The absolute best-est day in the very whole wide entire world.

Sometimes, I have this kind of day.  I wish every day were like this day.  I wish everyone everywhere could, for all the days, have this exact type of day forever and ever hallelujah.  Technically, this was yesterday, but so what?  It was a glorious, good and golden day.

What happened?  Three things happened.

1) I have a dissertation director and one of my committee members set, and they both gave me excellent ideas for filling out the other three slots (including a dream scenario for my outside reader), and they both are completely supportive of my project.  This is huge. I’m going to have the kind of dissertation experience I’d always hoped for, wherein smart people who read what I read and do what I do pick apart my project and help me make it stronger faster moar.  It’s going to be awesome, and I can’t wait to get started.  Finally.

2) I won a thing, very unexpectedly.  A department award.  And not for my creative work — for my CRITICISM.  Yeah, that’s right.  I’ve spent three years feeling inept, under-read, and inadequate, but I put my head down and kept fighting to understand the arguments, and apparently it paid off.  This was for the exam paper I’ve spent the past few months agonizing over (while loving it more than I should).  I still love it.  I’m glad it won a thing.  Now, to revise and submit for publication.  Seriously, though, this was much-needed reinforcement that I can and should be working on criticism alongside my creative work.  I love doing it far too much to give it up just because I’m done with exams.  And I’m thrilled and grateful my department’s proved to be so supportive of “creatives” switch-hitting.

3) Headed up north to a meetup of local Clarion grads (two folks from 2010) and genre writer-types for an informal workshop, then went out for food, beers and chatter afterward.  This is the perfect group to have workshopping my first few stabs at dissertating over the summer — familiar with genre conventions, open to weird material, and willing to read large chunks of work at a go.  Plus, I loved all of their stuff immensely; for a second, it was like being back at Clarion.  The after-workshop bar had craft beers and lobster macaroni and cheese.  A wonderful end to a perfect day.

This was the first day since exams that actually felt like “oh hey.  This is the first day of the rest of my life.  Let’s make something beautiful.”  Everything is glowy.

Unbirthday post.

I promised a birthday post, and it is now fourteen days after my birthday.  Wherefore the birthday post?

Usually I use birthdays and New Years’ for their culturally prescribed purpose, namely as a time for the setting of goals, and a time for checking-in on goals previously set.  What the hell happened, then?  I mean, I passed exams.  Goal achieved, no?

Well, yes, but.

One of the many horrors of exams is that they’re supposed to be everything.  You live this strange, constrained existence for a year-ish, wherein your sole focus is this oddball process.  Everyone does it differently; everyone has different methods for keeping sane, but mine involved putting absolutely everything else on the backburner — my health, my writing, my friends and family — until after I passed.  This was probably not the healthiest choice.

It’s not that I didn’t believe the many post-exam friends who swore to me, “You’ll do nothing for six months.  You’ll be recovering for at least that long.”  It’s more that I’d postponed so many of the things I love, I was raring to get back to them, and I didn’t count on my own exhaustion, or quite how thoroughly I’d trash my health in pursuit of academic glory.

Nevermind the emotional ramifications, wherein I pretty much decided Not to Feel anything that might cause pain or distract me.  When I actually let myself stop and consider the turmoil of the past year of my life?  Cue two week depression.  Since my birthday, I’ve moved my laptop to my bed, where I’ve mostly stayed, eating Cthulhu noodles and binge watching Hulu.  It’s been godawful.  Although I have caught up on a year’s worth of television, I’m pretty sure.  Downton Abbey is as ridiculous as everyone’s said; it’s a soapy, endless Jane Austen novel.

I don’t have actual depression; I suppose I ought stop using the word, or at least flag it as being the boring, “I feel schlubby and hate myself” kind, versus the clinically diagnosable kind.  Mine is insta-curable, too:  Just apply exercise.  So you can imagine my dismay when, after deciding that a week of nameless and needless sadness was unnecessary and stupid and it was time to hit the weights, I left my gym bag on the train.

Gym bag containing the (irreplaceably expensive) pair of shoes that remain the only ones to date that have let me work out without being unable to walk afterward (hideous foot pain being one of several health ailments I ignored in order to study).   I am a complete, absolute, and utter idiot, I know.  It’s like I left my prescription medication third car from the back.  I had an apocalyptically bad night of recrimination and self-hatred, followed by dragging myself to the shoe store at the next available opportunity and spending grocery money to fix my mental health and cosmic stupidity.  I called the CTA and went down to lost and found, but no dice.  Had an old iPod in there, too.  I am the worst.

