Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pregnant and Teaching and Writing During PhD: Oh My

I have a lot on my plate right now.

In September of 2016, I started my PhD program at the University of Rhode Island, which also involved a Graduate Assistantship where I'm able to teach essay writing courses. By the end of September, I'd decided I wanted to have a baby and was pregnant, and by October my pregnancy was confirmed. Add, on top of this all, that I'm also a writer with several manuscripts that I juggle at any given time.

I have to say, this period of my life kind of reminds me of one from two years back where, when I explained to my therapist all that I had to do and all that was expected of me, he flat-out asked "How does your head not fall off?" I think that's worth talking about. Having so much to do, putting a lot of pressure on myself and feeling the extreme need to live up to/surpass the expectations of others, can be detrimental to me. (See: my history/continuing struggles with anorexia, depression, and anxiety).

At first, the juggling wasn't too bad. In my first trimester of pregnancy/most of my first semester of PhD, I was painfully fatigued (because coffee is my life source and I had to give that up) and I got the painfully ravenous munchies every day when I dismissed my second class. But overall, it wasn't too much. I learned how to balance my classwork in a way that kept me sane--not dedicating hours and hours to taking extensive notes on every homework reading, getting ahead where I could, etc. I was only teaching one class, which is still definitely hard work but not overwhelmingly so. I was even managing to continue writing the first draft of my queer fairy tale novel.

And then, a little while after Thanksgiving, during Week 11 of my pregnancy, shit hit the fan. I was violently ill with morning sickness to the point where it was difficult to keep any food down or eat in the first place. I could honestly barely even function--mental processing was difficulty, physically doing anything but lying on my side on the couch was a challenge. This a) came right before my first set of finals of PhD and b) lasted until halfway through Week 15. By starting my seminar papers early and taking them bit by bit, I managed to complete them. I had to put my novel writing on hiatus for the time being because expecting myself to do 1,000 words per day when I felt like that only made me feel worse about my whole situation on account of guilt on the days when I fell short.

Honestly, it was a lesson in prioritizing and self-care. I pride myself on getting things done, on productivity, and sometimes my body can't handle that (see: fibromyalgia). I knew that I wasn't only taking care of myself but also my baby and that running myself ragged, making myself feel bad for not being able to do all the things at once, would only hurt us both. So I learned to slow down a little and make my number one priority taking care of myself.

Then I hit the halfway point of Week 15. The morning sickness (mostly) stopped; the baby started kicking. I was able to get myself together in the couple of weeks before my second semester picked back up. This time around I was teaching two classes, which is a lot of work in and of itself. In the interest of keeping myself in good shape, I allow myself to take my time with things that I would have expected myself to do much more quickly and efficiently before--like taking more than five days to grade 46 papers. Honestly, more than the pregnancy (which strikes me as odd), the intense grading over Spring Break made me feel more like a machine and less human. I'd have to balance it, when I got to a certain point, by watching The Nanny or Everybody Loves Raymond, or by cooking corned beef, or by painting the baby's bookshelf, or by doing out for an ice cream cone. I also made a promise to myself that I wouldn't accept any more obligations that aren't things I want to do for me until at least one month after the baby is born. (So, for example, any writing projects that I want to pursue are fair game, but if people ask me for things and it's not something I'm interested in doing, I'm not adding more to my plate.)

For my classes, again I try to get what I can done early. For example, my plan is to write one seminar paper in the first half of April and the other in the second half of April, in hopes that I'll be in a good enough mental and physical place to create better papers. Last night I did some substantial work thinking out my academic career path--Where do I want to be? What do I need on my CV to get me there? What do I need to do to get that on my CV? I have some investigative questions written to turn one of my seminar papers--on cisgender-normativity in feminism and the need to include trans women--into an article. Plus I have two scholarly journals researched to send it out to once it's all edited up.

I also, in the early part of the semester, finished out the first draft of my queer fairy tale novel and am looking at getting back to it for edits soon. My plan had been to start those last week, but I was under a time crunch for grading papers, so I let myself off the hook for a little bit, at least. In the past couple of days, I've also been researching more publishers to send my short story collection and my second poetry collection to, as well as sending out some pieces/chapbooks for entry-free competitions. Even just that mechanical aspect of writing has made me feel better, more like my writer self. Sure, it doesn't compare to actual writing and editing, but it feels like getting back this huge piece of myself that I had to, for the sake of my health and sanity, let go dormant for a few weeks. Plus I'm reading some stuff recreationally when I can, and gearing up to work on a currently incomplete first draft of a goddess novel that I've let sit for about a year.

