Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One day away

The end of January, that is. And I can't wait! Last night, gale-force winds shook our two-story house again, like a great giant was trying to pry our windows from their frames. Who can sleep in that? The wind kept waking us up and I began to fear that it was going to tear out our roof.

Good multiple-hurricane veteran that I am, I hate wind. Nothing scares the bejeezus out of me more than wind.

The wind wasn't the only freaky thing last night. While the temperatures reached the upper 50s (at midnight it was 54 degrees!), this morning the thermometer registered a frigid 15 degrees with a windchill factor of minus 5. Brrr, indeed!

Still, that didn't keep me from walking about 2.25 miles with my Puerto Rican satos, who seem impervious to the unwelcoming wind. In her old age, Geni minds the snow on the ground a lot more. But neither of them seem to mind walking on sidewalks that must feel like they're frozen solid. I often worry about their paws stepping on those ice-cold surfaces. I don't even want to imagine what it feels like, but they want to walk their long walks, so it must not be too bad.

While January has very slowly molassed itself away, I've been working like the busiest bee on my Monster. Today I'm sending the third revised chapter to my advisor. That means three down and only one to go! I've already outlined that last chapter and have begun reading for it. And I've also confirmed a date for the defense in early June, which means this is for real. It's no longer a pipe dream, or a wish, or a maybe. It's actually scheduled and it's going to happen, si Dios quiere.

Even with January's freezing woes, I am warmed by the knowledge that I've kept myself on track. I had a fear of failing myself, of not coming through with my plans. I don't generally do that, but then again, I haven't written a Monster before. I didn't want to discover that I didn't have the discipline and the mettle to walk the walk. But I guess that was the wrong thing to fear at this stage of my life.

Still, I'm not celebrating anytime soon. There's still one more chapter, one last limb of the Monster that needs to be conceptualized, researched and written. Once that is done, then I'll break out the champagne (metaphorically, since I don't really like it) and throw confetti everywhere (also figuratively, since it involves a lot of cleaning afterward). I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, you bet I will celebrate that January is finally gone tomorrow.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

De lunas al sol y pájaros carpinteros

Another week has gone by of this most interminable and frigid month of January, and I can't wait for it to end. At least February will be 2 days shorter and will inexorably move us closer to March, which precedes April.

Still, I have to say that only in a bone-chilling morning in January can I see the moon, looking like a sun rising against the blueish-pink of a dawning sky, hiding among the denuded trees of the forest behind my apartment in the woods.

January is also responsible for the fact that I have spotted four kinds of woodpeckers at my bird feeders in the apartment in the woods in my college on the hill.

This includes the Pileated woodpecker, below. The lens of my trusty little camera isn't good enough to capture the Pileated, which is almost as large as a guaragüao or an owl, and which was only about 10 or 15 few feet away, rummaging near the foot of a tree. But my husband did some magic with the photo and you can at least see a little of his blood-red crown and his stork-like beak.

On another one of these horridly cold January mornings this past week, I stepped outside to put some feed on the feeders, and I heard a very loud hammering. "Who could possibly be hammering at this hour and in this weather?!" I asked myself.

I then realized that the noise was coming from above my head, among the tops of the trees. That's when I spotted the Pileated, whom I'm going to have to name, especially after I saw his humongous shape try to eat out of my suet cage yesterday before I came back home to the city. The camera, alas, was packed away in the car so there is no pictorial evidence that this most marvelous of birds is now a regular customer of mine.

Along with the Pileated, I've spotted downy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker and even the strikingly beautiful red-headed woodpecker at my feeder. All that red sure compensates for the mind-numbing, all-encompassing whiteness of January.

Still, January's bitter cold didn't keep me from soldiering on yesterday and walking 3 miles along a country road as part of my training. I'm not sure I'll be able to make it, but the plan is that my husband will run half a marathon at my college on the hill and I'll walk the other half. I'm in training now until April and Saturdays are my long-walking days.

There was no red anywhere to be seen yesterday morning though, as I took to the road with my new running shoes and left the little town behind and then walked on the road that changes name as it cuts through snow-covered field after snow-covered field after snow-covered field. Just when my soldierly courage was beginning to fail me, I noticed the street marker of where I needed to turn back and I did so gratefully.