So as a result, I’ve spent the past two weeks…not feeling very goal-oriented.  So instead of a birthday goal post, here’s a shortlist:



Okay.  Now that the wahmbulance has pulled out of the hospital, let me also say that my birthday party was a proper night of carousing, and I loved every second of it.  I have the very best of friends, and I remain endlessly grateful for the life I live here, depression weeks notwithstanding.  Tomorrow, I will go for a run, or at least a reasonable walk with intermittent jogging.  No more of this nonsense.

You can see the birthday balloon I was gifted, though not the bottle of whiskey to which it was attached.  Also, that’s like half the crowd of people who showed up.  And yes, it was held in a bank vault.  Somewhere behind me is a punchbowl.  We had punch (though sadly, no pie), and later went out for tacos and ice cream.  I got to wear a flouffy dress.  Seriously, it was fab.  You should have been there.

I get reviewed.

Diabolical Plots writes short and sweet reviews for all of Daily SF’s stories, and December (the month when “Substitution” appeared) just came out today.  Check it out!

My delight at being reviewed is even more of a prod to get cracking on the three (!) reviews I owe other people.  I finished reading the last of the three books late last night, so I can finally start drafting (two of the books are in the same tradition, and I hope to write up an interlocked dual review…eh, I’m making it needlessly complicated, as usual.  We’ll see how they come out in the end.).  One of the reviews looks like it’s already found a good home, though, so that’s exciting.

Life post-exams is busier than I’d imagined.  I’m meeting with two of the faculty who stood on my exam committee over the next few days, to ask their advice as I revise up my exam papers for submittal to critical journals.  My to-do list is inordinately long.

But hey, at least I made it to the dentist yesterday.  No cavities!  It’s pathetic how happy this makes me.


Oral exams were a week ago today, and I’m still feeling my way toward a new normal.  Part of this processing will be in the forthcoming birthday post, since (like New Years’) I use birthdays for recalibration of hopesdreamsambitions.  The rest can go here.

The hard part wasn’t reading, or studying, or drafting.  The hard part, which any decent grad school blog or book will tell you, is the bureaucracy.  The endless emails.  Trying to form psychic links with your committee in the hopes that you can decipher their (competing) expectations.  Using your keen powers of critical reading to analyze various department forms, only to still misinterpret shifting deadlines and don’t-do-this warnings and stick-to-this-process-or-we-slay-you timelines.  And even this hyperoblique paragraph is probably unduly honest.

What can I actually say about exams in a public forum?  Well, mine went well.  I chose the perfect committee to both challenge me and get me done, and I’m grateful to each of them (some more than others, of course.  A few people really seemed to believe in me, and that made all the difference when the workload overwhelmed).  If I could do it all over, I wouldn’t change much — if anything, I’d add more books.  I wish I’d been able to do a spec list and/or a lyric I list, but I can still read all those books and visit professors’ office hours with questions; no one’s stopping me, and I still have three years of funding to dissertate.

Behind closed doors, my committee was shockingly generous.  I felt that one of my papers was appreciably weaker than the other two, and that did come out during the oral, but no one was unkind about it — it seemed fairly expected, actually.  The other two papers I believed in — was all in, in fact, which could have gone very, very badly for me.  It didn’t.  I had a thrilling, serious conversation with five brilliant scholars (several of whom actively disagreed with me) about issues I care about.  The state of nonfiction.  Truth and testimony.  Conscious and unconscious deception.  Aesthetic theory.  Economics (neoliberalism, natch).  I’ve already started revising these two papers in the hopes of sending them out.  The exam process wasn’t some absurd fiery hoop I had to jump through before the “real” work of creative writing could begin — crit’s its own creative act, and I love that my program required me to learn at least its most basic moves.

And yet that idea, that the real work’s ahead…well, there’s some truth there, too.  Creative work matters infinitely more than critical work for writers on the academic job market.  I do get why so many creative writers power through exams, viewing the creative diss on the other side as the real test.

Here’s why exams weren’t scary:

1)    The actual market is so much more terrifying that any insulated ivory tower, it is not even funny.  The pile of rejections I’ve accrued since Clarion is buffer and goad against overinvesting in any part of the PhDschool process.  I am only as good as my creative work.  So…not very good at moment.  Gah.

