Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Un año más

Today marks six years since I had the life-saving and life-changing surgery that enabled this second chance at living, which I'm enjoying to the fullest (especially on days like today when it's sunny and 44 degrees!).

With the hustle and bustle of the past few week, I nearly overlooked the anniversary but my mami reminded me in her daily morning e-mail and I thanked her for doing so. I don't like to let important anniversaries pass by unacknowledged because, although I'm not much for dwelling in the past, there is no present or future without what has happened to us, so the past must be not just acknowledged but also learned from.

It does seem like these past years here in Ohio have literally flown by, and so much has happened that they seem inordinately important years in a life that has already turned the proverbial corner towards 50.

For one, I was telling my husband recently that I have never felt this relevant or significant in a place, as I do at my small college on the hill. I think I can say, without exaggerating, that I earn (or at least I try to earn) my second chance at life each and every day.

Recently, a student came to my office and asked whether she could ask me a personal question. I hesitated, thinking I could always say I wasn't going to answer the question, and said "Yes."

"When are you going to have children? I think you would make a great mom," she said, smiling.

"That's pretty personal, indeed," I said, and I thought of what to do next. I could tell her that I didn't feel comfortable answering those kinds of questions, or I could answer it honestly and model for her a certain kind of behavior that while delving into the personal was no less professional or teacherly.

"Actually, I can't have children," I said.

She looked a little shocked for a moment (as most people whom I tell this do), and then she gave me a sad half smile, and said: "I may not be able to have children either."

She shared why she might not be able to get pregnant, and I told her why I can't have children. When I first was diagnosed with severe Crohn's Disease about 21 years ago, the doctor said a pregnancy not only would cause a relapse of the illness, but would also involve a high-risk pregnancy and a Cesarean section. When my husband and I got married, we made a decision that the dangers and the uncertainties were too many to tempt fate so we decided against pregnancy.

"I'm sorry," she said, looking sad.

"Don't be," I said, smiling, and totally meant it. "God knows what he does, Dios sabe lo que hace, and I may not have my own children, but I have students like you."

After our chat was over and she had left (not without noting that I didn't look 46 but more like 35, bless her soul!), I wondered whether I had broken one of the rules I've set for myself in this small college environment. I have pledged that I will not get too close to any of my students. The power differential that exists between a teacher and a student cannot be erased as long as the context doesn't change, and I'm uncomfortable with blurring lines that might give the impression that the asymmetry of power doesn't exist or is minimized.

I thought about this, and talked it over with my husband, and I was satisfied that I had not broken my own rule. While I shared very personal information with her, I did not do so in a way that shifted the teacher-student relationship in ways I would worry about.

What I did, I hope, was to model for her how a woman can face the fact that she cannot bear children, and do so without being miserable or feeling less of a woman or less of a contributor to society. I hope I modeled for her how such a woman, regardless of the fact that she can't have children, can still have a fantastically fulfilling life.

I feel that it's moments like those that make me relevant and significant here, and it's moments like those that confirm to me that I'm not wasting this second chance at life. On this anniversary of that life-giving day, I thank God and all those who watch over me for all that I have, good and bad, and for all that I don't have and will never have.

May the next year be as wonderful, as full of living in all its radiant colors and shades, as the past six years have been. I'll raise my cup of decaf to that! ¡Salud!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

First Days

Today marks the first day of an elusive spring, and after it rained buckets in Ohio for two straight days, and then we had sleet last evening, and then the ground was covered by a thin blanket of snow last night, we finally see the sun.

That warm, insistently yellow light, and the daffodils and tulips that continue to sprout tenaciously from the soaked earth, are the only signs that spring is supposed to be coming. And not a minute too soon, if you ask me.

(I think March has been so disappointing this year because it's the first time I haven't gone home to Puerto Rico for Spring Break in a few years. I realize now that spending a week in March with my parents was a great way to miss some of the worst of the month. But this year I decided to stay here to finish the dissertation and now I realize how much that trip home does for my weather-related mental health.)

