Monday, July 24, 2006

Self-Mutilation

This weekend was a roller coaster of feeling of hatred and warmth for GradShitTownVille and my own plight for a Ph.D. Friday evening, I went to see "Monster House" with the boyfriend. While lingering in the cinema lobby, I had the strange feeling that I was at some kind of techie conference. I whispered to the boyfriend, "Is it sys-admin night?" Later on, we realized that it happened to be same the evening that "Clerks II" was released.

One of my complaints about GradShitTownVille has always been how the population is made up of a limited number of social groups. Most visible to my day-to-day haunts are the sys-admins, the sorority girls, frat boys, and mousy-but-snobbish academics. Admittedly, most cities are made up of social groups, but they usually have more than four. Chicago has its hip gay men in Lincoln Park, Tokyo has its Gothic Lolita teens in Harajuku, and Portland has its grunge homeless kids downtown. Human beings are pack animals, so it's difficult to find an acutal American Melting Pot. It's more like an American Tossed Salad, and in GradShitTownVille, it's the same four veggies every night.

That said, Saturday afternoon I was blessed to immerse myself in a social group I rarely experience. Grumpy from sys-admin night, I went to the local Artsy movie house that was showing Krrish, a three-hour Indian science fiction movie. It's like Crocodile Dundee + Batman + Cinderella + E.T. + West Side Story but not like any of those at all. In the audience, filled to the brim, were some of the Indians that populate this town. During intermission, kids ran around and played while everyone else fought for the two stalls in the bathroom.

So, yes, it's partly my fault that all I ever see are sys-admins. But is it also my fault that I have become a workaholic in order to be successful in this place? Is it the place, or is it me?

To continue my efforts to do something new--and perhaps perform a little self-mutilation on my physical body that so often disappoints me--I biked 48 miles yesterday, from GradShitTownVille to Monty-Cello and back. I've been biking all summer, my rides longer and longer, leading up to this particular ride. Yesterday was painful at parts--especially on the country backroads where the corn fields are still the same after an hour of riding. Monty-Cello is a nice little town, with most folks on the outskirts having a horse or two in their back yard. I found a little forest preserve, and the burial site of a woman from a Native American Tribe.

Today, because of the ride, I feel a bit like I do after giving blood. It is the same feeling I have the day before I get a cold. I woke up late with a painful headache, attended two meetings, ate a late lunch, and I sit here very aware that Monday is almost over. I'll be back in the office tonight, as usual, but that does not help me to overcome my current bout of research-guilt. It's been eight days since I've made progress on my research, which is mostly due to a side-project that's eating my time away like moths eat at sweaters in woolen closet. The work--not at all related to my thesis--one year ago was exciting and hopeful. It has lately become a thankless and depressing weight. I push myself towards a self-imposed deadline of next week, so that I might start again on my research, towards actually getting out of GradShitTownVille.

I wonder why I do these side projects; the dance troops, the radio shows, the panels, and the gender research. Is it because I am a person with diverse interests, or is it because I hesitate to do what I need to do to get out of here? If my priority is really to get out of GradShitTownVille, then dammnit I need to act like it.

For a while, I had. I'd been keeping a timesheet of my daily work, making sure to do 6 good hours of research a day (not counting meetings and other menial work). But the side-project derailed me, and I have to really look hard at myself and figure out why I allowed this to happen. My own values are to give back to the community, to be kind to my friends, but these values do not match those of my department which values research over all else. For four years, I've watched an internal battle. Do I do what I think is important, or what they think is important? Over time, I see that I have started to become what my department wants me to be in order to be labeled "successful." Will I complete this metamorphasis, and will I be able to regain my old self afterwards? I doubt it, for life challenges like these mark me forever.

I remember having lunch with an old high school friend, and he said, "You've calmed down A LOT. A LOT." It wasn't really a sense of calm, but something heavy that had euthanised the goofy clown I used to be. Is this what maturity means?

Looking over my old e-mails, I found something I once wrote to Tony. I told him that I'd hit a wall in my research, that I'd become afraid of making intellectual risks. He asked me why, if I was afraid of what my advisor might think of my work, and I replied,


I don't really care what anyone else thinks. It's mostly the fear that I will try and find that I can't do it anymore. I will find that I've exhausted all there is to my intellect and that I cannot go any further. I will find that I have finally hit the wall and I will have
to leave school like so many seem to leave, not with a bang, but with a whimper.


And I suppose this--all this--is why I did not go home for the summer. It's a little more self-mutilation, self-punishment, for going home is always its own reward. But I'm here, I'm hiding out from family and friends, afraid and unable to explain that I still don't know when I'll be done, that I still have not taken my prelim, and that I still hate it here.

