A Moment of Gratitude

I’ve been doing a lot of complaining lately.  This semester is really wearing me down, and because of that I’ve felt the need to comically whine about all the things that are stressing me out.

But a few things have happened this week that have made me realize that I need to take a break and express how truly thankful I am to be where I am right now.

Yes, this semester is hard, but you know what?  Last year at this time was even harder.

I have a couple friends going through the PhD application process (some for the second or third time).  Watching them doing it (even from afar) has been like watching a documentary on war: I remember what it was like, it was well and truly awful, watching it from a distance has made me re-experience some of the feelings that I felt while going through it the first time, and I am so very very glad that I have the buffer of “it’s happening to someone else right now” because you seriously couldn’t pay me enough to put myself through that again.

The application process itself is hard work.  You pour your soul into those aps and you agonize over every piece of it; what should I put in my personal statement?  Should I talk about the work of scholars whom I admire in this program, or will it make me look like a brown-noser?  Should I quote them at themselves?  How should I format my CV?  When you only have about ten pages of information with which you must present your very essence, every single letter is critical.

Then you submit the applications sometime between December and early January… and you’re free for a time.  Hitting the “send” button is a culmination of all the soul-wrenching work that you’ve done in the past few months.  It’s like those last steps as you reach the peak of the mountain; the hardest part, but also the most fulfilling.

And then you wait.  For several months.  You sit on your hands, unable to do anything, unable to say anything, unable to plan anything, with nothing to do but worry.  What if you get in x place, where will you live?  What if you get in y place, how far are you willing to commute?  What if you don’t get in anyplace, what part (and how much) of your integrity are you willing to compromise for a paycheck?

And you start making back-up plans.  Like “Well, if I don’t get in, I’ll just go do this and try again next year.”  And you convince yourself that those back-up plans are just as good as (if not better than) starting the next leg of your journey.

And you wait.

And you lose sleep.

And you bite your nails.

And then you check the gradcafe forums and see that some people have started getting their decision letters, and that just begins the vicious cycle all over again.

Today, I had coffee with someone who has gotten into my program and is considering it (amongst some others).  It was a true pleasure to meet and speak with him, and it made me think about how weird it is to be on the opposite end of this process.  Just a year ago, I was the person sniffing out the programs.  Just a year ago, I was in limbo not sure where I was going yet.  Just a year ago, I was embroiled in a decision making process that was stressful, difficult, and absolutely draining.

The circle has come round.  I’m the expert now, the person who is where other people want to be (or think they may want to be).  That is an indescribably odd thing; to quote Joni Mitchell, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now”.

So for today, I am grateful.  I am still stressed out and tired, but nowhere near as stressed out and tired as I was last year.  I have a ton of work to do, but at least I’m not worried about where I’m going to live come July.  I don’t see an end to my crazy amounts of everything, but at least I have a plan to get it all done.

I really do love my life.  Even when the going gets tough.  And, despite the down-sides to my job, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

…and now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

>Happy Thursday


In the world-weary words of everyone’s favorite homosexual Disney villain; “Life’s not fair, isn’t it?” (Scar, by the way folks.  Scar.  The Lion King.  Yea, I know, figuring he was gay was a mind-blowing event for me, too).
I very frequently describe my workload as an ocean.  It is vast, uncountable, uncontainable, and the best I can ever hope to do is tread water within it.  At a certain point in the semester, this treading water becomes strategic drowning.  Where can I take a break?  How long can I hold my breath?  Where do I really need to break the surface, how much is that going to take out of me, and in the long run will the effort to do so equal the greatest rate of return?
Generally, this feeling begins right around midterms time.  If I’m lucky, I can keep it at bay until I begin research for my finals.
Well I’m two weeks out from midterm number one and already I’m gasping for air.  I blame the common reading exam.  You see, usually when my work is done for the week I have a few hours with which to relax with the knowledge that I have nothing to do (unless I want to be an over-achiever and start on next week’s reading).  With the exam, however, all that time is diverted into (gasp) more reading.  It never ends.  As soon as I think I’ve caught a break, another wave comes by and shoves me right back under the water.
So I’m tired.  And stressed.  And my brain feels like oatmeal (maybe with little chunks of bananas because there are still a few bits that haven’t liquefied yet).  I’ve started getting the stress-headaches and all the wonderful things that erupt from them (tired eyes… migraines with aura are AWESOME let me tell you), my traps feel like someone stuck a fist in them and clenched and has refused to let go, and of course there is the ever-lurking threat of becoming sick yet again.
With that in mind, I’m having trouble being coherent this week.  Here’s a list of random stuff that has crossed my desk recently.
1)    I’m reading Northanger Abbey for aforementioned Best Professor Ever’s Gothic class.  I love this book.  I LOVE this book.  Have I mentioned how much I love this book?  I wrote a paper about it for my Austen class last semester which then became my PhD writing sample and I’m hoping to whip it into publication shape as soon as I have a moment to breathe.  I have to say despite everything reading this book feels like coming home again.  Shhhh.  Don’t tell Will I said that, he may be jealous.
2)    I’m giving a talk Saturday at the inaugural Rutgers Newark MA Consortium.  I haven’t looked at the paper I’m giving in months.  I haven’t looked at the notes on the paper I’m giving in months.  Luckily, I have a presentation written up I just have to brush the dust off of it and remember my Nietzsche.  Easier said than done I think.  Hey, by the way, come to the Rutgers Newark MA Consortium on Saturday!
3)    In a month, I will be past the roughest spot of this semester.  I’m torn on whether this is an awesome thing or a horrible one.  According to www.thegradcafe.com, Columbia’s decision letters usually come out the first week in March (or at least they do for my program).  My first midterm is due 3/9 (I will be begging an extension though so that I have Spring Break to work on it).  Spring break is 3/12-3/20.  MA exam is 3/21 and 3/22.  After that, I’m not gonna say it’s all smooth sailing, but at least I can ignore the extra reading that keeps weighing me down like a big regency dress on a chick who was forced to walk the pirate plank into some exotic gulf in Bermuda. 
4)    I am not where I want to be with my short story that I’m writing for my writing group.  I have a draft.  I want to have several drafts.  Pens down on this story is in three days.  Several drafts is so not going to happen.
5)    First stack of grading came to me yesterday.  I both adore and loathe the first stack of grading.  I am always eager to jump back in with my red pen in hand and learn them undergrads good.  On the other hand, putting a grade on the first assignment innately limits the potential of the students.  Before that first grade, they are all A students.  As soon as I mark this paper, lines are drawn as to the quality of the class and the work which should be expected from them.  This point of view may grant me, the grader, a little too much agency in what is really a problem precipitated by them, the students, but I can’t help but see things this way.  I want them to do well.  I don’t want anyone to do poorly; there’s no reason for them to do poorly.  The assignments aren’t mind-bending hard, we have resources for students who aren’t stellar writers to get help, and it’s not like they didn’t have warning about the workload for the course.  With proper time management skills and resource utilization, there is absolutely no reason why these students should do poorly in the class.  And still, I can nearly guarantee, at least a third of these papers will exhibit piss-poor quality (possibly poor enough to fail).  Sigh.
6)    I would very much like a massage, an honest-to-god day off, a good-looking man to come feed me chocolate-covered strawberries, and a pony.  Is that so much to ask?