I find that I can face almost anything if there's sun. But those eternally gray, cold Ohio days are tough on the soul, especially on one raised in the tropics. I keep telling my husband that if spring doesn't come soon and we continue to have more bone-chilling, miserable days, I'm going to start screaming and I won't be able to stop and he'll have to put me away for good. I'm sure it won't come to that, of course, but every sunny day helps.

While our gorgeous house is always too cold for me in winter, the little apartment in the woods, by virtue of being so tiny (compared to our four-story house), is always warm and cozy. Thus, at least for the part of the week I'm up here, I don't have to be cold outside and inside.

To celebrate that the sun decided to grace us with its presence, and that while it's 35 degrees outside there is no wind so it actually feels warmer, the dogs and I did a little over 2 miles, walking a new route that I scouted out recently while driving around the village with a former student. I thought the route would end up being almost 3 miles, but then (good Puerto Rican that I am) I always overestimate distances in such a tiny place.

The long walk this morning compensated for a very disappointing walk of less than half a mile last evening when, thankful that the Macondo-like rains had stopped, I leashed the dogs and went out only to find that a fine rain of sleet was covering everything with ice. Soon, the dogs and I were wondering what possessed us to leave the apartment, and my fingers were starting to feel frostbit (I had quite overconfidently walked out without gloves since it had been in the high 40s earlier in the day). It was so bad that the dogs, especially Geni, weren't the least upset that we had to turn back almost as soon as we'd left.

I'm seriously thinking of taking the bicycle out for its first ride of the year today, since temperatures are expected to rise to almost 40 (which isn't spring-like at all, but it's better than the teens or the 30s). I love it that each year presents us with so many firsts: the first day of spring, the first day of riding a bike, the first day of gardening, the first day of sitting outside with a book.

I guess that's the point, right? That if we see them as firsts, even if they reoccur each year, we can invest them with a special meaning each and every time they come around. Focusing on the fun firsts of each day is not a half-bad way to prevent myself from succumbing to the endless-winter blues.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Times of change

I may hate surprises, but I'm a woman who loves change. Actually thrives on it, I might say. Of course, it's got to be positive change, and change that I've prepared for, mostly mentally. Because surprise-bad change, just like surprise in general, isn't my cup of decaf, of course.

My mami likes to note that I moved about 8 times during the 7 years I lived in Cambridge, and my husband says I've had several professional incarnations, including journalist, high school teacher, government aide, law school student, graduate student, and now professor-in-the-making (and not all in that order).

Thus, quite paradoxically, given that I'm such a creature of habit and routine (I absolutely relish my morning ritual of opening curtains to the dawn and my mirror evening ritual of closing them upon sunset), I look forward to life changes. And I have never been afraid to pursue them, come what may.

That hasn't always been a good thing, of course. The move from Cambridge to D.C. in 1986, without even the benefit (or the fore-planning) of having looked at a map, showed the over-confident, rather reckless side of this change-loving part of me. My brother's friend, who drove my rental truck, got lost somewhere in Philadelphia and my poor mom, in Puerto Rico, acted as our go-between as we separately called her from public phones on the freeway, in that Neanderthal-like, pre-cellular phone era. We finally met up somewhere in Maryland, hundreds of miles still from our destination, and what could've been an 8-hour trip, turned into a 14-hour ordeal, with me driving most of that time alone with two cats in the car.

I've learned a lot from my stupidities (and God knows there have been many!), especially those induced by this I-love-change-bring-it-on streak in me, the same one that wasn't the least intimidated when I arrived alone, at age 16, at the gates of Harvard. That part of me didn't care a fig that I was so young or that I had never really been away from home, or lived in the States for that matter (except for a one-year stay of our family in New Orleans when I was 4, when I learned to speak English).

As I tell my students, usually the best part of us is the part that also is problematic. I admire that unusual fearlessness in me (the opposite of the anxiety-ridden genes I'm constantly battling against), but it also has been my undoing sometimes. Still, that ability to charge forward, oblivious to the consequences, that "bite-the-bullet-and-get-it-done" mentality has also served, and continues to serve, me well.

