Life as an Extreme Sport

returning to beginning

Today started out with a lot of dread. I went to campus to talk to people in my department, both professors and colleagues, and I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been a lot more withdrawn these last six weeks than normal for me, avoiding being online, and people in general. It was going to be trial by fire, throwing myself from limited contact – my family, Michael, Laurie, Daniel – to anyone who wanted to walk up and say hello.

And then I forgot to bring sedatives. You laugh, but they were my just in case. Get overwhelmed, excuse self to get a coffee and have 15 minutes of quiet while a sedative kicked in and I had that slight anesthetic effect to let me regain control and composure.

Woops, and oh well.

Thankfully, they weren’t needed. For whatever reason, the graduate office was relatively deserted today, and I never had any overwhelming numbers of people around. In fact, it was just the opposite, and it was surprising.

That it was surprising might, well, surprise people. I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about what a perfect storm of things to make you uncertain about grad school this last 18 months, give or take, has been. Or at least laid it out in whole. As the chair for the graduate program has told me a few times now, any single one of these is difficult and concerning for a student to go through; going through them all and coming out still able to laugh (as MzS~ said earlier tonight, go through explosion after explosion and come out virtually unscathed) is rare.

Starting at the beginning, moving from one coast to the other is a culture shock. I’ve talked with several professors about this now, and they all agree – most have done the move themselves. As the chair said to me today, when he made that move from West to East, he started his first semester of graduate school elated, and ended it feeling like he’d been kicked. It’s hard to move away from everything you know and start over, especially when you know no one and aren’t in that same boat with the rest of your classmates, living in dorms, and forced to get to know people. It’s hard, and it’s lonely, and you’re a broke grad student and it’s hard to go out to dinner or bars or just places where you’ll meet folks. It can be demoralizing, too – I’m not sure how widespread this particular story is, but from June 2006 until January 2007 – from leaving Seattle until I returned for a short visit – the only people who’d hugged me were family, which was rare in itself.

That, from an environment where, if you walked into the CHID office, you were almost always immediately asked if you’d had your three hugs today. And if not, they would make sure you got them. An environment where I was literally in physical contact with many people, every day – casual, comfortable, friendly, caring contact. To nothing. I nearly cried when the first person I saw, back in Seattle, didn’t even stop to say hello before folding me into a huge hug. And to have that happen again, and again, made me realize just what I was missing.

That would be hard enough. But in that time, the program I was in fell apart, and by everyone’s admission, I got caught in the middle as the student most directly impacted, and it wasn’t handled well on anyone’s part (myself included). I went from this custom, unique program to nothing in the span of something like 6 weeks, and that nothing included realizing just what an odd person out I am in the department I remain in.

Then Mom was diagnosed with cancer, and we knew from the beginning it was likely to be terminal. Going into Christmas trying to simultaneously be positive, but watch Mom go through the side effects of chemo, and everyone silently trying to cope with it being our last family Christmas was more than grueling. It was a nightmare I wouldn’t wish on anyone, as were the subsequent months. And I was forced to deal with a lot of issues around my family that, well, we all probably have to some degree. I had to confront my problems with my family, and deal with them, and work through them – an on-going issue, I admit (and an admission just for you, sis). I had to continue confronting this over the next 11 months, and probably for for a while longer. I’m still angry, I’m still hurt, and I’m still grieving.

Are you tired yet? I think that in itself is enough, don’t you? Too bad it doesn’t stop there. There’s been a pervasive problem with sexism in my department, or at least what appeared to be rampant discrimination. Not from the professors, who I might have expected it from, but the other graduate students. Talking over and around the women, making jokes about not being able to make off-coloured jokes, blatantly discussing parties we hadn’t been invited to in front of us – bad enough, but it escalated to the point that it seemed like direct attacks were being made against the women in classes, and things just exploded into a department mess from there.

And speaking of the department, about this time it also became very clear – in that they told me to my face – that several professors really didn’t like bioethics. They didn’t see the point to it, they didn’t understand why anyone would go in to such a worthless career, that all bioethicists do is sit around and kvetch. And this wasn’t a one-off, it was said to me, directly, repeatedly, up until the week before I left for ASBH. Where MzS~ and I would have to subtly and physically taking turns restraining one another when things were said, because hi, we were standing right there.

So to recap,

  1. moving and culture shock
  2. academic program falling apart and going away, messily
  3. Mom’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death
  4. sexism and alienation in my department
  5. definite anti-bioethics bias revealed by faculty, leaving me feel unwelcome in the department

As if that weren’t enough, there have been numerous work issues, which I won’t go into for reasons involving discretion (and contractual shut-up agreements). But to say those haven’t helped is an understatement.

Just typing it out is exhausting. Going through it has been… a perfect storm. Leaving me wondering what the hell I’m doing, am I even in the right place, what am I doing in a department that doesn’t want me on multiple fronts, a city I still feel like a stranger in…

Is it any wonder I was dreading going back onto campus, when I’ve felt successively alienated?

Academically, the program dissolution issue has been solved for a while. It’s an expensive solution that’s going to take more time, but it’s still do-able. So that’s off the table, it’s just the lingering stress and loneliness of solitude in interests that’s there.

Obviously, and both fortunately and unfortunately, my mother’s illness is over. I’m going to have to cope with the after-effects of that for a long time, but I’m not alone in the Dead Mommy Club.

I haven’t been around for a lot of the cleanup on the sexism front, but I hear that, like all good stories, instead of it being what we (the women) saw, it was something else. Some cluelessness, some insensitivity, and other people’s problems spilling over and looking like something they weren’t – sexism. It’s sort of funny to say that, in light of the post I made regarding it almost a year ago – because gender was the problem. The fact that there were (and still are) so few women in the program made it seem like it was a sexism problem, when in reality it was just a people problem.

