Monday, June 23, 2008

Dissertating Under the Influence

“I don’t wanna talk to these cocksuckers, but you have to. In life, you have to do a lot of things you don’t fuckin’ wanna do. Many times, that’s what’s the fuck life is: one vile fucking task after another.

But don’t get aggravated. Then the enemy has you by the short hair.”

-Al Swearengen (played by Ian Mcshane) from the HBO series Deadwood

Mama said knock you out

Procrastination: meet your foe. Today my officemate Gilberto and I have declared you to be the terrorist of doctoral students everywhere, spreading fear and self-loathing in the most un-Hunter Thompson-like of ways. We declare you Enemy of the State. Wait –that’s us. Okay: Supreme Enemy of PhD students at Tijuana’s El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Our WMD of choice: “Contingency Management,” a ‘carrot-and-stick’ technique that forces a procrastinator to produce written text before s/he engages in meaningful tasks like, say, watching Comedy Central or waxing your legs.

I first learned about CM on Jim Gibbon’s marvelous blog on life, Turkey, and dissertation research. I’ve never met Jim (a fellow IDRF recipient) but, like me, he lives the same unfortunate plight of having to turn awesome cocktail party stories (see the Turkish barbershop debate over strawberries vs. circumcision) into a 300-page academic tome no one but my PhD committee will read.

So when Gilberto, a PhD student and my desk jockey neighbor at El Colegio, confessed his addiction to Skype in the face of rapidly-approaching graduation deadlines, we turned to Jim’s blog.

“Contingency Management is simple,” writes Jim, “Choose a daily task that you value (e.g., checking your email, working out, showering) and make it contingent on writing for a period of, say, 30 minutes. The trick is finding something you really can’t go a day without doing. For me, checking my email works like a charm.”

If sobriety were only that tempting. But Jim goes to Princeton and seems to have his shit together, so Gilberto and I were willing to take the plunge.

Classy Baja alternatives, but no beloved Tecate

This morning we sat down in our office and came up with a set of guidelines for Contingency Management that any self-destructive, anxiety-ridden doctoral students –namely us– can safely abide by. Henceforth, The Rules of Cubículo 9:

1. 500 words (approximately two pages) = 1 Tecate. (a)

2. Tecate Light is not an appropriate substitute for the real, canned, delicious thing. (b)

3. No Tecates until those palabras are etched in Microsoft Word and shown to officemate. (c)

(a) Rule-makers reserve the right to lower minimum wordage under conditions of extreme duress, such as every Friday, phone conversations with PhD advisors, and most Mondays.

(b) Studies show that light beer sucks.
(c) Penalty for violation is contributing to General DUI Fund.

We constructed a “time sheet” to tally our pages and Tecates. For instance, Gilberto writes 500 words of his lit review on historical water politics in the Tigris and Euphrates River Basins (his PhD topic), records the achievement, and presto –one beer closer to graduation.

No more trips to Baja wine country until Chapter 2 is complete

“Procrastination”, Gilberto tells me, has no precise translation into Spanish. He uses a variety of phrases (“leaving until tomorrow what I should do today”, etc) but nothing quite has the clipped, culpable blend of guilty Catholicism and Fordist models of production that our English version intonates. To procrastinate. Now it’s merely that space between a blank page and my drink.

So, yeah, I’ll get on writing that dissertation. After I get back from my vacation to Mexico City. Next week. I promise. Beer by beer.

Friday, June 6, 2008

All in the Game, Yo

Detective Bunk: So you my eyeball witness, huh?
Omar: [nods]

Bunk: So why you’d step up on this?

Omar: They trifling, basically. Kill an everyday working man and all. I mean, don’t get it twisted I do some dirt, too, but I ain’t neva put my gun on nobody who wasn’t in the game.

Bunk: A man must have a code.
Omar: ‘Pa, no doubt.

-The Wire, Season 1, Episode 7

Today I learned that even drug addicts have rules about water use.

I made this discovery in, where else, the sewers of Tijuana. All along the cemented, channelized Río Tijuana, drug users and sex workers live in the stormwater outfall pipes. Imagine the car chase scene through L.A. River in Terminator 2, sans Arnold. Mix in a bit of “Hamsterdam” from The Wire. Stir.

I've been meaning to get out there for a while. Prevecasa, the HIV-AIDS intervention/research organization that my friend Kate works with, recently started Friday soccer games among staff and canal residents to deepen their outreach program and build community.

Río Tijuana, not on its finest day

So this morning I laced up and joined Team Needle Exchange. We drove a massive RV (stuffed with staff, clean syringes, rapid-result HIV tests, Corn Nuts, condoms, and Kool-Aid) down into the canal, breaking about 100 traffic rules along the way.

Almost immediately, putrid smells of wastewater hit with gale force. We passed outfall pipes, one after another: some homes to packs of feral dogs, some just homes. Our driver laid heavy on the horn until we summoned the addicts from their sewer lairs.

Mi casa es su casa

Because if there is something all Mexicans have in common, it's love for fútbol.

Meanwhile, I had heard about the "spring" where sewer residents take water from the municipal grid. One user, I’ll call him “Bubbles” (another nod to The Wire), confirmed our hunch. “Right up the way,” he pointed, “Let’s go. I’ll take you.”

So Kate, a staffer, Bubbles the CI and I walked east along the cement riverbank to check it out. Bubbles pointed out pipes that residents had purposively plugged to stop water leaks. Counterintuitive? When I asked why, he explained that previous fugas [leaks] had attracted too much attention from a nearby neighborhood and –more significantly –the police.

A "spring" for the masses

Four men were doing laundry when we arrived at the fuga. One quickly pulled up his trousers in embarrassment: the site also serves as the neighborhood bath. I closed my eyes, and I swear, they could've been Mayan women by some creek in Guatemala. Except their veins were swollen and black. And they weren't wearing skirts.

Bubbles explained that although the leak yielded “agua limpia,” residents only used it for washing clothes and bathing. Drinking water came from more secure sources. Someone had placed a discarded car tire, weighed it down with rocks, and fuga users carefully drew from the pool to scrub their laundry and themselves. The area was relatively clean and free of trash. One man had finished clothes washing and was methodically scrubbing algae off the concrete bank, as if to say “ya no” to filth. The place felt humane.

At the heart of it all, my project is about this: the rules off the books, the codes of conduct not etched by the State, the norms beyond the text. In my case, these institutions happen to be about off-grid water use –harvesting, stealing, sharing, recycling –and the spaces they take place in, like rooftops and raingutters, washing machines and cisterns.

And the spaces they make. Like the sewer residents’ “spring” –a little slice of guts and ingenuity in a tough world.