Precisely because a part of me appreciates the regenerative possibilities that life changes bring, I'm excited about our recently reached decision to move to the tiny village of my small college on the hill. Now the wheels are slowly starting to grind in that direction, and that's an exciting, if also daunting prospect. For one, it means we have to sell our lovely house in the current "Have-we-hit-rock-bottom-yet?" housing market.

After moving out of our big house in the little city, we'll either have to move into an apartment or find a house we like that's not too expensive in the tiny village. The goal is for me to live close enough to my office so that I can walk or bicycle there, as I can do now from my little apartment in the woods. My husband, country boy that he is, will enjoy the country living that the tiny village affords.

While I'm saddened by the thought that I'll leave behind this beautiful home, and my wild birds, and my peonies, and my squirrels, and Mr. Robin, I'm pasando la página, as my mami advised. I'm moving on. My futurismo as my papi calls it, is in full gear, and all I can see is what the future might bring. Thus, I've started packing up stuff and giving stuff away at a rate that has shocked even my husband, who Thoreau-like loves to rant against attachment to (and the collection of) material things.

We have no idea right now what the change will bring. We might end up with another little apartment in the woods, except looking toward another set of woods, and then wait until a house shows up that we like or, alternatively, wait for a lot of land that would allow us to build our dream house.

Whatever comes, I've fully switched into my changing-and-loving-it mode, so let's enjoy the ride, bumps and all, and hope and pray that the road rises to meet us.

Monday, March 10, 2008


I have to say that there's nothing better for dissertation work than being forced to stay inside because of a blizzard (which didn't actually make the meteorological category despite the fanfare, because it didn't snow consecutively for 3 hours, or some such thing like that, which matters not to those of us who know we lived through a blizzard, whether or not it's called that).

It was a veritable parto (a birth), as we say, but it's done: On Monday I finished the 58 pages of my very last chapter, and I'm pretty proud of my monstrito. I would've liked to get it to 60, por aquello de redondear, but it's alright. I can live with 58. And it'll probably get to 60 or a little more once I'm done revising and polishing this weekend, so I'll still make my goal.

After I was done, I took a well-deserved break (after sitting at this computer for four straight days, with only a few breaks to go upstairs to my reading room to do dissertation-related readings). I actually got to open my Everyday Food and Cooking Light magazines for the first time in months.

I still have Elle (a new subscription inspired by watching recorded episodes of this season's "Project Runway" late at night), In Style, Martha Stewart Living and Latina magazines waiting for me, but I'll get to those, too. Probably on Friday when I go get my hair done.

My hair has definitely suffered the dissertation blues. Because of the bad weather, I decided to wash it on my own, which is never a good idea. My hair, which has a temperament worse than my own, doesn't like me to handle it. It prefers being pampered by my hairstylist, who's a magician and can make me look like a million bucks. That alone saves me thousands of dollars in therapy fees, so (as I told my husband recently) as long as I have my hair done and my Starbucks: Bring it on!

(What can I say: I've always embodied a surprisingly contradictory mix of the politically committed and the frivolously superficial.)

After finishing the monstrito, I've slowly been getting back into piles of pending school work, including student recommendations, papers to grade, and classes to plan. But at least I have a few more days of Spring Break to get organized and ready to return to my small college on the hill.

Tomorrow, it's off to the optometrist for the yearly exam, and I've decided to get very cool red frames for my new glasses. That's going to be my "Looking Forward to My Defense" fashion statement for the coming months.

And then I have to start thinking of what I'm going to wear on June 10th. That's going to be the next fashion query, but I'll wait until May to shop for something absolutely fabulous, and Defense-Fierce (as the winner of Project Runway would say).

I was a big fan of Fernando, back when Billy Crystal did his impersonation in Saturday Night Light. His motto: "It is better to look good than to feel good," said with the heaviest of Latino accents, was an inspiration to me many times.

It's actually a motto that has carried me through some pretty hairy times (both in terms of bad hairs days and just bad days period). Now, I'm blessed with so many reasons to feel good, that it's doubly important to look the part.