I'm looking forward to my next long walk this upcoming Saturday, especially because it will be February then, which means this 31-days-of-freezing January will have passed on, never to return again (well, until next year, that is).

Monday, January 21, 2008


A year ago today, on a very cold Sunday, I made a rather momentous decision: I started this blog.

Now, it wasn't momentous for any significance other than the fact that I made the commitment to put my thoughts "out there" into cyberspace and to write regularly, if not daily, about issues or themes that interested me. My husband helped by giving the blog its great look, with the colors of the Puerto Rican flag, with my photo of trinitarias and with his own caricature of being a Boricua en la luna.

A year ago, I posted twice, once about my abuelo and abuela and how they taught us to celebrate Three Kings Day, and about being a Spik at Harvard. Those were stories I had been thinking about for a long time but I'd never found the way to articulate them. I was surprised to find that the blog provided an easygoing format where I could express myself without feeling the pressure to have my expressions be perfect or even smart.

That's why, if you're new to this blog, you'll see a lot about walking with dogs and about trying to learn from whatever each day gifts us with. You'll also see a lot of photos, and that's directly related to this blog, too. I was never much of a photographer (not that I am now, mind you) but after I started the blog my husband gifted me with a nifty little digital camera so I could take photos and upload them here.

That has resulted in a few photo galleries I'm particularly happy with, including this Galería de fotos from Old San Juan and a gallery of leaves from my college on the hill.

After I started my blog, my mami got inspired, too, and started her own, which is now almost a tablón de expresión pública among young and less-young bloggers in Puerto Rico. Her blog, Desahogo Boricua, is now a "must read" among many boricua bloggers and the discussions that ensue on her site are worthy of a erstwhile salon.

My husband also started his own blog, Not Just the Usual Grind, about his favorite consumable good: coffee. And even my brother got into the spirit of things, starting his own blog about being a Puerto Rican away from home, Boricuas Realengos. Any minute now, my sister or my dad might catch the fever and start blogging away! My sister, who teaches Spanish, doesn't have a blog (yet) but she does have a nice webpage at her school.

At the source of all this bloggery is Dr. S, who inspired me with her long-running blog, My Cabinet of Distractions, which has received recognition among bloggers and which regularly boasts breathtakingly beautiful photographs and prose. I love checking out her blog just to keep abreast with her adventures (which are real ones, since she's currently in England), and her readership is unflaggingly supportive of her and loving.

In more serious matters, today isn't important because I started a blog last year. Today, many celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Critical race theorist Derrick Bell came to my college on the hill last year around this time and he argued that King and Christ had a lot of things in common. For one, they both came to liberate their people and they both paid with their lives for that burden.

When the world gets to be too much, as it often does, it's good to remember people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave it all for a cause. That is the power of one. Happy Birthday, Dr. King! May your legacy be eternal and may we be worthy of your sacrifice.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Close encounters

The first week at my college on the hill was busy with meetings, re-connections, errands and teaching.

My new group is large (my class is full at 20 students) but they're ready to rock 'n roll, and by the way they took to the theory of the "contact zone" last week, I think they're going to, at the very least match, the great group I had last semester. But then again, that's not surprising in my college on the hill. It's just that kind of teaching heaven.

I've also been busy with my Monster, getting a third chapter ready to ship out to my advisor. Last week, he sent me a very complimentary note on my revisions to Chapter 1 and for the first time since we started this process said he wasn't going to bother sending me the manuscript back with any comments, because they were so minor. I think that means I've finally figured out what's solidly strong dissertation writing. It was time, don't you think? Especially since I'm hoping to defend in June... Más vale tarde que nunca, as we say.

Now I'm finishing the revisions to Chapter 2 and since Chapter 4 is done, then it's on to Chapter 3. I have most of my preface written so what will remain after the last chapter is conceptualized and written in the next few months, is the conclusion. My hope is that the whole Monster will be ready to take in person to my advisor in late May. Yeiiii!

The little apartment in the woods is the ideal place to stay on course with my Monster. Not only is it quiet and there are no interruptions, but there's always something interesting going on outside the large picture window in the living room, where I have set up my laptop to work.

