Seeing the light and affecting just one life

December 10, 2012 § 6 Comments

I graduated on Saturday, December 8th, 2012.

My dissertation director draped the hood across my shoulders, and I shook hands, strutting my stuff across the stage. The symbolism was great on that day. Upon entering the arena, my director walked before me. Upon approaching the stage, she walked before me. Once I stood up from my crouch to be hooded, I walked in front of her. It was a moment that I had not anticipated would have affected me quite the way that it did.

I arrived to the meeting room twenty minutes before the e-mail had instructed me to. I was nervous and antsy, so I read an athletic program, staring blankly at pictures, feeling a bit alone among all the other graduating doctoral students who seemed to be there in pairs. When I finally saw my director come into the room, I hurried over to her, feeling suddenly thrilled and excited. I felt like I belonged there. Soon, we were given instructions–hand over your hoods now (it will be on the stage waiting for you), don’t take up more than one seat (just squeeze together), don’t hug each other on the stage (keep moving quickly), and remember to smile (there will be pictures)! There was a joking promise of seeing the light (you will suddenly realize that you know everything there is to know once you get hooded).

My director and I offered muttered commentary where some of the instructions warranted it, stifling our laughter behind sarcastic smiles.

After we had chorused our understanding of the instructions, we were herded back downstairs to the arena portal where we would enter for the last time as students. My director and I muttered together about another professor’s hatred of ceremonies, confessing that we both secretly loved going to graduations. I was relieved to know that I wasn’t alone in feeling the weight of this moment. I walked past my family, seated only a few rows above me. Once I found my seat, I heard a familiar motorboat sound and looked slightly to my left: there was Melanie with Robert’s family, seated near a door for a quick get-away. I felt surrounded by my supporters, both behind me and in front of me (later I would learn my friends were seated to my left).

The familiar music swelled and ended as the departmental representatives arrived and were seated alongside the masters of the ceremony. Speakers spoke. The commencement speaker was a humble professor of poultry science who had earned several excellence in teaching awards–and well deserved. He spoke about success not requiring strength in quantity but strength in quality–it is possible to succeed by positively affecting just one life, not all lives. I took his message to heart, and I saw the light in it.

After my director and I were seated, she and I began to play the “look at the undergraduates’ shoes” game. This is a famous game, rumored to me by her previous doctoral candidates. I was delighted when I received my formal invitation to play. While she remarked on the height of heels coupled with inexperience in walking in them, I pointed out dullness of men’s shoes coupled with programs of expertise. Of course, the military men and women swept my shine score card, but that was to be expected (and was). I love a high shine.

The ceremony ended quickly–in under two hours. We were escorted out of the arena to applause and back up to the room where we first convened. After sharing my home address with my director and receiving her promise to attend the reception afterwards, I hurried down to the arena to hug my husband.

I have been flying high ever since.

A few people have asked me what it feels like to be finished. And, in fact, I must confess that I have asked my other friends the same question when they have completed their degrees. It’s a feeling that has no description. Does it feel good? Of course. Do I feel relief? Immense relief. Do I feel proud? I want to wear my hood everywhere.

But what word encapsulates all of those adjectives?

The best I can come up with is happy.

If you are working on a degree, and I know so many who are, push yourself. It will hurt. It will suck. It will make you question your decision-making skills. But this is a finite experience, as long as you end it. Finish your program, and no one will ever be able to take your degree away from you (along with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities therein pertaining).

Push yourself. Finish the degree.

This happiness is well worth it.

Seeking external motivation: the power of a job application

April 21, 2011 § 11 Comments

I stare at the Word document. It stares right on back. Jeering. Judging. Judging? Definitely judging. Why don’t you just go ahead and write something then? It taunts me. I sigh and fight the urge to open to begin another hour-long marathon of blog-reading. Do it. The document seems to say. You can’t write today anyway. You’re too tired. You’re too bored. You’re too lame. You’re too incapable.

Instead of succumbing to the document’s powerful fighting words, I open a new window in Safari. But not to visit Instead, I visit my university employment site. I log in. And I see something beautiful. Under the words “Application Status” are the glorious and truly validating words “Forwarded to hiring department.”

This is not the first time I’ve read this memo. I must have logged in to this system at least five times since yesterday. Seven times since Tuesday night when I came home in tears over blog grades. Were they happy tears? I think so. And angry tears. Tears that indicated the vindication I so desperately sought from a department that won’t offer it. Come on, I told myself. Seriously. What English department actually vindicates its graduate students? I thought of my undergraduate English department. Yeah, I corrected myself. You weren’t a graduate student then. I wanted to buck-up or maybe I wanted to continue ripping apart my self-esteem. I logged onto the employment site for the first time since submitting my application and saw the status was, gloriously, updated as though to say, “Amanda, we think you’re all right!” I fought back more tears. I was too tired to deal with this, but I went to bed happy. I made it through one more hoop.