As for pregnancy, the baby is really strong and active. Overall it's going well, but I think I'm hitting the point where things are just starting to get uncomfortable and are going to stay that way until the kid comes Irish step-dancing out and, I imagine, for a little bit after that. On the other hand, I got a new dress and shoes for my baby shower and I never get myself things like clothes, so treating myself to that was nice (and, ya know, helpful since I'd like to have something to wear that actually fits at that point).

So that's where I am. I certainly don't claim to have the perfect balance, or all the answers. But I'm managing to keep my head from falling off and, as far as I'm concerned, that's an achievement. I'm going to do what I need to as far as teaching and coursework this semester; I'm going to write what I want to and try my best not to put too much pressure on myself; I'm going to paint my baby's bookshelf and bake and knit my baby's blanket and garden once the weather's stable enough up here in Rhode Island in a couple of weeks.

I'm still not quite sure how I'm functioning and/or surviving without coffee. It's not one of the habits that I'm aiming to maintain post-pregnancy, that's for damn sure.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Spell on Wheels Series Review

Today's post is going to be a full series review of the comic Spell on Wheels, written by Kate Leth with art by Megan Levens and colors by Marissa Louise.

First, a non-spoilers teaser. You should pick up Spell on Wheels if you enjoy:
-road trips
-women who kick ass
-a diverse cast of characters
-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Supernatural, Secret Circle, The Craft, or similar supernaturally-based shows and movies

It's also great if you don't have a ton of money to invest in comics because it's a five issue series in full, so it's super easy on the wallet.


So we start the series with a break-in. We're not sure of the context, but this brings us into a conflict immediately, and one that both makes us curious and colors the next scene. One of the most clever moves these comics make is how it introduces the three leading ladies. With the first dialogue of each, we're given a helpful box next to them that tells us their name, age, and magical abilities. I love the use of the comics form on this one, and how it just bypasses getting too involved with spending tons of time showing off/explaining each of their abilities.

As a personal preference, I immediately connected to Claire. I have this thing where I pick the redhead as my favorite character in general because of ginger bias. (Seriously. As a kid? It was all about Mystique, Jean Grey, Poison Ivy, Ariel. Even now, Brave is one of my favorite Disney movies.) Of course, I also tend toward the character with her abilities. Given this immediate attachment to Claire, it was great to see where she went as the comics continued.

Now might be a good time to pause and admire the art. I followed Megan Levens from the Buffy season 10 comics over to Spell on Wheels (and because, I mean, really you don't get any more "me" than a bunch of witches in a muscle car on a quest). The art is just as gorgeous as Levens' other work. Each of the witches is physically diverse not only in race, but also in design. With everything from facial expressions and body types to hair style and outfits, each of these women is distinct and their appearance really feels like it reflects their personality. This is only enhanced by the wonderful color work done by Marissa Louise, who knows how to take advantage of contrast within a scene background as well as between characters, which really makes Levens' art pop.

So Claire senses a disturbance in the force and the witches head home to discover that the dude from the first panels stole a bunch of magical stuff. Andy's naiveté gives us an in to the story, and gives us a starting point for her arc as the comics will continue. Jolene is a blunt, take-no-crap kind of character, with lots of humor thrown in, that adds a nice counterbalance to the whole mix. This ties in nicely to the back story we'll get of her and Claire later. The witches try to scry for the items, but it doesn't work. Then they discover that they're being sold on the online black market for magical goods, the "GOBLIN MARKET." They decide to go hunting for their stuff in the morning. We then get a hilarious moment from Jolene, who wakes the other witches up with coffee and a gorgeous muscle car. And then their quest begins.

In issue two, we get to actually meet one of the buyers of their stolen objects. Andy recognizes the man as an artist and they get invited to stay for a party. One of the visual techniques I didn't pick up on the first read-through was how the six pages after the first, everything is green except for the witches. The walls are green, the artist's sweater, the shirt of the guy they meet. It makes the witches stand out, certainly, but it also creates this soothing, almost hypnotic sense. Then, when the party starts, we have people in shadows and much more intense blue and pint tints. It seems like this story is all about second layers and shifts in perception and uncovering what's underneath, so this shift is not only visually interesting but also feels like it plays into that story motif.