This past week, as I was typing away at my Monster, I noticed a group of deer milling about, trying to get something off the frozen, snow-covered ground. I was sorry the dogs couldn't see them because I know they were disappointed that we didn't run into any deer during our many long walks.

Suddenly, a doe in the group appeared to smell the bird feed on the sill outside the window. Just as I concluded that this is what she must be doing with her nose in the air, she strolled right over and started munching and licking away at the seeds. I was so excited that I gingerly picked up the phone and called my husband, making sure I didn't scare her off with any sudden movements.

"Get the camera!" he said, and I did. And this is the result. So focused was she on her eating that she didn't mind the flash and she let me take several pictures as she snacked. My husband and I both think the resulting pictures are hilarious.

Full and pleased, she gave me one last parting look as she rejoined her group. Later, I cut up some apple and threw it outside and when I returned, it was gone. I have a feeling that I haven't seen the last of her yet. One more reason to love the little apartment in the woods.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Smart and brave

No doubt about it, the smartest, bravest little birds are the chickadees and the titmice. At long last, the dogs and I are back in the apartment in the woods in my small college on the hill.

It's been a long time since I've put out the seed and the suet for the wild birds and my window was sadly very quiet for most of this morning when it seemed no birds had yet realized that I was back.

But that changed completely only a minute ago when a little chickadee and two titmice came over to see if there was any sign of life here. To their delight, they found a lot of seed strewn on the window sill outside, a suet cake hanging from the up-to-now empty basket, and seed poured into the small window-box feeder. Now, there's an eye-feast of birds out there, including two nuthatches that came to find out what all the chickadees were chattering about.

(A red-bellied woodpecker just came, too!)

I'm already settled and the dogs are in their appointed places, snoozing away contentedly after I gave them a short walk in the snow. While it was mostly clear when I left my little city, the snow caught up with me once I arrived at this northern county and it's been spitting snow since I arrived an hour or so ago.

That means that instead of taking the car everywhere, as I mostly do at home, I'll be walking to my department, to the post office, and to the bookstore for some supplies. Later, when I get back here, I'll have to take the car to the grocery store to stock up. But I'm looking forward to a brisk walk in the snow across the tiny town that hugs the small college on the hill.

Tomorrow, I start teaching again. Hopefully, this semester will be as rewarding as the last one. At any rate, I'll take my cue from the smart and brave little birds now flitting in and out of view through my large picture window: I'll welcome any challenges and opportunities that come my way.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A lone wolf finds a small pack

When we first moved to Ohio almost seven years ago and I was basically on my own most of the time (my husband working at his new job and I with no other obligations than taking care of our tiny apartment), I used to drive up to the nearby town-style mall to people-watch.

I remember stopping at the Chinese-style restaurant for take out one day and watching a group of friends at a table chatting and laughing and obviously having a good time together. The yearning I felt upon seeing them so happy surprised me because I've basically gotten used to being a lone wolf, who can count her close friends with one hand (or less) and who's learned over many years to rely mostly on myself (or my pets) for company.

Back in high school, I had a fun group of very close friends, basically guys, and my dad was always making jokes about my being usually the only girl in the group. I also had a group of friends in college for a while but none of those friendships survived the drama of being in our early 20s or the years or the distances. That includes my most long-standing friend from high school. Our friendship of almost 30 years could not withstand my last move from Puerto Rico. He is now, basically and sadly, almost a stranger and I likely will not call him next time I visit the island. Like sleeping dogs, dead friendships should be allowed to just lie.

Once in graduate school here, I tried to make friends but the age difference was too immense and the people I met too caught up in themselves and in the drama of their late 20s for much bonding to occur. Soon enough, I was back to being a lone wolf.

That all changed, and all for the better, when I met my two girl friends, KG and TK. These are two of the women I most admire and like in the whole world, and while they're both about a decade-plus younger than I am, I don't feel the difference when we're together. And that's a gift that probably only a woman in her late 40s can truly appreciate. They always make me feel like a young woman, not the cranky bitch I can be, especially around immature and self-absorbed people (regardless of age).