Since Tuesday, I have logged onto that site in the moments when self-doubt and -deprecation threaten to creep back in. I want nothing more than to silence that voice that has seemed to locate a megaphone in my mind and that hourly shouts at me, “You are such a fucking loser!”

Knowing my application has been approved by someone with the expertise to approve such things offers that megaphone-voice the equivalent of a mental raspberry. Pbbt! I imagine spitting at the negativity. Gosh darn it someone likes me! I giggle at my own reference to early Franken.

Somehow this job application, this whimsical hope, this dream, this fantasy has been enough to spur me onward. I have been productive–if not every moment on my dissertation, then I have been a more productive teacher in these past few days. I have graded more, lesson-planned better, conducted more analytical and interesting class discussions. I have written over twelve pages all told. I have compiled disparate secondary sources and identified the ways in which I will use each one. I am ready to move forward and finish.

This job, this fantasy has offered me a concrete finish line.

“It will be extremely difficult for someone to do this job well while also finishing a dissertation,” she told me confidentially. I smiled and assured her I’d be finished by the beginning of August.

And I will be.

I will be because this job is important. And I want this job. This specific job. This isn’t just any job in the wide world. This is a great job. An interesting job. A job I know I would do well. It shouldn’t even have been available this year, but thank goodness that it is.

Even though the promise of the job is as solid as gossamer, belief in it fortifies the fantasy until it can withstand the weight of my dissertation, of my motivation.

Lenten Trial: revisited

April 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

Even though I’m not a regularly practicing Catholic, I do still find Lent to be an important moment in the calendar year–a moment meant to be taken seriously in many regards. As an adult Catholic, I tend to choose to observe Lent in grown-up ways, which I have already discussed here. I also have already revealed that my Lenten “fast” was harboring anger against a family member who I felt wronged me, and I have catalogued one encounter during Lent to mark my progress in my “fast.”

I’ve had a second encounter with this family member since the last one in March, and things are going even better than before. I still do not experience the bubble of rage I used to feel…and that is a relief. I’m at the point now where rather than feeling anger, I feel nothing when I see this family member. I used to feel happiness, or at least some form of eagerness to speak to this person (however mild that eagerness was, it was still there). And now, I feel nothing. I don’t know if this is the best it will get, but it’s the best it’s been from my perspective in several months.

Is flat affect, absolutely zero emotional response to seeing this person, preferable to anger? I do still find myself less inclined to want to attend family functions when this person is around, but I went. Twice. And I’ll probably always feel relief when this person is in absentia. But that relief is in response to not having to work so damn hard to be calm and unaffected by this person’s presence. Yes, I am still utterly conscious of my attitude and feelings toward this person. I can only hope that with increased exposure (and perhaps a touch of alcohol), I will eventually be genuinely unaffected whenever this person is invited to family events.

I think, at the end of the day, flat affect is preferable to that bubble of rage. I am less inclined to make a snarky remarks under my breath; I tend to allow comments to roll off my back (something I am woefully inept at); and I don’t pollute the air with any derogatory slanders against this person. Ultimately, I feel myself caring less and less.

I am made better by this exercise. And I hope that, corollary to my self-improvement, other aspects of my life improve as well.

Please don’t compliment me; I don’t think I can take it.

April 8, 2011 § 12 Comments

“I love this, A.Hab.!” V exclaims. She’s reading something I wrote. A draft of something. I can’t remember what now. I must not look convinced by her adoration of my writing. “Don’t you think this sounds good?” She reads me the section that has her so impressed. A smile cracks on my lips…I don’t really know why.

“I…guess…?” It’s not really a question, but my tone inflects up. “I mean…yeah?” I do it again.

Poor V sits across from me, paper in hand, trying so hard to get me to read what she’s reading, the way she’s reading it. She tries again and reads a different section. Afterward, she looks up at me, waiting. “It’s good!” There’s no room for arguing against her–she speaks so emphatically, already convinced that she’s not only right but that I’ll think so, too.

“Well…thank you,” I finally manage. It’s feeble. I’m pretty sure she notices it’s feeble.

“A.Hab., don’t you see that this is good?” she asks again. “I mean, it sounds intelligent. You really know what you’re talking about.”

Yeah, I want to say to her. But we’re talking about my writing here. My writing is never that good. I’m just average. Your writing on the other hand–it’s the real deal!

I don’t say that. I know it won’t go over well. V is trying to help me learn to take a compliment. I’m trying, V, I really am.

