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We both saw this coming.

It’s on, tomorrow.  It’s my last scan.  My last bit of data collection.

My life is snowballing, thundering down a gully toward some unknowable future.  It’s all coming at me so fast.  My route branching in a thousand directions, each segment of which terminates in some unseeable end.   Every juncture presents me with the opportunity to alter my future, and every juncture reminds me that I’m already on the way to some result, some destination.

This week my brain caught fire again – a conflagration of ideas.  These moments are my most high-spirited, my most optimistic, my most productive, and to my own eyes, almost oppressively important.  The essence of my life shifts, albeit minutely, to putting in the work the last mental pyre set up.  There’s not much stopping my momentum when this spark takes, but it’s worrisome knowing that my intellectual life depends on these randomly distributed flames.  Though in all honesty it’s not as barren as that; the simple fact is that no fire burns without fuel, and with enough fuel and my brain as flint, something will catch sooner or later.

I’m sinking back into PDP modeling,  I find connectionism to hold great sway over me, and it captures my imagination better as a model of neural networks and cognitive processing abilities than any others I’m familiar with.  To make matters worse, I have been completely unenamored with phonological theory since my existential falling-out with Optimality Theory several years back.  It surprises me a great deal that some of the progenitors of OT also have a background in PDP, since the two are not particularly compatible.

I keep putting connectionism behind me as a child’s model – an intellectual fantasy that is too inherently appealing to be taken seriously.   I can’t tell if trying to work in a connectionist framework damns me to an outsiders future, but I can’t help but dabble.  I’m in this PhD business to indulge my intellectual fantasies, and hopefully to do some good research along the way.  I know myself too well to think I could very long justify giving up a model I like because it does not hold a prominent place in linguistics or cognitive science at the moment.

Today I made the first move in the new direction.  I solicited a professor with the architectural blue prints of my second qualifying paper, the first approximation of a connectionist model that incorporates the better part of several other theories in an interesting and potentially tenable way to model perception and sound change.   If it’s accepted as a topic – which I’ll more or less know by the end of the week – I’m afraid I have to formally hand in my structural linguistics passport and ally myself instead with that scourge of that theoretical social sciences…  I’m going to have to declare myself a card-carrying psycholinguistic sympathizer.  Even my former plans for myself can’t escape my brain fire.

Formal phonological theory, I’m breaking up with you.  You do not have the grounding in cognitive principles I need.   So long as you can’t fulfill my needs, I must look elsewhere.  And that elsewhere is neural modeling and neurolinguistics.  Places where there’s more to life than a well-warn philosophers armchair.   Where there is data – quantitative data!  Measurable outcomes!  Biological correlates!  You’ve told me the truth is not out there – but it is.  It’s inside every language user at every moment, and it’s there for the taking.  I’m sorry it didn’t work out between us, but I need more than you can give.  I’ll never forget you and all you taught me.  I’ll carry forth those lessons into these new and exiting lands.  But you’re holding me back.  And I have so much to accomplish.

smearing sincerity

This mental space is comforting, maddening, disturbing.   An item attempting to leave orbit with no way to judge the amount of fuel it takes to leave orbit, I’m seizing anything flammable and throwing it on the pyre.  I can only pray my resources and stamina can outstrip physics, and only then will I know whether my craft can even survive the atmospheric pressure.

The future is so tangible I can feel its inevitability and irrealis in even my most mundane actions.  My advisor has been slice time corrected and smoothed and sits before me the concatenation of every time sample simultaneously existing in the moment and serving as the culmination of decades of his actions.  His purpose is realized in the fomenting of my labyrinthal crusades, and it could not have been otherwise that he exists in this moment to give me sphinx-like hints to this quixotic riddle.

