Archive for the 'Musings' Category

Sorting, Balance, Focus

One aspect of grad school so far has involved sorting things out. Maybe I’m trying to, uh… modernize my life, or something. This sorting and classifying has proven productive: I’ve thought new thoughts and written new things that I might not otherwise have done.

Sorting school from life, first of all. School is not life. School is a job.  Most importantly: I do not live at school anymore (on campus or in the dorms). Never mind that my social life revolves around school… I’m fine with that.

Sorting “things I’m going to study and write about” from “things I’m interested in.” I am interested in food and cooking, bikes, gardening, visual art of various media, language and literature, but I’m not necessarily going to study and write about those things (er, for my job). That does not, however, mean I have to give those interests up.

So I’ve sorted. And am constantly sorting, as new hybrids arise as a result of said sorting. But now I’m trying to find a little balance between the school-life dichotomy I’ve set up for myself.  At orientation last fall, the Department Chair warned the incoming cohort that we would have blinders on for a while– our focus would become very narrow and we might have to give up our hobbies. But not to worry– hobbies and balance would eventually be returned to our lives.

I think she meant “after you finish your degrees” that hobbies and balance would return to our lives… but c’mon! We run the risk of driving ourselves crazy if we don’t find some balance throughout.  I think people with families find that balance (hopefully) much faster than others of us, out of simple necessity (and by virtue of having a spouse/ partner saying “Snap out of it!”). But I have single (or at least, unmarried) friends that seem to find it as well.

This fall was the first time in 5 years that I haven’t raced my mountain bike. In fact, I haven’t touched poor Lucy (geared bike) or Ramona (single speed bike) since April! Tragic.  I stopped because 1) I didn’t have time to drive up to 12 hours each way for races on the weekends, AND finish all the reading I had to get done and 2) While it was really fun to hang out with a bunch of 18-year-old boys when I was an 18-year-old girl… not as much fun anymore (no offense, guys).

I thought that I would miss the social aspects of racing the most (and I could replace those with other social activities), but in fact I missed the actual competition. I missed the nervous butterflies before a race and pushing myself until my vision was blurry. I missed the pre- and post-race rituals too: the pre-race eating, organizing, warming up, going over the course; the post-race eating, cleaning, stretching, and collective bitching and groaning about muscle aches and performance issues. (Hm, eating figures in twice there… surprise surprise.)

I also find that I am a lot less-healthy mentally without some sort of focused physical outlet. I don’t mean that I go off the deep end– I think I’ve hammered out my diet well enough in the past few years that I keep my moods and energy much much more balanced than in early college (I’ve also got a handle– I think– on that transition-time stress that plagues college freshman).  I mean that I can’t seem to *think* sometimes.  The wheels might be spinning, but the hamster is either comatose or dead. I can’t focus long enough to read a page of a book (often an extremely dense and less-than-fascinating book, but still). Thinking, for most people, is an important part of academia (though some of my colleagues might debate this).

In between my two brain-draining seminars yesterday (brain-draining in the sense that I feel like I want a cigarette afterward… and I’ve never smoked in my life) I went to the gym.  It’s the same gym that I’ve been going to for 5 years (now 6).  It’s the gym where I trained for my first Big Bike Ride, and all subsequent races and rides. I was worried that I’d have a panicked “Ohmygodimstillhereaftersixyearsandstillhavesixmoretogo!” attack, but I didn’t.

The familiarity of the place was comforting! Yeah, it was kind of gross and dimly lit, full of smelly jocks, anorexic girls, and other varieties of undergrads, but it reminded me of the fun things I enjoyed doing before work started to take over.

I did a similar routine to what I’ve always done (with a few exceptions).  I spent 20 minutes warming up on an elliptical trainer (I know it’s lame, but real running gives me asthma attacks), and about an hour lifting and stretching. I felt more energized and focused afterward than I have since September.

[I told my roommate that I’d been to the gym yesterday, and she said “What, did they open a coffee shop there?” Har. Har.]

I also drink less coffee when I work out. Bonus!

Of course, being who I am (a planner), I start thinking “Gee, it would be so great to race again in the spring!” I mean, I could fit in workouts in between classes and studying like I did yesterday, and I would feel so much better about life in general!

So I started eyeing the race I originally wanted to do last May: the Mohican 100. I wouldn’t do the 100miler (I simply don’t have the time or motivation to train for that one) but what about the 100k? I could totally do that… right?