Like so many graduate and professional students out there, I suffer from what’s commonly called “Impostor Syndrome.” The imposture here is that, despite my ability to please two admissions committees enough for entrance into two graduate programs (one at the Master’s level and another at the Doctoral level), I’m really not as good as they all think I am. In fact, I know I’m not that good, and one day they’ll find out and boot me from the program. Literally. They will kick me on my rear-end with a boot. Out the door.

I’ve been in my graduate program since 2004. I graduated in 2006 with my M.A., and the same year I entered the PhD program. Maybe I just sort of snuck in under the radar? Maybe they didn’t notice how bad my seminar papers were? How horrible my thesis was? How contrived my theoretical lines of inquiry?

When I receive compliments (especially in regards to my intellect or writing ability), my first thought is an emphatic But!

Would I like to curb this tendency? Absolutely. Of course.

Do I want to value myself and the work I do? Absolutely.

But, honestly, the majority of my motivation to learn how to take a compliment is externally-driven. I would like to be able to believe what others say about me for their sake. I am keenly aware at how disappointing it is for the people who compliment me to be met with a mere shrug or shake of the head or protest. It infuriates me when others do that to the compliments I offer them. I feel embarrassed when others offer me a compliment because I know better than they do. (How arrogant!) And I want to set them straight; I want them to know just how ill-bestowed their kind words are. (Ever the teacher….)

So how do we break out of this habit? What do we do with the Impostor Within? How do we learn to embrace and love and see the Person That Other People See?

Choosing the party

March 31, 2011 § 18 Comments

Yesterday, I was sad and disappointed. I cried. A lot. I felt unvalidated by my department. Like a total loser. As though through the absence of the fellowship, they were not only giving me the middle finger but also a nice boot to the rear while sneering, “This money is only for serious scholars. You suck, and there’s no way you meet our basic qualifications to fund you.” It took several hours, a couple of long phone calls, some incredible comments from my blogosphere pals (thank you, all!!), lots of hugs, and some pretty addictive Chinese food to finally help me overcome the emotional breakdown.

About halfway through my breakdown, in the midst of one of Robert’s awesome hugs, I remembered the promise I had made myself to surprise and thank my students…when I got the fellowship. Weeks ago, when I had to sacrifice time spent on them (grading, coming up with kick-ass lesson plans) to work on chapters for the fellowship application, I decided that I would thank them with treats. I would bring in cookies and maybe a movie, if I could find one. We would have a celebratory party because together we did it! When it struck me that I would not be able to keep my promise to myself (and secretly to my students), I cried more. I really wanted to have a party with them. I really wanted to thank them for their patience with me this semester.

And that’s when I realized:

I could still choose the party!

“You know what?” I sniffled, reluctantly pulling away from Robert’s hug. “I really don’t have it in me to lesson plan right now. I want to rent Persepolis for class tomorrow, watch the first half, and bring cookies to my students.”

Regardless the outcome, my students were still patient with me and have been rooting for me since I told them I applied for the fellowship. Why shouldn’t they get a little recognition?

So, Robert and I got ourselves some dinner, we went to the store to rent Persepolis (we’re reading volume 1–her childhood story–in class right now), and then we bought two packages of fresh-baked cookies (one was sugar, the other chocolate chip). When I walked into my classroom at 8 a.m., my students practically lifted out of their seats, craning their necks in order to see if I did indeed have a DVD in my hand and…cookies??

I took roll. I put the DVD in the computer and the cookies on the table.

“Well, yesterday I got some bad news.” My students seemed to collectively hold their breath. “Do you remember the funding that I applied for this summer in order to finish my dissertation? Remember how I had to write those chapters instead of grade your papers?” They nodded. “Well, I didn’t get the fellowship.”

All together, in chorus, I heard sighing and whispers of “oh no….”

“It’s okay,” I said cheerily. “I had decided weeks ago that I would thank you guys by bringing in cookies and watching a movie if I got the fellowship. But you know what? We’re going to have the party anyway! Screw ’em! I’m still very grateful that you guys have been patient with me and didn’t give me a hard time about getting your grades to you late. You’ve been awesome, and I want to recognize that. So, even if they don’t think we should be happy, screw ’em! I have a great class. Let’s relax today!”

They dove into the cookies (I borrowed a joke from one of Cosby’s early routines about how cookies [his joke was about chocolate cake] were basically like breakfast…eggs, milk, bread…sugar…), I gave them a quick (and really easy) quiz, and then we settled down to watch Persepolis.

Look, here’s the thing.

Does it suck when you work your ass off for no recognition? Of course.
Does it hurt like hell when you feel so utterly rejected? Yup.
Does it cut to the quick to realize you have to go with Plan B? Yes, indeed.

But does it prevent you from still choosing the party regardless? Nope.

And, with that, this is the last post you’ll get about the fellowship. It’s over. I’m done with it. The committee made their decision; there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m kicking the dust off my heels and walking on.

Anyone wanna join me in the party?

