Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Off to see the fam

I'll be off visiting family for a bit now that I am done grading things, which could mean that I will not be posting much, or that I will be posting and reading you-all's blogs constantly, depending on the overall levels of boredom and internet access. My whole family lives in a town that is in proximity to cool things but itself is the epitome of bland suburbia. There's nothing there except houses and apartments, chain restaurants and Asian grocery markets. And everything is new and built on the 1-mile grid, so it is dull and impossible to walk anywhere or have any sense of local community even if you wanted to (yes, except for freeway entrances, I think you could walk a mile in every direction from my parents' house without seeing anything except more houses). One of my favorite (because free) sleeping shirts is a t-shirt given to me by my mom that says "There's More to _______!" Fittingly, it doesn't list anything else; I can't think of anything either.

However, my parents do have tv. Anything good on I could catch?

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I am not a spontaneous person. I’m quite comfortable hibernating at home like a bear (I’m a bit more like a sloth, actually) reading, procrastinating, occasionally working, and complaining about how boring my life is. Naturally when my dissertation-writing buddy called at 8 in the morning on Monday to say she was upset and really wanted to get out of town, would I like to go camping with her, I promptly said no, that was impossible. Knowing me well, she promised she would call back when she was ready to leave and see if I had changed my mind. That left me there on the couch, sipping my tea and watching the cats rumpusing, in an intense mental struggle against my own inertia.

Me: I’d love to go, but this is so last minute. What about the cats? Wouldn’t I have to pack and wash all those dishes and do, uh, something or other that I can’t think of right now but must be highly important?
Other Me: You can call the cat kennel, or even leave them at home with the dry food for 48 hours. That’s not too bad. You always complain about how bored you are by sitting around with nothing to do but work. You call your family and tell them what you did for the week and they are completely unimpressed by the lack of events in your life.
Me: But shouldn’t I be working on the dissertation in a highly productive fashion?
Other Me: You’d procrastinate for half of that time anyway! And you’d feel bad about it and half-ass the procrastination, rather than really throwing yourself into enjoying something like camping. And you’d also sit around thinking about all the fun Dissertation Buddy was having without you.
Me: But I can’t handle the thought of just picking up and hauling off somewhere when I haven’t been planning everything for weeks.
Other me: Oh, you nit! You are such a stick in the mud. You are dull. You are the most unspontaneous person ever! Get off your ass and find your sleeping bag or I’ll never speak to you again.

You might think that I would be overjoyed to have voices in my head promise to leave me, but that is not the type of person I am. I soon jumped off the couch and began to throw clothing in a backpack, rummaging through the closet for my sleeping bag and cat food while frantically dialing DB’s number: “Wait, wait for me! Do you need food? I’m coming! Don’t leave without me!”

“You have 10 minutes. We need to leave right now to make it to Big Sur in time.” And with that I really had to hurry. No time to plan, no time to wash the mountain of dirty dishes or agonize over every little thing to pack. I put out extra bowls of water and heaped up the dry food and hoped that my finicky cats would not, on filling the catbox, start to leave me presents elsewhere in the apartment. And the dishes? I locked them in the bathroom where the cats couldn’t get to them and just left them ‘till I got back.

Big Sur is on the coast of California and reachable by the twisty, windy road of the 1. I’m not too adventurous when it comes to heights and curvy roads, so let us just say it was a good thing DB was driving. It is nowhere near us and probably not a logical choice for us to take a two-day trip to, but that just adds to the spontaneity, no? The landscape is very beautiful and I’m sorry to say that I did not remember in all that chaos to pack a camera. Imagine, then, to one side steep scrub-covered hills and slabs of striated rocks pushing upward with slow massive power, to the other, gray sky and a guardrail. Except for those times when the guardrail is missing or fallen and you glance over to see almost the whole way down the cliff ---- Ohgod! Don’t go over! I can see the waves crashing at the bottom it’s so sheer! Hug the cliff side, stupid! (I was probably less than fun and spontaneous on the drive.)

