Tag Archives: life

Snapshots of a Friendship

I met him six years ago in Boston. He was my officemate. We had to feel each other out a little at first, the environment being what it was. But we became fast friends: hitting happy hours, watching sports, bitching about everyone else there. I met his on-again, off-again girlfriend (she sucked), some of his friends in the area (they didn’t), even his parents at his graduation ceremony. It was a good year.

He left for a year stint in Japan before I knew I would end up there after he left. He struggled, the same way I would my first year. For him, it was mostly the long-distance thing with his girlfriend (the one who sucked). We Skyped once or twice, exchanged occasional emails. A mutual friend and I visited him out there together. We drank sake, ate conveyer belt sushi, celebrated my 30th. It was a good week.

The next time I saw him was either DC or Japan; I’ve forgotten the timeline. DC was when I stayed with him and met his new girlfriend (she didn’t suck). We chatted, drank, played with their dog. It was a good couple of days. Japan was longer. This time around, I lived out there, and he had come out to do some fieldwork. We hung out, drank too much, took a trip up to Sendai. It was a good few weeks.

We met up in Atlanta last year. His girlfriend was there; the dog didn’t make the trip. We were there ostensibly for an academic conference, but managed to sneak in a basketball game. We hung out the next night too, catching up and drinking a fair amount – while bitching about acquaintances we had been talking to just hours earlier. It was a good day and a half.

I saw the two of them again this past weekend in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was their wedding.

A year and change, a handful of Skypes and emails. It doesn’t seem like much, not in the grand scheme of things. Snapshots. But it seems representative of most my relationships these days. A past period of close proximity, sporadic reunions, but otherwise, infrequent, almost nonexistent communication – and a fundamental lack of involvement in and intimate knowledge of each other’s daily lives.*

*There is one exception, but she is truly the exception that proves the rule. I write about the rule here.

It makes me wonder about the nature of friendships, certainly the nature of my friendships. There appears a thin line between space denoting comfort and ease with the relationship and space reflecting the harsher reality that the relationship is simply no longer what it was. Proximity – or lack thereof – might appear an easy excuse, but it seems hardly determining, potentially (easily?) overcome by effort.

Perhaps though this is the natural evolution of a relationship, as friends move out in different directions, stages of life, geographic locations. It is quite difficult sometimes to disentangle the relationship from the shared life experience that created its foundation, harder still to predict whether the former can survive in the absence of the latter, especially as people themselves change.

I think about the people I consider among my closest friends and I can recognize that it has been ages since I have had a real conversation with the majority of them. We exchange sporadic texts and emails, either for the most significant of life occasions (an impending child) or the opposite extreme (fantasy sports or political commentary), with little in between, regarding for instance aspects of our daily lives.

And yet I feel even with only snapshots of their current realities I still know their essence, due either to the length of the relationship, or the previous close proximity shared, or both of these. I wonder though if that too is a mirage, akin to what I wrote of the image conceived and acted upon by family members who profess to know the “real” you. I wonder then to what degree I am lying to myself.

I hope the distance is not because I take friends for granted. I hope there exists an implicit mutual understanding that relationships persevere even as they evolve and in some cases devolve. But maybe this is all semantics. The real question has to do with the kind of friend I am and want to be and am capable of being with each individual. It is about fit and connection and love, again even as I change and they do also.

Relationships are fraught. I know this is universal, having attended the aforementioned wedding in which the best man mentioned he was surprised to have been selected as such, in which mutual friends I expected were not even offered invitations, in which there appeared nobody from the locale in which the bride and groom were currently situated. Connection is not easy – to make, to maintain.

Then again, maybe this is precisely why I went out there. Even if I am no longer involved on a daily basis, even if I do feel somewhat detached from their present realities, I still could be there for a moment of genuine significance, for an updated snapshot. And as a result, the idea that I still know his essence a little bit, that we still had some of that first year in Boston in us, doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Every relationship is different. Thus, every relationship has to be examined on its own merits. Not all of each is in my control, of course, and perhaps too often, I cede responsibility – whether purposely or not. I’d like to think that I give enough, hopefully more than that, to those who ask, those who want. But I am picky too. Maybe that’s why the snapshots mean something to me still.