My erstwhile mind fixates on my own past, my foibles, my inconsistencies, my unworthiness.  I’ve been mentally tidying, mending this dusty web of acquaintance.  Apologizing for pains I’ve caused is ultimately futile, but somehow any end is better than a loose one.   I move from situation to situation, compulsively regurgitating agonies I’d swallowed in vain hope to rid myself of them.  My social failures dog me, but hopes of reconciliation and restitution have been long vanquished.  Failing toward forgiveness I find only my prostrate shame discarded, the detritus of accumulated actions and reactions no longer relevant to the narrative.

I rouse myself from these seemingly precambrian delusions only to discover I’m entrenched in the same mundane reality I ever have been.  Reading accumulates, papers get procrastinated, I impress, aggravate, avoid the same people in the same places, and I remember to walk the dog.  The inconceivably numerous voxels of reality concatenate together to form an interminable rope from past to future I am bound to follow.  Free will somehow remains: enduring, wieldable, oppressive.

Uncorrected Proof

Epic meeting with my advisor today.  He set up a regular weekly meeting with all his grad students, and I’m the lucky kid with the first meeting slot.  I thought this might make him less strung out than getting him later in line, but no.  As I should have expected, he had already bumped the meeting after me, and I was bookended by non-regular meetings which appeared to be a bit intense.  I do feel bad for the guy, but I guess when you’re hard to get a hold of, or are prone to forgetting required things, angry meetings do tend to crop up when you can be found.

Anyway, I did get my full hour meeting, and we talked over my research proposal.  Last night I dreamed that he was really disappointed with it and found it unprofessional and not the quality of work one would expect from a graduate student.  Today didn’t go as poorly as all that, though he wasn’t real excited about it either.  I think that’s his professional face, and I took it pretty well.  He made some changes to it that I am thankful for, like shortening the overall length and breadth of the experiment, and we hacked off even a good portion of the critical stuff.  So it will be a small, pilot-y type study, but it will give me the opportunity to do something quickly, without staking too much of my life on it.  And in the end, he thinks that we’ll still get a paper out of it, so what more could I want?  I get my free fMRI experience, and hopefully a publication.

The more interesting part of our meeting was the non-QP stuff.  Turns out all the leading questions he was asking me about the decisions I made in my proposal was so he could feel me out for a different plan.  He’s cooking up some sort of holy trinity of researchers and wants me to be the dedicated monkey/grad student for the project.  It’s entirely nebulous as of yet, but it involves liasioning with all three of the language researchers at the CMB and doing something that combines my strengths – sublexical phonology – with theirs (sign, music, fMRI).  It’s a huge undertaking, a thesis-level project for sure, and definitely more like the primordial soup which precedes creation than a tangible and easily managed plan. On the other hand, what better beginnings are there for ones PhD topic than your advisor waxing poetic about the clouds you could reach for and asking you if you would be the monkey/Moses to make something out of it.

To pat my own back here, I feel I must mention that he described me as someone comfortable working in a broad network of seemingly unrelated things and that I was able to think creatively and outside-the-box about things, and this is why he thought I would be the person to lead this effort.  It’s not at the zenith of complements, but coming from my awkward advisor, it was really nice to hear he thought well of me and had been thinking about my future.  Next up is a meeting with these three brains, and it’s going to be quite a trick to keep myself grounded in the fact that I know some things these researchers don’t, and have (am) the manpower they need, without feeling like I’m an inferior member of the group because they’re all brilliant tenured lab managers, and I’m just a dopey grad student unfamiliar with their work.

All-in-all, a very successful but grounded day for me.  And productive to boot!

Mana reqsisqani

The quarter is starting to get to its feet over here.  I’ve had all my classes save one, my neurolinguistics seminar, which I’m rather looking forward to tomorrow.  Monday was a bit more harried than I anticipated, as the professor I’m TAing for wanted us to hold section.  This is rather unorthodox for the first week, let alone the first day!  On the bright side, he also is in the habit of preparing exercises in advance, so there was not much work to be done in that short preparation period.  Section is required for this class, and as such it was completely packed this week – not a single spare seat in the house.  Teaching in cramped conditions is a little difficult because the room gets hot, and the kids are a little less apt to volunteer in a large class.  Last quarter I averaged something like 10-15 students in my non-required sections, and yesterday I had about 30.  It’s slightly ridiculous, and I think slightly unnecessary to have required section attendance, but on the other hand, this class is also going to be a fair bit more difficult. Other than a bunch of TA stuff, I only have Quechua on Mondays, so it works out nicely to have several low-stress hours of class attendance and then just one hour of teaching.  Very nice indeed.

