December 13th, 2005

That's Doctor Breva the Axe, to You!

I love dissertation defenses.

The dissertation itself is a form of torture, cruel albeit not sufficiently unusual to be banned by the Constitution or the Geneva Conventions. One day while I was working on mine, I was flipping channels on tv and found a PBS documentary that featured footage of a tribal initiation in the Amazon basin. The candidate for the rite of passage had to put his hand into a pouch of fire ants and keep it there for a whole day, after which the hand was swollen up and permanently scarred, etc. The candidate's cries of distress were suitably harrowing. And my first thought on seeing this initiatory spectacle was, Bring on the fire ants! I can do anything for twelve hours, but I cannot do one more year of this. Anyone who did time in my graduate program or Breva's would know exactly what I mean.

The dissertation is an evil genre, but dissertation defenses are, in my experience and observation, universally good, even when members of the committee do last-minute Stupid Faculty Tricks. No adviser, no committee, would allow the date for a defense to be set if they were not all in agreement already that they intended to sign off on it. I've seen several friends in to their defenses, and waited for them to emerge again, and it's like the day monsoon season breaks and the sun comes out for the first time in you can't remember how long. It's like watching the spring's first crocus come up. Only it's not like either of those things, really, because dissertations in the various branches of literary studies can rarely be completed in less than three years. Those of you who've been reading George Martin's series might be trained up to imagine now a winter five years long, eight years long. Like the first crocus after that.

You promise yourself all kinds of crazy things when your right hand is sewn into a pouch full of fire ants and you're determined not to take it out until the day's done. You tell yourself all kinds of fables about spring, when you can't remember what it was like to open your front door without your overcoat already buttoned. While Dan and I were finishing my dissertation and his master's thesis, we came up with long lists of the dumbest, most frivolous ways to waste time that we could imagine, to remind each other that one day we'd be free to do frivolous things again. The only one we still wanted to do after graduating was run a GURPS campaign together.

Breva the Axe used to tell us all that when her dissertation defense was over, she would host a week-long open house full of drinking and baking. Mostly baking. After years of working on food writing (the magisterial M.F.K. Fisher beats Immanuel Kant for number of footnotes), culinary autobiographies, culinary travel writing and ethnographies, and culinary popular mystery novels (middle-aged Mary Sue bakes, caters, and fights crime!), Breva the Axe had a big collection of recipes from the books she'd been writing about, and she meant to cook every blessed dish among them. I wasn't sure she'd still want that, once the papers were all signed, but lo and behold! A chocolate almond tart!

Have I mentioned recently how fortunate I am in my friends?

When she'd despair, I used to tell her that I was absolutely certain she'd be Dr. Abbey before the trees flowered again. A couple of times, I had a little Freudian slip and assured her she'd be Dr. Avery. Well, um, no. To which she said, "Look, that part of yourself you had to bludgeon to death to escape academia? I'm going to go do all the things she thought she wanted to do. You don't have to regret leaving."

Very fortunate in my friends, and not just because of the orange marmalade cake.