>The Parable of the Cupcake


I would like to tell you a little story. 
I am not the most strong-willed person when it comes to tasty treats that are horrible for me, and I do try to take care of myself.  As such, I went to the gym this morning.  The gym is a wonderful, magical place that can make most any of your problems fade into a luscious melting of sweat and endorphins.  I love the post-gym-shower feeling of contentment, satisfaction, and righteousness.  I usually go to the gym when I’ve finished a good hunk of reading in the morning so that righteousness is double-fold: homework is worked on AND I’m an awesome person because I gym-bunnied!
On my way home from the gym, all sweaty and tired, I ran into a girl on the elevator.  I live on the thirteenth floor, so it’s not exactly a short elevator ride.  She was holding a pan of something wrapped in foil so I pressed the button for her floor for her.
After a bout of silence, she asked if I would like a cupcake.  She explained that she had been heading a bake sale, but there were cupcakes left and she didn’t want them all in her room.  I knew that I should say “no, thank you” (especially as I had just been to the gym to work off the very calories that cupcake held), but I felt bad turning down her generous offer.  I gracefully accepted and we chatted a little bit about the bake sale before she had to get off on her floor.
Now I was stuck in an awkward situation.  I had been gifted, very kindly and generously, with a baked confection of yuminess which, despite its instant gratification would no doubt be the cause of future guilt and an upset stomach if I yielded to the temptation to devour it.  On the other hand, what was I supposed to do with this cupcake?  I couldn’t just leave it somewhere… it would get thrown out.  What had it done to deserve getting thrown out uneaten?
Conundrum in mind (and slightly disappointed with myself for yielding to the sugar temptation), I walked into my apartment.
My roommate was standing in the kitchen making coffee.  We exchanged our usual round of casual greetings.  She asked if I would like coffee, I said yet.  I had a brilliant notion!  Another human!  A human who hadn’t been to the gym!  A human who may, also, like tasty treats!  I asked her if she would like the cupcake.
She said no, she probably wouldn’t, but her brother who (conveniently enough) was visiting probably would!  I set the cupcake on the table and told her that I would ask no questions if it met an untimely demise. 
I walked into my room feeling satisfied.  I hadn’t turned down a gracious (if simple) gift, I hadn’t succumbed to the sugar crush, and I hadn’t thrown out the home-baked confection.  Random acts of kindness were passed along, and I was still righteously gymed!
I realized as I lingered in my post-gym shower that this was a perfect example of the way my life tends to work.  One should always accept the cupcake, even if she has no idea what she is going to do with it.  Inevitably, a situation will present itself (usually very soon after the initial cupcake reveal) in which said resource will be utilized.  The path makes itself clear, one need only tread upon it.
That’s how I wound up with some of the best (and worst) things my life has so-far offered.  I came to Rutgers because of a cupcake incident.  I met my bestest friends due to metaphysical cupcakes.  And now, here I am, waiting to see whether a red velvet cupcake will present itself (though I already have a chocolate peanut butter one in hand). 
So I’m still on line at the bakery counter.  Or waiting in the elevator for random bake-sale girl to emerge.  There are definitely worse places to be.