The problem is, as soon as I start imposing a regimen on myself, I’ll try to cheat (don’t ask me why, I just will). That has been the trick to eating well– I don’t deny myself a damn cookie if I want one. I don’t eat them very often, but as soon as I start saying “No, cookies are bad,” I start craving them. (That, and I have slowly developed, over 5 years or so, a deep-seated aversion to pre-packaged foods.)

So if I start saying “Mondays are a bike day, Tuesdays are swimming and rock climbing, Wednesdays are lifting, Thursdays are biking, Fridays are biking, Saturday and Sunday are rest days” (which, in fact, is what I was kind of thinking), will I start to think “to hell with it”?

I know I won’t be happy with just racing “for fun”– I want to feel that I did my best. And in order to do that, I have to train well. But will that take the fun out of it? Will I start to feel tired rather than energized (which has happened in the past)? Maybe I’m not cut out for physical competition… maybe it would drain too much of my focus away from other, more pressing things…

Or maybe it would offer a nice outlet, which I could seriously use right now.


biding my time

it’s exam week.

for my students, not for me. which i think might be even worse. i told them that at 11:30 PM, i will stop responding to questions. i will answer their questions as promptly as humanly possible, until 11:30 PM. i will not answer any questions the day of the exam.

really, though, i think 11:30 is generous.

so now i’m sitting here, trying to stay awake for another 20 minutes, hitting refresh on my inbox so i don’t miss any frantic emails.


i talked to my ex tonight, who lives in portland, or. we were coworkers and friends and have managed to stay friends thanks, i think in part, to the distance.

he’s moving to spain on monday.

hot damn. i am both extremely jealous and not jealous. i’ve never been to spain.

his move is completely impromptu, which is typical. i think he bought his ticket last week? he’s going to be spending a month in sevilla, and then moving to madrid to (hopefully) find work teaching. i would really relish the chance to wander around like that for a little while. i would love (love, love) to hike the camino de santiago in northern spain. a friend who hiked it told me that it takes about a month…

i’m feeling kind of antsy lately, and i know that summer will be here soon along with the chance to get out of town for four months. hopefully.

but in all honesty, i really wouldn’t rather be doing anything else right now. except maybe sleeping. i’m really digging this grad school thing, and plan to keep doing it until they either give me a degree for all my hard work, or tell me to scram.

so now i’m sitting here, trying to make sense of my spinning thoughts, indulging my total dorkiness for another 5-7 years so i can go out and share said dorkiness with the world.

i acknowledge that i will likely irritate a great many people in the process, further alienate myself from normal society, and come back to academia in short order. but that’s what i’ve expected all along, and i relish that too.

Mondays (A case of the ~~)

Courtesy OED (American usage).

Monday |ˈməndā|
the day of the week before Tuesday and following Sunday : I saw him on Monday | the Monday before last | [as adj. ] Monday morning.
on Monday : I’ll call you Monday.
• ( Mondays) on Mondays; each Monday : the restaurant is closed Mondays.
ORIGIN Old English Mōnandæg [day of the moon,] translation of late Latin lunae dies; compare with Dutch maandag and German Montag.


There was a time, not so very long ago, that I started all of my papers with either a dictionary definition or a quote.  Yes, I was one of those people.

In fact, I think I did it right up to the first two papers I wrote last semester. The grades on those papers cured me of that habit.

Sadly, the dictionary definition of ‘Monday’ doesn’t quite do the word justice. Think of all of the connotations that word draws on. Monday. Manic Monday.  I have a case of the Mondays.

Got up this morning actually on time to swim. Remember that, I was on time. Sat and pet the cats. Ate a bowl of granola. Put my swimsuit on under my clothes.

Suddenly, I was late for the bus.

Jogging up the street, not quite to the end of my block, I remember that I forgot my makeup bag. I know, I know, that sounds frivolous. Normally I wouldn’t have cared. But today I’m teaching, and if I don’t try to look my age, I look my students’ age. Which really, I am.  But there’s no need to emphasize it.

Turn around, head back.  By the time I get home (not jogging this time) I have missed the bus I was running for, and am about to miss the next bus too. I could take the 6:55 bus and be in the pool by 7:20, but then I wouldn’t be out of the pool until 8:00, which means I wouldn’t be prepping for class until 8:45, which would only leave me an hour and a bit. And I want to come up with a ‘fun’ review activity to do before the exam on Thursday, which will take more than an hour to do.

