Rejection, Failure, and Self Reflection

My first panic attack happened during the summer before my second year (not my first, interestingly) of graduate school and adjunct teaching.  I was walking along 5th Avenue in NY and suddenly stopped breathing: there’s no other way of explaining it.  I responded with the usual Prozac and Psychotherapy, stopping the latter soon after realizing that the Psych Ph.D. was no smarter than I was (intelligence being a key factor in how I chose men, no matter what their relationship, at the time), and stopping the drugs as soon as I discovered that alcohol was cheaper, and quicker.

That was many, oh so many, summers ago, but ever since then I’ve gone through the depths of despair, so to speak, every single summer. Sometimes it happens in August, as it did way back when, but more often it happens in July, and now, it seems, it’s front loading to late June.   

I know other academics go through this, too (see PhD Me, for example): we are so focused on others and ideas (our own and others) for 60+ hours a week, 7 days a week, 10 or so months, that it’s not until the academic year ends that we have the time to breathe.  And while we are breathing we see the now pages long, 10 point font, to-do list we’ve been saving for just this summer, (everything from finishing the painting of the damned hallway, finally, to reading the dozens of books and articles we’ve saved for course prepping for fall term, to the reviews we promised to write, to the dinner invitations we still need to return, to writing up our own half-baked ideas we’ve been jotting down or blogging about informally all year), and naturally panic occurs.

It’s not necessarily rational: I do have more time now that I’m not teaching 15 hours a week, holding office hours 5 hours a week, grading and prepping 20-30 hours a week, and doing committee work several hours a week.  I’m teaching online, which requires only 5-10 hours a week, depending on the week.  I know the problem:  all the free time,  too much time to think, to dwell, to obsess. I must spend so much time working or just DOING STUFF during those 10 months of the year that I am successfully postponing any self reflection, any time for just thinking. 

Clearly, not a healthy way to live.

Thus the panic is happening earlier this summer than ever before, but at least this summer, I can attribute it to two specific events (or, more precisely, non-events).

The first: the rejection I received from NPR. Though they wrote to ME, asking ME to submit a revised “Three Books” essay. They have now rejected the revised essay with this pithy note:

“Thanks so much for your submission.  The essay isn’t really working for us, so we’re going to pass.”

To be honest, I really don’t love what I sent them: I struggled with turning something I originally threw together in 200 words into a 500 word essay. (Here I am writing a 1000+ word blog posting for god’s sake—I simply can’t write 500 words!) In the process, the heart and soul was whittled out of the piece.  But, despite actually agreeing with their pithy assessment, rejection is rejection, right?

And today, I’ve decided NOT to continue reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest even though I wasn’t so sure I’d go through with the whole Infinite Summer thing to begin with. I did read the first 63 pages (as per our assigned reading).  However, Dave Eggers’ 2006 foreword was perhaps not the best way to start the book: in it, he practically begs the reader to give the novel a chance. He starts well, noting that most readers of “literary fiction” like to read both easy to read fiction as well as challenging fiction, rather than either-or:

“These readers might actually read both kinds of fiction themselves, sometimes in the same week.”

Yes, that’s certainly true. I’ve just finished Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (definitely in the “easy to read” category—fast read, stock characters, happy ending) while also reading Infinite Jest and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (the latter two in different subcategories of “challenging fiction”).

But then Eggers compares Infinite Jest to a

 “spaceship with no recognizable components…very shiny, and it has no discernible flaws…It simply is. Page by page, line by line, it is probably the strangest, most distinctive, and most involved work of fiction by an American in the last twenty years. At no time while reading Infinite Jest are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.”

At this point, I’m thinking: oh great, one of those cult-followed novels that only those who wear black, black framed glasses, and carry their smugness like Linus’ blanket everywhere they go will appreciate this novel.   Then Eggers says that the expected age of a new reader of this novel that captures “the consciousness of an age” is 25.  Oh, he concedes that some more ancient readers, 30 or even 50 year olds, might be condescendingly reading the book for the first time, but basically, he assumes that like he was the first time he read the book,  the reader is a 25 year old English major, and, I assume, male.