(Photo by Mayaoren, CC BY-SA 3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Old World

I always loved going to the East Coast. I never failed to be taken by the sense of history that envelope those cities. There are the obvious landmarks, of course, the walk along the Freedom Trail in Boston, the marathon of the National Mall in DC – where significant sites are piled one on top of another. But it goes beyond that. There is just this incredible feeling of well-wornness, of character, of being through shit that we do not have on the West Coast. It permeates the streets, the buildings, the people most of all.

That aspect of Boston resonated with me when I lived there. The parts of the city that looked like they had seen better days. Street cars that screeched like nails on chalkboards, and ran 15 minutes late with regularity. People who lived with a constant chip on their shoulders, probably from having to shovel snow for months on end. I’d expect the drainage system to deal with rain better but it didn’t. It was just good enough. And that was the city. There was an element of survival, of endurance ever-present. Boston was painfully worn in.

I like to describe Tokyo as the living vision of the future we once imagined in the 1980s. I see Europe, conversely, as a throwback – a stalwart of the 18th century. I offer many caveats. I have only lived on the continent for nine months. I reside in a city and a country that each occupy unique spaces even within the European sphere. And I am well aware that Europe is a continent and therefore less amenable to any sort of umbrella characterization than a city or country. But I offer one nonetheless. It’s like time moved on, but Europe did not. For better and for worse.

I am likely infusing my feelings of places with broad swaths of world history. Boston HAS seen better days. Tokyo WAS the future in the 80s. Europe’s heyday WAS the 18th century.* But feeling and historical reality are inextricably linked. Ultimately, there is something about Europe that feels like a continent trying to protect, or perhaps recapture, its past. It is an active anachronism, but notably does not appear effortful or defensive in the process – Europe being too self-assured for either.

*I use “18th century” symbolically, as I am too ignorant to pinpoint the relevant period du jour. I’m an American, after all.

Europe has a presence. It’s not intimidating, though it can be. Rather, it stands coolly confident, with an identity that is almost if not completely common across the continent. Each city gives off a vibe akin to what I experience from the East Coast, but with a far more amplified sense of history and character and sense of comfort. Every place is as well-rounded as the next, as though they operate in their own bubbles, with slight but perceptible variation across various dimensions betwixt them.

Being shallow, the physical features strike me first. The majesty of the train stations. The overwhelming castles and churches. The statues and busts to spare, not only in museums and outside parliament buildings but at intersections and fountains and neighborhood parks. Indeed, it is precisely the everyday that I find most captivating. Every building, almost without fail, memorable in its balcony or roof or windows or windowpanes or ivy on walls. Modernity conspicuously absent, quietly rejected.

The past permeates every part of every city, but in a manner that somehow accentuates history rather than age. Charm is never lacking: in the decidedly mom-and-pop restaurants where the space seems slightly off and none of the tables are quite aligned, the boutiques resting on the ground floor of apartment complexes that never seem to open for business, even the street signs that curiously seem to prioritize vanity over practicality, for instance being located on building sides instead of free-standing.

It is more fundamental than the physical, however. The very way of life in Europe often appears stubbornly set in the past. Upon arrival, I could not help but notice the carefree way in which people stroll, chat, lounge, as though unencumbered, even unconditioned by modernity and the clock. It was especially pronounced coming from Tokyo. People are so at ease here, and what is more, they are at ease being at ease, whether on a balcony or restaurant patio or at the park. Even service seems to come at its leisure.

There are oddities associated with the past that manifests also, reinforcing the temporal displacement of the continent. I listen to a presentation from a man named Bernd sporting a bowtie as if any of that is a normal occurrence in the year 2017. I find water fountains with beautiful lion heads as taps at every other intersection but never a metallic 20th century concoction at a public venue. I interact with waiters who act so uptight as though they were preserving the sanctity of dining itself.

Of course, there are frustrations in inhabiting a world and a time that do not feel like my own. As with Japan, I do not wish to romanticize Europe. There are times when I wish I could get in and out of a restaurant in 40 minutes, places I wish would be open after 7 pm weeknights or anytime Sundays, environments I wish could adopt a space on the continuum away from their formality and stuffiness and towards my roughness around the edges. Yet, it is hard not to romanticize a place that literally harkens back to the Age of Romanticism.