2)    Massive personal upheaval shaking up nearly everyone around me occurred concurrently with the month-long exam process.  The death of a family friend.  Serious illness.  A close friend leaving town to help out a family member who’s fighting cancer.  Another friend losing his mom.  At no point during exams did “will I pass?” even rate as a crisis.  There were hard days when I felt an intellectual fraud, days when I was sure I couldn’t crit worth a damn and who was I kidding?  And those days paled in comparison to Real Fucking Life, every time.

This is all deep wisdom, I know (hah).  This entire blogpost boils down to, keep exams in perspective, and it’ll all go just fine.  Pour some love into your critical work, and it’ll go even better.  Don’t sweat the bureaucracy; it’s white noise.  One or two people who believe in your work can help you persevere.

I’m still reeling.  It doesn’t feel real yet.  Each day, I read for several hours, whichever book I please — just finished Fudoki, finally, and am about to start in on Drowning Girl.  Yesterday I took a suitcase full of books back to the library.  Today, I’ll revise some stories, maybe try and get a few things back out into the world.  I’m looking into joining up with a couple of writing groups, once I start generating new material in earnest.  This new normal, what will it look like?  Here’s what it won’t look like anymore:

Buenos Aires.

I am so behind on blogposting thanks to exams, it is not even funny.  Over the next week I’m going to play catchup—definitely a few posts about exams (spoilers: I passed, yay!), and a few book reviews that are outstanding (had to survive exams first, but now I get to read WHATEVER I WANT), and the obligatory birthday post (I turn 30 this Saturday, what??).  But first, Buenos Aires.

This is dorky, but Jim and I wrote to each other practically daily the entire time I was gone, when we weren’t gchatting each other.  Yeah, yeah, we’re still dorkyinlove.  For your reading pleasure, excerpts from my side of the conversation.  It’s lovely writing letters to a loved one while on vacation; I’m lousy about keeping a journal, but I’ll send endless smooshy emails.  That said, I do not proofread my emails, because lazy medium is lazy, so TYPOS AHOY.

Day the first:

Went to a lovely lunch with mom and fred, and tonight we go to a tango bar (lessons for an hour, then dancing.  Eeee!).  I hope I don’t fall asleep.  I have been hitting the cortados super hard (cortado = closest thing to a dry cappuccino).  The city is gorgeous but definitely hit hard by poverty–where my parents are living is upscale-er but reminds me more of Logan Square than anything (with more green–everything is so lush).  I read that Charlie Stross book and another 200 pages of Pynchon; the TV at my airplane seat would only play movies in Spanish and I refused to work that hard.  Took a Xanax, slept for six hours or so.  And I did manage to buy an eye cover in the airport, which made a big difference.

Day the second:

Parents’ place is walking distance to what Katja said is the best tango spot in Argentina.  We attended a tango lesson (in Spanish, eek!), saw Alberto Podesta sing (I guess he is a big deal), and then drank wine and watched hundreds of tango-dancing Argentinians.  Got asked to dance twice, and both guys taught me things and tolerated me tripping over myself, besides the massive language difficulties.  I wish I was better at it!  It made me want to take lessons at Katja’s tango place SO BAD.  So yes, that is a thing we should do, despite our absurd height difference.

[This is where the strange fever/sinus/virus/hellish illness I likely contracted on the airplane rears its ugly head.  I spent five days of a ten-day trip flat on my back, hoping I could avoid a trip to the hospital.  It was….not quite the trip I’d expected.]

Day the sixth:
I am slowly crawling back to wellness, but ugh it goes slowly.  Went out for lunch with the family (Cafe Mua, the same place parents took me on day 1), and between energy spent on digestion and the short walk there, I pretty much collapsed into bed when we got home.  Water, rest, and recovery are in my future.  My throat’s not so swollen, though, and the horrible headache and sinus pressure is reduced to a reasonable throbbing; really the major symptom left is fatigue.  I should be well just in time to catch whatever crap’s in the air on the plane ride home.  Sigh.
Day the seventh:
Much news today, as I actually felt well enough to do a little sightseeing.  We walked to the Xul Solar museum, which was fantabulous–I almost bought a print titled “The Flying Village.”  It was steampunk crossed with Kandinsky crossed with fabulism.  He was Borges’s best friend.  I had no idea.  Seriously worth a google image search.  Tonight we’re going out to eat, since it’s been four days of broth and the slow reintroduction of food.

