Monday, May 26, 2008

Another day

My husband sent me this picture a little while ago, noting that the peony he thought was done wasn't, and that waiting one more day yielded this even more gorgeous view.

I've always found a lot of comfort in the axiom that the best thing that God created was one day after another. The way I see it, a new day offers the possibility of change, of breaking with the past and reinventing oneself anew. As someone who's reinvented herself a few times (my husband says I'm at least on my fourth incarnation in this lifetime), I really appreciate having another day.

Today I've been in the apartment in the woods with the dogs, who have been snoozing happily while I get ready for a law and society seminar that I'll attend for the next two days. Then it's off to Oregon to deliver the Monster to my advisor.

The woods have been so lovely today that I turned off my old, ugly, yet trusty, boom box, which (with the help of a re-purposed metal clothes hanger) actually receives the distant radio waves of the humongous university's classical music station. Most radios can't get that station here because of the many trees towering around and over the small apartment complex.

Instead, I've been content with listening to the lovely sounds of the woods, including the different calls and chirps of birds, the rustle of leaves disturbed by the rummaging squirrels and the chipmunks, and the general silence that settles over the afternoons here, like a light shawl, when my small college on the hill isn't in session.

After doing my reading, I took a break for a "wee nap," as my lovely pregnant friend would say, something I haven't done for what seems like forever.

All in all, this has felt like a slow day, not at all like a Monday, and definitely like the holiday it commemorates. But, unlike most people today, I haven't been to any family gatherings or cookouts with friends or amusement parks.

For me, this has been another day, yet I've loved the rarity of its quietude and simple enjoyment. It's been a welcome, unexciting day at home, in this, my other home near the wondrous wonderful woods.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Gardens of patience

Patience is, by far, the quality I possess least, and everyone who knows me knows that.

On Friday, after I started making plans to submit my finished dissertation to a book press, my dissertation co-director (who is a year younger than I am!), joked that we would not be doing so on June 12, two days after my defense.

"I think you can take some time now," she said, admonishingly, with a smile.

She's right, of course. There I go, trying to live in the future again.

But I must say, in my defense, that I'm blessed because the future (at least this immediate one), like the promise of a peony that will soon open, invariably entices me with its possibilities.

It wasn't always so. There were many years when the future was no more promising than a difficult present, which had to be endured as best I could. I guess I just want to make sure that I "suck the marrow" (me chupo el hueso) of the garden of a life I have right now.

Actual gardens are great teachers of patience. In ours, my husband took the time over the period of a week or so to photograph this one crimson peony, an empress among her peers. (BTW, tiny black ants love to walk all over the half-opened peonies for some reason.)

When she finally opened, she unfurled into perfection, more stunningly radiant than I could've imagined possible.

I'll accept my garden's lesson in patience, and pray that the future opens up for all of us just like this glorious peony did.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The beauty of deadlines

I have discovered that I love meeting deadlines. There's something exhilarating and self-affirming about getting something done by the time it must be done (especially if it's a deadline I've set for myself). I guess all those years as a journalist paid off, when an important daily deadline always loomed ahead, because I'm definitely well trained to meet them.

I've realized that meeting deadlines makes me feel good about myself. Like I can do what I set out to do. Like I have control over my life, which I know is only a momentary illusion given that life is what happens to us while we're making other plans (as John Lennon supposedly said). But I'll take the feeling, no matter.

I had set myself the deadline of submitting the finished Monster to my committee today (except for the copy my husband and I are taking to my advisor in Oregon, where he's been spending the year). It's a working vacation, since I'll have to discuss not only the Monster but also the upcoming defense, but it'll be a nice change of scenery since I've never been to Oregon (I'll bring back lots of cool pictures of moose and elk and sea lions for an upcoming photo essay!). And it'll be a nice change of pace for both of us since my husband has been on work, work, work mode and I've been on dissertating mode the entire year so far.