When you’re in the shit

March 29, 2011 § 4 Comments

My mom has this saying. “When your head is so far up your own ass, then all you can hear, see, smell, taste and breathe is shit.”

I’ll admit, it’s a little funny to hear my mom say words like “ass” and “shit.” “Shit” is her favorite curse word; at least, it’s her favorite one to say. She says it like it’s poisonous, like you can die from hearing it, like you can really curse someone by saying it.

It’s the “t” that does it. She pronounces that “t” with a spitting sound. It tastes bad in her mouth, and she wants it to sting your ear.

When Mom says, “shit,” she means it.

The first time I heard my mom say “shit” was when I was in ninth grade. I was a violinist in my high school orchestra. And not even the good orchestra. The average one. The one that you got into when you failed your audition in eighth grade to get into the elite orchestra in ninth grade. I was first-chair first violinist. I wasn’t even first-chair first in middle school, but I was in the honors orchestra in middle school. My director, a potential pedophile with a drinking problem (he always got just a little too touchy-feely, although he never touched my “bikini zone”…I just didn’t like my shoulders being rubbed by him when he passed by), told me on the first day of high school in this average orchestra, “Amanda, I want you to be first-chair first because you’re the most skilled one in here.” Why didn’t I get into the honors orchestra, then? I asked, utterly bewildered by my separation from my best friends who would have third period orchestra instead of first. “Because,” he softened, “I need you in here. In honors orchestra” (he said it like it was an insult, with a sneer) “you would have easily been in third chair first-violin or even second-chair second-violin. But in here? In here, you’re our leader.”

We had this conversation in front of my classmates. They hated me. I hated him.

After our first recital of the semester, a Christmas medley sometime between Thanksgiving break and Christmas vacation, my mom was visibly shaking. I was in tears, utterly embarrassed. I found my dad and sister in the auditorium. Mom had already stormed the stage. I begged my dad to explain to me how could it have been that bad? It was Christmas music! I’ve played all those pieces before! Every year! He smiled at me and gave me a hug and squeezed my shoulder. (I didn’t mind when my dad squeezed my shoulder. It didn’t feel creepy.) Mom returned from the stage, took my violin and music from me, and marched her family to the car. We didn’t speak until we got home.

“That was horrible! I can’t believe he would let those kids play such shit!” It hurt my ear. It literally hurt my ear. I cringed. My mom was angry. Not at me. Not at my sister. Not at my father. She was angry at my music director. Because we played so terribly. “I didn’t even recognize half those songs! Did you?” It wasn’t a question. She kept going. “I even had to look at the program just to see what songs they were playing!”

They’re pieces, I murmured under my breath. She couldn’t hear me. I didn’t want her to. But they really are called “pieces” in orchestra. “Songs” have words and are sung. My second orchestra director, from seventh to eighth grade, drilled that tidbit into my head pretty well.

“I can’t believe he had the audacity to tell me that that shit wasn’t shit!” She had said it three times now. She was really mad.

We sat down in the living room, the four of us, and Mom explained why she was so angry and why she was choosing to vent her anger in the form of this vile word. “Amanda, I want you to understand that I am not angry with you. This is not your fault. This is the fault of a man who is very very little, who takes his own frustrations at being denied tenure at your high school out on his students. Your director embarrassed himself, you, and all of your classmates.” (I didn’t even know you could have been denied tenure in high school. There was something wrong with this man. We would come to find out later that the school board generally wanted him fired, but he was best friends with the superintendent and that wasn’t going to happen. He directed orchestras at my high school as well as at our rival high school. My second cousin attended my rival high school three years earlier, and she was in his orchestra. She loved him. They won competitions. She learned how to play well. He chose that school over ours. It was obvious, especially on Spirit Day–he wore their colors instead of ours.)

The next day in orchestra, we didn’t play. We sat around and talked. We sat around and talked a lot in that class. My director was hungover. I had never seen a hangover enacted in person before, but I knew what it was immediately. He wouldn’t let us talk too loudly, and he turned the lights down low. He said he had migraines. He invited questions and comments about the previous night’s recital. I raised my hand, bubbling over with the anger my mother had felt the night before. I don’t understand what happened last night. We are all really embarrassed. Recitals are supposed to be a chance for the kids to show their parents what they’ve learned! He cut me off at the beginning of my diatribe. “That’s not what recitals are for, Amanda. They’re just a requirement for the school calendar.” I didn’t understand. Of course recitals are to display the collective talents of the group after a semester of work. What on Earth else could they have been for?

That was the first time Mom said the word “shit” within my earshot. Since then, she whips it out only for special occasions. It’s much more powerful that way. I love my mom and her deliberate word choice.

“When your head is so far up your own ass, then all you can hear, see, smell, taste and breathe is shit.”