>A Brief Interlude on Why I Have Been So Out of Sorts of Late


Let me begin here: I love my iPhone. 
I love it.  I really don’t know what I did without it.  It holds my life within it; schedule, contact information, instant access to the rest of the world.  It’s like having a secretary who doesn’t talk back or call in sick or misunderstand me.  It goes with me everywhere and on the odd day when I accidentally leave it somewhere where I am not, I feel like a part of me has been unceremoniously lopped off.
Yes, I know, this says something deep about my generation and our indoctrination into the dependency upon technology to live.  You know what?  I’m okay with that.
However.  It does mean that this entire process of waiting for decision letters (which have now become e-mails in our aforementioned age of wondrous technology) is a constant, frenetic, on-edge, nail-biting thing.  Between the hours of nine and five every day, every time my little phone vibrates with a new e-mail I feel compelled to drop whatever it is that I may be doing, take a deep breathe, steady myself, and prepare to receive the news.  It also means that whenever said event occurs, I experience a rush of relief and frustration that the e-mail is just another update from my knitting list serve or godiva trying to sell me chocolate (not that I don’t love yarn and chocolate, but they certainly aren’t decision letters).  When I get e-mails outside of normal work hours, I have to remind myself not to get excited.  No decision letters will go out at ten PM.  I can relax.  I don’t need the phone at my elbow while I’m at karaoke on Wednesday nights.  The weekends are utter limbo.  I picture piles of applications sitting on desks in some big room with oak bookshelves and justice-league-like spinning chairs at long tables, dormant until the committees return on Monday.  Yet still I have programmed myself to check, every time, without fail.  It’s well near impossible for me to actually unwind these days.
The strangest thing about this entire situation was that I couldn’t encapsulate the feeling succinctly for the longest time.  I knew that I was on-edge, I knew that I wanted to hear back, but without a paragraph of exposition I just wasn’t able to describe why I was feeling this way.  Yesterday, as I was reading The Turn of the Screw of all things, it came to me.  I had to refrain from posting immediately on facebook (like the good twenty-first century girl that I am) so I could mull the idea through for a while.  However, after a few workouts and some thinking, I’m ready to share this light bulb with the greater online community.
I am, slowly, attempting to come to grips with the fact that sometime in the next few weeks I will receive an e-mail that will, one way or another, change the rest of my life.
Woah.  Big stuff.  Scary stuff.  Like facing down a five-headed monster of chomping, grinding, half-sensible, rabies-filled teeth armed only with a sword, shield and your past experience.  It’s like standing on the brink of eternity, staring down into a deep dark abyss of your own potential and knowing that it will manifest but uncertain as to how.  It’s like repeatedly flagellating yourself with the notion that you are good enough and have done the best you can but damn it’s going to hurt if someone else doesn’t recognize that, but why should you need that recognition anyway because what does the rest of the world know they’re just an ivy league institution that already denied you entrance in your undergrad so why should they change their opinion about you now it’s not like you’re a different person than you were seven years ago and oh god I just want them to like me already.
….But at the same time there’s a serene acceptance that a plan is already in place.  With one acceptance letter in hand (and funding to boot) I know that I have somewhere to go, I know that I will achieve my goals in that somewhere, and I know that that somewhere is pretty kick ass.  But I can’t get too excited about that somewhere in the off chance that something better comes along because really it’s not over until the fat fellowships sing.
I just want to start looking for apartments.  Is that so much to ask?  I would love to start filling in the barest brush-strokes of the next five to six years of my life.  Pondering neighborhoods.  Applying to supplementary teaching positions.  Trying to figure out how to fit my budget together.  Not to mention mentally preparing for a move either closer to or farther from certain friends and relations…
It is, officially, past the middle of February.  Any day now, I will know.  Any day?  Any moment.  It could come at any time.  Sneak attack me while I’m in class.  Creep up on me while I’m at the gym.  Bombard me while I’m at work.  It could come from any corner, any cranny, any nook, and I just have to be poised to receive it.
Yea, poised to receive the landscape of the rest of my life.  No big deal, right?

