Thursday, October 25, 2007

Grad school triathlon

As I faced the mountain of work in front of me last night, I remember thinking that if I could just make it through to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, I would be home free, having shown myself to be worthy of being a grad student.

Sometime life sets up an obstacle course for you. I felt like life was testing me, or could it be the divine? I knew I would have to do everything just right that night--schedule my time just right, force myself to concentrate--or the whole thing would collapse.

Yesterday class lasted until 6 p.m. and I got home at 6:30. At that point I had the following to do: read and summarize a 23-page journal article (due online by 10:30 p.m.), prepare to lead a discussion and teach an important lesson in my class the next day, and finish a rough draft of a seminar paper (I had written three of eight pages). All of this while fighting off a cold and really wanting to rest.

The journal article summary came first and took longer than expected. I heated up a veggie burger for dinner. Not much time to eat. Summary was sent off at 8:30 p.m. I zoned out and watched the baseball game for half an hour. Then time for lesson plans, while I was still relatively energetic, since I can't plan a lesson when I'm exhausted. It took an hour. At 10 it was time to write like mad to turn my paper into something coherent. Was it the most brilliant thing ever written about the writing process? NO. But at least it was something I wouldn't be horribly embarrassed to hand in. I went to sleep shortly after midnight, my throat burning. I hate going to sleep when I'm sick. I woke up (coughing) at 6:20 a.m. so I could finish the citations for my paper. This actually went faster than expected. I printed it out. I showered and got ready and reviewed my notes for class as I ate breakfast. Then off to school to attend a class at 9.

At 10:30 I began to teach, after I apologized for the poor quality of my voice. Then halfway through class, guess what happened? An observer entered my class to evaluate me, and I thought, God, what are you trying to teach me, exactly? I absolutely didn't know about this beforehand. I got more nervous than usual but I think I did OK. Immediately after that, I attended a class as a student. The bell rang and the prof announced, "Please hand in your rough drafts." I fished it out of my notebook triumphantly and slid it across the table. I felt like a triathlete crossing the finish line at a triathlon. Seriously, I think I deserve a prize, or at least some heavy-duty relaxation. I did it. I finished it all. Congratulations to me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I wore a suit to teach today, mostly because it was cold and all the sweaters I have are too casual to teach in. Strange how I act differently when I wear a suit. In some ways I feel ridiculous wearing it, because I feel like the "real me" wears jeans and T-shirts, not dress pants and a jacket with shoulderpads. Yet it does make me feel more"professional" and somehow I feel more justified bossing people around when I'm in a suit.

I think I caught the cold that's been going around campus. Yuck. This is an especially bad time for it, too. Did I mention that I hate being sick? I do.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The El Paso City Council is considering a ban on plastic bags. According to the article in Friday's El Paso Times, "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates Americans throw away nearly 100 billion plastic bags a year. When the bags reach landfills, they break down into toxic chemicals -- in 1,000 years." It sounds like a good idea to me, but I'm the type of person who buys about three or four bags' worth of groceries every two weeks. I don't know if I'd be so enthused if I were a mom with kids who spends $200 on groceries every time she goes to Wal-Mart. That's a lot of bags to bring from home.

A ban may be a little extreme, but couldn't cashiers be trained to fill up the bags more? It really bothers me to see a cashier use one bag for every three or four small items. And bag recycling programs are a fantastic idea, but apparently not enough people participate in them since so many bags are being thrown away.
Did anyone see "Real Time with Bill Maher" last night? Here's what happened. Gotta say Maher handled it heroically. I bet he dealt with more than a few hecklers in his days doing stand-up.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Harsh but amusing pan of Jennifer Lopez's new album where AP reviewer Nekesa Mumbi Mood takes hits at both Lopez's voice as well as her relationship history: "In the past, Lopez scored big hits with sparkling jams that hid her vocal flaws while enticing listeners with irresistible beats. Those kinds of tracks are hard to find on 'Brave,' which contains plenty of fourth-rate songs that sound as if they were made for Brooke Hogan instead of an A-lister like Lopez." Ouch.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Encounter with the past