That's why it was easy to put the Monster aside for a day to spend it with these great women yesterday. First, KG and I went to a winter farmer's market, which was jam-packed with people, and I was able to get some great Winesap apples (I love the name!) and some fresh-baked goodies for my husband. Then she and I met up with TK at that same mall and had lunch at that same Chinese-style restaurant and shopped and shared some great chisme and discussed movies and books and our respective men and work and politics and cooking utensils and fashion and food and whatever else came into our minds.

At one point during our lunch at the restaurant, when we were laughing and having a good time together, I was struck by how much this scene reminded me of that other one almost seven years ago, the one I had so yearned for. I'm still quite the lone wolf, but at least once in a while I have a tiny pack of wonderful girl friends to share a great time with and that's something to be very, very thankful for.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Breaking cycles

Very soon, next week in fact, I'll return with the dogs to my small college on the hill for another round of 17 or so weeks spent half there and half here. My routines will remain remarkably similar - walking the dogs twice a day, working doggedly on my Monster - but they also will vary in other ways.

For one, Darwin won't be coming, as he is doing right now, to try to lie on my lap while I type at the computer. An unrepentant Mama's Boy, Darwin loves to stand on my lap and place his front paws on my left arm and "hang" like that, purring contentedly and wagging his extra-long tail. He also likes to head-butt my left arm, which doesn't make for much accurate typing, while he kneads my thigh, which is now covered in little incisions, some newer, others healing, made by his claws, which I'm not terribly good at keeping clipped.

Still, he's better than Magellan, who when she decides she wants my attention, basically plops herself unceremoniously on top of the keyboard and begins to insert whatever errors she decides are needed in what I'm typing, be it this blog or my Monster or school work.

Magellan also doesn't come with me to the little apartment in the woods at the small college on the hill and I'm a little concerned because she's been wanting a lot more watering lately. Those of you who know me, know that Magellan has been "watered" with a bottle since she was an un-weaned kitten. She never outgrew this watering and my husband says it fulfills some kind of psychological need for both the cat and myself. But it's sometimes a drag to have to water that cat three, four, five or six times a day. My husband, of course, says she drinks fine out of the bowl when I'm not here.

Today I had a flash of genius and I placed a shallow water bowl near the bathroom sink. She drank avidly from that this afternoon and I'm hoping she gets used to it and relieves me from my self-imposed responsibility.

Although I've really appreciated the long break between the time school ends in December and when it starts in the new year, and it's been very productive (another finished and revamped limb of my Monster went off to my advisor yesterday Priority Mail), I am looking forward to getting back into the classroom and interacting with the students once again.

This semester I'm teaching a class I've already taught before, so it won't involve as much prep work as last semester when, foolish me, I taught a totally new class and had to read (and read about) several texts I had never read before so I could teach them. I don't regret the decision because that class was one of the best (if not the very best) I've taught yet, but it did take a lot of time that I could've invested in my Monster.

Still, I'm right on schedule to defend si Dios quiere in June and then graduate in August. My husband is making noises about throwing me a graduation "You're finally a Ph.D.!" party, and while I'm not much of a party person I think this one is one I have to have. It's been such a long haul in so many ways.

Meanwhile, my advisor sent me information on a great summer workshop at Cornell on transnational theory and feminism and I was looking today at the Bread Loaf Workshop in Non-Fiction at Middlebury, also in the summer, thinking I might want to do that someday (if I get accepted, of course).

But if I've made one resolution this year already it's this: Come June, if and when I'm able to finish my Monster, and after I've fulfilled my summer program responsibilities, I'm taking the rest of the summer off to do absolutely nothing of academic or intellectual importance or significance or value. I'm going to break the cycle of work-work-work that I've been on since August 2002, when I entered my program with the goal of completing a Ph.D.

Being a creature of habit and routine, I'm definitely a woman who enjoys cycles. But the cycle that brought me into and has maintained me unwaveringly within the Ph.D. track is one I'll let go off for about two months this summer. That'll make getting back into the working groove, when my tenure-track school year begins in August, even more special.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Three Kings Day

My husband and I observe Three Kings Day even though the gringo world that surrounds us does not.