Today all I had was Phonetics, which I fear is going to be equal parts trying and inspiring.  It’s taught by the professor I TAed for last quarter, who is the most laissez-faire professor I’ve seen.  We have no syllabus, no book, no readings, no homework, and no real expectations for our term paper.  This is nice, but it also means he teaches the class with the expectation that none of us are really learning anything, or even want to be there.  He told us this morning that he expected us to attend class “at least 51% of the time”, which I know is a joke, but sets an odd tone for a graduate seminar.  Graduate students don’t skip class – we’re putting a lot of our lives into being here, and we tend to be rigorous and reliable students.  We wouldn’t have been admitted if we weren’t!  For all that, it’s still going to be an interesting class.  We’re doing acoustic phonetics exclusively, and it’s a subject that’s one of my secret loves.  I feel some days like I could have been a phoneticist in another life, if acoustic phonetics had been taken seriously by our Generative-minded undergraduate department.  As it’s not really part of the Generative research paradigm, it wasn’t actually taught at USC.  What little of it I’ve done (which is more than most, admittedly) was from my very favorite professor, an adjunct who USC didn’t hire and who was teaching Intro Phonology, though he was in fact a phonetician.  I got a big kick out of reading spectrograms, and he inspired me to be a linguist.

Sometimes I look back at those days and I see what it was that got me inspired about linguistics and linguistic research.  If I hadn’t continued to bark up the phonology tree (though each class after his was somewhat of a disappointment), I certainly could have ended up as a phoneticist.  There’s a lot of room for phonetics in phonology, actually, particularly in the cognitive science approaches.  I think all three of these things converge in some way, if for no other reason than both being concerned with scientifically describable data with direct language interface.  In other words, both cognitive science and phonetics are among the very few contact points of hard science (biology, physics) and language.  Typology fits into this picture too, if you think of it as an offshoot of applied statistics interfacing with evolution, biology, migration, what have you.  Typology is an interesting grab-bag of domains, which I think takes a particularly large mind to grasp and is probably why Lewis is well suited to it.  It’s like majoring in world history.  The world is a large place, with lots of history, affected by an inconceivable number of factors, and those who can synthesize that knowledge are laudable.

My brain feels flushed with thoughts of career.  And today, I’m feeling determined to be a straight-backed eyes-forward engaged-in-my-life sort of individual.  This happens to me less than it ought, but if there’s anything less useful than being a defeatist by nature, it’s feeling defeated about being a defeatist.  I’m not getting much work done today, but I’m determined not to let it get the better of me.  I’ve been to class, finished my Quechua homework, emailed all my potential referees for the internal fellowship application whose deadline is coming up, and I even found time to blog.  I’m prepared for tomorrow, and I’m not going to feel swamped or behind on anything though I am, at turns, both.  Today, I do what I can, and revel in the very success of doing.


A pause.  A temporary lull between festive diversions and my furtive life.   It’s the last weekend before I start the fifth quarter of my graduate program.

It’s been long enough that I am not nervous whatsoever about the coming course load.  And long enough for me to feel like I’m not going to accomplish anything notable this quarter.  Edging closer to some inevitable department-wide acknowledgement that I’m a good student, and a poor researcher.   This PhD feels simultaneously easy and impossible – the work itself is trivial, yet the outcome is unachievable.   It’s not for lack of resources, or even an inability to understand my subject.   Failure is predicated merely on the fatalistic view of my own trajectory which prevents the fervent spark of inspired research from catching.  I’m green wood on a cool evening; building the fire is formulaic, but a achieving a toasty refuge is improbable.