The 1 is where they film all of those pretentious car commercials that show off how well the expensive sportscar “handles,” and as such the area is a mecca of sorts for the obnoxiously wealthy who want spa trips and pricey wine tastings, which makes for an odd mix with the hippie spiritual adventurers and local farmer-rancher types who are also in the area. This means that the local gas was almost 5 a gallon (and you’re not allowed to pump your own) and every gas station has its own gourmet blend of coffee beans you can get by the pound near the cashier. (I would need a pound of Ragged Hill beans why? There are 5 espresso bars on this rural turn-off.) I also re-learned that DB has a different definition of what is “camping” than I do, which I thought was a fluke on our last outing about a year ago: if you are not staying at a bed and breakfast, tent camping must be supplemented by gourmet meals and/or wine drinking at fancy restaurants. So we ate out at several Big Sur places, including a microbrewery (!) ---- the Big Sur blonde, I believe it was, is very smooth and tasty ---- and ate expensive appetizers at some fancy cliffside restaurant and drank wine as the sun set. It was beautiful, and it’s true that we would not be able to see the sea (or the sun, either) at our campsite. I was mollified by the fact that it rained on us (lightly) one day and on the second we made a fire and made s’mores, which fulfilled my camping requirements. Our camp was lovely too, surrounded by small redwoods and few campers, and about 50 yards away was a little river, cold and icy, that you could sit and contemplate. (Do not go in. Didn’t I say icy?) We also had embarrassing hiking adventures which I shall relate at another time, and tried to go to the Henry Miller Library, being literature grad students and all, but the proprietors apparently didn’t feel like being there that day, as they had closed the place and left a note on the gate.

The highlight of the little trip was actually not the views or the clean crisp woody air or trying to get the campfire to burn on a cold and drippy night, but the unexpected rainbow that stretched across two hills, a perfect bow, with the colors distinct and clear and exactly where they should be, like a present that someone had accidentally left out for us. It made it all worth it, losing momentum on the dissertation and the lack of sleep on the lumpy ground and the gas money and driving back like a bat out of hell in order to make it to proctor the final in time and even the following four days of harried, eye-gouging grading. It wasn’t extreme-adventure or rivetingly exciting or daring, true. But it was completely spontaneous.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A little procrastination and a pean to Steve

Ok, I had an adventure and will tell you all about it, but I have made a solemn oath not to do any blogging until my grading is done, which explains the silence this week. (And people picked this week to post comments! Hello, everyone! )

The grading is nearing its end (which is good, as we have a norming meeting tomorrow afternoon and I must be done by then), and I have been mostly good about my enforced blogging restraint, although I did take breaks between sets of questions to pepper everyone with comments as I caught up on their blogs. (Reading blogs doesn't count, does it?)

Anyway, not all the blogs on my blogroll are academic. Anyone who loves absurd humor and retro robots should already know about The Sneeze, which has returned to its sneezy goodness after being sporadically updated for several months. Steve does the world a grand service by posting things of varying ridiculousness and tasting things that should probably not be eaten. (For old fun, see his Steve! Don't Eat it! sections.) Today, however, I scared my cats (appropriately enough, as you shall see) by falling off my couch laughing so hard that tears ran down my face and I began making uncontrolled snorts and hoots that resembled demonic possession rather than laughter. Why? Read Meowgasm. Have fun!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Productivity update

Hey, I got some stuff done! See:
  • gather my student evals and prepare a (yet another) summer teaching request packet
  • research tickets/hotels/etc. for upcoming conference
  • email two profs to pick their brains (one down)
  • call dissertation partner
  • finish studying that book’s structure (I may become brain dead soon and not be able to do this one) no maybe about this, that's for sure
And today's list of wonderfulness:
  • doctor’s appointment
  • turn in teaching request packet
  • pick up chapter ( it's still not in my box! Bleah! )
  • pick up ILLs
  • return borrowed CD and DVD to friend
  • meet w. dissertation partner and write? (read a useful book instead)
  • grease the wheels of collegiality?
Nah, I was on campus, in the library, reading away, instead of being "collegial" and attending that screening and talk. The book I read today was only ok in terms of usefulness to my chapter, but if I get this summer teaching class it would be an interesting anthology to teach the students. Ok, actually, a soul-killing slog for them that only a sadistic grad student like myself would find fun and stimulating, but I'm still interested in using it.

