Monday, July 26, 2010


in my several years as a graduate student, i have witnessed more than a few students complete the rite of passage that is the dissertation defense.  most have seemed harried and frazzled in the final days. they frantically polished their work in preparation for presenting it to their toughest critics.  for most, the final days are a stressful time.  it is a time when the digestive system suddenly fails.  sleep becomes evasive.  skin loses pigment.  hours staring at computer screens pass like minutes.  preparing to defend is often a miserable experience.

but - in case any of my recent antics have failed to communicate this - i am not one to be overly concerned with conventions for the sake of conventions (i am a fan of politeness, but that is because politeness usually serves functions i consider worthwhile ... but what possible positive function can be served by excessive stress or anxiety?).  and besides, i already achieved (arguably, more than) my quota of graduate student misery - i have been ready and waiting to defend for a very long time.  so what am i doing a mere four days before my defense?  i started the day with a mommy/daughter manicure/pedicure in the village.  we met j for lunch and then spent the afternoon shopping.  we walked several miles, and i enjoyed skin-bronzing, hair-lightening sunshine.  when thoughts of the impending defense crept into my consciousness, the movie legally blonde came to mind.  i may be the first student in the department to (if all goes well) become a tan, freshly manicured/pedicured doctor.  

the manicure/pedicure was an awkward but fun experience.  i assume that the receptionist said hello when i called, but i can't be completely sure.  it wasn't in english or in any of the languages i understand well enough to detect a greeting.  i didn't hear the name of the nail salon in the greeting either.  but we had a nice chat anyway.  i asked if it were the salon.  she responded in non-english.  i apologized for having the wrong number.  she said something else in non-english.  in retrospect, the fact that we politely spoke, stopped speaking while the other was talking, and repeated the process several times is highly entertaining considering neither of us understood a word the other was saying.  not that this doesn't happen when people are speaking the same language - haven't we all had a conversation with that person who is just too busy thinking about what they want to say next that they don't feel the need to listen to what their conversation partner is actually saying?  and haven't we all resorted to speaking utter nonsense and then laughing on the inside when the person just keeps talking as though a real conversation were taking place? (e.g., "i just love this restaurant." "yes, i completely agree.  i once owned a scuba-diving donkey." "they have the best sushi.").  oh ... or is that just me? 

i prepared to hang up, but was greeted again (in non-english) by another voice.  thoroughly confused at this point, i paused.  the voice then said, "hello?"  so i asked again if it were the nail salon.  i then heard, "hello, [name of nail salon here]. how can i help you? hello?" and i somehow managed to set up appointments for us.  the place had great reviews ... and we didn't want to waste half the day choosing a replacement from the remaining 3 million nail salons in manhattan just because of a slight little language barrier.

during the appointment, we communicated mostly in gestures and smiles, with minimal intermittent translation by the youngest manicurist.  while small talk can be awkward at times, the absence of it was even more conspicuous.  it was a strange experience to not be able to communicate anything of even small talk substance with the person who was painting my nails.  it probably didn't help that we decided to tip using stacks of the newish gold dollar coins.  my mom told her manicurist that she was giving her pirate gold as a tip (a type of comment that had been well received by other vendors in non-language-barrier contexts).  her manicurist smiled and nodded.  she said something to her coworker that i can only assume meant, "these girls are lunatics.  just smile and they will go away." 

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