As you may have noticed, friends, my head is way up my own ass. Shit is all around me. My interactions with authority figures are tinged with negativity. Shit. My interactions with students are tinged with negativity. Shit. My interactions with that reflection in the mirror are tinged with negativity. Shit.

Shit, shit, shit.

The worst part is spewing this shit upon you all, my poor, unwitting friends. Except, utterly undeservedly, you guys have been the most amazing support for me. And I want you to know that even though my world is shit right now, I do notice the relief from that shit that you all offer me. And I deeply appreciate it.

In the meantime, I am going to try to surgically extract my head from my ass and focus my energies on seeing through the shit.

Learning to say “no”…like you mean it

March 19, 2011 § 7 Comments

It’s Tuesday, March 15th, and I let my phone ring until the caller leaves a message. I don’t recognize the number, and I’m in “the zone” with my chapter. If it’s important, they’ll say so.

“Hey Amanda, it’s M. Listen, I’m going to be out of town on Saturday the 19th for the day, and I was wondering if you and Robert would be able to watch Penelope for me. Give me a call back as soon as you can and let me know. Thanks.”

As I listen to the message (twice), my insides twist up. I don’t want to call M back because I know I will have to deliver a disappointing response. I like M, I really do. He’s a funny guy and really kind. I love Penelope, his Boston terrier (who is no longer a pup but who I’ll always see as an itty-bitty baby, like when I first met her). I know Penny and Milton enjoy each other’s company, and I’m anxious for her to meet Annie. (I figure the more exposure Annie gets to dogs of all sizes, the better socialized she’ll be.) But this is not a good time. In fact, it’s really a rather bad time for us to be watching one more dog.

I take a deep breath and call M back.

“Hey! Did you get my message?” he asks happily, unsuspecting the rejection he’s about to receive.

I try to let him down easy.

“Yeah…about that, M…I just don’t think we can do it this weekend.”

Think??? I chastise myself. Never say think when you know! Lord knows that causes enough confusion!

There’s silence on his side of the phone. My brain frantically tries to rewrite a script, excising all instances of the word “think.”

“It’s just that…well,” I stammer. “My director wants a new chapter draft on Tuesday after break, and I was out of town this past weekend, so I’m really trying to use this coming weekend to make up for the lack of work I did.”

He’s still silent, so I just keep rambling, my tone reaching a higher octave, and…laughing? Why was I laughing?

“Heh, you know…to be honest, I haven’t even written it yet!”

LIAR! I shout internally. J’accuse! You have too written on it! Why are you lying to him??

Finally, he speaks.

“So, you’re graduating this May?” The light-hearted tone that I’ve come to characterize with M has entirely left his voice.

Shit. It dawns on me: I was probably his last or only option. Shit, shit, shit!

“No,” I titter.

Seriously, am I tittering??

I clear my throat. “No. I’m graduating in August.”

“Oh.” It’s such a pregnant “oh”…so filled with meaning…and is that judgment I hear? Or am I projecting judgment onto him from my own guilt?

Oh, God, I hate this!

“Yeah…but this weekend is really bad for us. It’s not Penny, of course–we adore her! It’s just that Annie is potty-trained and all, but sometimes she still has accidents if we don’t get to her fast enough. And because I’m writing all the time, Robert’s really been in charge of taking care of the animals…and I just can’t ask him to keep an eye on Annie and watch Milton and Penny, too. I am so sorry.”

I think I overemphasized the “so”…he’ll think it’s not sincere…. Shit.

“Oh, that’s okay.”

We chat for a few more minutes about his plan for Saturday–a day-trip, really; he’d be home before dark, so Penny wouldn’t become an overnight guest–until I just can’t stand to be on the phone with this awkwardness any more. I make up an excuse, and we hang up.

My insides are twisted and knotted, and I feel a little like I could throw up. All I did was say “no” to someone, and you’d think I suddenly became Pontius Pilate and delivered him a death sentence.

Fast forward to last night….

“Oh, baby, I forgot to tell you. Mom texted me and has invited us over for a steak dinner tomorrow night. I didn’t respond yet because I wanted to talk to you about it first.” Robert is so considerate to wait to talk to me first, even when making plans with his mom.

But then my insides twist up again.

Robert reads the expression on my face and immediately reverts into what is quickly becoming a stand-by response in our house: reassure Amanda before she has a chance to freak out that she is in no way expected to be social right now.

“I can’t,” is all I can muster out.

“That’s okay! We don’t have to go,” Robert reassures me, kissing me on the forehead.

Wait! My insides are suddenly twisting into more violent contortions. That’s not what I want!

“No, no.” I shake my head. “No, you should go. I don’t want your mom to think that we’re avoiding them or that we’re only making time for my family [i.e. the BBQ we attended last weekend]. Someone should go as the ambassador for this branch of the Habs!”

