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.