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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Confidence boost

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Guys, I know (I’m saying ‘guys’ as if I still have more than one reader), I’ve been absent forever. But unlike my students, I’m not gonna try to make up a pathetic excuse for not being around. The truth is, I’ve been busy: I took an important exam (and passed it), I went to a conference, and now I shouldn’t even be here. I have three final papers due next week, so I should probably be writing them, instead of telling you about my life. And yet, here we are.

Where should I start? Probably by telling you that in the near future, I’m going to TRY and post more, because just by opening up the WordPress website, I could tell that I had missed it. And also, I waste a lot of time looking at reviews for every single episode of every single TV show I watch, so why not use my free time to write instead?

So, what’s up with me, you ask? From my very presumptuous title, you can probably tell that things are going pretty well. I told you about my impostor syndrome before, and it hasn’t gone away per se, but the recent events made it fade a little bit. For one, I passed my candidacy exam, which means that my committee members are essentially on board with my thesis proposal. After months of self-doubt, hearing that I have a good project made me feel extremely light, and even if I have a shitton of work to do still, I can see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel -the tunnel didn’t have an end a few months ago, so I guess that’s progress.

And then, I went to a conference, for the second time in my life. It was actually the first time I ever presented on my area of interest, specifically on a novel that I will analyze in my future thesis, so let me tell you, I was shaking in my boots.

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I went to the conference with two friends, but my advisor AND my former advisor were also there, so yeah, I was pretty nervous. What if I tripped over my own feet and fell over? What if my nervous sweat formed a puddle under me? What if I accidentally said ‘penis’ instead of ‘colonization’?

What if what I have to say sucks?

When I found out I wasn’t gonna be able to sit to present -my last experience with conferences had more of a roundtable kinda vibe-, I freaked out: everybody was going to see that my hands were shaking, because I didn’t even have a podium to put my paper on. At the end of the day, it went well. I was scared for the first two minutes, but right after that I started making jokes (well, not hilarious ones, and not ‘that’s what she said’ jokes, but, you know, things that make academics laugh) and feeling much more comfortable given the situation.

This semester has been a huge confidence boost, so far. I’m saying ‘so far’ because I still have a few assignments to complete, so who knows how much I could screw those up. But really, even if I still feel like a failure most of the time, I know I can do this.

On a different topic, I bumped into one of my students at Target as I was buying tampons, so there’s that.

 

Arm Candy

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Last Friday, I had my own version of Leslie Knope’s banquet: my department’s yearly reception. I usually keep my private life and my personal life separate; with the exception of my advisor, my professors had never met my boyfriend. I talk about him, occasionally, but never much more. Last year, I had gone to that reception solo, because the BF had just started a new job and could not ask for a few hours off to drive to me and be my plus-one. The fact that he lives 3.5 hours away definitely contributes to the compartmentalization of my life.

But this year, I feel much more comfortable at work, and for some reason, I felt like it was time to come to the reception with my significant other. So, I made a bold move and RSVPed for 2. He took the day off and came to me the night before. The head of the department was hosting, so I was feeling extra pressure. Not that I don’t trust him in public; you will recall that he comes from a very fortunate socio-economic background and is very comfortable with any kind of official party. No, what was stressing me out is that the academic world is very incestuous, and it is very rare when a significant other is not in the same ‘industry’. So sure, my boyfriend has just started an MBA program, so he is technically a grad student as well. But business and literature are two worlds apart, and his job couldn’t be any further away from our department’s interests. I guess on some level, I was afraid he might not find anything to talk about with anyone.

What difference would it have made? It’s not like I need validation for my relationship; we have been together over 3 years and I am more than sure about him and about us. I suppose I just wanted my professors to like him, simple as that.

My boyfriend is very likeable. I don’t know why I was worried.

The other thing about him, and it’s a thing I often forget, because he is a lot more than this to me, is that he is EXTREMELY handsome.

When he walked into the room with me, I was later told by a friend that my supervisor let out a very inspired ‘Daaaaaamn’. Also, one of my coworkers made a point of telling me how handsome my man was -that was uncomfortable, albeit flattering.

Or was it? I should probably have been offended. When this coworker said ‘Wow MPug, you didn’t tell me he was so handsome…Well done!’, I could have thought ‘Oh great, she thinks I’m not hot enough to land a sexy man like that’. And I mean, on some level that’s what went through my head. But if we’re being honest here, he DOES look strikingly good, and I don’t exactly look like Sofia Vergara -except for the boobs. So, I quietly accepted the fact that he was my arm candy for the night.

Like I said though, he is a LOT more than a pretty face. All night long, he talked to my professors, my professors’ significant others, my coworkers, and wowed everyone. He was effortlessly charming, and I felt terrible for slightly doubting his abilities.

