duct taping it all together

Here it is just after Labor Day and I have no idea where summer went. Oh, wait, I live in PHX so for all intents & purposes, it’s still here, sticking its ugly thumb in my eye until at least Halloween. But the “fall” semester descended upon us a couple of weeks ago, and it is the. last. fall. semester. ever.

Or it was supposed to be.

My Better Half™ was supposed to graduate in December. Now that’s up in the air. His committee needs time to read the thousand pages he’s written or some sh*t like that. Can’t they just nod and go to their happy place like I do and sign something that says “yeah, whatever, sounds good, nice work!”? The point is that the patience that I had allocated to get me through one last semester of nonstop thinking anxiety about what the job market will hold for him and him stressing 24/7 about final edits and graphics and keeping up with all the department and graduation paperwork, and Oh yeah that whole what the F*CK to do after graduation needs to be spread out even more. Our idea that we would be able to reclaim more work-life balance and spend more time together as a family doing fun stuff has been pushed out to an even more distant horizon.

I’ve been doing my best to deal with that. Deep down I’m pissed. But deep, DEEP down, I’m still pissed but also part of me is the tiniest bit relieved that he won’t graduate until May because 1) it will look less bad to not have a job a year from now when you’ve only been unemployed since May (on paper anyway) and 2) the job market BLOWS so who cares? What’s the rush? The past couple of years, the academic job market has been great solidly not sucky in his field. If you’re a bioarchaeologist. (He’s not). This year it seems to be decent marginally not sucky if you’re a cultural anthropologist. (He’s not). But it doesn’t stop my brain from leaping ahead and connecting the dots unnecessarily. When the job alerts that we’re subscribed to come in, I find myself going “would I even entertain living THERE? what about our house, what about our kids, what about my job?” before I even get to “Desired Qualifications: Active research agenda in race and ethnicity, sociolinguistics, and award winning publications in the economic exchange systems of Sons of Anarchy.” I mean, come ON! Now if it were just Game of Thrones Beheadings he’d stand a chance… But at least the piecing together consulting + adjuncting work here is the devil we know, the job market is a complete unknown.

What’s made all that harder even still to deal with has been just a lot of adjustments in my personal life. This time around, I’m really feeling the isolating effects of having a baby. Part of it is I have very little energy left over after a long workday & two kiddos 3 and under, so I can’t summon the energy to think about what there is to go do, nevermind go do it. I’m just tired. All. The. Time. Also, just the timing of where our kids are at socially. Baby is at the peak of separation anxiety and requires being held at all of the times. So it’s just not all that fun to go out with them – I have to hold him. And when we do go out, Dawdler Toddler Preschooler stands frozen in place, clinging to my legs because she’s around “strangers” (i.e., anyone she doesn’t live with), so I can maybe get in 90 seconds of adult conversation at a time. And we almost never, EVER get to go out without them – it’s just too much money for a sitter when you’re only one full-time income and have 2 kids in daycare and no family nearby to dump the kids off with. I think we’ve been out once without the kids since Baby was born. Which will be a year ago in 3 weeks. (Or should I also count the time we used a sitter for us to have a date night the night I was IN THE HOSPITAL GIVING BIRTH? So twice then?)

Part of it is just the rhythm of life with a baby (not just particular to our current financial & geographical circumstances). You find yourself housebound when the baby’s asleep. In other words during the very same block of time you could be getting something done, you’re stranded inside your home seeing as Child Protective Services doesn’t look too kindly on leaving the little ones at home alone while you run errands. Thank God for the interwebz…but there’s only so much shopping and reading and movie watching you can get done online. Amazon’s not all that convenient when it’s milk you need FOR YOUR COFFEE or library books to return. And when you can venture forth, you’re got a little person (or in my case, two) attached at the hip, so heading to that new movie you’re dying to see or out with friends for a beer is not in the cards. And even if you can get out every once in awhile, social things can just be such a pain in the ass when you have to lug around a diaper bag stuffed with diapers, changes of clothes, hats, sunscreen…I’m cranky just typing a list never mind hauling it all around. As a result, all my “free” time becomes the spare moments I have for errands + gym + fun. In other words: no time left for fun 99% of the time.

And do I even need to mention life in Arizona during the summer? It might be fall where you are, but here it’s still 109 out there. Or so I hear, since I am too scared to peek out through the blackout curtains. People hole up indoors and/or take a bunch of time off to get the hell away from the Death Star. It should go without saying that I’ve been avoiding Face-stagram all summer because I’m seething with jealousy at all my friends’ trips to California, Hawaii, the beach, hikes in Flagstaff, and everywhere else that isn’t 109. So between the isolation of being at home with Baby and being indoors while it seems like the ENTIRE rest of the world is out having a blast has taken its toll. I guess while much of the rest of you get seasonal affective disorder from gray wintry days, I get it here from all the sun. I like a nice sunny day here & there. But it’s hard to appreciate when you’re living on the surface of the sun. It is relentless – brandishing a hole in my retinas and a deep resentment in my skin expressed by eleventeen million new freckles every month. I need weather. I need seasons. I could more easily accommodate living here if I ever got to escape and experience weather that would make me more appreciative of what I’d be coming back to. But since we’re still living the grad school life, there are no funds to get us out of here from time to time. Since I’m long winded today, I’ll also save you the details of our car troubles, too. As in: much of the summer spent WITHOUT AIR CONDITIONING in our one and only functioning vehicle. Bottom line: it’s hard to get out of the house, which feels really isolating.