>Into the Abyss


Most of this actually happened.  Names have been changed, once again, to protect the innocent.  Though really, if you think you know who these people are you are likely right.
“I got my first rejection today.”  Lisa said as she plonked her bag in the corner and hugged each of us in turn.
“Yea, I got my first one Friday.”  I said, “I sympathize one hundred percent.  Order a drink.  When did yours come in?”
“About ten minutes ago.”  She replied and asked for a glass of wine.  I don’t know why we switched from drinking beer at the dive bar to drinking wine at the dive bar, but clearly it was just a merlot kind of day.
“I’m sorry.”  I said. 
Brian looked miserably over the top of his club soda.  “Is it this time already?  Really?  I was just beginning to think that I was okay with not knowing.  I was just starting to not check my mailbox every two seconds in hopes that some answers would be there.  I was just getting over the constant compulsion to over-think what I shouldn’t have said in my personal statements.  I was just hitting my zen spot!”
“I know,” I said, taking another sip of wine, “Me too.  But!  I got into Tufts!”
“Congratulations!” Lisa said.  Brian had known last week, but Lisa had been MIA due to her rigorous other-stuff schedule.  I felt bad busting the news on her like that at the height of her fresh disappointment, but I had to say it sometime.  I had been waiting to tell her so that I could post it on my facebook.
“Yea.  I’m a little nervous that they don’t guarantee funding for your full time there… but I’ll wait until I hear back from Columbia before I twist myself up about it.  And it would be kind of awesome to move back to Boston.”
The table vibrated as Lisa reached for her phone which she had placed face down next to her elbow, as was her wont.  We both had iPhones.  Whenever one made a noise, we instinctively both reached for ours.  We were so well trained by the little beeps that came from the machines that, like good mothers, the very sound of them urged us to action.  She had even adjusted the noise hers made when she received a text so that we didn’t have to both reach when one of us got one.  It’s the little things that make some friendships great.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’ve been compulsively checking my e-mail ever since I got this letter to see if anyone else has sent me a decision.”
“Crap.”  I said.
“What?” she asked.
“Now I’m going to be compulsively checking my e-mail to see if anyone else sends me a decision.”
“Sorry.”  She replied.  She glanced at her screen then sighed.  “No, not a decision, just the same reaction everyone else gave me about the place that rejected me.  ‘The University doesn’t know what they’re missing’.”
“Yea, I got that too.”  I commiserated, “I think it’s just because people who love us want to say something but aren’t sure what else to say.”
“Cold comfort.”  She muttered, and put her phone back down.
“I just… don’t even know what to do with myself.”  Said Brian, head in his hands.  He didn’t have a smart phone.
“Wait.  Hope.  Pray.  Order another drink.” I said, “It’s like Death, it will all happen eventually.  Worrying about it isn’t going to make it happen any faster.”
“I know.”  He said, “But that doesn’t make me want to stop worrying about it, you know?”
“Well, the way I see it we have two choices: we can either give ourselves ulcers fretting over the inevitable, or we can zen it out for another month or so and worry about what to do with our lives from there.”  I took another sip of wine, thinking I had done well.
“How’s that line of reasoning working for you?” Brian asked.
“Sometimes I convince myself better than others…”
“You know what the messed up part is?” He said.  Lisa and I indicated that no, in fact, we did not.  “My advisor told me the first time I met him that I was wasting my time.  He told me, without even knowing me, that I might as well quit.  There are no jobs for me.  John, you know, John?”
We all knew John.  He was our God.  Our Savior.  Our Boss.  Our Mentor.  The best professor in the world.  He had been a still point in the turning world of academia for the three of us and had taken us under his wing as Graduate Students of Promise.  At this point, he was also a friend.  He had a list of publications longer than I am tall and he popped one out every six months or so.  He also kept busy on more committees, boards, peer-review panels and scholarly organizations than any one person had a right to even know existed. 
“Dr. F said that John was ‘the Voice of his Generation’ and Rutgers had to VOTE to see if they would keep him or not.  If they have to VOTE about John, then… really… what are any of us doing here?”
Lisa and I grunted our indication that we had conceded the point as we drank more.  Somehow, drowning our sorrows just seemed like the right thing to do.
“You know what’s really messed up?  So many places are going to wait to send out decision letters until they receive word back from people they’ve admitted and notified.  That way, in case their first choices say no they have the option to let others in instead.”  Lisa said.
“Wait, isn’t that what a wait list is for?” I asked.
“You would think!  I just want to know already!  Yes, no, I don’t care, I just want to get on with my life!”
“…but what is my life?  Really, I’ve spent all of it working up to this one moment and now… if this is the end of the road I don’t know what to do.”
I reached over the table to pat Brian on the shoulder.  I didn’t blame him.  I felt the same way.  Luckily, my safety net in place, I wasn’t fearing the freefall anymore.
Looking over that cliff into the endless abyss of uncertainty isn’t easy or pretty.  There is nothing nice about not knowing.  Walking the tightrope across it is probably the most uncomfortable thing that I have ever done.
But… really… when you know that nothing else will make you happy, when you are certain of what you want and that this is the only way to get it… looking back just isn’t an option.  And it was something we were all feeling and had been for some time; none of us wanted to fall, but we knew that turning tail and running wasn’t an option either.
So I keep checking my e-mail.  And so does Lisa.  And Brian will whenever he gets a chance.  And we know that, no matter what happens, we will have each other, a table at our dive bar, and a waitress who really likes us and may bring us free drinks if we all come in in tears.  I, for one, am stocking up on those little travel tissue packets.  You can never have enough of them, they are totally portable, and in a month or so I’m pretty sure I’m going to need a good long cry.  My nerves only stretch so far.

>The Ladies who Brunch


Yesterday, while brunching with my usual cohorts at our usual watering hole, several things decided to pop their heads onto the table over beers, bloody marys, and totally awesome waffles and French toast.
The first thing was a way of putting this horrible feeling that we are all going through over the uncertainty of our futures due to PhD applications being in the mail and decision letters on the horizon.  During a round of your average “how are you?”s, someone brought the topic up (it might have been me).  It was inevitable, right?  It’s at the back of all of our minds.  Getting us together and adding a little booze was only less likely to make us ignore the elephant in the room.  So someone said PhD applications, someone said decision letters, someone said job applications, and my friend (the husband of my other friend), ever-the-sage, piped up with this little gem:
“How is she doing?  Are you kidding?  She hasn’t finished a sentence in months!”
I stopped, gaped, briefly considered, and slowly realized how apt this description was.  I then attempted to launch into my own description of how I was doing, and wound up with a slew of started and re-started sentences and phrases not amounting to much of anything but a ball of stress and upset.
“See?”  He said, “Like that.”
Oh god.  It’s true.  It may even be the root of why all this is bothering me so much.  How can you live without knowing what the end of the sentence is?  We’ve begun it, surely, but now that things are out of our hands there is absolutely no way to complete it without someone inserting a word mad-lib-style… and all of our mad-lib buddies are in the bathroom, or checking their facebook in the other room, or on the phone with their moms for a family emergency, or otherwise detained in some fashion and unable to give us the crucial noun, verb, or color to continue!
We’re stuck mid-mad-lib!
Do you know how infuriating it is for an English major to be stuck mid-sentence?  In that pause space that Tim Curry adds as Frankenfurter when he says “I see you shiver with antici….” and the whole audience shouts “say it!  SAY IT!” before he finally outs with “…pation” and the crowd goes wild.  We’re ellipsis.  No, we’re not even ellipsis, ellipsis imply an interruption in the thought that will be filled with dramatic tension and indicates an omission in the text.  While the tension is there, the omission will not be forever.  Eventually it will be filled.  We’re stuck at sentence fragments.  We know the subject, but not the verb. 
How am I supposed to analyze a text if I don’t know the story?
This brief moment of panic aside, the waitress was a very inquisitive individual who started asking questions about who we were and what we did and, feeling the bravado of Winter Lager in my system, I boldly told her “we’re professors!”.  Yes, I know, it’s a stretch of the truth, but without time to explain what we really do it’s the best way to say what our passions are and what our careers will be.  She then started asking about our fields.  I pointed us out one by one; “Feminist” (aforementioned friend-wife-of-husband-friend), “Shakespearean” (yours truly), “Secular Critic” (actually not a lady, but he was late to brunch and thereby I don’t feel too horrible about picking on him indiscriminately in this blog post). 
“And together we make the justice league!” The secular critic said.
…which really got me thinking, if we did make the justice league what would our powers be and what sorts of crimes would we solve?  Would we be the scourges of bad grammarians everywhere?  Copy-editing with iron quills?  Or would we be Defenders of the Text, like the lorax but speaking for books and authors whose words none can hear any longer without our help?  Or would we swoop in and rescue libraries from burning down and give away used books to poor children who didn’t have money to buy them?  Or would we just wear funny costumes and sit around a citadel all day talking about the awesome things we would get around to doing eventually but couldn’t because our reading loads were too much?
At this juncture, fretting about random punctuation marks was pushed to the back of my mind.  I was instead worried about my super hero ensemble and name.
I think “The Bardette” would suffice… or maybe “The Quillmistress”… and my icon would be a skull with a feather quill crossed over it and an open book emblazoned behind it… and my colors would probably be white and burgundy because white for “the sweet swan of Avon” and burgundy because every velvet or leather-bound Shakespeare volume I’ve ever seen was in burgundy and my primary weapon would be an iron-bound copy of the First Folio that I would use to bludgeon my assailants to death and I need to come up with a clever and punish catch phrase and…
…I like thinking about this a lot more than thinking about the space between ellipses.