Robert agrees, and you would think that would be the end of it. Oh no, self-inflicted mental torture is one of my specialities.

A few hours later, we’re lying in bed, starting to fall asleep, and I conclude our day with, “I just don’t want to be bad daughter-in-law. I already feel like a terrible wife. I don’t want your mom or dad to hate me or think that I don’t like seeing them. I feel awful.”

All Robert can do is squeeze my hand, remind me that I’m not any of those things or in danger of any of those things, and wish me good night. I fall asleep soon after he does.

On Wednesday, after I had to let M down about dog-sitting for him, V and I met at the coffee shop to work. I told her about my encounter and subsequent guilt. Her succinct response was perfect: “You and I will just have to learn to embrace saying no right now.”

That’s it!

Although I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say that I’m a people-pleaser, I do want everyone to generally be happy (at least with me and what I’m doing). [On second thought, that might be exactly what people-pleasing is….] I want to be seen as someone who has her ducks all in a row and can hold everything together effortlessly. I don’t want anyone to have a reason to judge me. I want to be the kind of person that I see in other people.

But what writing this dissertation has taught me is that I absolutely must become comfortable with the exposure of my flaws and shortcomings. Sure, I can sit here and rattle them off to you fine folks–I myself am well aware of the precise ways in which I fail so spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean I want other people to be likewise aware. It is much better for me if I feel that others look at me and think, “Amanda’s all right. She’s doing just fine.” I don’t know what I’m afraid of if they were to see the truth in my failings, but it is a fear I’m coming to grips with now.

While I write this dissertation, I have had to prioritize.

Dissertation over teaching. Done.
Dissertation over weight loss. Done.
Dissertation over social life. Done.
Dissertation over romance. Sigh.
Dissertation over family. Ugh.
Dissertation over ALL. Sob.

And we can see the degeneration–I am getting to a place of utter and bitter resentment toward this project. I want to prioritize my life in other ways. But I lived that way last year, with my dissertation taking the priority I believed it should have taken…and my progress suffered.

These next few months, on the road to graduation, I am learning to say “no.” And I have to at least sound like I mean it, even if on the inside I’m cringing, wrestling with guilt, and begging for forgiveness.

(For the record, though, I have a pretty good start on this chapter. I’m sneaking on 20 pages, and should hit around 35 by Monday, if all goes according to plan. And then the grading marathon will begin!)

Embracing the unknown unknowns

March 15, 2011 § 17 Comments

Sometimes, when I am at my most panicky, Robert will take my hand and soothe me saying, “Baby, we can’t panic about the unknown unknowns. We don’t even know what they are!” He is the incredibly faithful optimist–and not naively so. No, my husband is an optimist in the very best way. He is logical and practical enough to know that plans fall through, hopes often give way to disappointment, and nothing is ever perfectly executed. But he still believes that the outcome will be worth the attempt.

This is where we differ.

I constantly tell him that I wish I could just see into the future, or better, have my future self a la Marty McFly zip over to me on a hoverboard and tell me what I need to do to ensure utter lifelong joy. What’s the fun in that? You might wonder. That’s a fair thing to wonder. My answer: I like knowing! (I think this comes as no surprise to anyone else who has ever met me even for a moment….)

I have racked up several blog entries at this point on just how very confused I am–indeed, there’s an entire category of them, which you are welcome to peruse. And if there’s anything that the entries in this category will show you, it is that I do not like the unknowns.

What am I going to do with myself after graduation? I dunno.

Will we have enough money for our big, grown-up expenses (like a new car, a house, a family)? I dunno.

How will I contribute to the so-called “combined income” of this household? I dunno.

How much will I contribute to the so-called “combined income” of this household? I dunno.

How long will be my full-time unpaid job be to search for salaried full-time jobs? I dunno.

How long will we go in this state of uncertainty? I dunno.

What state will we be in when we come out of the uncertainty? I dunno.

See, folks, these are the unknowns. These are the actual questions I can ask myself because I am aware that there will be answers for them at some point in the unknown future. But then, there are the unknown unknowns, the things that I don’t even know I don’t know. I can’t ask questions for these unknown unknowns because I don’t know enough about the unknowns in order to develop those questions in the first place (and then they wouldn’t be unknown unknowns, would they?).

This is what I struggle with: not knowing what I don’t know. I guess I can handle it if I know the question and not the answer. But to know that there is some mysterious other question I will be or should be asking myself and not to know the answer to that unknown question is terrifying.

And it’s in the midst of these anxiety-provoking thoughts that I remind myself: A.Hab., your life did not come with a roadmap…neither did anyone else’s!