On Saturday I ran into a classmate of mine from senior year of my undergraduate degree. It's funny to be reminded about your former self sometimes. It was four years ago that I was a computer science major and this classmate and I had to endure a torturous class called Software Engineering. We reminisced about the amount of hell we went through for that class. It involved spending nights and every Saturday at the computer lab and working under the direction of a grouchy, tough-to-please professor. This then led to a "where are they now?" gossip session about professors. I was surprised how easily the computer lingo came back to me. HCI and parallel computing and software and semantics. I still remember. Sometimes I think I'm forgetting how to add. But it's all back there, somewhere.

I'm usually kind of afraid of running into people from that time, since I'm afraid they'll judge me for the decisions I've made since. But I ended up talking to this person anyway and was relieved that his reaction was more of curiosity than judgment. What would possess a person who was doing well in a computer science program to finish her degree and then make a complete 180 and get a master's degree in English? I muddled my way through an explanation. I just couldn't stop talking; I kept layering on the reasons, and I don't know whether I made any sense at all. No one asks me these questions. Maybe I jumped at the chance to try to explain, to both him and myself.

I don't know if I was entirely truthful, though. It's too easy to say that it just wasn't me, that computers didn't suit me and one day I woke up and wanted to be a writer. Not true. I think I've always wanted to be a writer, and it has been a strong pull. But the fact that I chose computer science and stayed with it so many years and was able to do well in it, while really wanting to do something else, says something about me, too.

Something I kind of talked around was the fact that I wasn't very happy back then. In fact, the words that come to mind are cynical, brittle, and lonely. I think about myself now and maybe I'm not Ms. Sunshine and Happiness, but compared to that time, I'm really a different person. I'm much more optimistic, more ambitious, more confident. Maybe I'm the kind of person I'd actually want to hang out with now. Back then, not so much.

For one thing, back then I was still in the depths of being painfully shy. As evidence of how much I've changed, Saturday I didn't have much hesitation going up to this person and talking to him. I wanted to find out what had happened in the old department in the past few years, so I just struck up a conversation and asked. In contrast, when I was in the class four years ago, over two semesters, I never had even one real conversation with him, even though it was always in the back of my mind that he might be a smart and interesting person to talk to. I think he once asked me if he could borrow a quarter, and I said about two words and got all embarrassed about it. That was the extent of my shyness. It was ugly.

But even greater than getting over my shyness is the difference in my attitude--my whole attitude about life has changed. I was cynical to the point of self-hurt back then. I don't think what I was studying had anything to do with it. I was convinced that there was no way I could succeed at what I really wanted to do, which was to write. I was sure that the future was going to be full of drudgery and there was absolutely nothing I could do to change that. Thus I had no real goals or ambitions. I didn't think about school in terms of my long-term plans, and I had no great respect for what I was learning. I got decent grades, but I didn't think much about how valuable the knowledge was that I was receiving. It was more like, let's just get through the system as soon as possible. Make it through a mountain of drudgery in school, then on to more drudgery in the workplace. At least with a computer science degree I might have a shot at getting a decent-paying job. That was my view of life.

Four years ago, life was survivable, but it wasn't good. I was angry because the world wasn't exactly what I wanted it to be. I was grumpy due to spending so much time in computer labs. I was shy and therefore lonely. I was purposeless and I didn't care. Honestly, I don't think many people realize the extent of my cynicism at the time. Surely, the above-mentioned classmate didn't know. But I know, and I know how different things are now.