Indeed, the sense of history and character and charm is never lacking. Like I said, I always did love going to the East Coast. And living on the European continent is akin to that, only amplified: richer, deeper, and more memorable. Ultimately, it is older – and I’m grateful for it.

The Glass Half Empty

On my worst days, I indulge my narcissistic tendencies.

I wallow in self-pity.

I linger on my myriad flaws.

I feel painfully insecure.

I can’t remember the last time I flew with anyone. It’s kind of a random thing to linger on, recognizably a first world problem, but it feels a microcosm of something, to me at least.* Maybe because there’s no one to ride with to the airport, to chat with until boarding, to hold onto in case of turbulence. I’ve been alone so long I’ve just about become resigned to the feeling, only it makes the fleeting moments of connection that do occur that much more visceral, haunting, eventually painful.

*Maybe I’ve just seen one too many Richard Curtis films.

It takes all of four hours for someone to figure me out – at least on a basketball court, spread out across two nights on back-to-back Tuesdays. A guy who I had never met previously – friendly and well-meaning, but clearly slightly exasperated – gives a shout as we leave the gym. “Wilfred.” There’s a pause, as though he’s weighing his words. Then a shake of the head and a knowing smile. “You gotta stop playing scared, man.” It’s a simple, brutal assessment, one that cuts right at me. He’s right.

I’m not aggressive with the ball. I’m more comfortable being guarded than I am cutting to the basket unmarked. I feel overmatched no matter who I play, all too aware that I either 1) lack the kind of coordination and body control they seem to possess naturally, or 2) contain an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt almost entirely absent from others. Somehow, in a game that has no meaning beyond the 10 minutes it takes to get to the next one, I am scared – of letting teammates down, of looking stupid, of failing. It’s painfully obvious, even to a near-stranger.

I have always been a bundle of nerves, no matter the stakes, how big or small, or however many times I have found myself in similar spots previously. I take after my dad in that way. For all my efforts to maintain a facade of perspective in the grander scheme of things, I still suffer internally, making mountains out of molehills with a degree of regularity. Worse, I compound the psychological tendency by often fulfilling the prophecy myself, getting into troublesome situations of my own making.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I wandered unwittingly from a marked hiking trail, instead following along an unending ridgeline of limestone cliffs. It was stupid. I was supposed to make a left upward, rising above the clearing, but went opposite instead. Driven by a faint recollection of the description I had read the previous night, overriding all logic and common sense, I stubbornly plowed ahead – even as the ridge narrowed, the gradient steepened, and the trail became rocky and sandy.

Later, I would discover I was mere minutes from the peak when I veered off. It should have been obvious. The trail, the surroundings, the directionality – none of it made sense. Still, it takes me a half hour before I turn around. It’s harder going back. I climb through some sections, literally claw my way up others. Ahead of a particularly narrow section, I cramp. I’m writhing in pain on the ground, surveying the edge, pondering my mortality. It’s sobering: I’m genuinely terrified.* How did I get myself in this mess?

*It’s reminiscent of a previous experience I’ve written about. In this most recent instance, I even contemplate “if I don’t make it” texts to a couple of people, but it seemed like a terrible burden to put on them. So I hold back. Ultimately, I make it back and through, unscathed but for my psyche.

It seems a metaphor. I get so far in, then I pause for a breath and realize I still don’t quite know what the fuck I’m doing. That feeling of inadequacy; it’s a killer. It’s not that I fear I’m still not a finished product at 34, but the opposite – that I am a finished product and this is all I am and all I ever will be. I can blame timing and luck and nuance, but sometimes life feels like a series of dichotomous outcomes I can’t quite turn in my favor. A steady job. A sense of direction. Love and companionship.

On my worst days, I just don’t feel good enough. And I feel like I never will be.

I don’t know.

Maybe I gotta stop living life scared too.