Despite this, I’m looking forward to the return of a regular schedule.  I enjoy the somewhat tedious monotony of going to class – the endless reading, the hours of taking notes, and the cathartic final essays.  It’s a new year, and it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that the prospect of a fresh beginning doesn’t leave me a little hopeful that this will be the quarter I start making my mark.  To be honest, being a mediocre academic is still less disappointing than what I see as my alternative: a completely forgettable woman. This isn’t the note I intended to start this new year on, but fatalism and optimism need not always conflict.  I think this is going to be a good year.   I have a life I love, with good friends and engaging work.  I’m blessed in so many ways.  If I could only suppress this feeling of ultimate and unavoidable disappointment, I’d be sitting pretty indeed.


O, blog.  Without you where would I dump by brain overflow?  I mean, besides onto Lewis.

Much excitement in the first few weeks of school.  Notably, today I picked an advisor!  It’s the same person I’d had in mind for the last few quarters, but I finally just took the plunge.  It makes sense in certain ways, and it somewhat of a poor fit in others.  I’m trying really hard not to pigeonhole myself though, and take it for what it offers – opportunity, money,  resources, plans, goals… – and not worry too much about the ways in which I don’t fit the paradigm.  The truth of the matter is, I’m not a single-domain sort of person, and any advisor I pick is going to have a focus that’s not wholly my own.  So I’ve settled on a useful one, and now I need to make the best of it.

Being comfortable in your own skin is a very difficult thing to consistently be.  I’m feeling three times as comfortable being me this year than this time last year. TAing is going well; it’s not as terrifying as it could be, and my relationship to my students is only one facet of the nature of my studenthood.  My classes are going well, but again they only make up another small portion of my life, which is tempered by reality.  I have no idea what papers I’m going to write for either class, but as for now it’s not causing me any stress.  My advisor is teaching one, and said that a research proposal could be submitted in place of a paper.  Given that we’re working on developing a research proposal anyway, this could be a rather advantageous overlap.  My favorite professor is teaching the other one, and the subject is something I really do not excel in, but I’m feeling confident I can bend the matter into something useful for myself.

The strangest thing about being a second year is the odd semblance of a plan forming in the horizon.  It’s at times completely terrifying, and at others rather soothing.  Today, I feel soothed.  From this vista, I can see the four things that must happen between where I’m standing now, and my doctorate.  There’s a paper I must finish this year.  I’m not sure what that’s going to be on yet, but I have two nascent but promising ideas.   One easier than the other, the other more useful than the first.  One of them will get done.  And when it’s done, I’ll have a masters.  I have a second paper to do, the one which I intend to be this research project with said advisor.  It should be the pilot for the research that will be my dissertation.  When it’s done, and I’ve taken my oral exam, I advance to candidacy.  From there to the PhD is a blur of having no classes, and doing a lot of self-guided research.  This is where the architecture of the lab comes in particularly handy – some structure in an otherwise structureless life.  The only thing keeping life moving steadily forward – classes – are coming to a close.  After this year, we needn’t take classes full time, or at all.  Provided that I’ve finished the set amount before I write that second paper, my time is my own.  The idea of finally running out of classes to take seems impossible, but it’s true.  At some point, it’s research, not ritual.

On that note, I have some work for classes to undertake.  I should enjoy it while I can!


It’s been quite a productive day, eh?  I feel like I’ve been working nonstop.  There’s a trajectory of zone-ness.  Avoidance, then heart-pounding timeloss, an overwhelming sense of largeness, and lastly warm optimism.  I’ve been feeding off warm optimism all night, watching PBS and pottering through some of my essay.  There’s something wonderful about an approaching deadline, like you’ve been cursed with a pox, and you’re about to finally see the doctor.  Maybe you don’t like the doctor, but you know that after you see him, you’ll finally be better.  I’m ready to be cured of my deadlines.  And I’m ready to drain my head of the swelling ideas – encephalitus of the research organ.  The looming possibility of acheivement and satisfactory performance.  10 more days.