Outside, the world is starting to do the same, and evidence of the blizzard is slowly melting away. The pretty snowdrops are not dead, and the small heads of the tulips are right where they were weeks ago when they started sprouting. Nature and I are due for a makeover, and we're both going to get it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Blizzarded out

The snow started, fast and furious, last night and it's still going strong as I write. So strong, indeed, that this is now being referred to as "The Blizzard of 2008." Blizzards are unusual in this part of the country, and people are already debating whether this is as bad as the one in 1978, which my husband experienced here.

My first blizzard (I believe this is my second) was in the 1980s, when I was at Harvard. I remember that on the day the blizzard hit I was sick with some nasty cold. Feverish and all I had to trudge out and wade through the dunes of snow to the corner store in search of cough medicine. The store was, of course, thankfully open, since that being Massachusetts, blizzards are very much a part of the winter culture.

Even more thankfully, today is Saturday, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be done outside the house, so we're warm and safe and all together, just awed at the amounts of snow that keep dropping from the sky.

The newspaper man braved it and brought us our paper, for which I thanked him. This was the view from the front door at around 7 a.m. this morning, and it's much worse now.

The deck looks like it has been "frosting-ed" by the snow, and the swing is now cushioned in white, and in peril of being swallowed up.

This morning, when I awoke and started my daily tasks of feeding dogs, cats and wild birds, there were several black birds at the feeder that hangs from the tree in front of the deck. Initially I thought they were Starlings and was preparing to shoo them away, when a second look revealed that they were gorgeous red-winged blackbirds, which aren't frequent visitors here.

They're actually marsh birds but I guess they found out through the bird-vine that we're the McDonald's for birds in this neighborhood and came looking for some take out, as did a cackle of grackles and basically every other bird that lives around here.

I don't have pictures of the blackbirds or the grackles, or of Mr. Robin, who has been coming frequently to drink water from my husband's wonderful heated bird bath. But my husband took pictures of the mourning doves, which hunker down together to keep warm.

The birds aren't the only ones in need of food and water on days like this. The squirrels are also appreciative and, better equipped than the birds, can dig into the snow and get to the seeds I had put out earlier but which were quickly covered.

One creature that absolutely hates this weather is Geni. Unlike Rusty, who'll bound out there in the snow like he was a wolf in Minnesota, Geni is a Puerto Rican street dog and she looks at us with that "You've got to be kidding me!" expression every time we suggest she go outside. The snapshot my husband took of Geni says it all, not only about her attitude toward this whole event but also about how deep the snow is out there.

When it's all said and done sometime by this evening, more than 15 inches of snow will have fallen on us. Let's pray that this is, indeed, the very last temper tantrum of winter.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Of love and empire

I've fallen in love again. No, that doesn't mean I'm leaving my wonderful husband anytime soon. I'm actually in love with three dead men.

This last chapter of my Monster, my monstrito, if you will, is on José Martí, Ramón Emeterio Betances and José Rizal. A Cuban, a Puerto Rican and a Filipino. And not just any men among the many admirable men of those nations. They were all three awesome, brave, brilliant, revolutionary men.

It's hard to maintain a scholarly distance from your subjects when the more I read, the more I fall in love with all of them. Today I watched a few minutes of a 1998 movie on José Rizal, the first Filipino film I've ever seen, and what I saw was wonderful (I had to return the videotape to the library but I'll be taking it out on DVD soon to catch the rest of the 3-hour epic). The director, a woman, was as careful as a poet and the shots are sometimes breathtaking in their artistry, and often operatic in their drama. Rizal was a fascinating man.

Betances, of whom I knew very little when I started this project, also seems like a man I would've loved to have had a chat with over coffee (well, decaf for me, of course). My parents, who are my best (if unpaid) research assistants, found out that Betances had written some fictional pieces and we went on the hunt for them. Through the WorldCat (cool name!) worldwide library book-locator service, I found a copy of a short story but it was in French. That was no good since while I can read a little of that language, I can't really make sense of 11 tiny-print pages.