The good news is that after working eight or so straight hours yesterday (without a lunch or dinner break), the Monster was completely revised (as revised as it's going to get at this point, at any rate), and I was delivering it to a Kinko's at 10 p.m. last night to have it copied and bound. I'll be picking it up later this morning, and barring any unforeseen glitches, I'll be delivering it as planned to the members of my committee who are in town.

It's not that I don't want to procrastinate, or even that I don't put things off. For instance, yesterday morning I wanted to finish watching "27 Dresses," the movie I'd taken out of Blockbuster while I was there with my mami that she later decided she didn't want to see. So I did. I spent the better part of an hour watching the movie before walking the dogs, which put me about an hour behind schedule. I probably could've used that time when I was revising the Monster, but I also knew I needed some mental R&R since the dissertation has been a daily brain grind, literally, even while my mami was visiting.

Thus, I decided not to regret my decision to watch the movie (which was predictable, but cute), and the Monster got revised by 8:30 p.m. last night. Then I drove from my small college on the hill, where I'd gone to work on it in the peace and quiet of my little office, to the humongous university in the city to said Kinko's. The good thing is that since darkness doesn't fall until about 9 or so, I drove in the twilight almost up to the moment I arrived at the photocopying place (I don't like night-time driving).

The realization that I've met the larger deadline of finishing the Monster itself is slowly sinking in. The feeling that I can actually do other things today and tomorrow and every day from now until June 10, when I defend, is starting to seep all over me. And I'm starting to feel actually proud that I've culminated six years of graduate study with a Monster that's all of 358 pages long (I counted them at the Kinko's last night!), and it's not half bad, if I may say so myself.

I did bust my butt for this, and the prize is finally within reach. I do have a couple of additional deadlines to meet: an article version of the dissertation to revise by June 1, a law seminar to prepare for next week, and the trip to Oregon to pack and organize myself for. But compared to the mega deadline that I'll meet today, those are minimal. Thus, I already have "I am Legend" in store for tonight. Let the catching up with all the movies I've missed begin!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Working spaces

Now that my husband works from home, he often bemoans that he's stuck in a cold, dark basement office with only a block window to let in the light. And that's not the only thing he has reason to complain about, believe me.

For one, if I'm working at my large, brown desk, which is set kitty corner and faces said block window, and he's at his rather uncomfortably small, white desk, you can bet that the three animals in our household that take stairs willingly -- Darwin, Magellan, and Rusty -- will be here with us.

The picture above is one my husband took this week, when Darwin was marauding around his desk. The chair from under which Darwin was gazing up at him is one that we had to place near my husband's desk, with a pillow on top, so that Magellan (the empress of this household) can sleep there whenever she wants. If that chair and pillow are not there, then she tries to walk all over his laptop's keyboard (she already took out the key to one letter!) and/or lie on his lap, where he often places his laptop to be more comfortable.

Then there's the dog, Rusty, who for some reason must lie right against the legs of my husband's chair, instead of anywhere else on the softly carpeted floor. That means that if he moves back an inch when he's ready to stand up, he's stepping on the dog. Rusty also has a plethora of unpleasant sounds (nevermind the weapon of mass destruction-level chemical emissions that come from under his tail sometimes), which include slurping and chewing his paws, scratching his ears, and periodically licking his private parts.

And then there's Darwin. Although he's taken to pestering my husband more often now that he's working down here, Darwin's favorite place to perch is between my arms as I'm typing on this computer. Sometimes it's adorable, and sometimes it's downright annoying, especially when I'm trying to get something done on deadline, such as finishing the revisions to my dissertation so I can have it copied, bound and delivered to the committee on Friday.

My husband also has to put up with all my grunts and groans and sighs of exasperation as I deal with various annoyances, from computer glitches to misplacing the books and photocopies I need to finish the dissertation's bibliography.