So I go into this book knowing that I am not at all the target audience. Not a good way to begin a novel when I have dozens of other novels,  novels that are practically begging a middle aged woman English professor to read them, waiting for me by my bed. 

So even though the novel is fairly easy to read (despite the endnotes, which do seem to be increasing with each chapter, unfortunately), and with characters who (sorry Eggers) DO resemble other characters in fiction, from Holden Caulfield way back to Tom Sawyer—and all those adolescent boys/men in between—and there does seem to be an actual plot focusing on different addictions, I just don’t want to keep reading. I have too much else to read. 

So, rejection and failure in one day.

But it has led to self-reflection. It’s summer. I do have a long to-do list, but hell will not freeze over if I ignore half of it. And while neither my rejection nor my failure will impact my career or my life in any negative way—no job or income depended on either—they have led me to reflect on what I really want to accomplish this summer.  And I’m happy with that.   I’ll let you know if I figure what that actually IS before August.

Sunday Night Musings

When I first started graduate school,  I immediately started having panic attacks. It was clearly not ideal timing, but something about taking classes and teaching (since my en route Ph.D. program “allowed” us to teach our own composition classes at the same time we were taking classes) gave me both the space and the elevated stress level to suddenly act out against my life-long horror of Sunday nights.

I had the space, since unlike the 9-5 jobs I had for the years between undergraduate and graduate school teaching 2 composition classes and taking 2-3 graduate classes gave me more “free” time.  And you can guess why, as a new instructor, I had the elevated stress levels. I loved teaching immediately (almost more, to be honest, than my graduate seminars), and I felt fairly confident in my graduate program, but the stress of living in utter poverty in addition to the change in career probably were beyond the stress of any other transitional period in my life.

So, like any good New Yorker I found myself a therapist (one with a Ph.D., thank you very much) and he proceded to bore me with the usual Freudian blah blah blah about my life (I had no trouble applying such an analysis to literary characters, but hearing it applied to my own life made me dismiss psychoanalytic literary criticism quite quickly–perhaps too quickly, but that’s for another posting). 

He did make two comments (in addition to explaining how to get bumped to first class on airlines–though his advice on that aged quickly as the airline industry changed) that I never forgot (and it’s been 20 years):

1. He said that because of my struggles with my childhood (blah blah) I would probably not be able to finish the Ph.D. program (well, I did, in record time–though, admittedly, I’m not quite sure how much of that was reverse psychology); and

2. He said that although panic attacks on Sunday nights are not uncommon for many people, perhaps I have panic attacks on Sunday nights because that’s when I was sent to the “babysitter” for the week (long story).

Well, that was an observation worthy of his $80.00 an hour though I still stopped seeing him soon afterwards. 

My panic attacks eventually subsided though Sunday nights are still a bit fraught with emotion (despite knowing both the obvious and the personal reasons for feeling stressed on Sunday nights).  Tonight, I’m almost done grading final papers (admittedly, I could be done if I weren’t typing this, but I did need a break), and although I should be thrilled that I’m almost done grading and finishing up fall term, I’m feeling relentlessly stressed.   I have no where I need to be tomorrow,  and actually few appointments at all this week, allowing me to at least begin to clean up my office and prep for winter term.  But those emotions are still there and just typing them out is very useful (and you don’t need that Ph.D. in psychology to understand why). It’s also cold (frigid, actually) and snowy today, no sun and basically the start of what promises to be a long winter.  And yes, I’m sure it’s just having the space of not teaching that reminds me, that yes, seasonal affective disorder on top of a personal history of Sunday night blues have ganged up to make you feel lousy right now.

Or at least I did until I typed all of that out;-)

View from my bedroom window on a snowy day in December.

View from my bedroom window on a snowy day in December.