Enter my mami to the rescue. Dictionary in hand, my mami did honor to her bachelor's degree in French (I remember when, many years ago, she showed me her senior thesis all in French and how impressed I was!) and she translated the whole thing in one sitting. Thanks to her translation, I was able to find out that Betances not only mentions Benjamin Franklin in that story, but mocks Franklin's list of the required moral virtues. Absolutely fabulous!

And Martí. Well, what can be said about Martí that hasn't been said already? Martí gave his life for his patria, killed in battle in 1895. Rizal also died for his anti-colonial activities, mostly his furiously anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic novels. At a young age of 36, he was executed by Spanish authorities a year after Martí was killed. Betances, meanwhile, died in Paris in 1898, having lived long enough to see what all three feared and anticipated: the rise of the United States as an empire in both the Pacific and the Americas.

So you can see why I'm so psyched about writing this last chapter, because the subject matter is so entrancing and exciting and interesting. To have something so wonderful to research and to learn about and to contribute my own analysis to is simply a privilege. With that in mind, let me go now so I can go do more reading and fall further and further in love with my subjects.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Today I submitted my application to graduate, and I've had to suppress this impertinent giddiness that threatens to overtake me any minute now. Spring quarter, the last one of its kind that I hope ever to spend at my huge university, begins March 24, and with it the countdown to my freedom on June 10.

While a part of me is filled with glee at the thought of finishing, another part of me (the school-marmish old woman who lives inside me) is wagging her finger, reminding me that I'm not yet done and that there will be no celebrating until that 60-page final chapter is on its way to my dissertation co-directors on or before March 19.

The other part of me wants to watch Oprah instead of reading about the Philippines, and today ordered the latest 1,296-page translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky of War and Peace, and the latest novel by Canadian author, Joseph Boyden, Three Day Road. I've decided to start the pile of books that will await me once I've unshackled myself from my dissertation, and these two will be at the very top. I already have a similar pile of untouched magazines that is also awaiting my liberation.

But the good news is that yesterday I completed 20 pages, including notes, of that last chapter, so that I have one-third of this last project done. It won't be perfect once I finish by next week, but it will be a hefty first draft. I still have a lot of reading to do, but as I tell my mami, at least the skeletal structure of the last limb of my Monster is in place. Now it's a matter of giving if flesh.

Today I also organized all the materials I've used and am using on the dissertation in four differently colored pocket folders so everything is within reach and ready for me once the revision process begins in earnest in April. I'd really like to have the whole thing done and revised at least once, introduction and conclusion included, by the second week in May. Wish me luck!

(I have to confess that I'm an office supply store junkie. I stepped into Staples today, looking for rolling-ball pen refills and walked out with $30 in supplies, including the multi-colored pocket folders that are now very well in use. I also found these highlighters that come with little page flags that I saw some time ago on Oprah and vowed to get for myself, and I got large post-its with my initial on them because you can never have enough post-its in my world. For me, walking into Staples is like walking into a shoe store or a bookstore or a cupcake store!)

All that organization helps keep me grounded in the present since I have a tendency to live very much in the future. For as long as I can remember, I've tended to always live futuring, that is, I not only can foresee future events but I also experience them psychically as if they had already happened. Thus, I often have to remind myself that the future isn't the present yet. And I have to constantly remind myself that by futuring I also wish the days of my present away.

Futuring is my way of willing the future to mold itself to my aspirations, but it doesn't always work, of course. After all, life is what has happened to me while I've been making other plans (which is not an original saying but supposedly John Lennon's quote). Since I've always been big on planning, life has taught me a thing or two about improvisation.

In any event, today has been a little about futuring by filing that form and collecting the many others that will have to be submitted in May with the dissertation draft, and a little about being present at this moment. Now that I think about it, though, there may not be any contradiction or clash between the two.

As a teacher of Latin American and Latin@ literature, I show my students how writers from these traditions tend to prefer an achronological time, and how in their texts the past, the present and the future all exist together, turning sequential time into a fiction. Perhaps I've been missing my own point, and trying to impose on myself a view that is not about myself.