Thus, it's not strange to hear my husband day-dreaming about the office he wants to have in our new house, or in the house we build at some point in our lives. His latest scheme, which I don't find very appealing, is building an office in the garage so he can put both his two main work passions together. What he also wants is to ensure that he has a cat- and dog-free zone to work in (and I think there's a little in there about having an office to himself, too).

As we've set the house up for showing (and we haven't had a one since last week's open house when 3 people showed up -- 2 of them a couple!), we moved the nice stereo down here to the office and I was looking forward to listening to classical music as I finished the last touches on my Monster. Alas, that's not to be because my husband doesn't like working to any kind of music, not even Vivaldi or Mozart. Thus, all you can hear in our office during daytime is the kikitiklak of our keyboards, and the birds chirping happily outside.

The good thing is that when we move to our apartment in the woods at the small college on the hill, he'll have his own office, with a large picture window facing the treed courtyard, and I'll be able to use my own, very nice little office in my department's home building.

In the meantime, our shared working spaces, while not ideal, aren't terrible either. I guess that if one of the worse things that they entail is having to deal with one imperious, spoiled cat; another one that's totally hyperactive and will never mature from a kitten into a cat (although he's all of 7 years old!); and a noisy, smelly dog, then we can both put up with it for a while longer while we both dream of what our new home will be.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The most admirable woman

In many ways, my mother and I are very different. For one, she's a mother, and I am not. She's a historian, and I'm a literary scholar. She sees most everything in blacks and whites, while I tend to perceive more gray areas. But we're also very similar, and that's not surprising because I've learned many valuable things from her.

From my mother, I learned to be strong and self-confident and a force of nature to be contended with. Also from her, I learned to laugh often and easily, and to be hopeful and to find beauty anywhere. I learned to fight for those who can't fight for themselves and to stand up to injustice and to be fearless when bravery is most needed.

(That doesn't mean that I won't run and scream like a banshee when a flying bug comes into the room -- as she will from a cucaracha -- so that's why I've qualified the bravery part.)

From my mother, I learned to be generous with those I love and to be ferociously loyal and a lioness when it comes to protecting them from harm. I learned my love of dogs from my mother, while she learned to appreciate cats (especially our nutty Darwin) later in her life.

One thing we don't share at all is my passion for clothes and shoes. My mother actually hates to shop. She doesn't understand where my frivolous side comes from, so that's one thing I sure didn't inherit from her.

More than just mother and daughter, my mother and I are friends. We enjoy each other's company and we keep in touch every day, even when half a land mass and half an ocean have stretched between us for the past seven years. Thanks to cyberspace, my mom and I usually know what's happening in each other's lives on a daily basis. I love that feeling, and I love that we both make that effort, especially since it helps to shrink the distance and to make it less real.

Today is my mami's birthday, and like last year, my husband and I are taking her out to dinner to her favorite seafood restaurant. I also love the fact that my husband and my mother get along great, and are always joking with each other.

While there are many ways in which my mother and I are similar, there are also many in which we're different, and that is as it should be. But I'm very proud of the ways in which I'm like her. She's the most admirable woman I know.

¡Feliz cumpleaños mamita!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Old dogs

After two cold rainy days, today was glorious as Ohio late spring and early summer days can be, so the dogs, my husband and I got a chance to spend some quality time in the yard.

My husband brought out his new fancy camera and snapped some photos of the elderly dogs, which I think capture their personalities to a "T."

There's Geni, the eternal street dog, with the sheepish, apologetic look that says she's afraid she's failed to do exactly what you want her to do, although she can't exactly figure out what that might be. She was not the brightest one in her litter, that's for sure.

And then there's Rusty, the alert, smart dog, keenly aware that the neighbor's male dog, several years his junior, was prancing around in his yard. About a year after we'd moved into this house, when there was no division between our yard and the neighbor's, Geni and Rusty teamed up to attack her dog when I turned my back on them for one second (isn't that how they always say it goes with these things?). The fight was ugly (as dog fights tend to be), and all three came out a bit mangled, but they all learned to leave each other pretty much alone (although Geni and Rusty will bark at him now and then from the safety of our deck).

