Theses, writing, weight-loss, and sweet metaphors

Today in class, my new American Studies thesis students were challenged to answer this question, how will doing a thesis change me as a person and affect my life?

They came up with a  lot of good answers. They talked about confidence, work ethic, intellectual achievement, playing to their strengths, and managing their time. When it came to me to tell them what I believe the answer is, I told them something like this:

The thesis is a learning experience on a large scale. It’s yours, you own it entirely. You are the captain of your own ship, and as a result your successes will be yours and so will your failures. The way the thesis will change you is that when you are presented with a seemingly insurmountable task, whether it’s related to career, personal life, family life, romance, projects, or journeys, you will be able to look at it as a whole and know that you are capable of doing the work to get where you need to be. You won’t doubt yourself. When you’re presented with something that, at the outset, seems near impossible, you will push forward. You will know to break it into manageable pieces, work on it everyday, slowly and steadily. Even when you’re tired, and fed up, you will always see the forest beyond the trees and you will always trust that you will get there. The thesis will teach you that you have every bit of will, and grit, and motivation you need to do whatever you set out to do.

Large scale research and writing is very difficult. There’s a reason why not a lot of students sign up for majors that require work of this nature when they’re undergraduates, and there’s a reason why the students who do are exceptional. There’s a reason why when they write this thesis, which is, for many, their first major research and writing project, that they work closely with TAs, professors, advisors, and each other. Part of what makes this a valuable experience is knowing that they can fall, they usually don’t. But if they get lost, or need a hand – one will be there. We joke about this – “help will always be given in thesis class to those who ask for it.”

I did my first large scale (or it looked large at the time) writing project in IB2 (12th grade). It was called an Extended Essay and it’s basically a miniature version of an undergraduate thesis. I then wrote an undergraduate thesis, and capped it off with a master’s thesis. While I was doing that I started helping other people write. I love helping other people write.

Research driven academic writing might seem dry and sad to a lot of people, but I believe it provides one of the most poignant, useful metaphors for getting through life I have ever encountered, which brings me to my point.

As of today I have lost 80lbs. When I started losing weight the idea that I would ever get to 80lbs down seemed impossible. Even from my current vantage point, there is still so far to go. Starting a weight loss project where I decided to set about losing 200lbs (half my starting weight) was scary, it was scary because I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know if I had the physical capacity or, perhaps more importantly, the emotional and psychological wherewithal. I knew all the data about dieting and about massive weight loss, that it often doesn’t work, and many dieters don’t make it past 10%, many people never reach their goal, and many people end up gaining to weigh more than they did at the beginning. Losing weight is socially, emotionally, and culturally stressful. At the outset, in the first 20lbs (which came off quick, but were invisible) I interrogated my choices a lot, I questioned whether my motivation was good enough, whether my choices were noble rather than being selfish or, perhaps, not even mine.

However, in the last 60lbs, I’ve learned so much about myself, and my motivations. I’ve learned that my motivations are complicated and are in a perpetual flux. I’ve learned that this is a project, it is a large, seemingly daunting project, and I’ve learned that in order to get where I want, and achieve what I set out for I have to be committed. While there are days were I don’t count calories so closely (or count them but don’t worry about them) every day is in service of the larger project. Not only the physical elements of weight loss (the eating, the working out) but the emotional and psychological parts. In order to get up everyday and want to keep doing this, I have to know that I am capable.

