. Here's the truth of the world! Now use this knowledge to dream of living a nostalgic existence for a time where almost everyone was a slave and lived in filth, where people were repressed and killed for their religion, their national origin, for no reason at all! Weee!

Lest it seem I'm being harsh in my analysis, look at the next two stanzas:
You run along the rainbow
And never leave the ground
And still you don't know why

Whenever you dream
You're holding the key
It opens the door
To let you be free

Why do you dream? You don't know this, but the only real freedom you have is dreaming of a fictionalized existences you will absolutely never have! That no one ever had!

You see? This is what an academic mind can do to you. I guess it's better to realize this stuff than not, but it's still an interpretation I will now never be ever to not see when I listen do Dio.

Sigh. At least it still rocks.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

drinking cures pain

I haven't even hit the ripe old age of 40 yet, but my body is falling apart. First, I have a rotator cuff injury (which comes, I suspect, from too much "rocking out"). Then I get tendinitis in my foot. And right after that starts to heal, I pull a muscle in my (until recently) uninjured shoulder. Grrr.

Naturally, there is only one thing I can do: create a mixed drink! I call this one "The Anti-inflammatory":

  • Take a highball glass and add several ice cubicles.
  • Add one shot of bourbon and one shot of triple-sec.
  • Top off with apple juice, stir, and dream of pain-free days.

I must add that this is one damn delicious drink. I sometimes amaze myself with my general brilliance.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

doctoral advice

Another friend of mind just (successfully) defended his dissertation today. This is a version of the advice I gave him (and to many of my friends when they become new Ph.D.s):

Congratulations, and welcome to the club! Now, there's something you absolutely have to do:

As soon as you possibly can, write some scholarship that's not dissertation-related. Do that fun article you've had to push to the bottom of the "to-do" pile. At the very least, do a book review. But get something else, something new, something non-dissertationy under your teeth, and do it quickly. Also, do some personal writing. A blog is a good idea, but a diary works as well.

The big thing that happens to a lot of Ph.D.s is that, after their defense, they want to take a break from writing. They want to just sit and not think for a while. And while I understand these impulses, they are not in your best interest. It is very easy for your "a few weeks off" from writing to turn into a few months...or (as in my case) years away from writing. And when that happens, it is very damn hard to start writing again.

My personal experience bears this out. When I finished my Ph.D. process, I was already an adjunct...meaning I worked a hell of a lot, teaching things that were not my specialty. Adjunct work is really hard, and it's nigh-impossible to do it full-time and still write. However, you still gotta try.

I had the summer off, and this also became a long break from being an academic. What I really needed, I naively figured, was to recharge my batteries. Once tanned, rested, and ready, I believed it would be easy, during adjunct year two, to bust out an article. So I did nothing over the summer. However, the second adjunct year was even more nightmarish than the first (see the earliest of my blog posts), and all I ended up writing, in those two years of adjuncting, was a single 7 page mini-article. This lack of scholarship, I feel, undoubtedly contributed to my poor performance on the job market.

But this is more than just career advice. Trust me, I understand your current position. You are undoubtedly burnt out from the dissertation process. Everyone at your stage of the process is burned out. One friend, a week away from his defense, told me, "Mike, there's no one in the world who cares about my dissertation less than I." And this is understandable. Personally, all I really cared about was plotting revenge on a few "professional academics" who seemed intent on sabotaging my career before it started.

However, you have to remember that you got into this lifestyle for a reason. There were good reasons why, way back when filling out your grad school applications, you thought of yourself as a potential academic. Reminding yourself of this is now your next task...because I have seen bad things happen to those who forgot why they became Ph.D.s. Don't be one of those people who, upon thinking of the last half-decade of your life, forgets why you did it in the first place.

Trust me, you have passed a momentous milestone, the highest academic degree in the world. You need to feel good about yourself, about your work. You deserve to realize just how excellent you are, and how awesome is your accomplishment. You also deserve to think of yourself as an academic, as a professional.

So, by all means, celebrate. Have one hell of a time. Take a few days to relax...something I know you probably haven't done in quite some time. But then, jump back into the work...because it's the only way to remind yourself that both writing and thinking are fun...are good...and, most importantly, are what you do.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

my own toy story

In my heart of hearts, I've always wanted to be a writer. Yeah, I know I write now (been published, too), but that's academics. And although I am also a published poet, that's a lifestyle of which I never really aspired...too tortured. No, what I always wanted to be was a novelist.

Perhaps it goes back again to Twain. Although my parental units tell me that I liked to “read” at an early age, flipping through books as if soaking up the words via osmosis long before I actually knew how to read, the earliest books I actually remember reading were the children's adaptations/abridgments of classic novels...but I remember being so struck by A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (particularly the very gruesome scene where The Boss takes on all of England's knighthood, and soon the knight's corpses are surrounding his castle, their armor brushing against electrified fences) that I begged for the real version of the book...and I became a fan of novels.