The best part is, he said a lot of extremely positive things about me to my professors and friends. He apparently said that I was a wonderful woman and that he owes me his present success, because he couldn’t have done it without me. He said repeatedly that he was proud of me.

The best part, really, is that I didn’t even tell him to say that.

damn-it-feels-good

 

The bitch is back

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(Don’t you just love the Spanish translation?)

I’ve been awful at keeping up with the Kardashians lately. (No really, I haven’t watched the show in WEEKS. What is happening to my life?) Ever since my semester started, which was already 2 whole weeks ago, I haven’t had time to myself. I barely responded to non-professional emails, let alone open WordPress. But I’m trying.

The end of the summer is always a sad time for me, because as a grad student, summers are kind of my salvation. It’s the one time in the year when I can look at normal people with normal jobs and taunt them for having such a sucky life, while I am lounging all day every day, writing and reading on my own terms. The rest of the year however, is the time for normal people to make fun of me for my terrible life choices.

I was having coffee with a friend earlier today, and we were -as always- bitching about the grad life. So sure, ONE DAY our amazing salary will make up for all these years of misery (or will it?), but as of now, the reality of things is pretty stressful. The hardest part of the ‘job’ is probably the juggling. Teaching, writing, reading, thinking about projects, applying for grants, going to conferences, PUBLISHING (jk, I haven’t published. But I should.), getting professors to like you… Just writing this right now gives me a rash. So we all agree that the juggling is horribly stressful. But something else is bothering me right now: I have to come up with a very precise dissertation topic, all the while having zero self-confidence. I have been a grad student since 2009 (yup, I know, MOVE ON, right?), and for all this time, I have been hiding behind other people’s words and theories, but now I have to be assertive and talk about my own point of view. Obviously, I have a bad case of impostor syndrome, and I am constantly under the impression that my opinions don’t matter because I am simply an insignificant piece of shit. And that is sugarcoating it.

Anyways, I’ve been battling with myself in the past couple of weeks, reading more and more theory on my future topic, building my knowledge of it and getting more comfortable with it. Today, I had a meeting with my advisor, a professor who is barely older than me but is already on a tenure track. Our relationship has improved over the past few months and I thought I was more comfortable with him, as well as with my topic, so I went in with a false sense of confidence that I thought would be enough. Lo and behold, the person I wanted to appear to be in front of him completely disappeared and I became this meek, silent little thing who could not articulate an adequate definition of a concept I have been reading about for months. All I could do was stutter my way to a semi-decent sentence and nod along to everything he said.

So, I was telling my friend about my pathetic meeting, and she was very comforting and encouraging. The truth is, she and I are very similar in that sense; objectively, we have interesting things to say, and we realize that sometimes, in the privacy of our own office. But when we are facing an academic who intimidates us, the semi-confident grad student in us morphs into a puddle of sweat and tears. Maybe it’s the curse of the aspiring academic, maybe it’s our French formation. It is well known in the academic world that French professors are typically very stern and tough, and take pleasure in undermining their poor grad students. I told you guys about my miserable defense back in 2011, and how I cried as soon as I exited the room. Well, my experience is not an isolated instance.

My friend and I came to the conclusion that being a grad student is a unique experience. When I talk about my school-rooted anxiety with my non-academic friends, or my boyfriend, they are alarmed by the state of stress that we are all under. Sure, the stakes don’t seem high; none of us are going to single-handedly change the world, and we are not moving huge amounts of money around. But it’s a very raw, personal and emotional process. It involves YOU and your intellectual capacities, which is something that can easily crush your confidence.

Let me end on a positive note, just to show you that evolution is possible, even if it materializes in very small forms. I told you about my inability to say no, right? Well, right before the semester started, life threw us a curveball. My department was under a lot of stress because one of my coworkers hadn’t given any news and hadn’t shown up to the pre-semester meetings. We were very worried that he might not show up to the first day of class, because frankly, he had given us no sign that he would. So, the night before our first day, my supervisor emailed me asking if I would mind covering for his classes all semester, in the event that he might not show up. I tortured myself for a few minutes, but I realized that saying yes would mean spreading myself too thin, and saying goodbye to the somewhat comfortable research plan I had prepared with my advisor. It would mean having less time to do the job that I am expected to do. It would mean reproducing the failure of my first year. So, I said no. I offered an alternative: sharing the course with a colleague, but I specifically said that I could NOT cover the whole class by myself. I was terrified, of course. Stepping up in such a situation would have scored me mad points with the department, but it would probably mean that I would disappoint them afterwards.

My supervisor was relieved when I said no. She told me that she was glad I could put my own work first, and said that this is a valuable skill in the life we chose. Spreading oneself too thin is a real problem, and I’m glad I could see it coming. Because a year ago, I probably would have felt pressured to say yes, despite my instincts. Ultimately, the guy showed up, and the problem ceased to exist. But I’m happy I stood up for myself.