And now that I have done many wonderful things, I may get a movie and cook something fancy and delicious, or maybe just lie around on the couch going "Aaaaaarrgghhh!", 'cause my brain is fried.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Blogging, Unproductive Thursday Edition

Today I have not gotten much done. Perhaps posting an un-list here on the blog will light the fires to get me moving and not waste the rest of the day. Part of the problem was that I did not need to go to campus yesterday or today. It seems that two days at home with no schedule can put me over the edge into mental vacation territory. It doesn’t help that my cat, who was originally named Loquito* at the shelter and which explains a lot about him, so it works as a blog name, has mislearned my training. I feed my cats by the clock, morning and evening. Evidently Loquito has decided that if he meows, bites, pokes his head in my face, and generally annoys me enough, I will feed him early, even though that is not true ---- it simply eventually becomes 7 pm. Timido is, appropriately to his name, hiding and napping under the bed right now. You can see him hiding behind the books at right, before he started chewing on them from behind and I had to push them all to the back of the shelves. Timido never gives me any trouble. In fact, I hate to admit it, but a while back I accidentally shut him in the bathroom for an hour and didn’t know it because he meowed so quietly from in there. (Hey, I thought he was under the bed, being quiet!) My friends disbelieve in the existence of Timido, as he runs for it under the bed or the couch whenever someone knocks on the door. Once I tried to bring him out to see them, and I had huge trenches gouged in my arms as a result, so they’ll have to take his existence on faith. Anyways, in sum, working at home is often less than productive.

Being at home for more than one day also gets me a leetle bit stir-crazy and I start seeking out human companionship in strange ways, usually obsessively checking my email, reading blogs, the news online, etc. Yesterday I worked my way through a book for the new chapter and compiled a big fat bibliography from online. (Oh yeah, I should post about my strange procrastination methods. In short, I’m avoiding the article right now by starting chapter 4. As soon as ch. 4 gets tough I’m sure that article revision will start looking good. I get a lot of diss. work done when I get midterms and papers, as well.) Today, I got started late, re-read about half a book (assigned for a class long ago; now I am studying how she structured one chapter as my advisor wants me to try something different for the argument of this next chapter), and got my haircut. Since the haircut I have done nothing even vaguely productive, though I did ponder the value of book reviews, as everyone in the blogoverse is currently writing one, preparing to write one, or just finished with one. I would need to research and think a lot more before posting about this topic, so I am not allowing myself to do it until I get some actual work done.

And what do I have on my plate left to do? (Apart from write a dissertation and revise that article? Oh, not much. --- Gee, thanks luv.) I need to:

  • gather my student evals and prepare a (yet another) summer teaching request packet
  • research tickets/hotels/etc. for upcoming conference
  • email two profs to pick their brains (now, this won’t hurt a bit, I promise)
  • call dissertation partner
  • finish studying that book’s structure (I may become brain dead soon and not be able to do this one)

Now, tomorrow I will go on campus. Might as well make a list for that too:

  • doctor’s appointment
  • turn in teaching request packet
  • pick up chapter (did I mention that I had a fabulous meeting with my advisor about my finished chapter? It was great, except she forgot to bring it to school with her. As soon as I get it, I will make all her style/proofing changes and hustle it off to the rest of the committee. Yippee!)
  • get books from the library
  • return borrowed CD and DVD to friend
  • meet w. dissertation partner and write?
  • grease the wheels of collegiality?

That last one is about those “unwritten” obligations we all have to attend department or research area talks, special visits, reading groups, etc. I already blew off one earlier this week, even though I was on campus, because I was tired and wanted a nap and the whole talk and question thing was scheduled for three hours. I have been bad and unsocial a lot lately, although I was the eager-beaver always attending dept. brown bags and presentations and coordinating things in the first few years I was a grad here, so I don’t feel completely guilty. And a lot of these events are genuinely wonderful and fun ---- and some have even snagged me useful collaborative partners in other grads or professors or helped me with background or thinking on my own work. This one is not really what I do … but it is what my advisor does … and she is the one running it. However, it’s a long film screening and then a long discussion, of readings which I have not picked up yet, and I feel that even halfassed picking at my dissertation during that time would be more productive. Not sure yet what I’ll do. What do you suggest?

* My Spanish is incompetent, but a quick check of BabelFish and online Spanish dictionaries tells me that this is not even a real word. Typical of the love of faux-Spanish d├ęcor and simultaneous obliviousness to actual Chicana/o people and their culture in this town. Still, a name is a name is a name. Which is to say, it’s not that much. Y los gatos son muy lindo!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Whoo-hoo! I am employed!

