20 April 2006

Anyone Want to Watch "Arguing the World?"

For once my couch isn’t covered with laundry and this evening I am sitting on it, enjoying the feeling of a room warmed by the day’s sun, reading the third installment of the “Shopaholic” book series and trying to break out of a melancholy mood. I skipped the gym because I am trying to actually listen to my cold-infested body, and thus I am missing the endorphins I rely quite heavily upon – however, this is not the cause of my unrest. Nor, for once, is it boy drama – shocking, I know.

Again the cause of my funny mood is academia – the looming yearlong process of reapplying to PhD programs and the dual notions of uncertainty and possibility that this entails. Despite the daunting five-year commitment and my desire to affect change beyond the confines of the academe, my specific research interests and methods draw me back to the possibility of entering a PhD program, and place my fate yet again in the hands of admissions committees.

I am certain this second time around I will be accepted into history programs. So much has changed in the past year – I am published, I have presented, my commitment has been tested by both time and the lure of the paycheck – but most importantly, my area of interest has been refined and my confidence in talking about this interest has grown immensely. Over the past few weeks, I have started to understand the commonalities intertwining my past papers and potential research interests. This process of realization has overwhelmed me, but in a positive way. The melancholy feelings come from yet again feeling so close to something yet still not there – being so excited by the prospect of something so uncertain. I know what I want, I know where to get it, but it is not mine yet and I don’t know if I will be able to effectively articulate my interests and merit to the gatekeepers. In hopes of learning how to best express my interests in a personal statement, I apologize ahead of time if this blog becomes a brainstorming center for my ideas about ideas – ha!

Which brings me to the biggest reason of them all for re-entering graduate school: in a history PhD program, I wouldn’t have to apologize for my interests. And I know I don’t actually have to apologize to my friends and family when I go off on a long-winded tangent about pragmatism, or force one of you to watch Arguing the World (a great documentary about the NY Intellectuals), but I see that glazed over look – it is the same one I get when Nicki and Justin debate the intricacies of classical music – my ability to participate in that conversation ends when the jokes move beyond the mispronunciations of Wagner and Shostakovich.

Many of my friends tolerate my pragmatic ramblings, but that is most likely because they have love for me rather than for my research. This cannot be represented better than by my sister’s attendance at the history conference last month – she listened to me practice my talk twice, understood little of the arcane babble I discussed, yet sat through eight hours of a conference because she is really supportive (not because she thought it was interesting). But it was nice to have her there, for her to see a window into a separate world of mine – that even I am just beginning to truly see myself in.

I know a lot of people have interests and experiences in their lives they wish they could share with more people, and for me, intellectual history is just that. Often it will be our desire to meet like-minded people that propels us to make decisions regarding our life’s work, whether it be a trek across country to medical school, DC, or the start of a divinity program. I spend so much time reading books and articles, researching and writing about this topic – yet I don’t share this interest with anyone I know. I think that people who end up fulfilled in life are those who share their passions. This is not meant to belittle the many wonderful experiences and interests I share with the people already in my life, but I know a part of me currently lies unfulfilled. This is as concrete of a reason I can give for putting myself through this agonizing application process yet again. God help me!

12 April 2006

A Nuclear Front to the War on Terror?

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Seymour Hersh speak at the J-School. I encourage everyone to read his most recent article linked here from The New Yorker.

Most recently Hersh broke the story of Abu Ghraib, but was also the investigative reporter responsible for uncovering the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. Just sitting in the same room with him, I felt like a priviledged insider.

Having recently posted to this blog in commemoration of the third anniversary of the War in Iraq, I am horrified to think that the Bush team thinks another front - and a nuclear one at that - is possible.

05 April 2006

The Undomestic Goddess

I have a long list of books I would love to review for this blog:

George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate
Chris Hedges’ War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
Cornell West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Geneology of Pragmatism

But today I would like to discuss Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess.

The Undomestic Goddess

No, this is not the latest in popular sociology or a neo-feminist book. Rather, The Undomestic Goddess is a novel, the kind often categorized in the realm of “chick lit” and the latest book to remind me that there is a world of books beyond non-fiction – a world slightly more sophisticated than your average sitcom – that can be a lot of fun.

Upon finishing my masters, I set out with the help of friends, to rediscover the fictional word. I wasn't easy for me, and often a tinge of guilt creeps forth if I cannot find some semblance of social relevance in the book. For example: Phillip Roth's The Human Stain - a fictional narrative on the complexities of race in America = guilt free reading. But this sort of social commentary fiction strays very little from current non-fiction cultural/political commentary, that the whole concept of me reading fiction in order to escape is lost.