So I shower. Lather, rinse, repeat. Swimming can be postponed until after class.

On the bus, I run into a frequent customer at the bike shop where I worked this summer. He’s maybe a bit younger than my parents, and his fifteen-year-old son always hits on me when they’re in the shop (or at least gives that impression).

He’s awkward. One time, I ran into him as we were both leaving this popular mountain biking trail, and he says “It’s so nice to see a woman not afraid to ride out here alone!”

Errrr. Thanks? ::turns and sprints away::

Class is fine, I end up with 15 extra minutes to read after getting everything set up. All is well, except… I forgot my lunch.

No worries, I had also forgotten that I told a couple of friends I’d meet them at noon, and receive two emails reminding me. Swimming is pushed back to 1pm, just enough time to make it to my dentist appointment at 2 (if I cut it short a bit).

Lunch goes late. Which is fine, it’s good to catch up.  But by the time I am heading to the gym, it’s 1:15. That means that by the time I get there and change, I’ll have 30 minutes to swim and shower. So… 10 minutes to swim. If I rush (since really I don’t care what I look like at the dentist).

I decide to head to the student lounge and sit for a while instead. Chances are I’ll run into someone to talk to, or at the very least be able to check my email. I can swim at 4pm, before the student association meeting at 6 and the teachers’ union meeting at 7.

I make the mistake of voluntarily filling out this survey that Human Subjects Research sent out to people that had applications in the past year. They claim it will only take 15 minutes. LIES! A half-hour later…

Dentist appointment at 2.  I’m not in their scheduling system.  I show the lady behind the desk the slip of paper I had scrawled “Dentist: Mon March 10 2-5” on. Nope. Not in the system.  She pages my dental school student, who shows up to retrieve another patient and then disappears before I can catch him. I’ll have to call and reschedule.

So… now what? I can go home and see my cats and have something resembling a healthy dinner (no swimming, the pool is closed until 4)…. or I can hang out on campus, swim at 4, go to the meetings (in which we will discuss an issue that I’m actually concerned about) and have some greasy pizza for dinner. Excuse me. FREE greasy pizza for dinner.

Needless (?) to say, I chose the latter. Got a coffee refill and parked myself in a window to read my last article for the week (what’s that?! I’m… I’m…. on TOP of things?! ::GASP::).  Coffee shop instead of the student lounge because I don’t like to give the impression that I live there. Nor do I like to feel like I live there.

And I left a plate of cookies sitting on the table that I might eat if I’m sitting next to them for too long.

Sitting in a coffee shop: reflections on productivity

Sitting in a coffee shop and staring out the window, I have seen (in the past hour):

– My friend’s girlfriend. Third time in two days I have seen her on campus. Second time today (first time was getting off the bus… weird). She doesn’t make eye contact. I get the feeling she doesn’t like me, but maybe I’m wrong. We’ve only met once.

– My cohortmate/friend’s boyfriend (same person) on a bike. He is distracted by the traffic light and does not see me either. I like his bike, it has nice fenders. And it’s very clean.
– My other cohortmate on a bike. She is also distracted by the traffic light, although I send mental vibes to her to turn her head and see me waving. I think she got a new commuter– it seems she was on a mountain bike before. Her bike also has nice fenders. I need to get some fenders.

– My bike-teammate in a full team ‘kit’. I conclude he is heading out for a ride, because he lives in the opposite direction. I’d like to be heading out for a ride, but am afraid of the ice still on the road.

– One of my students. The one who is studying the same majors I did as an undergrad, and is even in the Residential College. Craziness.

– The same woman walk in front of the coffee shop three times.

Sitting in a coffee shop, I have accomplished (in the past hour):

– Read the latest post

– Drafted an email response to a professor at another university who was kind enough to suggest some references to me.

– Sent an email to a friend who invited me to dinner tonight.

– Watched the latest nine minutes of quarterlife. I’m starting to lose interest already. It’s better that way.

– Downloaded the dissertation of a woman I spoke to while I was applying to grad schools (she is at a different U) and read the abstract. She works with conservation and indigenous groups in Guatemala, and has done very interesting work.

– Deleted five extraneous emails as they arrived.

– Wrote this post.

And the good news is… I still have 3/4 a mug of coffee left!