>Let them Eat Cake


On Wednesdays, I get lunch at the local dive bar with my friend the newly-minted Professor.  This rather odd little mid-week ritual has become some semblance of sanity in our schedules, and has proven to be a still point in the ever-turning world of academia.  Sometimes, we are joined by other friends (professors, students, colleagues, peers, etc.) but usually it is just us two.  The lunch has been affectionately dubbed “Brainy Broad Beers” by yours truly and serves as a time to relax, unwind, talk about the trials and tribulations of our week, papers (ours or students’), PhD applications, conferences, sweet libertine, BPAL, or really anything that we need to get off of our chests.
As the deadlines loom before us, PhD applications have taken up more and more of brainy broad beer time.  Today, we decided to add cupcakes to the mix at our favorite little coffee shop/art supply store (I kid you not say what you want about New Jersey, but its quirks are AWESOME). 
Before I proceed, you must understand.  I love red velvet cake.  I really couldn’t explain why because every time I think about it an uncontrollable urge to drool overcomes my brain.  If given half the chance, I would jump into a red velvet anything just to taste a corner of it.  This little coffee place makes some pretty amazing red velvet cupcakes and those are my standard fare.  Since it is a quirky home-brewed coffee shop, their selection of cakes is always rotating.  Some days, they don’t even have cupcakes.  You really never know what you are going to get when you walk into this place.
On our short treck from dive bar to coffee shop, said Professor and I were talking about (surprise surprise) the big scary imminent future.  It was at this point that I mentioned I was taking everything one day at a time, remembering to breathe, and visualizing positive outcomes… like PhD acceptance letters and red velvet cupcakes.  To this, the Professor replied “…so what you’re really saying is that if they don’t have red velvet cupcakes, we’re screwed…”
We laughed and continued walking.
When we arrived at the coffee shop, my heart stopped when I saw that they had no red velvet cakes on the counter.  Determined to not be a big baby about the situation (it’s just a stupid cupcake, it doesn’t really mean anything), I asked the nice lady taking my coffee order what kinds of cupcakes they did have.  She rattled off a long list then welcomed me to look at the display case in the back where all of them were neatly sitting.  I thanked her and went to look, though in my mind had already somewhat settled on the chocolate cupcake with peanut butter frosting.
As I turned the corner, there, staring me in the face, was a whole shelf full of red velvet cupcakes.  I smiled and relief coursed through me (I can talk the talk but that doesn’t mean that I hold no stock in cupcake premonitions).  I paused, realizing that the chocolate peanut butter cupcake actually sounded better than the red velvet cake.  I always order red velvet cake, why not take a break from tradition?  They had, after all, never had chocolate peanut butter before and red velvet cake seemed to be a staple there… it was time to break old habits.  It was time to take a chance.  It was time for a new cupcake.
Nervous at first as I peeled the wrapper away from the pastry (it seemed rather crusty on top and had little structural integrity), I wondered if I had made the right decision.  Was I betraying my better sensibilities?  I knew that red velvet was good, was I setting myself up for disappointment?  Was my break from the familiar just what I needed, or a horrible way to ensure future calamity?
We paused for a moment to return to our chatter.  I mentioned that I was trying to stop myself from dwelling too much on these applications, especially once they were sent in.  However, despite my best efforts, there was a part of my mind that just couldn’t stop wondering “well, what if you get into all the programs?  Where will you go then?”  My friend the Professor said that the way she deals with that problem is by visualizing bacon.  Hickory-smoked, apple-wood-smoked, maple-glazed…?  “Maple-glazed.”  I said immediately, “Maple-glazed, every time.” 
“Well, when the time comes,” Said my friend the Professor, “I think maple-glazed will make itself apparent.”
I nodded, marveling at her wisdom, and took a hesitant bite of my cupcake.  I lingered over it, trying not to get chocolate all over my white coat.  I had to stop myself from inhaling the rest of the confection.  It was utterly delicious.  Creamy, smooth, with just enough chocolate and peanut butter flavor to balance things out.  I had made the right choice.