That doesn't mean Rusty has lost his desire to show the neighbor's big black dog who's the boss in this neighborhood, even though he's a viejolo of 14 dog years, all of 73 in human years (older even than anyone in our immediate families!).

Earlier, inside, my husband snapped this picture of Rusty in a pose he only regales us with. This is his rare, goofy, puppy playful pose that says, "I may be altogether psycho, but I trust you implicitly right now," or maybe he's just saying, "I'm a cute dog, rub my belly!" Either way, how could I help having a pasión de amor for this handsome, if very old, mutt?

I can feel the days slowing down as we move toward summer. Not only am I done with grading, but I also can spread out the days I need to work on the Monster a little more before I get it in shape for the defense version. That means I was able to take a long nap yesterday, and a shorter one today. That is a luxury I truly appreciate.

That's when I'm reminded that life, like the proverbial river, will always settle back into a calmer flow, if you give it time, and if you have faith. Just like Rusty, all it takes is trust and hope that the belly of life will get rubbed, sooner or later.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Fast forward to the past

Can you visit the past while you're living your future? I do believe that's quite possible. It's exactly how I feel each time I travel to Cambridge and Boston.

As I stroll by every familiar place, it's like the ghosts of my past walk along with me, pointing in surprise at what's changed, and marveling in secret joy at those things that remain unaltered, even when it has been 30 years since I first arrived at its gates as a naive teenager of 16, and 23 years since I left Harvard for good as a savvy (if always hopeful) young woman.

While much of Harvard has completely altered after almost three decades (I actually cringed a little when I figured out it's been that long!), other things have stayed steadfastly the same, like the flower shop on Brattle Street, where I used to buy my belovedly fuzzy pussy willows and my gorgeously yellow forsythias (the latter of which I grow now in my garden).

As I strolled through the Yard this past weekend, I figured out why I'm so drawn to this place that I disliked so much for most of the four years that I was an undergraduate there. For better or worse, I grew up at Harvard. I spent some of my most formative years, between 17 and 24, from 1978 to 1985, walking and living and learning around the gates of Harvard.

I never did feel a part of Harvard, was always clearly an outsider there. And while the college's unwritten philosophy back then was to push you into the pool, so to speak, and watch while you either sank or swam, I did learn to swim (both figuratively and literally) at Harvard. And, more importantly, I learned to swim with sharks. That's an invaluable skill, and it has served me well all these 20-odd years.

Thus, I find myself loving the place more now that it's well in the past, and I can enjoy it safely from the future, than I ever did when it was my present. I often compare the caring and mentoring and the time that we, as teachers, invest in our students at my small college on the hill with my experience at Harvard, and the difference is at least twice the distance between the Earth and the next galaxy.

But I don't regret ever going to Harvard. It made me who I am, and with a few improvements here and there, I wouldn't change that either. Thus, I will continue to cherish my visits to Cambridge and Boston, especially now that I understand the nature of my love for this place.

During this visit I got a special treat because I reconnected with a good friend, who taught me a lot not just about journalism when we both worked at the same newspaper and she was my boss. She also taught me the essentials of what it means to be a good manager, a good leader of people (especially very difficult people!). Not that I am, by any means, either one of those, but I had a great teacher in her, and I have always been able to distinguish the good ones from the bad ones thanks to that. I've tried to model myself after her, as well.

Both our lives are radically different now, compared to back then. She is a wife and the mother of a lovely boy with a great smile and disposition. But she still has the same wonderful spark of intelligence and humor, and the same breadth of knowledge and intellectual curiosity that drew us together first as coworkers and then as friends. And while long distances and 8 years had passed since we last saw each other, we reconnected easily, like good friends do. It was as if we'd only said goodbye the day before, expecting that we'd see each other again soon, like in the old days.