All you other people who I admire and look to as examples of got-it-together-ness, I envy your ability to hold things together (or at least to hold together the appearance of holding it together) in the face of possessing absolutely no roadmap. How do you do it?

I’ll tell you how I attempted to do it this past weekend. When extended family members came up to me to ask me how my dissertation and degree were going, when I planned to graduate, and what I intended to do with my life, I tried very hard to smile (with my mouth and my eyes, thankyouverymuch Tyra Banks!), and say with pretended confidence, “I’m halfway through my dissertation, I will graduate on August 6th, and I think I’d like to give teaching a break for a while, go into editing or working with theaters in an educational function.” I must have convinced them because frequently, conversations would turn to, “Oh! How interesting!” And then we’d move on from there. I found no resistance, no judgment, no admonitions about what I waste I had made of my life. It was oddly…rewarding.

Look, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I just don’t. Some days I think I could probably not hate teaching. Then other days I remember that it’s not the classroom-time I don’t like. Then other days I think about all the options that are out there (maybe I should work in a library, or maybe I should tell people what’s wrong with their documents so they don’t embarrass themselves, or maybe I should find another way to tickle my educational urges). And there are so many more options than the ones I’ve rattled off here…I don’t know what the options are (unknown!), but I’m determined to find out. And any assistance to that end would be greatly appreciated, seriously.

Here’s what I’m getting at, though: maybe if I can just take a deep breath, stop fixating on the unknown unknowns (the poor residents of Japan on Thursday the 10th, for instance, did not know that they did not know that their lives would be in ruins on Friday the 11th), then maybe I can at least prepare myself for the eminent unknowns as best as is humanly possible while maintaining sanity. (And my deepest and sincerest condolences go out to those in Japan who were affected by Friday’s horror-storms that were the earthquake, aftershocks, resultant tsunamis and potential radiation exposure. You couldn’t have done anything to prepare, and I hope that you’ll forgive me the absolutely disproportionate example.)

So, I pose my question again to my readers: how do we break free from the cycle of fear-based living and instead embrace the unknown unknowns?

Lenten Trial

March 12, 2011 § 4 Comments

Really, the title makes this sound much more…dire…than it actually was. As I have said before, and especially in my entry on Lenten sacrifices and goals, I have had a problem with a certain family member which inevitably leads to a deep feeling of rage and hurt. These emotions are exhausting to harbor all the time. I wanted to be able to be in the same room with this person and not provoke an argument for the sake of forcing out an apology that I know now will never come.

Today was my first day seeing this family member since Christmas. I behaved rather well over Christmas, but I was deluding myself into thinking that I might receive a sincere apology. After one never came, my hurt feelings were doubly hurt, my anger boiled over, and I refused to see this person.

Until today.

I am extremely tired after a family BBQ (which was a lot of fun and even included a beer tasting…more on that later), so this will be another rather short post (you’re welcome). But the gist of the encounter was this:

Hey, Amanda.
Hey, ______.
Are you having fun?
Yeah, I am. How was traffic?
Pretty horrible. We were stuck for a while.
That sucks. Well, welcome now; we’re glad you made it safely. Get yourself a plate and make yourself comfortable.

And then later, at the beer tasting, we chatted about how disgusting one beer was or how delicious another one was.

And that was pretty much it. You know what the funny thing was? I didn’t feel that bubble of rage building in me as I had in the interim when I didn’t see this person. This time, it was just sort of a matter of course. We would see each other, we would talk a little, everything would be fine.

No, we didn’t delve into deeply personal topics (hell, we even stayed away from what things we’re doing to keep busy these days). We stayed on rather neutral topics–traffic and beer–but I think that’s what helped. Because we stayed neutral and did not even tiptoe into personal topics, we were able to keep a safe distance from each other’s feelings and potentially start rebuilding that bridge.

I do think our relationship is forever altered. I do think that I will not ever open myself up enough to trust this family member. But we are going to be in each other’s lives a long time (’til death do us part, and all–you know that applies to your spouse’s family too, right?), so it’s at least worth mending the bridge enough so that we can be sincerely civil toward one another.

And the best part about it?

I feel better.

Take it easy, Charlie Sheen: what Montaigne would say

March 3, 2011 § 8 Comments

Writing this dissertation has introduced me to some fairly interesting thinkers, philosophers, and essayists. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (but all the cool scholars just call him “Montaigne”) is one of those great thinkers, philosophers, and essayists. Triple-threat, baby.

Montaigne composed a great number of essays in his lifetime, several of which I am currently reading, and a few of which I intend to include in my dissertation. Montaigne is controversial for his time (late-Renaissance France) because he understands religious views (Christianity, of course) enough to appeal to a broad enough audience and to speak intelligently about topics at the fore of Christians’ thoughts; however, Montaigne was “half pagan and less than half Christian,” according to David Frame who writes the introduction of an edition of Montaigne’s travel journal. What I like about Montaigne is that he offers a fairly practical approach to some of the most incendiary of Renaissance hot topics; rather than inciting his readers to impose a sort of Fatwa upon one another, he challenges readers to approach controversy and difference with logic. (Consider that!)