You know what else feels isolating? Not being in sync with your friends. Our closest friends have all moved in the last 2 years. Every. Last. One. And now I’m struggling with knowing where to find our kind of peeps. We find ourselves gravitating more and more towards hanging out with the parents of our Dawdler Toddler Preschooler’s friends because if nothing else, they get the whole kids thing. The whole there is a naptime and a bedtime, and it’s tough to get out during those times and no, we can’t wait til 11-ish on a Sunday at a hip restaurant for an hour to have breakfast because we’d all be dying from our kids’ whining us to death from low blood sugar. I’ve been trying to make new friends at work. And, uh. Yeah, see? That’s about the only place I go besides the gym. But, it’s slow and hard, and y’know, just takes time even when you do make a work friend. Which I haven’t really yet.

So I’ve been holding it all together. Trying to just make my way from work to the gym to daycare. Repeat. It’s been going o-kaaayyyyy, I guess, but not great. I think that all of these things will get better soon. But I just don’t know when “soon” is.

It’s Official

Sign that my dissertation is about a year overdue. My idiot boss used the term “cultural landscape” today. My dissertation topic used to be on the forefront, cutting edge. Now it’s so common, so much a part of our conversations, so intuitively understood that my topic is increasingly boring,  passé.  I guess I’m officially old school. Maybe this is just what happens when it takes you forever to write a dissertation. The topic passes you by.

Putting the “Pro” in Procrastination

I get this a lot. Why isn’t my dissertation done already? What is taking so long?

Mostly I get this from people who have Ph.D.’s already. I’m wondering if the process of writing a dissertation is a lot like giving birth: you forget about the pain and selectively remember only the end result? Or are these folks from disciplines that require less of their Ph.D. students? Or am I making this harder than it needs to be? (Or, just as likely, are they passing judgment from their mighty perch?)

So here’s what’s going on. I’m writing a dissertation that looks at the 19th century cultural landscapes of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, from the points of view of Americans, Mexicans, and native peoples. That’s a jargony way of saying that I’m curious about how people viewed and shaped their environments, and if people from different backgrounds and cultures used similar materials and methods to shape and adapt to the desert environments or if the different backgrounds were apparent in different ways of seeing the landscapes. It’s really complex and requires a lot of research and analysis. And not just research I can do online or locally because I’m using a wide variety of sources. I’m looking at photographs, drawings, sketches, and maps to see how people depicted their surroundings. I’m looking at things people wrote about their surroundings and how their writing, sketches, and maps changed over time.

But here’s the major sticking point with my data: my Mexican sources. So first I had to learn Spanish, and then I was ready to dive in. I talked to people who had done research in Mexico and it sounded like it was going to be an easy task. From all appearances, the collections I need should be in the Secretary of Foreign Relations Archives, accessible to international researchers. Only when I dug a little deeper did I discover that the stuff I wanted to see was managed by the National Department of Defense, and it would be a lengthy and difficult process to obtain access as a foreigner. Letters from foreign consulates, hanging around for approval, and then the time it would take to sift through the materials. It could take months! And I didn’t have the funds. I came in as runner up for a major research fellowship, and I hadn’t come up with a Plan B to fund my research. After spending four years working for $10,000 a year, it’s a little hard to come up with savings to offset the cost of living, nevermind international travel and research. It’s also awfully hard to be simultaneously without pay AND spending lots of money. Somehow the math just didn’t add up. So I work full-time while I try to figure things out.

And here’s the real hold-up: I need it to be good. I have really high standards, and I want it to not just be good, but to be kick-ass. I already have a publisher who approached me about it (if I ever get it finished). I’ve gotten amazing positive feedback from what I’ve presented at conferences and several bigwigs in my subject have asked for copies of my work. There’s a lot riding on it, and that’s a lot of pressure. My department needs me to finish, I need me to finish, my bank account needs me to finish, and I find myself stumped, staring at the laptop. I’m not just looking for something brilliant to say — I’m also looking for the right way to say it.

My Master’s degree is in Public History, which is a lot of things (that I won’t go into here), but what I took away from it is a methodology. It’s the sharing of scholarly & academic work in an approachable, jargon-free way. Whether it’s in writing (what I do), teaching, public service, museums or archives, public history expands the audience for historical and anthropological research, opening it up to a discussion, a dialogue. Public history opens up the topic for discussion. It’s a concept that seems simple now. With developments like web 2.0, nowadays people just get that learning takes place when people share information in a dynamic environment that encourages debate, fosters multiple points of view, and enables end-users to come to their own conclusions. But 30+ years ago when public history appeared, that wasn’t the case. “Knowledge” got passed down through authoritative lectures that presented the “Facts” and exhibits that explained “what happened.” But then something happened. (Actually a lot of things happened, but I’ll leave that for another post.) And we got the “new” history and anthropology, These disciplines began to value subjectivity, shift authority, and question how we know what we know and what it all means. What does this have to do with my dissertation? A lot. For me, it’s not enough to just write what I’ve learned about my topic. It’s essential that I write in a manner that makes the topic approachable, frames my subject within history and anthropology without assuming my readers know anything about either subject (nevermind the intersection of the two). I want to prove to myself as much as anyone else that a dissertation can be great writing.

So for a lot of reasons it’s hard for me to get solid momentum on the dissertation. Outside of working full-time, I’m supposed to be able to go to the library for research, travel to look at other archives’ holdings, take the time to analyze the data I collect, and then turn my stream-of-consciousness disorganized scribbles into something resembling processed thoughts, and then edit it into good writing. I’ve got a long road ahead of me.