The Thin Line Between Success and Something Else

Five years into my graduate school career, I was in a bind. The guaranteed money provided by my school had come to an end, and I had no recourse but to stitch together external funding sources  for however long it would take to finish my dissertation. I applied left and right for fellowships and grants: some abroad, some domestic, some residential and some not. I must have submitted 30-some-odd applications. I ended up getting a single offer. From Harvard, of all places.

A couple years later, as I was finishing my dissertation, I found myself officially on the job market for the first time. I was fairly agnostic about the academic world, and thus was pretty selective about the positions I applied for in the field. At the same time, I looked to jobs in the research and policymaking worlds, as well as postdoctoral fellowships that would allow me to bolster my résumé. I submitted at least 40 or 50 applications over the course of the year, if not more. I ended up with a single interview. It turned into my lone offer.

It is almost comical how many times I have encountered similar such crossroads the last five or six years of my professional life, and ended up being rescued by a single opportunity in the nick of time. I have never juggled multiple job offers, never gotten the chance to play one institute off the other while enjoying the stability of an ongoing contract. My safety nets have centered on time off at my sister’s place or on plans to secure undetermined courses to teach at unspecified colleges in a hypothetical town I would have to move to.

Naturally, this is my own doing. I chose to pursue a doctorate in the social sciences, after all. I did it at a university not ranked in the top 25, at a time when top-tier schools have increasing difficulty placing their alumni. I forged on despite apprehension about joining academia, at a time when the path within that world had become limited, and the path outside that world called into question the utility of the degree at all. And I finished despite the fact that I saw the entire system in the process of being devalued.

But putting aside my poor understanding of macroeconomic trends – or my inability to make career decisions accordingly – there is something darkly humorous about the fact that life has been this game of inches. That my résumé at face value might look somewhat impressive from the outside but belies myriad near misses and close calls, glosses over my dependence upon circumstances well outside my control and the series of lottery tickets I have managed to scrape up in the right place at the right time.

A good friend and I often joked about whether we would be the least successful people to have spent time – if fleetingly, on a fellowship – at Harvard. We were in the midst of a frustrating application season, as recipients of one rejection after another. But we were looking in the rearview mirror too, both being similarly attuned to how close we were to nothing before ending up there in the first place.* Indeed, the breadth of our experiences – then and since – have only reaffirmed the thin line between success and lack thereof.

*I was on a waitlist for one other fellowship before ultimately being rejected: at Stanford. To recap, my literal options: Harvard, maybe Stanford, nothing.

I wonder sometimes if my story is not exceptional, only the one I feel most acutely. I wonder if I linger too much on the scenarios that did not come to be. Mostly though, I wonder whether another person, another personality molded by a different upbringing and environment, would look at these same events through the lens of just rewards rather than coincidence, ascribe them to hard work rather than luck. Whether they would come to take these outcomes for granted, and to eventually believe that they deserved it.

Regardless of anyone else however, I am well aware of the ever-present precariousness of my situation, and of the fragility of it all. It’s another way in which I’ve been lucky, I suppose. There’s this great saying from Barry Switzer: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” People like me – we’re constantly reminded that we didn’t. I prefer it that way.

Blood and Water

What is it about family that can be so frustrating, difficult, even infuriating? My mom sometimes reminiscences about how patient, how obedient, how “good” I used to be, wonders what changed. I tell her it’s because I’m not a child. I have thoughts and beliefs of my own, draw upon experiences and knowledge that I have acquired. And because I no longer take what she says at face value, because she no longer thinks on my behalf, I appear more disobedient in her eyes.

I wonder though if there’s more to it than that, than my growing up.

I have this image of myself as a person, an image of who I am and who I aspire to be. There’s a bit of embellishment, naturally, a bit of it skewed favorably on my behalf. I imagine that is the case with all of us. We have this slightly idealized image of ourselves, of how we present ourselves to the world. And with family, I think, their vision of us – and for us – is every bit as fleshed out, as real and fully-formed and stubborn, as our own.

My third or fourth grade class hosted an open house. On my featured art,work my family noticed that I signed my birthyear instead of the current year, and they teased me about it. I felt embarrassed and I got mad. In turn, they got mad at me for taking it too seriously. It felt demoralizing to lose control of the situation, to be painted as this goof, then a brat.