>Holiday FAQ


Ah the holidays.  I love the holidays.  Lots of good food, good smells, everyone’s in a better mood, pretty shiny decorations go up, and things begin to wind down for the winter here in academia-land.
There’s only one problem.  Holidays inevitably mean family, and big parties, and otherwise excuses to see people who you don’t generally talk to the rest of the year.  Normally, this is a welcome (if drama-filled) change from the humdrum.  However.  This year, things are… slightly different.  I’m a little bit stressed out due to everything going on in my life, and I’d rather not have to explain the reasons behind this to every single person who doesn’t usually talk to me more than once every few months.  It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s not that you’re not important to me, it’s just that I’d rather not think about the progression of my life right now.  It’s exciting, yes, but also terrifying and having to dredge that up in front of an audience ad noseum brings me back to my conservatory days.  I’m not afraid to cry hysterically in a roomful of strangers, they beat that out of me at Shakespeare & Company, I’m just trying to slip into a happy numbness for a few months before I really start worrying about my life.
So, loved ones, in lieu of explaining all of this over Christmas Ham and Chanukah Latkes (yes, we do both, don’t ask), I’m writing a list of Frequently Asked Questions right here on the blog that you can read, enjoy, then (if I’ve failed to cover anything to your satisfaction), go ahead and ask me specific things.  That way we can all have a happier holiday season.  You don’t have to awkwardly stand around while I’m falling to bits about potential near-future crises due to “poor life decisions”, and I don’t have to fall to bits about it until rejection/acceptance letters come sometime this Spring. 
Thank you, in advance, for your understanding.
Q: So, what are you up to these days, Danielle?
A: Oh man, I’m super busy.  Work at the studio isn’t slowing down, we’re coming up to grading the last set of papers, my own finals are due, and I have PhD aps that I’m trying desperately to get off my desk.  Also starting to really worry about the Common Reading Exam in March, but that’s only a small percolation because everything else on this list comes before that.
Q: Oh?  Where are you applying?
A: Brown, Tufts, and Columbia. 
Q: Only three programs?  Wow.  What are you applying for?
A: Yea, only three.  There’s only three in the Northeast that really work for me, four in the country if I want to apply to Stanford but I don’t really want to move out to California.  I’m applying for a PhD in Drama (some schools call it “Theatre Studies”), but it basically means the intersection between scholarship and theatre, which is what I study anyway.  I mean, if I don’t get in this round, I could try to find an open-minded English department, but I’d rather be amongst theatre people, you know?  The English-iesh don’t really know what to do with me…
Q: What do you plan on doing with that?
A:  Well, I want to open my own theatre someday and I figure that people will be more willing to give me money to do that if I have letters after my name.  I have some pretty revolutionary ideas about American Shakespeare performance; I want to start a real classical repertory company and link it to a University’s theatre department.  That way, young actors will learn the old-fashioned way; they’ll learn everything about the stage, all facets, and they’ll get a chance to work with more experienced actors which I really think is golden for them.  It’s important to understand the theatre in all its aspects, and I really want to create a generation of “Renaissance Actors”.
I also envision it as a place where scholarship and practicum meet; a sort of Shakespeare Mecca.  We kind of have that here in the states down at the Folger in Washington, but for the most part Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare actors/directors don’t really talk.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from both sides, and I would like to see it performed that way.  I want to have an open dialogue across this scholarship/practicum rift, see if we can’t heal it up some.  I’m wondering what kind of theatre that will make…
Also, I firmly believe in experimental Shakespeare.  And I don’t mean like “Hamlet on the moon”.  I’m thinking of something pure and classical, yet hip and contemporary.  I’m still working on how all these ideas mesh together though… but I’ll have some time.  It’ll take me six years for the PhD anyway.
Oh, and I want to be a professor.  Because really, it’s the coolest job title ever.  And can you think of anything more fulfilling?  I get to instill a new generation with my ideas about literature and theatre?  Count me IN!
Q: Oh… uhm… you know that’s not really very practical.  Your back-up idea is being a professor?  Do you know what the unemployment rate…
A: For newly-minted PhDs?  Yes, yes I do.  But I can’t shoot for the moon just because I’m frightened of where I’ll land.  It would be stupid to compromise out of fear.  I know I love theatre, I know I love academia, I know a lot of things that I hate doing.  I’m not going back to working in a cube just because someone tells me “no”.
Q: Well… what if you don’t get in?
A: I spend a year conferencing, trying to get published, up my hours at the studio, and try to find a couple sections of something to teach somewhere.  Make my application better, then try again next year.  I mean, really, these programs take two to four people a year.  When you’re talking about the top ten applicants to Columbia or Brown, you’re talking about people who all have 4.0s, who all have perfect GREs, who are all amazing writers.  They don’t reject you because you suck, they reject you because you’re not what they’re looking for that year.  I could get ousted from being offered a spot just because they have another Shakespearean currently working through the program, or someone on the selection committee really wants to work with another applicant.  I mean, for all intents and purposes, they may as well take the top ten applications, pin them to a wall, have a couple beers, and throw darts to see who gets in.  I understand that, and I’m prepared to accept whatever comes.  But if you don’t try, you’ll never know, right?
Q: I guess that makes sense… but won’t you have a ton of debt when this is all through?
A: Not any more than I have now.  These programs are all fully funded.  They would pay me to read books for six years!
Q: Hey, didn’t you want to go study in England?
A: That’s the best part!  You get two fellowship years for these things.  You are required to take one your first year just to acclimate.  Usually, people take the second in their sixth year to write their dissertation, but there’s nothing saying you couldn’t take it in your fourth or fifth.  I could take a fellowship year, then go research in Stratford or at the Bodleian if I needed to… all on the school’s buck.  How awesome is that?
Q: Pretty neat!  When are your due dates?
A: December 15th, January 3rd and January 15th, but I hope to have them all in by January 1st.  Once my finals are in, I can really concentrate on getting the last two banged out.
Q: And when do you find out?