I had some early attempts at writing a novel of my own, but they were really fragmentary and had no real concept of plot or character. The early works were horror novels in the making. Now, I'm sure that if you can get away with faceless characters and little plot anywhere, the horror genre is the place to be. However, I couldn't figure out what any of these nascent books were really about (a key factor for even a very young novelist-to-be), and they were all quickly abandoned.

I did have one fairly serious push to become a novelist in me, and that hit when I was in my early years of grad school. It would've been a good one, too. The novel concerned a (with a not too subtle autobiographical slant) a young man who couldn't grow up. This failure to mature was manifest in what I thought was a pretty interesting way. See, the protagonist still had his room festooned with many of his childhood toys and other such decorations from his past. One night, they came alive and, spurred by the efforts of two curmudgeonly gargoyle figures, started an active rebellion/open war against the protagonist.

The opening chapter, when debuted to my grad school creative writing class, got positive feedback. They thought it was lively and fun. They pointed out to me that the toys had more character than the protagonist, but that was a design the “war” between them progressed and the balance of power shifted, so would the characterization. While the protagonist started out with no character and the toys with tremendous personality, everything would reverse until, when the guy won the war, he would become fairly realized, while the toys would, in defeat, become mere toys.

Everything was going both swell and swimmingly. I busted out a few more chapters. I had real ideas on how to make the novel work. I finished writing chapter four, describing the aftermath of one toy-versus-man battle in the style of Red Dawn (particularly in the style of the Cuban general's letter to his wife) (also, Wolverines!!!!) (sorry for that). I had real hope that I'd actually finish the damn thing this time, and it would be good to boot.

Then one of my colleagues from the creative writing class asked me if I had heard of this new movie Toy Story. When they described the plot to me, my jaw dropped. Then I saw it. Granted, they were doing a very different story than I, but still, there were enough similarities between the two where everyone to whom I described my novel would ask, “have you seen Toy Story?”

So I gave up the novel. It's just as well, because even if the original Toy Story wasn't all that close in its specifics to my tale, the sequel (particularly in Jessie's flashback) came frightfully close. The rest of my academic life was also intruding, and I realized that, in between full time grad work and three different part time jobs, I just didn't have time to write anyway. And when I later found out that the movie was the product of such writers as Joss Whedon and Joel Coen, I realized that I could've never competed anyway. You see, my ego does actually know some bounds!

Flash forward to today. I've never written a complete novel to this point in my life. However, I do have yet another novel idea bouncing around my skull all summer. It would be a cool one, too, the story of an aspiring rock musician, colored with all sorts of anecdotes from my own playing experiences (and from my musician friends, who might recognize whole periods of their lives in the narrative). I could make it work. But I also have way too much academic writing left to do, and the very real timeline of this upcoming season being my last shot on the market (for at least a few years, but maybe forever) is lighting a fire under this novel too goes into the ever-increasing “I don't have the time” file.

And what opens tomorrow? Toy Story 3. I guess it's time to see how much of my planned toy rebellion novel makes the screen this time.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

the river rolls, rolls, rolls (final KY notes)

Cairo Cairo is a place I dearly love
Everything around me and the moon and stars above
--Lil' Son Jackson

Cairo, Kentucky is a town that's located near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Like most things related to the mighty Mississip, and even though I never actually have (until recently) stepped foot in the town, it's a name that resonates.

It is my junior year of high school, and I'm hiding in the back corner of fifth period history. The class is, of course, relatively boring. With hindsight, I realize how hard it must be to make any good sense out of “all the history of the world in the last five hundred years” in the span of a single school year. All I could tell at the time was that I was overwhelmed by nothing but bland, boring, faceless generalities. But even at the untested age of 16, I realize at some level that the specificities are where the real interesting stuff occurs...and without the quirks of history, I just can't force myself to care about the class even in the slightest.

I've long since tired of staring at my surroundings, and there are no close friends in the class to distract me. I've also long since bored of trying to perfect my hand-drawn renditions of various band logos and guitar designs...I suck at drawing anyway. As I'm sitting next to a shelf, I decide to quietly dig amongst its contents...just for something to do. The shelf is mostly filled with teaching supplies for various classes held in this room. After discounting a box of writing supplies and chalkboard erasers, I stumble upon two stashes of paperbacks, no doubt for an English class later in the day.

At the time, I didn't realize this was momentous, a sort of “monkey discovering the monolith” moment. But when I found those boxes full of copies of Animal Farm and Life on the Mississippi, something changed.

I dug Animal Farm, to be sure. Even in my inexperienced state, I was beginning to suspect (hell, I was a teenager—which meant I knew with every fiber of my being) that power and leadership were valuable commodities that should not be handed out to someone just because they desire them...which describes the point of the Orwell novel perfectly.