Day the eighth:

Did ALL THE BORGES-related things today.  Went to the tiny museum run by his widow and took a lovely tour in English (given by an adorable law student whose off-kilter translations were way more interesting than perfect clarity ever could have been).  Got to see some original manuscripts,, written in crazy code, full of symbols of his own devising. Tiny, crabbed but still neat handwriting.  Also, he spent time at the Universidad de Alacala de Henares, the same university where I studied in Spain.  I caught a glimpse of Maria, his widow, even.  Then we went to the Recoleta cemetary, which is like a goth kid’s Disneyland–giant Catholic sepulchers, hundreds of ’em.  Saw Evita’s tomb and wandered through the grounds, which seriously look like “Blink.”  So many creepy weeping angels.

Then on to a shi-shi lunch in the swankiest part of town (savory crepes), and then on to see the belles artes museum.  Saw two Manets and some Rodin, and a Van Gogh, and a Monet…all the usual suspects.

Then, visited the floralis generalis, which is BA’s version of the Bean.  It’s a steam-powered giant flower (think the satellite dish Magneto moves in that X-men movie…it’s that big, and that silvery) that opens and closes at sunrise and sunset.  Then on to the national library of Argentina, where Borges worked on and off during his lifetime.  And…the building looks like UCSD’s library.

Like a spaceship about to take off.  We went up to the top floor. Oh, and another confluence: at the first Borges museum, our guide mentioned that a couple of doctoral students had, for their dissertation, aggregated all of Borges’s notes from his thousand-book library and collated them.  Well, the library sold copies of the full manuscript.  Borges took notes in Spanish, German, French, and English–fluent in all of them, the jerk.  I got to burrow through thousands of pages of notes (not the originals, but still) of marginalia Borges left in works ranging from Dante to Bradbury.  SO AWESOME, RIGHT??  Makes me want to bone up on Spanish, and try to get my Dutch back, since it’d make the slide over to German that much easier.  Maybe in my next lifetime…  I just wish I had some French, like my brother.  Today actually felt like a real research trip.  Sad news, though–the literary Borges tours no longer exist.  Sad puppies.  Used to be you could go on a taxi-tour around major Borges-related sights, with a guide who was a literature professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires.  But I guess they stopped giving those tours.  A pity.


Day the ninth:

Yesterday was long and felt good, because it was all museums and libraries and brain-food stuffs.  Today, we shopped, and it was blegh.  Fred and I are both in dire need of shoes, but shoe-shopping is made of pure Satan.  I think between the two of us we tried on every shoe in Buenos Aires, and neither of us bought shoes.  I picked up a lightweight cotton dress and two overshirts, but no shoes.  Stupid shoes.  Stupid feet.  And then Mom’s knee (related to her hip problem) started acting up, because we’d been walking all day, and she was limping by the time we made it home.  I’m worried about her, especially since tomorrow’s another long day.
I did make to El Alteneo, however, the crazy gorgeous bookstore that used to be an opera house.  We had lunch on the stage, and it was delicious.  Gave me ideas for summer sandwiches:  Pesto/tomato/mozzarella/parm, arugula/parm/mozz/olive tepenade, and salmon/caper/cream cheese.  Oh, and cucumber/cream cheese, and roasted red pepper/goat cheese.  Yums.  And yes, three of those we ate at Ateneo.  I bought postcards for Andy and Sacha; hopefully I can find stamps and a place to mail them before I leave Monday.

I really hate being so far from my family.  We’re going to a Swedish fusion restaurant tonight: Olsen.  It has a vodka bar.  In theory we may also try to get into one of BA’s many secret bars (like that speakeasy across from the taco place in Chicago).  Depends how Mom’s feeling, though.

I also went to a tango shoe store and salivated over dancing shoes.  They were cheaper than in the US, but still too pricey for me, given that I’m no longer dancing regularly.  Oh, but I miss it…

Day the last:

Went to San Telmo and walked the long road up to the pink palace.  It’s a giant outdoor marketplace on Sundays (covered in tourists, but still lovely).  Bought a few small things, earrings, a scarf.  Supposedly people randomly tango dance along the avenida, but though we saw several groups of musicians and a few dancers sitting down and resting their toes, I didn’t catch any more tango.  Guess that means I’ll have to come back.