6 comments:

DC said...

I don't know why this post made me think this, but:

You know how in some movies there's this scene from The Past that is indelibly stamped on the character's inner being and they keep showing that scene over and over and you know that they'll always have this warm slo-mo music feeling for their dad or older brother or childhood sweetheart no matter what?

Traveler, not tourist said...

Your post makes me think of these (it's pretty random):

The American melting pot: I can pretty much make a case for whether it lives up to this description or not. But in my own opinion it does. For the record, I'm not American, but grew up in touch with it's culture. After coming here I did realize that a lot of people "resist", being in the melting pot and would what to retain their own cultural identity (whatever the heck means). Culturally I'm no-one, and I like it that way. That way I think America is a melting pot and has taken a lot from different cultures, but has resisted (mostly) the dogmas of these cultures. But of-course, I've seen it all through my own key-hole and maybe wrong about it.

I do understand what you mean, when you say that it's a tossed salad. I'd say both (the pot and the salad) exist side by side, and it's upto each person to choose which suits her. I personally would not like to be segregated (what's the point of living abroad!). I just thought I should comment on those of us who do like the melting pot that America is. It's like a good book, I guess, you get only as much as you put in.

For some reason I had a similar conversation with a friend of mine. Well to cut the long story short, we ran into a friend of his (in SF), who owns a hotel now. He saw my friend and said that he has "calmed down". Later we talked about Ph. D changing us and stuff. My friend put it this way -- "Humility is as much an anomaly of character as arrogance is". I'm not sure I agree with that completely, but it's somewhat true though.

I hope you find your flow back, get past the distracting projects quickly and feel productive again. Good luck.

Saad Sheikh said...

of all the movies in the world u had to pick up Krrish!

HAHAHA!!!

Tony said...

If my priority is really to get out of GradShitTownVille, then dammnit I need to act like it.

For myself, I found that there was a greater priority to maintain a sense of self that I was happy with. That's part of the reason I felt it was necessary to take some humanities classes while I was in GSTV and do stuff like protest in DC.

If you haven't got your (mental) health, what have you got?

wrp said...

CS grad here, on the West Coast.

But the side-project derailed me ... My own values are to give back to the community, to be kind to my friends, but these values do not match those of my department which values research over all else. For four years, I've watched an internal battle. Do I do what I think is important, or what they think is important?

I've always been annoyed by the manner in which grad school has cut into my other interests. One of the things I had to do was accept the necessity of a "larval stage" in which I just worked on school and put everything else aside for a while. (I am now out of the larval stage, having completed a thesis proposal and a research paper or two. Hooray for having a life again.)

The larval stage did bother me, though, and I think it was just a matter of my getting older and not being able to deal with the fact that my life would no longer be an extremely connected junction where every conceivable future would be theoretically possible and I had all the time in the world to take any path, and those paths were now starting to disappear. Once you dig in like that, you can't go back. It's disturbing to realize this, but at the same time you're deluding yourself if you pretend you can stay at that particular point forever. Not choosing is itself a choice, and can be just as unsatisfying or unfulfilling.

Anyways, good luck on getting out of GradShitTownVille. (I'm quite thankful to be in a city I love for school.)

Ms.PhD said...

I like what wrp said about the junction between all paths and picking one. I've always had a hard time really waving goodbye to my other interests- hence the blogging.

Yes, in my world even blogging would be considered a major distraction, even if I only spend <30 minutes a day doing it.

Here's my advice: STAY SANE. If that means you have to schedule in time for an outside activity or two, do it. But try to pick just two activities, or you're going to feel it when you're spread too thin.

Personally I really enjoyed the 'larval' or what I think of as 'monkish' stage when I was eating, breathing, sleeping and dreaming of nothing but my research.

Sometimes I would like to get back there, to where I don't care if the dishes aren't done and I'm wearing sweatshirts and sneakers every day and who cares how my hair looks.

When you're a postdoc and you want people to start thinking of you as a future Professor, you have to dress the part, go to more meetings, and fit your research in around the edges.

One of the only good things about grad school is that you're ALLOWED to make your research your one and only priority, if you want to.

Sometimes it can be really peaceful just knowing there's really only 1 thing anybody can expect you to worry about: your thesis project.

It sounds to me like you have to decide how badly you want the PhD. If you'd rather die than leave empty-handed, which was how I felt after all the crap I went through, then make it your priority to get the degree and get the hell outta there. After that, you can meditate on how you feel about the work, academia, etc. And you'll get more perspective just getting out of GradShitTownVille and your particular department. Not everywhere is equally bad in all the same ways, believe it or not. You may find someplace you actually like, where the faculty all have children (and lives). Such places do exist.