Everything’s coming up Laurie!

It’s Friday night.  I’m watching a cute foreign movie with Lewis.  I’m drinking champagne.  And I’m feeling like the luckiest kid in town!

It’s been such a fantastic day.  I had neuroimaging this morning, and it was really awkward – I was actually sort of nodding off during class.  This hasn’t happened to me since I was a freshman, I think, and I normally really enjoy this class.  I’m just getting tuckered out, I suppose.  Anyway, came home and took a nap, and refreshed myself very well for the rest of my day, and it’s a good thing I did!

The only other thing I needed to do today (having slept through the Quechua talk I could have been at)  was show up for this Language Group meeting at the Center for Mind and Brain.  I was just invited to attend by another psycho/neruolinguist in our department, and they were having a little reading group today.  I think normally they practice presentations in front of eachother and such.  Anyway, it was nice, informative and pleasant.

The important part of this all is that a professor I’ve been trying to get in contact with from my department (who has been not returning my emails) was also there, and had sent me word through a student who works in his lab (who I have Quechua with) that I should drop by some time and that he wasn’t meaning to ignore me.  Anyway, he told me to drop by his office after the talk, and we had the most amazing chat!  I told him all the things I’ve been getting into, and the classes I’m taking, and the ideas I’ve been having for a thesis, and he was right there with me on all counts.  He really likes what I want to do, and he’s sure that there’s ways to make it happen.  He has extra funding in his name for some MRI studies which we might be able to use as a pilot study for my thesis (and maybe also my second QP?).  Most of all, he seems to be really interested in letting me do the research I want to do, and providing me the support and guidance I need to do it.  This was the huge thing that was missing from my grad school experience so far, an actual advisor-type who can oversee me in a functional useful way with resources and an interest in my project!  I just about jumped out of my skin!

So I got a tour of his lab from my Quechua friend Michiq, and met the other folks who work with him.  He wants me to sign up for 2 units worth of research to get my feet wet and make sure we’re all on the same page or whatever.  I think I may be using some of these research units to read up on the literature in the field I’m trying to get in to, which he already seems to have a pretty good grasp of.  This was what I wanted to spend my summer doing anyway, so a little directed reading is even better.  It seems as though he’s also in contact with the as-yet-on-Sabbatical phonologist in the department, who is also interested in neuro work, so that looks to me like the beginning of a committee coming together, and the foundation for lots of good to come.  So…. I went to an informal reading group, and came out with a lab job for next quarter, and the beginning of what I hope is my advisor-student relation.  I never dreamed that would all go so smoothly!

After that I made Lewis take me out to my favorite Davis place (mmm, Greek pizza) and buy me a bottle of champagne.  Life is so good!  I hope I can keep my eye on getting through the end of this quarter before I spend all my time thinking about how sweet next quarter is going to be :)

Nutation, n. (1a, obs.)

Deep breath, Laurie, deep breath.

It was a wonderful day.  I’ve been inordinately cheerful lately, a most unusual occurance in my normally staid life.   I liken it to the rush of endorphins you get when you spend the proper time eating well and exercising.  Instead of my body being filled with energy (though that too is true) it’s as though my mind is getting all the mental nutrient and exercise required and it’s just ready to go, all the time.  This is a good thing.  I just can’t help but feel really optimistic about my life and my studies.  That post this morning about job prospects was meant to be more tongue-in-cheek than it came off.  To be honest, I just can’t bring myself to care much about the job market.  I like what I do, I’m going to keep doing it, and I’ll work better under my own direction and with fewer outside pressures than I would work with an eye on the future.   Like I said, I think linguists just like to talk about how doomed we are!

It’s almost awkward to write about what a cheerful day I had when I find myself so exhausted at the end of the day.  Unlike the last few entries, tonight is one of those nights where the body is awake and the mind started dragging its feet and snipping tiredly hours ago.  This is entirely due to having slogged through a massive neuroscience paper I just finished reading.  My brain is now completely done.  I couldn’t do more work if I wanted.  I can barely speak English.

