Coin toss

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Everyone has thought of the fact that one single change in our actions could have led to a completely different outcome in our lives. For instance, had you decided to go home instead of going out to the bar that night, perhaps you wouldn’t have met your future husband. Or even if you had gone to the bar but had gone to the bathroom about 10 seconds before you did, he would have slipped through your fingers and you would never have known what you had missed. Frightening, huh?

I think about those things a lot. But there is one thing, one alternate universe that I had never really thought of until earlier this month.

I was in an Uber with my friends, ready to go to the conference I told you about. Our conversation brought us to the topic of my college friend, let’s call her Lolo because that’s her name, who studied abroad in the US a year before me. My friends asked me where in the US she stayed, back in 2010, and it prompted me to tell the whole story, for the first time in several years. Lolo and I had both applied for the same TA job in the US that year, and our professor didn’t want the burden of choosing between us, so he decided to flip a coin for it. So, one of the biggest life changes ever was decided by literal fate -I can’t even remember if I chose heads or tails- and I lost. Lolo won and went to Carbondale, IL for a whole school year, while I stayed in Normandy. My professor had promised me a TA job for the next year, and had assured me that the position I would get, in Newark, DE, would be more enjoyable than the job I had just lost on a coin flip. He was right, and the rest is history.

After telling my friends -and our poor Uber driver who had to sit through it- the story of the coin toss, my friend Eric freaked out and said: ‘Can you imagine what your life would be like today if you had won?’

And it’s true. I don’t often reflect on this moment, but I used to think of it as an infuriating, unfair moment, as if I had been wronged. But the alternative would have been going to Illinois instead of my beloved Delaware -although at the time, I had no idea of course- and perhaps not getting all the opportunities that I got. It would certainly mean not meeting my boyfriend, which I can’t even imagine.

Maybe I would still be in Illinois, or maybe I would have stayed a year, like Lolo did, and gone back to France after. Maybe I would be back working at the hotel. Maybe I would have tried for a PhD in Europe, still in American studies, which means I would still be writing about phallic symbols in Annie Proulx’s work (more on that another day I guess) (now you know why I might blurt out the word ‘penis’ in any circumstance). It’s hard to think of what would have happened if such a huge change hadn’t happened. I’d rather not think too much about this alternate universe.

That coin flip is particularly connoted as a ‘deciding moment’, because it explicitly carried a life-altering decision, but can you imagine how many moments like this one we live through everyday, without necessarily realizing it?

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Another thing that I noticed these days -not as mind-blowing, but interesting enough- is how one single moment or action can make people’s perception of you drastically different. I’ve talked before about my horrible first year in my program, when all my professors thought I was a lazy bitch. The more I think about it, the more I believe this general opinion was based on -well, my moody attitude, for one…but also- a couple of instances of me not behaving exactly the way they wanted me to. Then, snowball effect, and the few professors who did not feel satisfied with my performance ‘contaminated’ the others with their tainted opinion of me and BOOM, a reputation is born. I’m not complaining, because the whole situation gave me the opportunity to rethink my goals and priorities, and I discussed this with you before, so I won’t bore you for much longer with it. But the fact is, I was not horrible every day, but I was probably horrible on the wrong couple of occasions.

Recently -well, on Monday-, I went to a dissertation defense. It was a defense no one was hoping for anymore; the now-doctor is sort of an unconventional student, she is in her mid-forties, has been ABD before, and has had a shaky relationship with her professors and her advisor. I went to her defense for support, of course, but also because it’s something that we are expected to do, as much as we can. When the department invites us to something, we make a point to go. I expected a trainwreck, not because she is not capable, because she IS, but more because I knew how strained her relationship with her advisor was.

The truth is, she did an amazing job, and it was one of the best defenses I had ever been to. She spoke with confidence, but was also relaxed and cracked a few jokes, and her advisor seemed to look at her with more and more admiration as time went by. She had redeemed herself, and the atmosphere after the defense was very telling: we all had champagne and snacks, and her advisor started joking about their complex relationship, as if it were a thing of the past. It was really cool to witness.

However, his other advisee was present, and although she is viewed in the department as Little Miss Perfect, she committed a faux-pas -I will not bore you with the details of it because it’s long and annoying, but let’s just say that she omitted to tell her advisor about something very important, and screwed herself over in the process- that sent her straight to undesirable territory. When I tell you that a single action can change everything, it’s because it happened right before my eyes two days ago.

Alright, today’s topic wasn’t super fun, but I promise to come back soon with more light-hearted stuff. Although I am in the middle of watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, so who knows, maybe I’ll come back with gut-wrenching commentaries on nowadays’ society and how it relates to the dystopian society of Gilead. We’ll see. (Who else was shaken to the core by Episode 3?)




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