Thus, last night I baked him a cherry pie from scratch (his favorite), which is what he wanted as a present, and he surprised me with a heavenly smelling perfume that I'd told him I liked a long, long time ago.

Back when we lived in Puerto Rico, last night would've been a hard one to fall asleep on because our neighbors across the street would have had a huge party for Víspera de Reyes. They would put a tarp over their small marquesina and set chairs everywhere and there would be a full conjunto de trovadores (PA-system and all!) that would come to sing traditional Puerto Rican songs until Three Kings Day was no longer a víspera but had actually dawned.

In true Puerto Rican hospitality, these neighbors, who hardly knew us the first time they invited us to come over for the party, were the same ones whose electricity was restored before ours after Hurricane Georges devastated the island in 1998 (the year Geni joined our family). But they came over and offered to run an extension cord from our house to theirs so we could operate our refrigerator and a fan. We did so for several days and it was a great relief and very generous of them in a country where electricity isn't cheap or very reliable.

Once we got to know them better, we found out that the wife worked in public relations from home, like my husband did, and so once they connected, she often funneled freelancing translation work my husband's way.

I remember the year when they brought a beagle home as a Three Kings Day present for their pre-school son. The beagle, whom they named Buzz for the Buzz Lightyear character in the Toy Story movie, quickly lived up to his name. He barked incessantly and tried to run away every opportunity he got.

A few months into the new year, after an unusually quiet weekend when Buzz wasn't heard, my husband found out that he'd been given away to a relative with a farm. I'm sure that was some happy beagle who got to trade the cramped quarters of a middle-class urbanización for the freedom of a finca.

The humans he left behind were no less happy, since we didn't have to hear Buzz serenading us constantly because he was bored and, good beagle that he was, needed some actual buzz in his life.

I've told the story here before of how I loved Three Kings Day as a child because, unlike the fat guy in a tacky red suit who brought toys, the dignified kings brought books and new clothes for school. Truth be told, to this day, I spend most of my money on books and clothes so the three kings were onto something.

I still have a small, kid-size book, the blue hardcover translation of A Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which I remember finding on a day like today, decades ago, on one of those two large green sofas in the big house across the hospital. I even recall how much I loved reading that story, although I can't call up the particulars of the tale.

During my adult research, I've come to find out that Mark Twain may have written that novel as a colonialist critique of the Hawaiian monarchy, which he had seen in 1866 during a visit to Hawai'i. But that doesn't take from the wonder and excitement I remember feeling as a young girl in reading the book in Spanish so many many years ago.

In Puerto Rico, today would be a day to visit family and to celebrate the beautiful story of the three kings who followed that star of stars on their horses (well, actually camels in the original story) to see the newborn child and bestow upon him his very first baby presents.

It's a very special day with great meaning among us boricuas and I hope to always mark it as such, regardless of where I am, but especially when I am in a place where it is not.

P.S. Today also is special because my brother and his wife celebrate 18 years of marriage. My mom recently asked my sister-in-law what was the secret to their long-standing marriage, especially since we never hear un o un no between them when we're all together. "It's that we're still good friends," she said and it is obvious. May it always be so! ¡Felicidades brou!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Learning from dogs

My husband says I write a little too much about the dogs, and that may well be so. But I find the dogs to be a great pedagogical resource. For one, and as I've mentioned before, from the dogs I learn the benefits of approaching each and every day as if it were a gift and not drudgery.

Every night, my husband, the dogs and I traverse the very same block of our small city-town and every night the dogs act as if that walk was the very first one they'd ever had through those parts. It's the same trees, the same grass, and probably the very same smells (especially their own) but they don't mind the repetition at all. They never demand that we vary the route and they never show any boredom or ennui.

Their excitement prior to the walk is the same, each and every night, and when we round the corner to come back to the house, they always pick up their pace, knowing that they'll arrive to a warm, cozy place where they'll get rewarded with a biscuit or two just for walking, peeing and pooping. The standards of performance are not very high with these dogs, as you can see.