One of my favorite exchanges of the whole series? When Claire is on a couch, this drunk guy is trying to figure out what she does. Claire has to say twice "I'm a witch" and he finally says "Oh! Can you cast a spell to make yourself fall in love with me?" And, when she finds Jolene, Claire says "Jolene, we need to go before I hex someone." This moment was funny, of course, but it felt so genuine and relatable that it just ended up being an instant favorite of mine.

So I know that I said this would have spoilers, but I don't want to give a play-by-play of every last moment. Suffice it to say Claire, who hasn't been drinking, realizes something is up, Andy's naiveté kicks her in the ass, and then one of the witches does some ass-kicking of her own.

Moving on to issue three, the first thing I want to mention is the cover by Marguerite Sauvage. It's one of my favorites, and I really think that has a lot to do with the color scheme. I'm all about pink, and it adds a softness to the cover while still having a sense of foreboding in the witches' facial expressions and body postures, as well as the figure between the flowers in the background.

So the witches end up at another house of someone with their magical items, this time in a very Wisteria Lane-esque neighborhood. We get another very funny line from Jolene as they pull up to the house. (It's another one of my favorites, but I'd prefer to err on the side of not just giving the best stuff away.) And, for the first time that I've found in re-reading, Andy mentions her grandmother and the tension between her grandmother and her parents. This very, very subtle seed lays the groundwork for later in a way that I did not even remotely pick up on in my first read-through. It's also entirely appropriate that this is the start of issue three, because it bookends the issue in a way that you're not aware of until you've gone through the entire series.

So it turns out that the women in this house could really use the help of some witches, so Claire, Andy, and Jolene stay to do so in another moment of breaking up what could be a tedium of road trip with what's essentially a side-quest. In the midst of helping these women out, Andy gets a very disturbing message from the beyond that makes the final two issues feel more threatening and menacing.

The cover of issue four, done by Jen Bartel, certainly reflects how much darker the story is getting. Still, the story opens here with Claire joking around in the car. It never feels like these comics get to lead zeppelin levels of despair. Leth could've gone the direction of pure angst, or super serious story all the time (which there's certainly a precedent for in this sort of genre), and I love that she doesn't. Leth hits different registers to keep the story flowing and to keep us from getting stuck in one (especially depressing) mode at all times. Personally, I appreciate this.

So, in contrast to the Wisteria Lane type of place they just came from, they drive up to what looks like a haunted house. When Claire senses it's empty, they come in to what's actually a really nice place. They come upon the homeowner and, as Andy got her fangirling moment in issue two, Claire gets hers this time around, with some bonus flirting. While this is really cute and, again, a breath of levity, I also really loved that we could see a transformation in Andy here. She went from being naive enough to want to call the cops in issue one to getting taken advantage of in issue two. Even in issue three the voice she hears is trying to push her around. But here, Andy confidently states "I'm really good at practical magic." It's simple, sure, but it shows a self-assurance that she might not have had if she hadn't been through the journey of issues one through three. This is just a great issue for delving in character in general, because we also get Claire's back story with her abusive ex, which makes her all the more relatable, and Jolene's back story of helping Claire, which adds a lovely layer to Jo's fierce personality. In the course of all this, the witches discover who broke into their place and decide to go after him.

And finally we come to issue five. The cover, done by Joe Quinones, is provocative. The women look ready to battle (and, really, Jolene steals the whole cover if you want my honest opinion). The basis of the tower tarot is a really spectacular backdrop. And the second thing I want to make sure I mention? I loved the magical girl transformation on page two. If you follow Kate Leth on Twitter like I do, then you probably know that she has much love for the Sailor Moon series. When I got to this page, I literally said "I see what you did there" out loud. Again, this gives us a moment of fun before we go into something more serious and sinister.

The final battle starts out against a particular "Big Bad" and turns into something completely different halfway through, which took me by surprise. At first I felt that it came a little out of left field. However, after reading through, I definitely see the hints, and I'm sure there are even a couple that I missed. I'm not sure if I would've wanted more rehearsal for this reveal or not. It is a five issue series. Would more hinting have felt too heavy handed? Is the shock a good thing, since the witches are as well? I'm not sure what the answers are, but I do know that this reveal sits better with me re-reading than it did reading it for the first time.

Overall, this was exactly what I wanted out of this series. I know that people have been asking about it continuing, and at first I didn't see a case for it. But, going through this review, there are threads that can definitely be picked up--like Claire's crush in issue three, or the final moments of issue five. If this series got picked up for a continuation, I'd definitely be all over it, but I'm also very happy to have the series as is in a tight, fun/dangerous road trip.