Losing large amounts of weight is so much like writing. It’s so much like writing that everyday gets easier because I realize more and more that this difficult thing is just like the difficult things I’ve done before. The difference between success and failure is patience, commitment, grit, and knowing that no matter what happens as you go, it is the process that is valuable. When you’ve finished a thesis, and smack it down with the familiar thump of a 100 pages, when you hold it for the first time as it finishes printing and it’s warm and smells like toner, it’s finished and and while it still needs to be graded, and (you hope) read – your relationship with it is finished. Everyday, every mile, every pound I lose feels like a page of a thesis. Meeting a micro-goal is like finding that book you really need, or writing a literature review that you don’t fucking hate.* Weight loss for me is a writing process, it’s a story about my body that I am wholly in control of, it requires my dedication and motivation, and requires that I not let other people derail my ideas, or hijack my work. This isn’t about other people’s ideas, this is my project and I’m writing it with my body. Every success is my success and while I undeniably have excellent people around me to support me, when it comes down to it, it’s mine. When my feet hurt so much I can barely walk, when I’m so bored of eating the same weird foods, and when all I want is just not think about it, I’m the person who has to. And I do because I’ve written, I’ve written long, complicated things, I’ve watched students follow wild trains of thought to magnificent conclusions, and because the body follows the brain.

Writing a thesis changes you in that you learn that if you need to write, if you want to write, you sit down and you write.
It affects your life because you learn that if you want to do something, you look at it as a whole, you think about what’s it’s really made of; the research, the skills, the time, the process, and you make a plan and you follow through with that plan.

*Unclear that this is even possible.


Film: “The Woman In Black”

Can it really have been about a year since I reviewed a film? I have watched several dozen films in the past year, including an installment of “Twilight”, the searing end of “Harry Potter” and “Shark Night” – did none of these films move me to writing? Apparently not.

Today, however, I went to see “The Woman in Black”, arguably the first time we’ve seen Daniel Radcliffe do anything on film since the end of “Harry Potter”. A gothic period piece, set in a dismal, marshy village and a dilapidated, but rather sprawling house. The film is interestingly partially produced by Hammer (known for some of the greatest looking women, fake blood and Dracula movies ever made in the 1970s). Hammer films have generally been considered over-produced, campy and frivolous. They are also generally of a relentless, powerful horror style, one which is comfortable adhering to genre conventions and making a more traditional horror film. “The Woman in Black” is no exception.

I think it’s safe to say that I am very familiar with horror films, I do not scare easily. That’s not to say I don’t get scared, I don’t respond (film is significant, I am affected by it.) because I do. I squeal, weep, laugh, etc. etc. I generally walk away from most horror offerings more interested and invigorating than truly freaked out. Over the course of my life very few movies have honestly frightened me. (TV productions of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and “The Shining”, “13 Ghosts” and “Mirrors” being the short list.)

“The Woman in Black” honestly frightened me.

The story is about a young widower, with a four year old son. In order to preserve his career, he takes a job out in the marshy northern countryside, he has to go to the decidedly creepy, empty home of a recently deceased character we never see and sort through their shamefully disordered papers in order to get their true will. He has to actually go there because the town lawyer is being completely unhelpful. Immediately upon his arrival, everyone our hero, Arthur (Dan Radcliffe) encounters seems to want him to leave. Eventually be finds himself at the terrifically scary house, beyond a marsh that floods with the tide, and thus isolated for most of the film, though, he has a little scruffy dog with him some of the time. He experiences haunting phenomena and visions of a woman in black mourning attire. As his time in the town goes on, two young girls die in unpleasant accidents, and the townspeople become ever more convinced he should leave. They ostentatiously blame him for the deaths of his children, as he continues to sort through letters and uncover the superstitions of the town, the house and the visions he keeps having.

Eventually, Arthur (and the audience) discover that the town is plagued by the untimely deaths of children as a result of the spectral woman. The ghost is a woman who’s son was taken from her, and adopted by her sister because of his mother’s presumed insanity. After this, her son drowns in the marshes and his body  is never recovered, as a result his mother hangs herself in his nursery. She also vows never to forgive her sister for taking the boy or for his loss. The curse which haunts the town is that when she is seen, a child dies. (A classic: you took my baby, and now I’m taking yours) Of course, being that Arthur is messing around in the house – Arthur sees her a lot. This ability to sympathize with and connect to this entity is fueled by his own troubled visions of his wife (an angelic blonde, lady in white) It becomes apparent that his son is coming to join him in the village, so in an effort to appease the woman’s trouble spirit and thus protect his own little boy (who is portrayed by the most beautiful, cherubic child I have ever seen.) Arthur finds her son’s lost body, and reunites them in the grave – he does so with the help of a gentleman in the town who lost his own son as a result of the woman in black and who’s wife is a sweet, but troubled medium.  However, this fails to do the trick and the narrative ends with sufficient unpleasantness to make the audience feel honestly uncomfortable.