Sometime in the past four years the window opened and the sunshine came flooding in. At some point I shed the bad attitude and now, shockingly, I'm actually looking forward to the future (at least some aspects of it, anyway.) Maybe because I've worked at a place like the newspaper and I've seen some of the possibilities that are out there. Maybe because I'm actually doing OK socially now whereas before I always thought that I could never get over my shyness enough to thrive in the real world. Maybe because I realized the valueless, purposeless, ambitionless life wasn't working out too well for me. Maybe the past four years haven't been easy, but somehow their lessons have transformed me, and so I'm glad for what I've been through.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

No news is bad news

The other day I asked my students which of them read a newspaper every day. We were discussing an essay by the author of this book, so I thought it was a relevant question. Not a single person raised his or her hand. Maybe they were just being shy, but I thought at least one brave soul would confess to a news habit. Not one. It was shocking to me. Maybe I shouldn't be shocked, since I guess it goes along with the statistics out there on young people's awareness of current events (as well as their reading habits. I didn't ask who had read a book for fun in the last year, but I would bet the results wouldn't be much better.) About half the class said they watched TV news or "The Daily Show." Better than nothing, I suppose, but I still think print is the best source of news (my view influenced by The Assault on Reason, of course).

I don't know if I could live without at least a passing awareness of the news, a glance at a newspaper at minimum. It has been this way since I was a teenager, at least. Even at 18 I was reading the papers. I don't know if I could imagine my life without the "news habit"--browsing through the newspaper every day, reading magazines, reading blogs. I suppose this is a habit that these students never picked up. To me, reading the news is like brushing my teeth or exercising. I don't know what it's like not to have that.

I was thinking that maybe I could offer some incentive to students for keeping up with the news. Writing and current events are related, after all, so maybe I could offer some extra credit for reading about the news. I'm seriously considering it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

-It's only Tuesday and I am truly exhausted. I drank a Starbucks coffee before bed last night so I could stay awake to study. I ended up staying up until 1 a.m. and waking up before 6 a.m. You really don't want to see me when I have not had enough sleep. It has not been a good day.

-Guess what Snow White is called in Spanish? Blanca Nieves. I never knew that. I think it sounds prettier, since Blanca is an actual name in Spanish.

-I was at the library yesterday afternoon when some library workers started going around and changing out all the chairs from under the students in the computer lab. Why they chose the middle of the day to start this task instead of waiting until the computer area was less full, I don't know.

The old chairs were these dark, sturdy wooden chairs with plump cushioning. They were quite pretty as they matched the wood of the tables in the library. The new ones were made of thin black metal tubing and had a thin layer of cushioning. So there was this big commotion in the library as the workers brought out these chairs and one by one, asked the students to exchange their chairs. "Can I have this chair?" a girl asked me in accented English. I was like, whatever, just let me finish reading this journal article. So I surrendered the old chair and sat in the new one. It was lighter, I guess. The cushioning was red with black squares. The seat was a little higher up. Truth be told, I liked the old one, somehow it felt more solid, but this one was fine.

The library workers had to ask probably over a hundred people to surrender their chairs, and all of them did so, however grudgingly. But this one guy just said no. "No, I'd rather keep this chair," he said, even as every single person around him traded.
They asked him again. "No, I like this one. It's more comfortable."
So one of the workers, probably a work-study student, as he didn't look older than his early 20s, just left the chair there next to him.
The workers started to point. "What about that guy?"
"He didn't want to trade. Said that chair was more comfortable."
But somehow this task of chair-trading was so urgent that they ended up asking him a third time. A discussion took place, which I didn't hear, and this time he finally gave in. But I kind of admire that kid for not giving in right away. He was right--that chair was more comfortable. In college you're supposed to be taught to resist, right? Why surrender a comfortable chair that is serving you well as you surf the web or write your paper? Maybe this is a silly story, but I suppose the moral is that students really should stand up for their rights more often, even if it is only for the right to a cushiony chair.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Happy is a Yuppie Word

I saw this item on NMK this past week: "rogue" economist Steven Levitt blogs about a study that reports that women's happiness has declined in the past 35 years, both absolutely and relative to men's happiness, despite all the changes brought about by the women's movement that have increased women's quality of life.

Why doesn't this so-called paradox surprise me? I suppose it fits in with studies that say women tend to be more depressed than men. Not to mention all those episodes of "Sex and the City" I've watched. And taking a look back at my, no surprise there.