No, not a real job, in case you’re wondering. I have finally scrounged up a TAship for next quarter --- with only a week to go in the current quarter, in which I am not really employed; I had to suck it up and take out loans. (And took a readership too, one of those things where you don’t have a section but do the grading, ya know? Well, when you count up the hours of lecture and film screenings the money is pretty much nil. Don’t do it, I tell you. They won’t give you enough hours for the union contract to kick in and cover your fees if they can help it.)

Luckily, Der Gubernator plans to once again hike our fees another 10 %, despite our protests (and more protests). And since the fees have gone up 84% since 2002* ---- and I got here before that ---- the maximum amount of subsidized loans per quarter is just less than the fees and health insurance, meaning that you’d have to either go to a private lender or get a job if you plan to pay rent or eat after taking out all those loans. I’m pretty sure it’s part of a diabolical plan to ensure a captive labor force of desperate grad students (and adjuncts? I don’t know how you can live out here in the Land of the Expensive without being able to take out student loans. I feel for you.) but someone keeps letting in too many captive desperate grad students or starting new Ph.D. programs or something as the number of TAships is getting squeezed. Those of us who have been here a while get squeezed out over the newbies, even though the effort of constantly teaching and scrounging up funding slows down our progress toward the degree in a big never-ending cycle. Even for me to get this windfall someone else had to get sick.

It’s not completely Darwinian over here ---- my department has been pretty good, except for a few fiscally imprudent years (fucking English profs can’t do math! Sure, live up to the stereotypes, guys!) about guaranteeing everyone four years of funding, mostly teaching, with a fellowship year or two thrown in for those who I’ll call the “golden boys.” But even the most motivated and fellowshipped of us are not finishing in four ---- do people really make it through all their classes, language requirements, and research and write a dissertation in that amount of time elsewhere? ---- and with the added pressures of “professionalization” contributing to our checklist of requirements, we’re all thrown in to the cycle of constantly scrambling for funding. Push rock up hill. Get smushed by rock. Walk back to bottom of hill. Repeat. Don’t even get me started on the job market ---- and I don’t just mean the time and effort of it, but the odds of us ever getting anything on a tt-track (another good reason to let in fewer people and support them longer, folks at the department! From my mouth to the chair's ears.).

I wonder if this is the same problem at private U’s? I know at some ivies people toil in comp the whole time they’re there, but other places only have their grads teach for a year. (I know because some of us have jumped ship from here to cushy and well-respected departments elsewhere, and we keep hiring profs from the top ivies who have never taught before and are terrible teachers here at first. But I won’t say anything further against them since I like who we’ve hired recently; they're cool people.) I worry about this (well, I worry about everything, but still), since the more I think about this whole problem of funding systemically, the more troubling it becomes. Because it would make sense that those people who have had the time to think deeply and carefully about their dissertations and take extra time to revise them would look better on the job market. Besides the cachet of an ivy degree, they would have had more time to polish their diss. as well as respond to the pressures of professionalization with publications and such. Even if us “poor cousins” do make it into postdocs and tt jobs, the “silver spoon” class of Ph.D.s will be a jump ahead, setting the tenure bar higher as they have dissertations closer to book quality. Siiiiiiigh. And furthermore, our department pretty openly admits they think we should be getting jobs at “comparable if not ivy-league” R1s, even if they wouldn’t be caught dead hiring someone from a mid-tier public for themselves. The more I think about it, the more I realize just how much of a fucked-up class system this whole ride is.