The film is incredibly atmospheric, making extensive use of light, flickering candles, the gloom of the gray village and the gothic mansion, as well as the setting in 19th century England during the height of spiritualism. A moment in history where the business of the dead and the interaction between worlds is both recognized and widely acknowledged as possible. The film isn’t violent, or gory – but dark, and menacing. Filled with the kind of seeping discomfort that encircles you and follows you out of the theater. The honest-to-God heebie-jeebies. 

One of the most interesting things about this is, naturally, seeing Daniel Radcliffe be someone other than Harry Potter. He is as impressive as anyone would think, and is almost unrecognizable compared to his early time as Harry. The character is at least 26 or 27 (married, lost wife, four year old child, lawyer…at least 26), and while it’s pretty routine for actors in their mid-20s – 30s to play characters in their early 20s, and for actors up to 25 to play teenagers, Radcliffe, who is ONLY 22 (wtf have I been doing with MY life?!) successfully portrays someone much older, without seeming ridiculous. He’s also much more understated, Harry tends to do a lot of moping, whining and gnashing of teeth, but of course, from book three forward that’s how Rowling wrote him. Things that may have seemed like they were the run over of someone reaching adulthood on screen, seem much more to be characteristics of Harry than Dan. It’s also easy to forget who he is, which is generally difficult with very famous British screen actors – it’s only the most exceptional people who get lost in their portrayals, and that is evident here.

Great movie – I do not expect to sleep easy tonight!


The End of the End

First up, I realize I’m in Zambia and so all I should have to write about is Zambia, but quite frankly, I lived here for most of my life, I’ve thought a lot of deep thoughts about Zambia, and while in my 2.5 years of absence both it and I have changed considerably, I don’t feel all that motivated to write about it.

However, it is important to emphasize that I AM here, and being in Lusaka (now, even, despite the wireless in my parents house and zippy Internet) I am way on the other side of the world. I am in a very different timezone and effectively, find myself somewhat isolated. I don’t really mind this. Usually being in Lusaka serves as a time for me to withdraw from the world and deal with things. I graduated from Georgetown about a month ago, and it has been one of the most tulmultuous months in a long time. I supposed I’d be well served to take this time to disappear.

I’ll get back in mid-July. Specifically, I’ll be back just in time to see the new (and last) Harry Potter movie on July 15. (This was the one request I made of my father, yes, I shall spend 1 month in Lusaka, on this one peculiar condition.) While, like millions of other people my age, I am totally excited about Harry Potter. I am also incredibly nervous. This is the end. (Granted, I’m aware of Pottermore and waiting with baited breath.) However, for all intensive purposes Harry Potter has been *the* dominant cultural narrative of my life.

In 1997 when “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” came out, I was 12. Granted, I did not become invested in the series until about 2 years later, when I was 14. I will turn 26 this year, Harry Potter has played a huge role in my life for 12 years. I became invested in it because Nicole moved to Lusaka and had been very engaged by it, and wanted to have someone to engage with about it. (Boy oh boy, did we get involved.)

Since the age of 14, which, let’s be honest is an impressionable time of a child’s life, Harry Potter has been a highly influential aesthetic object. Waiting for books have marked events in my life, through high school and college, the films provided a visual actualization which I was desperately motivated by. The thought that there will simply be no more makes me feel incredibly lost.

I just don’t think any of us expected this story to become so much a part of us. I know I didn’t. The characters became so important, mirrors and reflections of our own growing up. I’m nervous about the end, just thinking about it makes me want to cry.

With that, I leave you with the final trailer for “Deathly Hallows: Part 2”.