A Year After Horns and Horses

December 7. Pearl Harbor Day. In 2012, it was also the first day since September when I could get all of my dissertation committee into the same room so I could defend.

That morning, I posted this clip to Facebook:

There were a lot of reasons to pick it. First and foremost, I’m a geek. I grew up on this stuff. When I got older I became a bit of a geek about language, too, and developed an enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. When I am psyching myself up for a challenge, Theoden’s speeches (this and the one from Helm’s Deep) are part of my repertoire (along with the “March to the Scaffold” from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and the James Bond theme). As done in the movie, the scene has just about everything you could ask for: an excellent little speech, delivered well; the right hits in the score with horns and the Rohirrim theme; dramatic lighting; panoramic shots of the whole battlefield to give a sense of scope. The score cuts out at the right moment and sneaks back in wonderfully.

In hindsight, this was a terrible choice. The Rohirrim fully expect to die on their charge. You do not get quite as much sense of it in the movie, but those guys on horses are outnumbered more than 5-to-1. The bad guys have war elephants and Nazgûl. The Rohirrim end up losing their king, and would surely have lost their whole paltry army if Aragorn hadn’t shown up with Rangers and (in the movie) ghosts. I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was just psyching myself up and killing time on a day I’d spent years preparing for. Posting a video, like making cookies for the public portion of the defense, was a nice diversion.

Were I having a glass half-empty day, I could easily push the comparison with the Rohirrim’s charge further. The horde of orcs could be, say, the job market. The gloomy bravado of Theoden could easily be any grad student’s conviction that the market might be bad, but we can take arms against the sea of troubles. There aren’t any Rangers of the North coming to save us. Und so weiter.

Even if the doom and gloom are true, I don’t want to spend more time on them today. It has been a year since I defended my dissertation, and nearly that since I completed the final round of edits and submitted it, eventually resulting in this:

Bound Copy of the Dissertation

408 pages, appendices included

The past year has been the most unsettled one of my life. I’ve been up and down. I’ve applied for jobs, not gotten them, dramatically switched up the kinds of jobs I’m applying for, and not gotten those either (yet). My family moved 1200 miles from a place where the temperature hasn’t gotten above 0 degrees Fahrenheit for a few days to a place where people are freaking out because it’s 25. For nearly half of the year, there hasn’t been a “normal.” There has been so much waiting, so much anticipation and hope and sometimes hopelessness.

It isn’t all better, but a year out, I feel like I’ve got better perspective on both that video clip and that UMI-bound black book. Defending my dissertation was not a life and death conflict. (If there was one of those, it came after, and there was nothing so tangible as orcs to fight.) Literature is not feeding me poetic lines to spout at neat points in a structured narrative, nor is Hollywood supplying a dramatic score to remind me what I should feel at important moments. I wrote a book. It has some good bits and some bad bits, with enough insights to convince a collection of professors of my worthiness to share a rank with them. That’s cool. It hasn’t made the last year any better. That’s also cool.

Now, anyway. I don’t think I was cool with that six months ago. I certainly wasn’t cool with it ten months ago, when the cold and dark of northern winter were far too apt a metaphor for my life.

We often overplay the importance of finishing things. We wrap stories around our lives because we hope to make sense of them. We want the happily ever after, or the brilliant last stand that proves to be the tide-turning sacrifice. If we carve our lives into a series, we want each volume to come to a tidy caesura. Defending a dissertation could have been one of those caesuras. I could have my victory, walk across campus to turn in my paperwork in wonderfully picturesque snow, and then…we skip to the next book, where I am busily occupied with whatever the author wants me to be doing when she throws the next plot arc at me.

In life we cannot—to steal a line from Elmore Leonard—leave out the parts people skip. I have had a year I wouldn’t mind skipping (or at least reducing to a kick-ass training montage). I still get to cook dinner and do laundry and write blog posts. I’ve got a good chunk of a novel that I am working on turning into something the non-rhetorical you can read. I just watched my daughter just fall asleep on the couch with a book in her lap.

What have I learned, a year out from my personal Pelennor Fields? That the parts that people skip are not always bad, even if they don’t come with horns, horses and dramatic speeches.

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