And I haven’t even talked about the class status of individual grads yet ---- there’s a lot of trust-fund babies and privileged children of professors running around out there. Sometimes I feel totally out of place in the world of academia, and I’m solidly middle class! (Actually, it’s my middle-class sense of entitlement ---- what the fuck do you mean I’m going to put my all into a system and not get a fair and equal return!?! ---- that makes me voice these complaints in the first place. Without generalizing too much, many of the first-generation-college students in grad school I know either feel incredibly grateful for whatever they do get, as if they don’t deserve any teaching support and anything they do get is just a wonderful gift, or they get increasingly swamped and resentful and just quit the whole thing.) When you look around our department, our grads may not look all that diverse, but there are a quite a few working-class and returning older grad students, who, I would argue, provide a valuable perspective to the department and academia as a whole. But I don’t know how much longer that will be so. I can’t imagine how someone would survive on my salary with a health problem, or while supporting children, or while helping extended family pay their bills or rent. And I was lucky enough to not have any undergraduate loans (thanks, parents and undergrad public school!), which makes the thought of the loans currently piling up a tad more bearable. I could see someone who already has a lot of debt and had to work their way through undergrad just giving up on grad school altogether. And while I agree we have too many grads and new Ph.D.s floating around out there, I’m not sure creating restrictions that limit the pool to even-more privileged and overwhelmingly white candidates is the way to go.

* This guy's numbers are different from what our grad student association says ---- I can't tell who's including the proposed fee increases for next year and who's not. Either way, every time fees go up, the department's funding pot covers fewer people.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Wordy bastard seeks advice

So, what is the "standard" length for an article in a literature journal? PMLA requires articles to be between "2,500 and 9,000 words (including notes but not works cited or translations)" --- is that a reasonable standard to assume? I have three or four journals I'm thinking of submitting to that do not list any guidelines for length on their web sites. (I know, I know, you'll probably tell me to just email the journal and ask them, but really what is the web for if not the random solicitation and offering of piddly advice?). And no, I am not a superpower who's about to shoot out four articles for publication; I have one very lumpy, bloated excuse for an article and I am planning out my submission and resubmission strategy.

You know, one of my committee members is the master of the backhanded compliment. S/he never ever says anything mean or negative and is always very nurturing. This is great to have on a committee, until you realize that not ever getting any harsh feedback can sink you if you happen to produce something bad. Luckily, my dissertation advisor, the Fascist, almost never gives compliments or nurturing, so the two balance each other well. F, the advisor, feels that her job is to "toughen you up" for whatever the academic world might throw at you by being far harsher than anything you might encounter later. I have impressed members of my cohort by saying she has said "good" and nodded in response to some of my ideas. Much more common is to nod along as you are speaking and then say "No. No, that is not what I expect at the graduate level. For speaking off the top of your head, perhaps. But remember that you will have to someday speak off the top of your head at a job talk and the professors there will not accept that because..." and then she proceeds to tear what you had just said to shreds. The good side is that, once you have built up some academic calluses, you know that when she says "ok, but..." followed by "then write it atgain," you know you have something pretty good.

What does this have to do with the Dr. Lefhanded compliment? Or my article? Well, one one of the (many) times I worked with this person over a draft of my article, Dr. L said "You know, a good article will really take the reader somewhere; it will, like a story, have a strong beginning, middle and end. And you've got that middle!" I was thrilled by this compliment for quite a while, before I really started to analyze it. And then it sounded worse and worse. Moreover, it's true.

I sent this article out long long ago and got back the rejection around December (the same time I started receiving rejection letters from my foray on the job market, in case you were keeping track). The rejection comments were blistering. (You'd think that Dr. Fascist's technique would have made me completely immune to harsh criticism, but oddly, no.) In fact, I read the letters and was too disheartened to even read the margin comments someone sent back along with the letter. So, now, much much later, I am steeling myself for yet another go-round of revision and rejection. And the general drift of their complaints? "So what?" as I like to write in my students' paper margins. Just as Dr. Lefthanded was trying to tell me, I have a middle and no ending (the intro is weak too, but I knew that. I got stuck and decided to send it off a little rough.) I seem to be improving; I can see the problems now so much more clearly, if not really how to resolve them yet.

Horace over at To Delight and to Instruct had a post a while back about grad students who do the obvious reading to an overdone text, something that my profs didn't necessarily care about one way or another in their grad seminars and something that I was never warned about. Now what I think I have to deal with is to take an article that's 20% new and original scholarship, cut the derivative crap, and say how my new stuff furthers the critical conversation. And how well is that going? Well, I'm blogging in the middle of the day instead of revising it, aren't I? This whole publishing-an-article-thing (which my department mentions you should do but doesn't give you help in doing it or even suggest you should start thinking about it early) is certainly making me rethink everything about what is scholarship and what I am doing and why we do things a certain way, and discover all the conventions and secret handshakes that seem to litter academic articles. It is definitely a learning experience. Fuckin' learning experiences; I hate them.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

List-ing (Listless?)