Went hiking in the dunes today, and brought the camera. As my stepdad said, “… it looks mighty cold.” Heh, yeah. And windy! Here are the top 4 (of about 80! :-P).

I have a picture of those trees with leaves on them… somewhere!


Yes, I like shooting into the sun. Yes, I was taught that was a bozo-no-no as a kid. I think that’s why I like it.

I am learning how to use Aperture’s (the computer program for Macs) ranking and filing system… pretty sweet. Now to go back and sort, rank, and file the several thousand photos I have from my pre-Aperture days. I think sort (as in, ‘weed out and delete’) is the key there…

The Unmistakable Odor of Burning Tomato-tops

After a Moka Cappuccino, very dry chocolate panqueque (muffin), (transfer to a different restaurant) another café Americano, tamales chiapaneros, and some pozo (corn and chocolate drink), I’m feeling stuffed and slightly more human. I also got some quality reading in, which I was not able to do on the buses.

I decided to venture in to the 24-hour hot shower offered by my hostel. It’s clean (good news) but the hot water runs out about 3 minutes after I get my hair wet. Nevertheless, being clean feels good! And the hostel thankfully had towels (the last place did not).

As I was drying off, I caught a whiff of the unmistakable sweet scent of burning tomato-tops. My mother will know what I’m referring to, because that’s what she compares this smell to.


I went from “This is a business of God” at the hotel last night in Todos Santos to marijuana. Great.

I am not a smoker of any product, legal or otherwise. I never have been, and unless something drastic about my personality changes I never will be. That said, I have absolutely no problem with people who do choose to smoke (I’ve dated a couple)—your brain cells are none of my concern– but frankly I try to avoid situations where I’m inhaling smoke of some sort.

First of all, I’m asthmatic. Me + smoke of any sort = bad. And the smell of weed makes me feel queasy.

In places like this, where I think I’ll find some camaraderie with fellow travelers, I end up feeling alienated. It’s at (lonely, homesick) points like this that I really, really wish I could find someone like-minded to travel with.

It’s really tough to find someone who doesn’t mind taking the chicken buses, eating in $1.50 comedores, avoiding pre-arranged tours, and staying at $10/night hostels, but will still want to go to bed early in favor of getting up to see the sunrise, forego the extra drugs-and-alcohol, and avoid the gringo-party places.

I feel like there are two main types of travelers that you always run in to (at least in Latin America): 1) Tour-groupies, seemingly always American, Canadian, Australian, or German, who travel everywhere in private shuttles to see the “historical” and “scenic” places in a country, stay in hotels that cost at least U$40 a night, and eat at gringo restaurants that serve sanitized, international food; and 2) Backpackers, of international breed (Americans tend to be around my age, or mid-twenties; Israelis just released from the army; Australians, Brits, and Germans on a gap-year) that take semi-local transportation (a mix of chicken and first-class buses, the occasional shuttle), hang out in budget hotels, go on hiking or other adventure tours, drink and smoke a lot, and party in the gringo bars. They also carry all their possessions in a backpack (and you can usually tell their nationalities by the brand of backpack they carry!)
→ I carry a backpack also, and you can tell I’m from the States because my pack has “REI” written all over it!

Traveling (in my opinion) shouldn’t be a constant party and bar-hop. I mean, c’mon. The gringo bars in these places are all the same. Same “tropical” décor, same drinks, same music, same people!!

Plus, if you stay up late to drink yourself silly, you won’t be able to get up for the 6 am market.

I’m fine with hanging out with the occasional group-o-gringos (and in this case, gringo refers to any foreigner). It’s fun to hear peoples’ stories, what brings them to a place, where they’ve been, etc etc etc.

But, take for example this German guy I met last night. I have no (well, little) problem with his style of travel. He seems like a “go your own way” sort of guy. He whipped out his stack of snapshots that he’s taken from a number of “exotic” places around the world (Ethiopia, Morocco, Ladakh) and told us how he would go in to hospitals and jails in Guatemala and Mexico to take pictures. He didn’t speak any Spanish. (there’s where I have a little bit of a problem)

But he started grilling me, like he refused to believe that I didn’t exactly match the stereotype of a traveling American college student.

I told him that I had been working in San Mateo (he assumed I was teaching English), and was going to Chiapas to see the Indigenous Photo Archive/Project. “No.” he said, “this is bad.”