Before meeting up with my old friend, I spent long hours at the Houghton Library, poring over the tiny handwriting of nineteenth-century journals, letters and a lecture written by two brothers who lived in Puerto Rico in the 1830s. As I've mentioned here before, there is no better time traveling machine than archival work.

Through their letters, I transported myself to the Puerto Rico of the 1830s, which seems eerily similar to the Puerto Rico of today. Strolling through Cambridge, and later, with my friend, walking through the busy streets of Boston, I also was transported to the past.

What I realized, ultimately, is that I've made peace with the bad (of which there was a good share), so that only the best shines through, and makes me love the place and its ghostly memories all the more.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Resting places

I was able to squeeze in some rest during a whirlwind trip to Boston from yesterday to today, including visiting the famous Granary Cemetery, near the Boston Commons, where the victims of the Boston Massacre, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere are all buried.

I love old cemeteries, and this one was particularly fascinating not only because it dates to 1660, but also because of the rather macabre and gruesome, but absolutely cool, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tombstones that dot its landscape.

More on my trip to Boston and Cambridge tomorrow.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Three hundred and thirty one

That's the number of pages at which my Monster weighed in. The bulk is truly impressive. Like my husband said after he saw the whole mamotreto: "You certainly had a lot to say!"

My Monster is fat and my Monster is beautiful. And I'm not just saying that because I birthed it.

This week, I worked every day to format it according to Grad School requirements (all 20 pages of sometimes contradictory requirements!), and finalized that process with the help of a friend and fellow dissertator, who's actually defending tomorrow.

Today, I took the Monster to the Grad School so the draft could be approved. There, every single page was injected, inspected, detected, neglected and selected by a Graduation Services official, and after he made some large red markings on several pages to signal the few changes I still have to make, and after he told me all the 20 things I need to remember to do before I graduate, he took the form that officially sets in motion the process to assign a fourth reader and to have June 10 officially declared my Dissertation Defense Day.

The countdown has begun.

Thus, my husband and I have started planning the most important thing that will happen after the much awaited Defense: a very small party. Now, my husband and I are the least party people you'll ever meet. But defending the Monster merits a little gathering of friends and professors to share in the glee that I'll finally be Dr. G.

We also decided that we'll have a larger party in late August, after I'm hooded at summer graduation, at the small college on the hill (by then, I pray to God, we'll be in our own apartment near the woods), so that everyone there who's been fabulous to me shares in that celebration, too.

With those major decisions made, and with the Monster draft approved, and a nice lunch shared with my beautiful pregnant bestest-of-friends, I returned home with the determination to tackle those final exams that are awaiting grading. Instead, I decided to take a nap, something I haven't done in months. And I napped happily for almost 1.5 hours!

Since today was a another one of those mini dissertation-related celebration days (I've even started considering the splurge of a Blackberry for graduation!), because the light at the end of the tunnel is clearly visible and it's not a train, grading exams can wait until tonight. Sometimes procrastination is a right.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The magic garden

That's how my father calls the large garden of our large house in the small city. The third owner of this house (we are the fifth owners) built large flower beds and planted flowering trees and a stunning array of tulips that pop up out of nowhere and dazzle you with their late spring beauty.

It's a garden where the robins and the squirrels and the rabbits and even Lazarus, the opossum, and the Cooper's hawk, and more than 20 species of birds visit regularly. When it's well tended, the garden is a feast for the eyes.

Yesterday, my husband and I got to do our first gardening of the year, especially some direly needed weeding in those same flower beds, which were almost overtaken by weeds.

Since we'll be moving at some point, I decided to plant any new plants in pots so they're mobile. I planted a few flowers that I purchased with my mother-in-law at my favorite nursery in their little town in West Virginia, a nursery that has now grown into a small empire that ships plants even to Puerto Rico!

