Saturday, December 31, 2011

"'Tis well an old age is out, / And time to begin a new"

I thought of putting together a year-in-reading post but was confounded by the apparent length of this year, the sense that events in the psychological far past -- acquisition of Kindle, acquaintance with Cobbett -- really took place this March or April (the Kindle came about Apr. 15, I remember this because when I went home to collect it in the afternoon I found my landlady downstairs and said something about having to file my taxes). And it hasn't been a year that's defined by stuff I've read -- if anything, a year with swaths of mental paralysis cut through it, long intervals of staring at books and not registering a word -- although I discovered Thomas Bernhard [just noticed, and was amused by, his initials being TB] and Teju Cole. (Also: Cobbett, Saintsbury on prose rhythm, Flaubert's Parrot, Vertigo, The Ambassadors, two of Gissing's novels.)

Anyhow, it is a good time for a broader retrospective post, esp. because the year-end coincides with a "natural" break: I have just accepted a postdoc at Harvard, which I'll begin in the fall; while the thesis must still be written, I suppose I'm well into the home stretch. On this front at least, "things have turned out better / than I once expected or ever deserved"; I had multiple good options. Nevertheless, when I think back on the past five years or so the chief impression is one of waste, of time that I could have spent on various kinds of growth but did not, the sense that owing to my laziness I've been coming 

                                              to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted,

and that my immediate recourse to these lines -- which I might also have cited for similar reasons five years ago -- is further depressing evidence that they apply to me. But enough of this, it cannot be helped: one is less impressionable than one used to be -- people are -- and attempts to fight this are inherently limited. (One's memory is also less vivid than it used to be: it is appalling to think how little I remember of Proust. What else have I read as a grad student that really sticks in the memory? Lydia Davis, Thomas Browne, Urquhart's Rabelais, Sabbath's Theater, Hollinghurst. Muldoon's recent poetry -- especially this -- and fragments of Geoffrey Hill and Charles Wright. I went through a phase, in 2008 perhaps, when I bought a large amount of contemporary poetry; seems to me now that I only remember the titles of the books. Reading this list, I suspect that one thing I should definitely have read more of is literary criticism and/or philosophy.)

I am glad on the whole that I went to grad school in physics, and a little surprised that I've enjoyed the "work" aspect of it. (I cannot say much in defense of life in central Illinois, though.) I was fortunate to stumble quite blindly into an area -- in a field that I had been drawn to for its difficulty and lack of obvious correspondence with my strengths -- where taste and wide reading mattered as much as analytical ability, and to have an advisor who let me pick my own problems. I was fortunate to pick up the learning on the cheap, by going to talks rather than reading papers -- UIUC being fairly central in my field -- and especially by getting to spend fall 2010 in Santa Barbara where I was deluged with information at workshops and conferences. And I was fortunate, above all, that innumerable things did not go wrong that anyone acquainted with many grad students knows can easily go wrong. (I suppose some of this text will be reused in thesis acknowledgments.)

Which brings us to 2011, which was a strange year. (As a coherent unit it began Dec 18 2010 when I arrived in Chicago without an overcoat.) I had finished the paper that will presumably be most of my thesis in July 2010, and had spent the fall thinking of other things but mostly going to talks and meeting people; meanwhile the advisor decided to move to Atlanta, so when I came back I was in effect in the position of a postdoc without a group. I couldn't at that point have applied for any of the really nice fellowships -- deadlines tend to be Oct/Nov -- so the choices were (a) get a temporary postdoc and apply for fellowships in a year; (b) move to Atlanta; (c) stay on in Urbana and soldier on. Option (c) was the most appealing as it didn't involve moving, but also the most sensible as it turns out: really the imperative was to position myself optimally for the job market this year, and moving/completing thesis were much less useful than getting as much research done and published as I could. (Did not quite meet expectations but didn't fail completely either.) Esp. with the departure of two good friends in the summer and the encroachment on a third of child-rearing duties, I've had a wealth of solitude that I'm afraid I've mostly spent drifting about the internet, tweeting maniacally, and -- esp. in the fall -- inspecting the publication record of everyone who ever got a postdoc I wanted. I do not know if it was the solitude or the anxiety, but I have never had such an infertile year intellectually -- I cannot think of a single good idea.

But that's all over for now, and I can return, I hope, to attacking various things like a shark. I don't know when I'll be defending/moving yet, but it won't be until the summer: long enough to kippleize my surroundings a little further, write two or three papers, fill out some reimbursement forms, and figure out how to format a thesis according to UIUC registrar's specs. For the moment at least, I vaguely look forward to it.

(Previous, similar posts here and here.)


Jenny Davidson said...

I hate to say it, but "Frustration" would be a great title for a memoir, down the road - however we will hope things proceed in other directions! Congratulations again on the postdoc, and best wishes for 2012 (at any rate there should be less anxiety and more human companionship/coastal dwelling).

Zed said...

(Ah but -- to continue w/ Auden theme --

"This slight despair
At what we are,
This marginal grief
Is source of life.")