A: They aim to tell you the second week of February, but it’s not like undergrad when there’s a certain day that you get the letter in the mail.  They do expect to hear back from you about your decision by April, so sometime before then.
Q: So what are we drinking to celebrate/commiserate?
A: B. Nektar Vanilla Cinnamon Mead.  And thanks.  I have a feeling that I will need all the calming vibes I can get for a few months…

>Grading; A Tragi-Comedy in Five Acts


All this happened…. More or less.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Dramatis Personae
Danielle: A lowly (but not inexperienced) grader who writes a fascinating blog that you should really read…. Otherwise known as: yours truly.
Lisa: A recently-minted MA in English who teaches her own class this semester, but has been part of the “academic musketeers” since before her graduation last May.  A frequent sanity-checker on all things academy-related, and someone who graded with Danielle last semester.
Brian: The third musketeer and a colleague of Danielle’s.  Was asked to take Lisa’s place as grader when Lisa graduated and started teaching her own classes.
John: The professor they all grade/graded for.
Act One

Curtain up on a one-bedroom apartment that hasn’t been cleaned in far too long.  Danielle sits glumly in front of her computer with a stack of completed grading by her left hand.  She looks to the stack, looks to the computer’s screen where she has pulled up a spreadsheet of the grades she gave, then sighs.  Despite her best efforts, there is simply nothing she can do about the fact that the papers are really and truly sub-par.  She crunches some numbers and realizes that her chunk of the class, as of now, has a 76% pass rate on this paper.  She thumbs back through the papers listlessly, wondering if there’s any way she can bump a few Ds to Cs.  She wonders about the ethics of such a decision; simply because the class is doing poorly does not mean that she should lower her standards, right?  And it’s not like her standards were so high to begin with… all she needed from a paper to pass it was some sign that the student had an argument, any argument, just something to say about a work read in class.
She asks a good friend who happens to be a high-school teacher what his standard pass rate is.  He tells her 95%.  She feels even worse.  She mentions that the students do have the opportunity to re-write for a better grade.  He says that in that case, 76% is probably just fine.  She feels the need to defend John who she knows for a fact is an amazing professor since he has been her professor on occasion in addition to being her boss.  It’s not his fault that his class can’t write papers.  It’s the… high-school teacher… right… she feels awkward about this argument and ceases to have it.
She steels her reserve and stuffs the finished pile into its manila inter-office envelope to drop in John’s box after she attaches the typed commentaries to the individual papers.
Act Two

Danielle enters the English Department common room with manila envelope of graded papers in one hand and stack of typed commentaries in the other.  She puts both of these down on the long table at which Lisa is already sitting grading her own stack of papers.
Lisa: Hey.
Danielle: Hey.
Lisa: How you doing?
Danielle: Okay…. I can’t shake this feeling though…
Lisa: What’s wrong?
Danielle: This stack of papers was awful.  Well and truly awful.  Worse than we had last semester.  And… I graded them accordingly, but I can’t help but wonder if I was a bit heavy-handed.  My pass rate was 76%.
Lisa: I mean, you may have been.  Even John says that you’re a tougher grader than Brian.  The comments you two give are probably the same, but the letter grade is different… so John admits to swapping the stack around so that you and Brian aren’t always grading the same students’ papers and it all averages out.
Danielle: That’s good, I guess, but I still don’t feel great about it…
Lisa: Well what grades did you give out?
Danielle: A couple Ds… one C minus… the passing grades were mostly B minuses.  I did give out two A’s though.
Lisa: C minus isn’t a failing grade.
Danielle: Really?
Lisa: Yea, since John can’t technically put a C minus in the grading box, he’ll bump it up to a C and the paper will pass.
Danielle: well that makes me feel better I guess, that means my pass rate’s over 80%…
Lisa: Did you give any Fs?
Danielle: No.
Lisa: In that case, you’re fine.  Let’s go get beer.
Act Three

Lisa and Danielle are imbibing in beer and wings at the local college dive bar.  Brian rushes in late, clearly upset, clearly out of breathe.
Brian: You guys would not believe the morning I have had.
Lisa: Order a beer and tell us…
Brian: I have seen and done a lot of things in my time… but today, today was a first.  I nearly got into a fistfight on the highway.
Danielle: How is that possible?
Brian: Apparently some guy thought I cut him off so he drove right in front of me, slammed on his breaks to force me into the shoulder, and got out of his car screaming that he was gonna kick my ass.  But he wasn’t.  Because if someone screams about it, they’re not going to do it and I haven’t slept in forty-eight hours, how was your stack of papers?
Danielle: Uhm… should you nap or something?
Brian: No, I had a five-hour energy before leaving the house.
Danielle: So… mine were
Brian: AWFUL?  No really, AWFUL?
Danielle: Yea… yours too, huh?
Brian: Yea, I gave out five Ds, but you’re a tougher grader than I am so I was wondering how many you failed…
Danielle: Breathes a sigh of relief Actually, about the same. 
Brian: How many As did you give?
Danielle: Two solid As and one A minus.
Brian: I hate to say this, but I have no real As and the ones I did give out I only gave because they were that much better than the rest in the stack…
Lisa: I love my class.  I seriously feel like I have the best students in this school.  None of the papers I got were like the ones we got from John’s kids last semester, and the ones that were bad came from the good students who ran out of time or had friends who committed suicide or something…
Brian and Danielle glare at Lisa for a while.
Act Four