One of the difficulties of grad school is negotiating time, especially once you go ABD. Everyone seems to assume you know what you’re doing by this point: here, go off somewhere and write your dissertation and bring it back to me when you’re done. This leaves you with vast uncharted amounts of time and a massive to-do list that paralyzes you through the sheer unstartability of it all. (You might, for example, go off on a huge OED hunt for the history and usage of words like “unstartability.” Trust me, it’s a less exciting word history than you think.) This problem ironically becomes especially acute if you secure a fellowship for your “dissertation writing year” — and I usually do not say that grad students on fellowship have it harder than those teaching or scraping together other forms of work, but in this one respect it is more difficult.

In the early years of grad school, your schedule might seem quite self-evident, if not manageable (and how quickly the nostalgia for those seemingly “tough times” sets in!), because there are distinct tasks with easily identifiable deadlines. For example, a typical day’s to-do list might look like this:

- frantically finish reading the novel for today’s section
- prepare something to do in section
- teach section
- attend lecture for TAship
- read everything for tomorrow’s seminar

See? A pretty decent amount of tasks that you know must be done by a certain point or else the whole thing is moot. (Note to actual grad students: you’ll notice that the big deadline of passing the quals next year is not reflected in this list — it’s better to add one reading list item a day to your to-do list than try to read them all at the last minute next spring. Cramming doesn’t really work in grad school. Maybe I’ll post on this later.) On the other hand, after you pass all those exams and qualifiers and have nothing to do but write your dissertation, your to-do list typically looks something like this:

- wake up
- write the dissertation
- find a tenure-track job

With a list like this, it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. It’s even hard to get out of the fetal position you’ve been in, whimpering on the floor. The temptation, if you’re teaching, is to revert to the much-easier-to-peruse-without-imploding first list, minus seminar reading (I could write a dozen posts about grad students and the teaching trap and time management if you’d like). Eventually, though, you learn that you have to break down the project into smaller and more manageable tasks and make more pragmatic to-do lists (Note to advisors: telling your advisees that they should only think about writing a chapter instead of the dissertation is still a bit big. Could you give us a few more focused suggestions about how to leap in and start tackling a part of the project instead?).

However, I have recently developed an unhealthy relationship with my to-do lists. Making lists makes you feel soo good. Crossing off items gives you such a rush that you just want to do more things so you can cross them off too. But like a coke addict, I’ve become habituated to my usual list-making and doing that line just doesn’t last as long as it used to. I need more and more, and my lists have gone in the opposite direction as the ABD list, from overwhelmingly vague to minutely petty:

- wake up
- breakfast
- feed cats
- catbox
- shower
- dress
- sit around drinking my tea
- make to-do list for chapter
- fix those three transitions in part 2 of chapter

So, while I may feel productive and successful every day and tell people, “Wow, I did 10 thinks on my to-do list today!” I ask you, am I really getting done what needs to be done? As Tenured Radical put it in one of her earlier posts,
one of the things I have learned over the twenty years since I finished my dissertation is that hard work isn’t such a big deal, but figuring out how to direct it even semi-efficiently can be.
I think that this is now what I need to work on: keeping my Eyes on the Prize (i.e. will this to-do list item actually help finish the dissertation or get me a job?) and making sure that my “productivity” is actually productive. That and keeping a balance between the small and overwhelming list and the long list of picayune details.

Thoughts? Helpful suggestions? Got any magic fairies or wands that instantaneously complete your work for you? And could I borrow 'em?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Learning to Cook

Ahhh, I just made some really delicious food. I have things to say about teaching and my current research hyperventilations and still have to gather my thoughts about theory in response to Acephalous, but I will write about eating. For what could be more Sisyphean than the continual cycle of cooking and washing up, hungering and then being full? Keeping my kitchen clean seems to be a constant and losing battle against entropy. It’s tempting to want to give up on the whole thing, but cooking, and eating, (unlike making your bed every day) have their own pleasures.