If the past, present and future all exist in one dimension, and if it's a fiction that they occupy chronological spaces in our perception, then my futuring is basically a part of my present, which are both simultaneously parts of my past. I like that idea a lot, so I think I'm going to highlight it and stick to it, like a neon-yellow post-it would.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Signs of hope

Today we got a preview of spring, with temperatures rising to 70 degrees, right on the heels of one of the coldest Februarys in Ohio history, according to the meteorologists.

But, this being Ohio, the 70 degrees is just a tease to let us know what we won't be getting because by tomorrow the temperatures will have plummeted to 40 degrees and the rain (to be mixed with ice) will remind us that winter isn't done with us.

With that in mind, I decided to record the unarguable signs of spring that are sprouting everywhere and which my husband had pointed out to me yesterday. Armed with my trusty little digital camera, I went out into the garden and snapped a few photos that speak for themselves.

One depicts the tiniest (about the size of the top of my little finger) starts of our glorious tulips, and the other captures the misnomered snowdrops, which are among the very first, if ephemeral, harbingers of spring.

With all that verde que te quiero verde in them, I can't agree that the snowdrops resemble drops of snow. To me they look more like the tiniest of white-frosted light bulbs, waiting for the sun to turn them fully on so they can dazzle us even if just for a few days.

March is one of my favorite months. Not only did we move into this beautiful house four years ago on this very month, but the life-saving surgery that gave me a second chance at life (this same second chance that I'm milking for everything it's got) also happened one March six years ago.

I remember that we scheduled the surgery for Holy Week, so my parents could fly up from Puerto Rico, and that it happened shortly before Easter Sunday. That day, although we didn't expect to see the surgeon, he showed up, all dressed up in an expensive olive-green silk suit, ready to celebrate Easter Sunday with his family. But first he stopped at the hospital to see his patients, including me. My parents, my husband and I were all impressed that he'd taken the trouble. After all, it's not like I was going anywhere anytime soon.

When I first met him, the surgeon had promised that the procedure would change my life for the better. Back then, jaded by years of pain and disappointment, I didn't believe him. But he was absolutely right. To me, the surgery proved that while I had been through my own kind of crucifixion, I also had a chance at resurrection.

Like those snowdrops and those tulips, I too, improbably sprouted once more from what was seemingly dead. Because March has tended to be a month of that type of change, that's what this month symbolizes for me: the invincible hope of rebirth.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Hail March!

Today, on the first day of March, the temperatures have risen to the high thirties and the sun has been up and burning with that spring light that bodes well for the eventual end of winter.

Also today, after the dogs and I returned this morning to our big house in the little city, and after my husband and I took a leisurely walk to his favorite café for brunch, we busied ourselves with the many to-dos of Saturday.

While we were walking back to the house from the garage, my husband noticed the very first sign of spring: tiny snowdrop shoots coming out of the earth, forecasting that their miniature bell-shaped white flowers will be showing off their petite beauties to us soon.

I also saw another indelible sign of spring and that was our very own Mr. Robin, who stopped in for a drink at the bird bath. My husband isn't convinced that it's the very same Mr. Robin of last year, but there were no other robins with him and he came straight to the same spot where he spent most of last winter getting water. Thus, I say it's definitely the same good old Mr. Robin, who was smarter this time around and spent the worst of the winter in a much warmer place.

As I'm sure you can imagine, I'm not going to miss one iota of winter. To give you a sense of what winter has been around here, I'm sharing with you a few pictures of views from outside my little apartment in the woods in my small college on the hill during the past week.

One recent morning I awoke to find that the entire sidewalk in front of my apartment was a death-defying skating rink. Now, few things make me feel more vulnerable or enervated than trying to walk on ice so this view was particularly mortifying and concerning. I've had a running battle with the maintenance supervisor of my apartment complex precisely because these views are not exceptions, but more the rule.

The view from the ground up is no better, as the stalactites (OK, the icicles) collect not just on the edges of the ceiling but also from the sad silent flutes of my wind chime.

And the nice courtyard in front of the apartment is a graveyard of snow, where everything looks like it gave up the ghost a long, long time ago.

Hail March, indeed!