As I’ve been reading a few of Montaigne’s essays, I am deeply moved by their utter pragmatism. Yes! I want to shout in the not-so-quiet-but-oh-so-public coffee shop. This is exactly it! (The venue I choose for the shouting instead, of course, is my blog. You’re welcome, general public. My apologies, blog readers.) Montaigne had no idea that, over 430 years after he published his essays, his pragmatism and liberal concepts would still hold such topical import.

Allow me to turn, as an example, to the most recent cataclysmic debacle that is Charlie Sheen’s descent into drug-induced egotism. As we well know, Charlie Sheen has littered our airwaves with a treasure trove of brilliant gems, such as calling his two live-in girlfriends his “goddesses” and revealing that because he is such a special person he deserves special accompanying privileges to participate in a polyamorous relationship with them. Whatever. Look, what two or three or five consenting adults choose to do in the privacy of their bedroom(s) is none of my business and I have absolutely no interest in passing judgment. For me, monogamy is the way to go. But maybe for someone like Charlie Sheen, he’s got to spread the love; and why not? He’s special. (And why not? Human sexuality is a complex, fluctuating, exciting tangled web.)

What does strike my ear funny, then, is the extent to which Sheen indulges his fancies. He constantly appeals to the “logic” of any who will give him a microphone that he is a special dude. But, amid all his self-aggrandizing, has Sheen lost the point of living the life of a bitchin’ Martian rock star with tiger blood and Adonis DNA, fists of fire, and the power to overcome drug addiction simply by choosing not to be addicted anymore?

I say yes, and I believe Montaigne would tend to agree. Of men who over-indulge themselves, Montaigne tells us:

“Nor do ladies titillate the man who enjoys his fill of them. He who does not give himself leisure to be thirsty cannot take pleasure in drinking.”
–Montaigne, “Of the inequality that is between us” (1572-4)

I love the second sentence in particular. “He who does not give himself leisure to be thirsty cannot take pleasure in drinking.” If you would please indulge me, I would like a moment to speak directly to Warlock Sheen.

Your Highness, please note that Montaigne speaks figuratively here. Obviously, as I am sure you understand with your utterly passionate, bi-winning mind, Montaigne does not imply that 1. a man should turn to drinking any substance in particular (except, perhaps, that of “life” in general) and 2. a man should binge once he has made himself thirsty.

Thanks for your consideration,
The utterly unworthy and not special A.Hab.

P.S. I also do not have the genetic code of which you yourself are capable of boasting. Please excuse any indolence in the preceding message.

P.P.S. Yes, I read the AV Club article that reminds us all to laugh a little more at your intended dark humor and sarcasm.  I get the jokes.  They’re just not that funny.


What I do believe Montaigne instructs us to do, however, is to live in moderation. Appreciate our unique Selves as far as that appreciation does not intrude upon others’ appreciation of their unique selves. When Sheen makes grandiose claims about his employers and network, he oversteps his own boundaries and ignores the victims of his vitriol their needs and desires. He utterly misinterprets what is an appeal to logic and an encouragement for medical assistance as judgment, condescension, and trauma.

Although I do believe the media is purposefully preying on the public’s fascination with a good, old-fashioned self-destructive implosion, I think what can ultimately be gleaned from all this manic nonsense is that Charlie Sheen and the media both need to back the hell up off each other. We all need a chance to feel thirsty in order to appreciate what progress Sheen makes (whether real or imagined–at this point, it doesn’t much matter to me). The media needs to stop indulging the public’s binge-drinking of Sheen’s downward spiral. And Sheen needs to stop indulging his own ego-binge as well.

I’ll leave this entry on another couple of thoughts by Montaigne:

“There is nothing so hampering, so cloying, as abundance. […] And besides, I believe that this luster of greatness brings no slight drawbacks to the enjoyment of the sweeter pleasures: they are too much in the limelight and exposed to view.”
–Montaigne, “Of the inequality that is between us,” 1572-4

And perhaps not to empathize with Sheen more than is deserved but more to understand our fascination with celebrity:

“And, I know not why, the great are more obliged than we to hide and cover up their faults. For what in us is indiscretion, in them the people judge to be tyranny, contempt, and disdain for the laws; and it is true that besides their normal pleasure from vice, it seems that they take an added pleasure in insulting public observances and trampling them underfoot.”
–Montaigne, “Of the inequality that is between us,” 1572-4

(and both a response to Montaigne and taking it one little step further…which is what I’ve been saying from the very beginning of this nonsense.)

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