Danielle pokes her head into John’s office while he is on a break between classes.
Danielle: John?
John: Oh, hey, thanks for the papers.
Danielle: Yea, no problem.  You take a look at my PhD writing sample yet?
John: Yes.  It’s great.  I have copious commentary.  My cat messed up my filing system and I completely forgot to bring it to you today.
Danielle: I’m not even going to ask.  Hey, did you also have a look at the grades I gave out?
John: Yes, looks fine to me.  You’re a tougher grader than Brian, so I expected that.
Danielle: I just felt so bad doing it…
John: Sometimes the best you can do is offer the most constructive commentary you can give.  You can’t just pass them because they turned in something that could have been written by monkeys at typewriters.  Here, have another stack of grading.
Act Five

Danielle sits in her room once more tapping a pencil against her desk.  She is trying to blog about her week and realizes that she doesn’t know what the proper stylistic form is for the letter representation of a grade in a sentence.  A or “A”?  And how do you make it plural?  She blogs anyway and hopes that she guessed correctly.


>Nemesi… Nemesooses… Nemeses….


Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a new nemesis.
He haunts my footsteps, breathes down my neck, nefariously hangs in my thoughts all day.  I peer around street corners knowing that he may be waiting there for me.  And I know (because it’s written on a whiteboard in my room) exactly how long it will be until our final show-down.  The big shebang.  He taunts me, teases me, waits until I’m least suspecting then pops his head into my life with a menacing and yet seductive grin. 
It may even be one of those love/hate nemesis relationships.  You know the ones, where we have tense action-filled sequences followed by long cold showers.  It’s like Lara Croft and Alex West in the first Tomb Raider movie (shush, I don’t make fun of your taste in movies).  We’re a perfect match for each other, we just have some slight differences in opinion which make working together a dangerous task.
These personal statements are kicking my rear end into submission.
The other day, I saw on my colleague’s facebook status, “Why is it that I can write publishable articles about random and esoteric historical events and yet you ask me to write two pages about myself and I freeze up?”  I think this about sums up the experience.  Sure, I can write.  Sure, I can write well.  Sure, I like being me.  But somehow asking me to justify my research, my past, my future, and my meaning for existence in 800 words or less is proving a task almost too daunting.
This stems from several intimidating factors.  The first of which is the stakes of the situation.  The personal statement is, as far as I can tell, the catch-all for the PhD application.  It is where you get your last ditch effort to explain yourself, discrepancies in your work, anything that the rest of your application may fail to entail.  Considering that the rest of the application is pretty much a Q&A, your transcript, your resume, and a writing sample, that’s no small task.  Essentially, you have to make yourself human rather than a barcode.  Tell the committee about yourself, your research, why you love them, why you would fit in at the school, what your plans are… oh and it should be in and interesting and readable format, not just a bulleted list.  Somehow, all this together makes me feel like King Arthur returning gloriously with a recently acquired shrubbery only to be told that, due to ridiculous reasons beyond my control, I must now bring another shrubbery only slightly higher and arrange the two shrubberies so that they get a two-level effect with a little path running down the middle.
Oh and then, of course, I have to cut down the mightiest tree in the forest using only a hearing.  The personal statement is one of the most highly weighted portions  of the PhD application (along with the writing sample).  So not only does it have to do a great deal in a short amount of time, it has to do that damn well.
As if this weren’t enough pressure, the personal statement is also a horribly subjective bit of writing.  There is absolutely no way to tell what program director x or application reading committee y is going to be looking for in a stellar personal statement.  I could think it was perfect and they could disagree with me.  My mentors here at Rutgers could tell me it’s awful, and the reading committee could absolutely love it.  In a way, it’s like preparing for a test when you aren’t sure what subject you are going to be tested on.  With only a vague notion of what any given program is looking to take from this little piece of writing that suddenly means everything, how’s a girl supposed to cope?
Maybe as a result of the pressure, I find myself freezing whenever I think about my PS.  The worst part is that having a working draft isn’t helping.  Usually by the time I’ve cranked out draft one of any piece of writing, I’m at least ready to tackle it to the ground and beat it into submission with a red pen.  This is so different.  It’s like a part of me.  It’s… delicate.  Fragile.  There is absolutely no way to be subjective about this writing.  I can’t self-flagellate with a red pen.
The clock is ticking and with everything else going on in my life, the sooner I can get application number one off my desk (Brown, due December 15th), the better.  I can’t believe that I’m being held up by two little pieces of paper.  Not even paper!  Pixels!  I’m being held up by a hodgepodge of pixels!
My consolation is that everyone I know who is going through, has been through, or is thinking about going through this process (or one like it) feels exactly the same way.  I’m not alone in this crazy world of  personal prose for the propagation of potential professional philanthropy.  Somehow, that seems cold comfort.  That’s the thing about a nemesis: no matter how many people are on your team, you always have to face him alone.