Other great things that happened today.  Had a fantastic semantics class.  I really, really enjoy computing truth conditions and mussing with the combinatoric denotations.  By gum, I’m even a little jazzed about this Boolean alegebra business.  It’s not often you hear the word “septuple” in a linguistics class, let alone get to talk about this much math.  I like math.  I think that’s the only academic thing I got done today, actually, besides this triumphant finishing of neuro paper.

It seems quite distant now, but I also took several long walks and got a lot of life-administrata done today.  Saw the doctor for a general check-up; all is well.  I’m feeling like I’ve just been tuned up, having been to the eye doctor last week, and the doctor doctor this week.  I’ve even got a dentist appointment next week!  I’ll be in ship shape.  Better than new.  Anyway, speaking of optometrist, I also picked out my new frames with help of Lewis today, and had a grand time at Dr. Guerreri’s office per usual.  It’s so handy to have family friends who are doctors and dentists.  And as a special treat, Lewis took me to get some delicious frozen yogurt after we made it through all our chores.  Lovely day to sit in central park and have a little chocolate-peanut butter frozen yogurt.  Mmm.

Ever since then I’ve been sitting here, in my desk chair, ticking things off my Tasque list.  And lo, that list is done.  It must be time to retire.

Let’s Drop the Big One Now

Last of the holiday parties today, which went off pretty well.  Always nice to see those folks, though lately I feel like I’ve been failing at hanging out properly.  I don’t know quite what it is, but I feel like I’m having a really hard time opening up to or feeling close to anyone but Lewis and my sister.  I’m not sure if it’s expecting too much of people, but there’s a familiar place in my mind that I feel like I spent much of high school and such in – the place where I know that no one cares what I do, say, or think, so I’m really better off not doing or saying anything.  I’ve grown to realize that this actually makes me a very difficult conversationalist and only serves to make people actually not enjoy talking to me or being around me, and that all just makes it feed on itself.  And somewhere deep down I don’t think it’s as serious as all that, nor should it be terribly important whether my acquaintances have some sort of personal investment in my life.  They shouldn’t, and I should be more okay with talking about myself and about the world with people who are only temporary figures in my life.  I’m not sure what drives me to be taciturn at times and not at others, but I guess I’m in one of those slumps, and I’ll surely have to get over it.

Right now, my heart just feels a little cold and inaccessible.  I’m in need of joy, and release.  Relaxation.  Something of this order which gets me either out of my own murky head.  Though school will thrust me back into the all-too-clear present, which is another good place to be.  It’s as though I either need to be thinking far more deeply about something, or far less.  I wish it were easier to pinpoint what it is that’s on my mind, that makes me feel so isolated and preoccupied.  Going through life feeling like there’s something wrong about my life that I just can’t quite put my finger on is a little maddening, and a little depressing, and all this failed introspection doesn’t help the situation whatsoever.  Maybe all I want is to know where I’m going in life, and that I’m not making huge mistakes with my education and career and life plan.  I can’t count the number of times my idling brain has pulled me out of school so that I can work a steady 9-to-5 while Lewis gets his PhD and I recede into the tried-and-true working woman and mom combo.  And then the though of myself as a mom makes me temporarily sick and a little angry that the next stage in my life might be something that seems so unfulfilling and that I haven’t figured out yet how to raise children to feel loved and cared for and stable.  Everything about the future is simultaneously promising and frustrating.  I know I’m only 25 and I’m not supposed to have the answers, but it feels like until now that I’ve had a plan, and now my plan is so nebulous and quixotic.

Sigh.  I have another one of these dually unachievable plans in place for tomorrow.  I both want to get a bunch of tidy chores done – taking down the Christmas tree and getting some errands run – and to throw myself to the winds and somehow have an life affirming adventure that unwinds me.  Every day feels like this.  With any luck, I’ll at least sleep well.