Fittingly, I seem to make New Year’s Resolutions — or rather, to re-dedicate myself to Resolutions I am continually lapsing from — continually. “Learning to cook” has been on and off my resolution lists for years (it doesn’t help that it directly conflicts with the “lose weight” resolution), and most recently I made the more specific vow to learn to deal with vegetables. It was part of my plan to eat healthier, and, frankly, because I don’t know what the hell to do with them — when is it in season? How do you know when it’s ripe? Or done cooking? What do you have to cut off, and what leave? And do I have to eat them afterwards? Sheesh.

Luckily, my friend and dissertation buddy gave me a wonderful book for Christmas, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which is a tome, I tell you. It’s great. The only thing I would like is more color pictures of the veggies and dishes, cause, really, what I need is a “Cooking Vegetables for Complete Numbskulls” book. But the book is wonderful not only for its description of how to cut and prepare the vegetables and for listing what types of veggies and sauces or herbs go well together, but for revealing how amazingly wonderful and delicious vegetables really are. The book achieves this remarkable feat simply by recommending that pretty much everything in it be cooked with butter. (It’s very French-cooking style in this way. Even stuff that is being steamed is often covered with a butter sauce as the final step. Light Vegetarian Cooking it is not.) Now, while I do recommend that everyone immediately go out and buy the book (and then invite me over for dinner), I will warn that it assumes you know some things — “salt to taste” and “boil until done” are some unfortunate repeated phrases that have no ballpark ranges, so first attempts are often inedible. It also assumes you have tons of fresh herbs and lemons etc. just sitting around in easy reach, which often leaves you in the position of running amuck around the house with something burning, shouting “crap! I have no dill” or “what the fuck are scallions and what can I possibly use to substitute at the last minute?”

But tonight I made tomatoes with a balsamic vinegar glaze, having especially made a trip to get balsamic vinegar (but not, unfortunately, scallions), and it turned out pretty good despite some omissions and substitutions. And that’s one of two difficulties I have with cooking: to get really good at cooking requires a willingness to experiment, to depart from a recipe, that I don’t have the confidence for. The other is that cooking doesn’t seem to be taught well from a book. It would be much easier to stand next to someone as they worked, pointing — “when it turns this color, take it from the heat. Stir it like so and be sure to shake the pan a bit.” Most of my friends who are good cooks had mothers who were good cooks and valued quality food — while I totally appreciate my mother’s feminist refusal to spend more time on preparing a meal than it took us to eat it, an alternative to convenience food could have been to require everyone to contribute to the kitchen work. For food isn’t simply what we eat for nutrition, or the sensuous pleasures of its textures and smells as one prepares it, food is all the memories of our families and cultures and the stories that get passed down as they it is made and eaten.

On the same page as my balsamic tomato dish was a recipe for fried green tomatoes, which looked intriguing, but I did not have any cornmeal, or tomatoes that were green, either. It reminded me though of a passage I have always loved in the novel Bastard Out of Carolina, not a scene of happy family gatherings and storytelling, but an important instance of cultural education nonetheless. Anney Boatwright has married up, so she thought, but now is trapped in marriage to a shiftless and abusive man in the impoverished South of the early 60s. One day she is driven to feeding her children saltines with ketchup at lunch and then sending them to bed hungry, which drives her over the edge. “I was never gonna have my kids know what it was like. Never was gonna have them hungry or cold or scared” she hisses at her husband, before putting on full makeup and heels and driving away into the night. When she returns much later, it is with big sacks of groceries, and she wakes up her two little girls. Pointedly ignoring Glenn, her husband, she begins to cook, with fury and with skill, eggs, biscuits from scratch, and fried green tomatoes. Sleepily, the little girls begin to eat. As if to fill the silence, or to preserve the powerful association of storytelling and cooking, she begins to talk about how they should be prepared, saying that "You got to get the tomatoes almost done before you put the eggs in, 'cause you don't cook the eggs much at all. Want them soft. Want them to melt like butter between your teeth and your tongue." It is clear, though, that the real lesson she is teaching here is not directed at her children at all, and that Bone, the eldest child and narrator of the novel, dimly realizes this. Distracting her children from the indignity of a saltines and ketchup lunch, Anney earlier tells stories of what it's like to be really hungry and how she and her brothers and sisters would imagine the most outlandish and disgusting imaginary meals to fill their empty plates. Deprived of food, they have each other; unable to share money, they eat their words. In a different way but no less powerfully here, Glenn is shut up and shut out of Anney's family, unable to provide for them, on multiple levels.