These two images of the self – the one we envision, the one envisioned by family – are not altogether independent nor irreconcilable, of course. But I think the external image held by family appears to them as more true because of its basis in history, whereas our internal self appears to them only as a tiny slice of what they believe to be true. In other words, the image we cultivate and present to the world is inevitably, constantly, and fundamentally challenged by family.

But how well do they know us, really? I’ve seen my family about three or four times in the last four years. They don’t really understand what I do, workwise. And they’ve met only some of my friends, fleetingly. Our daily realities are just so far apart, and not only geographically.

The dynamic works both ways. There’s a reason why we prep ourselves before spending extended time with family. We anticipate what is to come, because we too have fostered an image of who and what they are. We too fit their present self into a far greater narrative of what we “know” them to be – interacting on multiple levels, across myriad moments. And because of this, we not only confirm our vision and our narrative but project those outwards.

In my junior year of high school, I retook the Scholastic Aptitude Test but received a disappointing score. I got home and told my mom, and her face said enough. Before she verbally reacted, I left the house and drove around for hours, going nowhere, avoiding confrontation. It was the environment she had fostered. …Asian parents.

There’s more to it though. The relationship between the images, which interact and are inextricably linked. The fact that we can have so little in common yet still retain an elemental, intangible bond in which family appears as a reflection of our own self. The subsequent effect of seeing in someone the traits that are so familiar to what we see in ourselves – good and bad, only far more exaggerated, or at least far more obvious.

One Christmas, short on ideas, I found a little holiday gift pack for my sister: a stuffed penguin, hot chocolate mix, and marshmallows. Completely independent of me, she – needing a gift for an exchange at her friend’s party that year – somehow ended up buying that very same pack at the very same department store.

Family thus forces us to reflect. Even if we acknowledge the biased lens through which we see ourselves, we look and make ourselves out to be an improved specimen, a 2.0. Because to see any alternative suggests something far worse – a hypocrisy in which we can recognize the flaws in those who reflect ourselves the most (even if in an elemental, intangible manner) and yet choose not to address them, in effect turning our backs to self-betterment.

My mom’s martyrdom, her hard-headedness, her pettiness and long-memory, her judgmental nature and fear of so many things and self-doubt and need for validation. The way she sees love, the way she has to be all-in. All of that is me.

It feels odd, the whole of it. Perhaps the lack of choice exacerbates the frustrating, difficult, infuriating moments, with an undercurrent of feeling that we cannot be comforted, let alone rescued, by the simple recognition of agency, of effort, of desire – as we might with such moments in the context of friendships or partnerships. In contrast, family, in all but the most extreme situation, exists unquestioned and unchallenged.

A good friend made fun of me harshly at a movie theater because I thought that Finding Forrester was non-fiction. He was tactless; I was embarrassed.* I went off to the bathroom to get some space. But then I got over it. I had to, enough at least to drive him home. That’s the best analogy I have for family. Family is stuck in a car together.

*It is kind of funny to reflect on these things that seemed to matter so much in the moment.

So we question and challenge by other means. We make less effort to suppress our frustration. We act more pettily, brushing aside the image of the self they present and imposing the grand narrative over them – their every action thus a confirmation of what we already know to be true. We push a little harder understanding that there is an element of non-choice to the matter. We take family for granted.

Then again, I don’t have a relationship with my dad, so I guess family can be a choice too.

Family is difficult. It seems to get moreso. But maybe that’s just me.

Man in the Mirror

A few years ago when I was living in Boston, my friend Jim and I ran into a mutual acquaintance on the train. Neither of us particularly liked this guy. He was the stereotype of an Ivy Leaguer: too confident in his own intelligence, too eager to let the world know. As we ran in the same social circle however, we greeted him politely, made small talk until he reached his station. After, Jim and I did a quick post-mortem. “Man,” he observed with amusement. “You could barely look him in the eye.”

I hadn’t realized my disgust was that evident.