New to my stock this year are a few showy snapdragons, in deep hues of orange, yellow and pink, which I love because of their flirty petals. They look to me like the unfurling skirts of a Flamenco dancer.

After treating my mother-in-law to some red-petaled begonias as an early Mother's Day present, I also stocked up on some of my very favorites: the Torena Clown Faces, or brujitas, as they call them in Puerto Rico, which always make me smile.

I also got some of my favorite baby pink miramelindas, or impatiens (which I like to call impatient(s), because they're quite fickle and need a lot of care).

But the happiest creature of all yesterday near the garden was Magellan, who only rarely is let out onto the deck to wallow in the sunshine, like the true boricua cat that she is. The expression of utter satisfaction (mixed with her usual bit of defiance) in those Caribbean-blue eyes is unmistakable, I think. That's Magellan for you!

(BTW, if these garden photos are much better than the ones I ordinarily post it's because my husband, who recently purchased a new camera for his freelancing work, did the photographic honors. He's a pro, I'm very much the amateur.)

I felt a little like Magellan yesterday, after doing some gardening. Not only did the garden look much better after we were done, but I felt intimately happy after doing something that had absolutely no relation to school or dissertation work, but which was nature-related and simply to produce aesthetic pleasure.

While we won't keep this magic garden forever, we will definitely have another one, even better than this one, in our next home, whenever that comes and wherever that may be. Magic gardens, after all, must first exist within us, before they can be expressed without.

Friday, May 2, 2008


Another semester of teaching has ended, and while last year this moment was bittersweet, and I found myself actually saddened by the prospect of such a great class ending, this time I'm actually looking forward to almost a month and a half of no teaching before I start an intensive three-week program at my small college on the hill in mid June.

I think this year is so different, not only because the class didn't turn out as superbly fabulous as my postcolonial class was last year, but also because my Monster has been all-consuming in terms of actual and psychic time. Thus, it feels good to start shedding responsibilities and tasks and obligations as I look forward to the first free July and August that I've had in six years.

Now that the Monster is technically finished, I'm in the process of formatting it in Chicago style (which requires another Ph.D. just to figure it out!), while I wait for the last of the committee members to sign the form that will enable the Graduate School of schedule the defense officially. Once the form is filed, then I have until May 23 to produce the defense version of the Monster for my committee and the fourth reader to be assigned by the Graduate School. Then the countdown begins to the end of my identity as a graduate student, which should happen about 12:01 p.m. on June 10.

Now that all that was pressing is done I find myself, for the first time this year, with time on my hands. Once I'm done with getting the students' take home final on Monday, I plan to work for three consecutive days to grade them and submit the grades early so I can officially kiss that class goodbye and for good.

Then, I'll really have T.I.M.E. It feels like I should write it in capital letters, and punctuated by periods, because the first five months of this year have basically gone by in a blur of work, work, work. A mostly good and satisfying blur, but a blur nonetheless. Now I finally get to start paying attention to the details, to revel in the distinct differences between the colors of my life.

And I'm looking forward to July when the real time off begins. Some of my students asked me what I'll be doing this summer, and they were invariably surprised when I said I was going to read the 2,000-page translation of War and Peace, visit my parents in Puerto Rico, and watch Oprah any chance I got. I guess they expected something more weighty and academic. I'm glad I didn't meet their expectations.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, again. Right now, I'm just enjoying the feeling of ending another academic year at my wonderful small college on the hill. As I look at my appointment book, which this week boasted all kinds of different duties highlighted in blue, pink and yellow, each day was filled with multiple commitments, all of which have been scratched out to signal they were completed.

For the weeks to come, the little square boxes of my appointment book are empty, except for something penciled here and there. I'm going to sit here and look at the relaxingly (and thankfully) blank squares of my coming weeks for a little while longer, and smile.

P.S. Speaking of smiling, my husband took the photo above of the bleeding hearts, my favorites, so I thought I'd share it with you, too.