Thinking he had maybe visited the archive before, I asked him why he said that.

“Well, how would you feel if busloads of people were driving by to take pictures of you all day long?”

Ummm, wow. Not quite what I was talking about buddy. I tried to explain to him that this was an organization that supported indigenous artists—with training, supplies, publishing, etc.

“It is always a project with you. Projects, projects.” He said. Oh really?! Since when does he know me that well?! He admonished, “Don’t you ever just want to visit a place and get to know it?”

Yes, in fact, that is my entire goal here! But I don’t think that I’d get to know this place by not speaking Spanish, going to see the tourist sites (ie: Palenque, Tikal, Lago Atitlan), and hanging out exclusively with other travelers in budget hostels or expat-owned gringo bars.

I really feel that you have to work to get to know a community, and not just over a week or two of vacation—and the best way for me, personally, to do that is to work with a local non-profit organization. Given my personality (kind of shy and timid at first) I’m not able to just walk in to a place and start “knowing” people. It helps if I have a purpose, and if that purpose comes with some built-in insta-friends.

I really prefer working with locally-based organizations, and I explained that to him. I don’t want some group in the USA or Europe (no offense) getting a cut of whatever “fee” I’m paying for them to arrange everything for me, when my time and money could be better spent helping people in a locally initiated and run project. That way, you get to know people in the place that you’re visiting beyond just the “where are you from” formalities. You can learn what their community means to them (through whatever work they’re doing) and you can contribute to a good cause. Better than supporting expat-owned gringo bars, in my opinion.

Wow. That whole tirade there stemmed from my smelling pot while I was in the shower. Scary what that stuff does to you!

And look at me, I’m in one of the most touristy places in Mexico (after Cancun and Puerto Vallarta) and I’m going to go sip coffee and read all day tomorrow. How…gringo.

I’ll read a local paper, I promise. Maybe I’ll even buy an EZLN t-shirt (oh the irony).

Weak, Sweet Coffee

In the 1870s, Guatemala experienced an economic boom owing largely (okay, entirely) to the production of coffee. Between 1870 and 1900, a series of (mainly) German immigrants set up fincas (plantations) in the highlands and tropical regions, stealing indigenous peoples’ land and employing forced labor (also indigenous). The government established banks, a railroad, and developed port towns for foreign trade. Exports, according to my guidebook, increased by 20 times with coffee accounting for more than half of all foreign trade.

Despite all of this (or perhaps, because of all of this) coffee as we in the US and Europe know it is few and far between in Guatemala. It’s the same reason why the “Guatemalan Cardamom” in the cupboard at the Foundation offices is from Whole Foods.

People always exclaim to me “oh! They have great coffee in Guatemala, don’t they?” and, knowing I’m an addict, “You’ll love it there!”

You see, Guatemalan coffee that we buy in the US… is just that. Bought in the US. Therefore, exported from Guatemala, and no longer available in Guatemala. Why? Because the finca-owners will make more money if they sell it in the United States.

Coffee in Guate is generally found in the form of water-soluable granules, which you boil with sugar or panela (a solid sweetener that comes from some sort of plant). The result is a translucent, vaguely coffee-esq liquid that is very, very sweet. I have to say, I like the taste better than Nescafé (ni-es-café, it’s not even coffee!), which is the higher-priced alternative.

Café is served with almost every meal, if you eat in a comedor (street-side restaurant) and is cheaper than soda-pop by about 2Q.

On the other hand, in places like Antigua and even Huehue, European-style coffee shops are springing up everywhere, in response mostly to increased tourism. Feeling slightly homesick from traveling alone (I really don’t like traveling alone and wish I could find someone like-minded to travel with!!) I stopped in “La Cabaña del Café” in Huehue and had a delicious Americano flavored with chocolate. They had quite the variety of coffee drinks! Whew.

I always feel a kind of moral dilemma in places like that. I mean, no one I know has worked on a coffee plantation… but does that really make it okay? (No.) In some places here (mostly in Antigua where there are lots of yuppie- gringos that ask for this sort of thing) coffee shops are catching on and offering fair-trade coffee (or at least locally and cooperatively grown coffee, which is usually fair-trade).

I made this comparison with smoking the other day, having encountered a group of gringos in Todos Santos who were all trying to quit smoking. Big tobacco vs. killing small children and other innocent people in Africa and Latin America. Which drug is worse?