The Undomestic Goddess is just that - pure escapist fiction. Where there could be commentary (she leaves a job in a law firm and accidentally becomes a maid) Kinsella skirts the issue, arguing the character is choosing her personal preferrence rather than making an argument that is pro or anti-feminist. There is absolutely nothing to take away from this novel - the plot is improbable, the character unlikely, and yet I loved EVERY minute of it!

That is - every minute but those when I had to put down the book because the predicament the character had gotten herself into was so painful I couldn't take it anymore. These cringeworthy moments reminded me of watching reality television, when the situation becomes so disasterous (or reminiscent of an embarrasing memory of my own) that I feel a need to run and hide behind the doorway to peak in at the tv (I actually do this) rather than calmly watching from the sofa or bed. Never have I had this feeling so accurately recreated in a book until now.

So if you actually want to laugh outloud alone in your room, completely forget the more pressing issues of our day for a few hours, and accidentally stay up till 3AM on a work night because you can't put the pointless book down until you know how the character resolves the impossible predicament - then The Undomestic Goddess is the book for you. Enjoy!

02 April 2006

Three Years Later

March 18th, I awoke with a profound headache and the sound of breathing next to me. Had my life morphed into an episode of Sex and the City? Please… It was Nicki – my wonderful friend who thankfully picked me up from my ill-fated St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Outside of football season, my tolerance was lacking and my vegetarian status rendered me unable to eat the Irish dinner of choice, corned beef and cabbage. Thus, the alcohol hit me hard and fast. And while the night was crazy, I was still home in bed by midnight – thanks to Nicki.

I had an early morning appointment to keep in the city – that all-important hair highlighting session so I didn’t have two-toned hair at my history conference. So after emerging from my bed, and scarfing down a yummy cheese roll from The Cheese Board, I made my way into the city – dark sunglasses plied to my face.

Exiting the salon as a reinstated blonde, I strolled through Maiden Lane, home of expensive shops I will never enter, past the larger gentleman who belts Pavarotti’s favorites on a daily basis, and into Union Square where I had parked my car. I had noticed a larger police presence as I drove into Union Square earlier in the day, but thought little of it until I checked my voicemail when leaving the salon. Justin had called to see if I wanted to go into the city to protest the third anniversary of the war in Iraq. A nameless emotion began to mix with the hangover in the pit of my stomach.

It wasn’t guilt that I felt as much as a deeply sad recognition of how living with war has changed my life.

By March 20th, 2003, Justin, Destry and I had already logged many hours of protesting the war Bush promised in his September 11, 2002 speech. However, on March 20th, the war was no longer an idea but a reality and our response would transform from sanctioned marching to direct action. On the 19th of March we had a sleepover in my Berkeley apartment and woke early the next day to shut down San Francisco on the first day of war. I brought with me a brand new Canon GL2 and videotaped the events of the day. First we watched as protestors were arrested and removed outside of the Bechtel Engineering building, a firm set to make big money rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure after the war. Then Destry and Justin sat defiantly in an intersection with a large group. One by one the police forcibly removed all of them. The scene was too much for me. I sobbed from behind the camera. After Destry and Justin were driven away in a makeshift paddy wagon, I was consumed by a sense of isolation.

Protesting for me was a group activity. I did it as much for the cause as for myself. I didn’t know how to comprehend the war, and I took comfort in the company of like-minded friends and felt some semblance of empowerment from the activity – no matter how indirect. Left to return to Berkeley alone, the façade of empowerment exposed itself and when I returned to SF later that evening to reunite with the recently released Destry and Justin – new and less organized protest tactics alienated me and without a badge of arrest, I wondered if I would feel the empowerment of group action again.

I would. A year later, Justin had moved to Colorado, I had started grad school and gave up my full-time protester (otherwise known as unemployed) status. I had made a music video with my footage from March 20th and thus realized one of the ways I could be effective in fighting war. When the first-anniversary of the start of the war came around, the three of us reunited in San Francisco to march in opposition. It was my type of protest – children against war sitting on the shoulders of their parents and the always-adorable Raging Grannies (of which my friend Matt’s grandma is a member).

For two consecutive war anniversaries now I have missed the San Francisco marches in opposition to the war. What does this say about me? My belief that this war is unjust and unnecessary is as strong now as it was before. However, my motivation has changed as have the outlets for my frustration. At the onset of the war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, my emotional reaction to war drove my desire to action. Three years later, the continued war has dulled my emotions, and the knowledge I have accumulated about the war, rather than feelings, moves me to act. Now, however, I have found a new outlet for my frustration. I respect protests and direct action, but political books, my job, our Iraq-centered events and discussions, and even this blog have given me a new forum to discuss my feelings about the war in a way that makes my pragmatic mind feel more useful and empowered.

Three years have passed since this war began and while my personal tactics for dealing with the uncertain chaos of it all has changed, the reality of war has not. It needs to end – NOW.