The interaction resurfaced in my thoughts this past weekend. See, my sister and brother-in-law are in town, visiting. And yesterday after a museum but before dinner, I led them to a coffee shop for a brief respite. Immediately, I could tell my sister was displeased. She apparently wanted to go straight to dinner, though she hadn’t been that vocal about it. And so, she pointedly didn’t order anything, asked passive-aggressively why I took them to this particular cafe, and then admonished her husband for something completely unrelated.

My brother-in-law and I stayed quiet. We exchanged knowing looks, and later, a short word. We both recognized what had happened, that she had taken her frustration with the situation out on him. It was tense for a while after. In fact, it took dinner and a movie before the cloud really lifted. But details aside, it was just fascinating to see the situation play out, both 1) to know someone so well that I could recognize how the scenario was unfolding, as though in slow motion, and 2) to share that knowledge with someone just as familiar with my sister and her temperament, if not more so.

I am my sister, though mine has always been more of a simmer than a boil. Indeed, I have always been aware of the transparency of my own feelings. But, and this was a lesson perhaps first driven home by Jim, I can still severely underestimate the degree to which I am transparent about my feelings, can still remain painfully unaware of how I come off to others. And the fact that I have felt more intensely these recent years suggests a further amplification of that effect.

I think about all this for a number of reasons, fundamentally because I think we should always strive for self-improvement, and a little healthy introspection is critical in that regard. I think about this because I feel genuine connection with less people in my current circumstance than my previous one, and as a result must tread more cautiously. I think about this too in the context of evolving relationships – more infrequent and primarily digitized – with friends and family no longer in my geographic vicinity.

Everything, I think, stems from the fact that I am all-in with people. I could not contain my disgust for even a few minutes on a public train because I had categorized that guy. I did not care to play nice because he was not my friend and would not be my friend, and represented someone who simply could not be my friend. Someone once described my relationships “like mafia.” It’s an extreme characterization, especially in light of some lost friendships over the years*, but there is something to that – for better or worse.

*Um, in nonviolent ways.

I judge people too easily, too wholly. I let my feelings with the negative aspects of their beings dictate my feelings about them as a totality, and I define those negative aspects by projecting qualities I find off-putting for my own existence (if sometimes to my detriment): Confidence bordering on arrogance, ease nearing lack of self-awareness, pride to the point of egoism. Perhaps I am perplexed by and even slightly envious of those who appear not as insecure, self-conscious, or simply lost as I feel at times.

From that, it follows that I can be too close-minded, too dismissive; all too often unwilling to grant second chances for perceived slights of personality. I focus too much on – not necessarily the wrong thing, but the only thing, at least as I see fit. I see a colleague who chats incessantly about his hobbies as an attention whore rather than an excitable, multi-faceted, even lonely soul. I am annoyed enough by the persistent humblebragging of an acquaintance that I overlook his obvious work ethic and intellect, his obvious professional insecurities.

From that, it follows that I demand too much of those I do let in, and am unfairly disappointed when they do not meet my arbitrary standards, even as they remain oblivious of the grievances I hold them accountable for. I simmer rather than boil over, I simmer and hold onto things far too long. I remain needy and insecure, wanting constant validation even when it is so clearly inherent in the nature of the relationship. And, falling back on the mafia conceit, I am far too willing to cut bait – to rid myself of the grays of situations, of relationships.

There is progress to be made then. Even if I cannot change who I am fundamentally, even if I do not think I want to. I can still be better to those in and out, from best friend to casual acquaintance on a train, whether in outward treatment or simply in how I perceive. Given how I am, after all, the internal is bound to seep into the external anyway. As for my sister? She apologized the day after, acknowledged she was irritable from hunger. I was touched. She wouldn’t have done that five years ago. I told her I should have communicated better myself. We’re all striving for self-improvement, it seems.

 

Revisiting the Doctorate

When I first floated the idea of going to graduate school, I was a third year in college, visiting one of my teaching assistants at his office hours. His office was literally the size of a broom closet, and he had to pull chairs out into the corridor for us to have space to chat. I felt a bit embarrassed for him. Anyhow, we got to talking, and he asked about my post-graduation plans. I hadn’t thought about it much, so I threw out some generic answers, including graduate school – almost on a lark. His reaction was swift. Grad school, he all but admonished, was not to be taken lightly. I had to be passionate about the subject, the field. It was, he impressed upon me, not a casual option.