Last night, watching my bundled-up husband walk ahead of me on the snow-covered street with the two elderly dogs, who were happily wagging their tails and bounding, ecstatic because "daddy" held their leashes, I couldn't help feeling a sense of profound contentment. Except when there are soaking rain storms, we walk those dogs every night and every night the dogs look forward to that same walk and every night I appreciate the novelty with which they approach the endeavor.

I told my husband recently that when I was in high school in Puerto Rico, none in my small group of mostly male friends drank or smoked or did drugs so our most-innocent of past times was to drive up to the casco de San Juan, up to the Old City through Condado and back. La vuelta del pendejo, we used to call it since it usually meant getting caught in interminable tapones of people in their cars doing exactly the same thing at about 11 p.m. every weekend night.

There was no rhyme or reason to the drive. It was just what we did over and over and over again throughout our high school years.

That's sort of the same sense I get when we take the dogs out, that we're doing another vuelta del pendejo. But the dogs sure don't see it that way. For them, they're Ferdinand Magellan and they're getting to circumnavigate the globe, finally. That's about the level of anticipation and glee that they demonstrate each and every night.

A lot of writers have written about what they learn from dogs, and I have to agree. Having dogs is a lot of work, especially if you do it right and pay attention to them and walk them frequently and keep them up-to-date at the vet and get their medications and their special foods and clean up after their accidents inside the house and pick up their poop outside and teach the male dog repeatedly not to even dream of tearing the pain-in-the-ass cat into pieces.

But every night the dogs remind me how worth it all of it is because they teach me that it doesn't matter what my day has brought, good and bad, we have that walk to anticipate. They look forward to it because that's what dogs do, and I look forward to it because I enjoy (and learn from) watching them enjoy themselves so much.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Recipe for the 1st day of the year

1) Wake up later than usual and start slow, resisting any impulse to rush or to multi-task or to accomplish many things in a short amount of time (as you usually do).

Firecrackers and gun shots that lasted until after 1 a.m. and a wind storm that sounded like someone was trying to pry our second-floor window from its seams didn't make for sound sleeping on the last night of the year. Groggily and unwillingly, I finally awoke for a second time at half past nine because of a phone call that was meant for my husband, who'd forgotten to take the phone with him downstairs when he got up. "Might as well start the new year," I told myself as I not-very-resolutely got out of bed.

2) Brave the elements.

After delaying as much as I could since the winds outside looked ominous as they bent the tall pines and ruffled the feathers of all the birds at our bird feeder, I leashed the dogs and set out into the storm, hoping I'd eaten enough during the holidays so that the wind couldn't lift me off the ground and take me away to the Land of Oz.

What are tropical storm-strength 40 mph winds in 20-degree weather to me? I scoff at winter!

3) Take the road not taken and take it for a longer time than usual.

As I saw the receding form of my husband, who'd left at the same time we did but who was going to do a 6-mile run, the dogs and I decided (well, I decided for them) that we'd take a much longer road than usual and one we hadn't taken before. Once all was said and done, we'd walked almost 3 miles against the howling wind under gray and chilly skies on lonely streets where the angry wind blew the leaves into little dirt devils.

4) Make your first mistake of the year, and take in stride, literally.

As a runner approached us, the dogs and I got all excited thinking it was my husband. It was not, and I think he muttered something unfriendly, like "Lady, get out of the way," because we'd all moved forward to meet him. Oh, well, we thought in tandem, and kept striding our own merry way.

5) Return home, face flushed and nearly frozen, but soul exhilarated and pleased that you and the dogs accomplished something different during the first day of the new year.

The elderly dogs quickly withdrew to their respective beds to snore and dream of chasing rabbits or cats or squirrels but I felt like I could've walked another 3 miles on my spanking brand-new (and expensive!) running shoes (that I can only use for walking, of course).

6) Spend the rest of the day embarking on a project you love.

Since the early afternoon, I've been ensconced in my basement office working away on the Monster. Her parts are becoming more evident every day that passes and I can see how it's beginning to look like a whole body of work, surely if slowly. I can't wait for the moment when I zap her heart with the electricity of knowing it's all done and it comes to life, clamoring for its moment in the sun.

7) Repeat it all again at the earliest opportunity.

Not bad for the first day of 2008. Gracias a Dios.