But my curiosity was piqued, so I browsed through at Stevenson and Wolfer's paper in PDF format. My eyes glossed over at the stats (not enough of a nerd, unfortunately), but I thought the discussion section was interesting, and I liked their possible explanations a bit more than Levitt's. Here's a paraphrase of their list for possible explanations for women's decreased levels of happiness:

1. General societal trends that have come along with modernization in the past 35 years, i.e. less social support and increased anxiety, have impacted women more than men.

2. Society's definition of happiness has changed in the past 35 years. Greater opportunities have increased what women require to say that they are happy. Also, it may be more socially acceptable now for women to admit that they aren't happy than it was decades ago.

3. Changes brought about by the women's movement may actually have decreased women's happiness. Aware of their greater opportunities for success, women may feel that their lives are coming up short. Also, "...women may simply find the complexity and increased pressure in their modern lives to have come at the cost of happiness" (21).

All three of these reasons make sense to me intuitively--women lead complicated lives these days. However, I'm still a little skeptical, both about the methodology as well as the implications that you can draw from a study like this. Not being a sociologist, I can't really discuss the nuts and bolts of the method the researchers used, but, as Levitt points out, happiness is a slippery thing to measure. Can you really make broad generalizations of our society based on a poll where people are asked to rate their lives overall as "very happy, fairly happy, or not too happy"? What does "happy" mean anyway? Ask 10 people, you'll get 10 different definitions. Ask the same person on 10 different occasions, and you may get a different response every time.

Secondly, is it even that important to be "happy"? In the study, Stevenson and Wolfers found that in recent polls, 80 percent of women think that the overall status of women has gotten better. So why doesn't "better" mean happier? Why haven't greater opportunities made women happier? Maybe ignorance was bliss in some ways. Women expected less, and so were content with less, but does that really mean they were better off? I'd much rather be liberated than happy. I'd rather have what I have now, even if it means gi-normous amounts of anxiety, than go back to a time where women had fewer options in life. I guess what I'm saying is, happiness is overrated. Happiness is an emotion, not a state to aspire to. I'd rather be able to say that women are paid equally to men for the same work, that women's concerns about childcare are taken into account in the workforce, and that women are equally represented in positions of power in government and corporations than to be able to say that women are just as happy as men are. Compared to those things, happiness seems pretty unimportant to me.

Despite my issues with it, I still thought this was an interesting study. Anyone want to chime in on this one? What's your theory?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

This evening I went to see my grandfather, who has been in and out of the hospital lately. Heart disease and Alzheimer's, not a good combination. My grandmother hired a caretaker yesterday, a nice lady from Juarez, to help her look after him. Granny asked her how old I looked. "Diecinueve?" Nineteen. She thought I looked 19. I don't know whether to be flattered or insulted. I was wearing some pretty adolescent-looking clothes today. At least I don't look like I'm still in high school.

Grandpa seems to be OK for now. Cantankerous and not all there, as usual, but OK enough. I was tired but I made it a point to see him tonight, because, well, in situations like these you just have to. I don't know how much help I was today. I'm not a nurse, and I don't know if my grandpa even recognized me, but at least I was able to talk to my grandmother for awhile and say, I'm here if you need me and maybe provide a tiny bit of relief from thinking about my grandpa 24/7. Even if that was all I was able to do, I was still happy to do it.

I'm SO tired now and I need massive quantities of sleep so I can be functional again tomorrow. Good night, all.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

- Check out this cool NY Times graphic of ice loss in the Arctic. Move the slider on the right to see how dramatic it has been in just the past five years.
- Speaking of the Times, I'm not sure I like the slogan on their website: "All the news that's fit to blog." Is that really the point of a newspaper--to be fodder for blogs? Slightly better is the catchphrase on one of the ads on the site, "All the news that's fit to click." What I would really like to see on their website is, "All the news that's fit to print in a world-class, liberal-leaning, fact-checked newspaper."