Looking back, the encounter was a microcosm of the graduate school experience: a myth about the purity of research and pedagogy, characterized too often by an inflated sense of importance and very real flagellation, hierarchical to its own detriment. These were traits perpetuated across the whole of the enterprise. Academe’s worst qualities seemed to manifest especially in the social sciences, comprised of far too many self-righteous individuals who had something to say about every aspect of society while lacking the basic social skills to actually exist in it.*

*I was once subject to a chain of emails in which graduate students struggled to get past the pedantry of naming a union (let alone forming one), because the word “union” had connotations to be argued over, just as “collective” did, or “association,” or every other word in the world.

I lived, as you might surmise, a normal existence even as a graduate student. Of course I had stressful days and weeks, especially as deadlines loomed. But I never felt snowed under the way many of my colleagues seemed to, my life far from the manner in which they presented their existence, as Sisyphus perpetually pushing the boulder uphill. I don’t know whether I was balanced or apathetic; perhaps both. But I progressed through the program, passion be damned. I managed to watch an obscene amount of movies, hold season tickets to my baseball team, take extended summer road trips. It was just more school.

I did attend conferences, managed to publish once or twice, but unsurprisingly, I never was the model academic. I did not network at these conferences, did not succumb to the ‘publish or perish’ mentality. I secured a couple of external fellowships, but never did transition neatly into a tenure-track position at a research university – despite what my adviser so clearly hoped and inelegantly (even unprofessionally) pushed for. I resisted. Even now, I continue to find myself, seemingly further and further from academia. My ability to finish the degree seemed to be a victory for normal people.

It’s difficult to overstate how little difference the doctorate makes in my life on a daily basis, even as I recognize its role in my career path. On rare occasion, I might chat with someone and learn they had begun the process and moved onto something else, or are just now considering going down that route. I might encounter people who look at it with a sense of reverence; this includes a supervisor who had a obvious chip on his shoulder about not having the degree himself. In such circumstances, I find myself asking what the degree means to me. I think about whether I would recommend the pursuit to others, and – ultimately – whether I regret that seven and a half years.

I find it difficult to believe that an individual with newfound knowledge would have no second thought about their actions in almost any circumstance – a conversation, a relationship, a career choice. But regret is a strong word. I wonder whether having regret entails envisioning a completely altered existence, a la Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, or whether it represents a lone item of change that can be isolated from a life otherwise left untouched. I make that distinction because I need it. I do not regret pursuing my doctorate, but I would never do it if I had known then what I know now.

I do not regret because I grew up in graduate school. After a miserable four years in college, it was as a graduate student that I found my self-worth again. I became comfortable with who I was, even found some people who liked that person. I gleaned a genuine sense of accomplishment from the work, through shallow measures like departmental and school recognition, but also through regular interactions with students and colleagues and professors. I finished on my own terms, as I mentioned above – a balanced individual. And I have been able to shift from that pursuit to where I am now.

But I would never do it knowing then what I know now. I might have pursued a masters, and nothing more, knowing that the difference between it and a doctorate is all but negligible outside academia, easily overcome by real-world experience. I would forgo a degree that leads to a career path that promises no job security let alone a job, that ignores geographic preference, that bleeds over the notion of balance. I would turn away from a degree that means so much only to such a narrow community, driven by those who are all too eager to feed into its esoteric and self-sustaining nature.

In retrospect, my teaching assistant had it almost right. Passion about the subject, the field, might really be necessary – but not for graduate school per say. Clearly I’ve proven him wrong on that front. But I think it helps in the long run, in academia. It sustains people as they trudge on, through a game that never ends, a ladder that keeps climbing. There’s delusion in that passion, for sure, righteousness too, maybe pure survival sprinkled in. But there’s also genuine belief, the kind I never had. Whatever it is, it’s something to hold onto as the environment – anachronistic and unwilling to change – envelops their lives.

I have my degree. I have no regret. But I would not do it knowing what I know now. It makes me wonder whether I was simply not smart enough then to fail.

(Photo by GregsWikidContributions, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)