Life on the Mississippi, though, really captured me at a vastly deeper level. I plowed through that book at least ten times that year. The characters, the conflicts, the settings, all of them washed over me, taught a bored teenage version of me more than a droning teacher ever would. One image which always stays with me, however, is of some small village that, because of the river being the official state border, went to bed one night officially in Kentucky yet woke up the next morning as part of Missouri after the river decided to change course in the night.

I loved that book because it resonated with some of my deepest desires. I desperately wanted to escape my life of hardship and boredom, go out on the road, have a chance to not just reinvent myself, but to invent myself in the first place. I wanted to become an expert in something mysterious, I wanted to learn a new, mysterious, romantic way of life, learn it deep in my bones. I wanted to live where I had real value, and where that value had all come because I personally earned it, through hard work, perseverance, and innate ability.

In spite of these dreams, though, I stayed fairly pedestrian in my life for some time. I lived at home entirely too long after high school, took extraordinarily menial jobs, engaged in typically pedestrian irresponsible behavior, went to a community college that was in biking distance, and generally clamped down upon that fledgling Twain-inspired desire for adventure.

Flash forward to my recent Kentucky vacation. After days eating much smoked meat, drinking in lakefront bars, and holding many conversations both more profane and personal than expected, my awesome hosts offered to take us to a brewpub in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. On the way, upon hearing we would drive through the town of Cairo, Illinois, my mind immediately clicked onto Cairo's appearances in Life on the Mississippi, and I looked forward to staring at the river while reliving my memories of Twain.

Time, however, had not been kind to Cairo. What had once been a town of over 15,000 has dropped to under 4,000. What was once a fairly grand main street is now a monument of decay and abandonment, with windows boarded up, paint peeling, and (in one case) a thirty foot tree plowing through the middle of one building. Our host informed us that the citizens are quite used to us college-types slowing down to take photos of the deindustrialized, post-apocalyptic landscape. However, we were informed, we would not be leaving the car, because Cairo had become quite a center of crime.

Cape Girardeau, our ultimate destination, was a complete and utter whiplash-inducing contrast of a town. I had never heard of the town at all (not in Life on the Mississippi or otherwise), but it immediately struck me as somewhere I wanted to be. Although it boasts a university I've never heard of (who knew there even was a Southeast Missouri State University?), it had a wonderful midwest college town atmosphere, tons of good restaurants and shops, beautiful houses, wonderful views. It was a truly unexpected jewel

After our brew-pub meal, we even got a chance to wander down to the waterfront, past the flood walls, and stare at the mighty Mississip, much as I do whenever I get down to New Orleans, and it was (as always) glorious. True to form, it held all the mystery, all the nostalgia, all the Mark Twain memories I imagined as a kid, that I see every time I stare at its vast expanse and drift into my own dreams.

Because of the day's travels, however, there was an entirely new level of complexities to the river, which begged the question, How did the world fit in? Cairo, the town of which I dreamed, whose very name resonated with me on some deep, personal, and spiritual level? It was a mess, beaten up by forces beyond its control, pushed into obscurity and blight. But then there was the unknown town of Cape Girardeau, which was glorious and fun, which had been sitting there just outside of my realm of knowledge and expectations.

There were many lessons there, but as I was staring at the brown water of the Mississippi, most of them escaped me. Twain was still in my mind, but mostly as a counterpoint: how would Mr. Clemens, I wondered, respond to the dualities of current day Cairo and Cap Girardeau? What lessons of hard work, romance, and dreams would he find? How would the Mississippi of today stack up to that of his childhood?

As I gazed out at the river, I knew I couldn't answer for Mark Twain. More surprisingly, I couldn't even answer for myself. I have no idea where my expectations lie anymore, or even if I should have them in the first place.

The river was still there, though. It would always be there. It would just be me that's different, I thought, as I took one last glimpse at the water. We then left and went back to our host's house, where I prepared for the long trip home.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

KY trip...days 2 & 3

So, how does one spend one's vacation? Personally, I just aim for as many ways of doing utterly nothing as possible. My life in the semester is largely governed by to-do lists, an hour daily of putting out fires, and large moments of sheer it's nice to practice the sedentary arts. Vacations allow me to be sedentary in whole new they are, in some ways, learning experiences...and not just excuses for bad behavior.

Friday started out with a nice Japanese lunch (you heard always start with lunch on vacation, unless there are stray bags of junk food nearby). Pork and sushi? How can you beat it? Afterward, we found a video store that was going out of business and shopped the fairly nice collection. I ended up with some good ones, including Serenity, Adaptation, The Wrestler, and Synecdoche, NY. Unfortunately, my host beat me out to Anvil: The Story of Anvil and Heavy Metal in Baghdad, but all's fair in war and discount clearance shopping, I guess.

We then found a classic barbecue place...not a restaurant, mind you, but a stand on the side of the road inside a hastily assembled screened-in porch. We got 1 1/2 pounds of pork and a chicken for dinner later that day. They were both awesome, even though the chicken was entirely the wrong type of meat to come from a barbecue stand. We then drove through the Land Between the Lakes (and around the lakes themselves) before returning to the homestead for a laid-back evening of barbecue and the aforementioned Anvil before our gentle slumbers.

Saturday, by contrast, was more about unadulterated hedonism. Lunch was at Murray KY's own Big Apple Cafe for fish tacos and beer. The strangest part of the whole experience was seeing people actually smoke cigarettes indoors; for some refugees from a state with a fairly strict smoking ban, it was unnerving. The Romaniac is a smoker, but he said that he nevertheless felt weird about lighting up indoors...but did anyway.

Afterwards, we went back to the Land Between the Lakes area. While the various spousal units decided to sit by the lake and read, us menfolk went to a lake front marina bar called Fat Daddy's. It's a floating bar that serves Yuengling and has a bikini-clad wait staff (which, if I weren't so non-sexist, I would admit was a huge selling point). The clientèle was strange: an interesting mix of boaters, bikers, and fights, though. The band was even neat--they did some cool stuff, including a blues version of Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me" that actually made the song palatable. Really, there were very few ways the afternoon could've been improved.

We ended up back at the host house, had some grilled food, hung out with the hosts & some of their friends, and talked about such wide-ranging topics as spicy potato chips, Romanian salt mines, how women learn about their menstrual cycle, Stephen Seagall versus Jean Claude Van Damme, feminism, ice storms, and the proper way to integrate food into all-day drinking binges.

It's been a blast so far. Really, the only thing that's been missing is a healthy serving of green vegetables.

Friday, June 04, 2010

KY one notes

Yesterday was mostly about the road...long hours driving, mostly through the middle of nowhere. We take the standard shot down 75 south through Cincinnati, turn off once in Kentucky, and then pretty much go the longest diagonal path through the state that's possible.

There were very few surprises, travel-wise. Dayton continues its trend of always having their interstate under construction (which has been going on, via personal knowledge, since 1998). There was, shocker, road construction outside of Cincinnati (which distracted me from giving Touchdown Jesus his full amount of deserved attention). There was a surprising amount of cars in Louisville for 3:30. There was pretty much nothing going on between Louisville and our destination.

So we amused ourselves. The spousal unit, after decades of being contractually obligated to me, does this as a matter of we consigned her to the back seat, where she could read, sleep, and ignore us to her heart's content while riding in plush comfort.

The Romaniac and I talked about a suitably strange variety of things. Included on the topic list was why MTV's programming was destined to quit playing music based on advertiser concerns, the politics of pay-per-view wrestling broadcasts, how the Romanian style of pizza (with your choice of sauces poured on top) leads--or at least lends itself--to outrageous levels of drinking, how my random play on my mp3 player continually frightened me or induced musical whiplash, contests of will with Moldovans, and how we could make academic rejection notices more brutal than they are already ("We thank you for your application, which caused three committee members to weep in pain and another, despondent over the future of his profession, to attempt hanging himself with his doctoral hood").

We eventually got to our destination, and while friends make a great ending point for a long drive, friends bearing the fruit of a kegerator make an even better one. From there on out, it was a quiet evening of beer, a magnificent pasta salad, beer, cigars, and beer.

More soon, assuming I can remember what happens next.

KY trip...overview

When I got my full-time position, I swore I would occasionally treat myself. The most overt self-treat was buying a really large gas grill, and this is one that has paid off deliciously. However, I also decided that I would occasionally do something for which all academics dream...take a vacation that was (gasp, shock) not connected whatsoever to an academic conference!

Yes, I admit this is a true luxury, one that mkes me feel like a thousand-aire. However, I'm still pretty much in debt, so we get to do this on the cheap...which means staying with friends who've escaped their grad school towns. This is, truth be told, the main reason why I want friends to get exciting jobs...more exciting vacation hotspots from which to chose!

This year's vacation was to visit a friend who got a job in the far end of Kentucky. Joining me and my lovely spousal unit is the Romaniac. On schedule is barbecue, gentle socializing, partaking from our host's kegerator, and plenty of resulting bad behavior.

We are, after all, a simple people.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

pre-vacation drinking

Shortly after packing for the brief summer visitation, I created another drink! I call this one "The Kentucky Apple":

  • ice up a high-ball glass
  • pour in one measure of rum
  • top off with Jones Green Apple soda
  • mix
  • splash in some wild strawberry liquor
  • enjoy while waiting for your spousal unit to pack

Actually, I think that the Jones Soda might very well be the key to mixed drink nirvana.