And one of the professors who said such negative things about bioethics actually paid me a compliment today, telling me it wasn’t something he could do, and he knew it was a difficult field – just dealing with the doctors made it hard. We talked about what I wanted to do my dissertation on, and he actually not only gave me advice, but told me he thought it was a genuinely good idea.

That was actually my first meeting today. And the day just got better. I ended up talking to several colleagues who had made me feel so isolated and alienated last year, and they were, across the board, sweet and empathetic and kind. I had a long conversation with one of the primary people who made me feel unwelcome and sort of worthless due to my non-philosophy background, where he got enthusiastic about my research interests, and disturbed over my concerns about the program. Someone else, who has been so consistently considerate, kind, and quietly stable this last year spent almost an hour catching me up on the department issues and talking, again, about the future. MzS~ and I went to dinner, where it was like I had never been gone – we spent several hours laughing, talking over one another, spinning wildly from topic to topic, in one breathe going from giggly girls to serious academics and back again.

I went into the day dreading it, and nine hours after I left my house, I came home feeling like, for the first time in I don’t know how long, that I didn’t make the wrong choice in coming here. I came home smiling, having been hugged, and most of all, having hope…and finally feeling like maybe, just maybe I’m home.

under a bus

There’s been a lot of language about not throwing people under buses, and being careful in action. I learned today just how one way that expectation can really be. While I’m trying not to be pissed off, I’m furious. I’m livid, to be honest – madder than I have been in a long time.

I spent a long time talking to someone who’s found the most adorable animated bear for “giving hugs” online, and we talked about how similar we are in hating large gestures and big compliments. I realized, when talking to him, that the big gestures are almost offensive because they seem to imply there’s something special about just doing my job. And I am many things, but I am not lazy, and I have a strong and fiercely determined work ethic – once I become involved in a project, especially emotionally, or if I at all begin to view it as mine, I will work my ass off to make it the best thing possible. Because that’s what you do – that’s what it means to have a work ethic.

I hate giant expressions of gratitude for doing, what at the very basis, is simply doing my job. S~ has compensated for this by saying things like “I know you hate compliments, but you’re the [fill in the blank].” It’s humorous and gets the point across.

But when we were talking today, we realized we’re the same in that for us, expressions of gratitude are the small things – as are expressions of empathy, friendship, etc. It’s the picking up of a latte when at Starbucks, because you know it’s what the person would want or because you’re just thinking about them. It’s about giving rides to the airport, or picking someone up. It’s insisting on taking someone out to dinner as a thank you for a specific project, or a birthday. It’s leaving a bottle of wine as a gift, unsaid, because you think it will be enjoyed.

These small things for me are the things that say “I appreciate you.” I know I’m needed – it’s not arrogance, it’s simply knowing I’m good at what I do, and that I pour my heart and soul into it, because if I’m going to do something, I’m going to be excellent at it. That’s just how I am. For me, what matters is those small gestures of appreciation and shared time. Of, for example, S~ spending the hour talking to me he didn’t really have, this afternoon, when he realized how upset I was, because he knew I was upset and that talking was just the thing that was important.

Maybe that’s it, too – about prioritizing importance. You can tell me something as much as you want, but if your action doesn’t match your words…

I don’t know. I’m tired, I’m angry, I can’t lift something as simple as an empty suitcase to pack, and didn’t have a chance to FedEx the boxes of packages – which means I do it in the morning and risk losing the important parking spot, or just figure out how to get it on the plane with me. I don’t know. I’m overwhelmed, because I had the rug pulled out from under me, and was unable to complete several long lists of things I had made and needed to do prior to leaving.

Maybe in three days I’ll laugh about this. I can only hope.

sometimes the hardest thing to do is practice on yourself

I wrote this a few weeks ago, and in a tricksy move to make sure no one could know what I was referring to without talking to me, I held on to it to post at a later time. Ooo, tricksy.

More seriously, the number of people who read this, at least occasionally, has lead me to conclude that while I can still talk about whatever I want, with common discretion, it might not be a bad idea to blur the lines on continuity just a bit – at least in some circumstances.

Today has been a serious day for practicing loving kindness and compassion.

It’s either that, or burn bridges in a spectacular flame out that I would regret almost instantly.

The problem is, it’s easy to get stuck in circles of irritation, when I’m essentially by myself all day, and the contact I do have with other people is short/perfunctionary. A conversation I had with Stax earlier is a good example of this; by myself, I was just getting more and more irritated (and thank god I didn’t receive certain email at that time, because I swear I would have done/said something I would have regretted, rather than the more patient filing of the mail and not responding). But having to explain a more detailed and balanced picture to her returned me to a better center, where I could see the picture larger than myself and relax again.

Unfortunately, I’ve been alone with myself since then, and had plenty of time to narrow my gaze once more. I know that I’m doing this, and I am attempting to breathe and retain focus and perspective, but it can be hard. It becomes so easy to just think about our self as individual, and elevate our own issues and priorities above the rest. To always think of how you are engaged with others in the world is not an easy task – it requires a sort of self-sacrifice that opens up a vulnerability. Because to do this, you have to trust that those you are opening up to have also opted to open up, that it is not a single sided exchange, but mutual and respectful.

Which is not, of course, to say that the practice of loving kindness and compassion should only be generated to those who will give it to you in return. But there is a hardening that I haven’t yet gotten over, to practice loving kindness without self-sacrificing vulnerability. What I generate and give differs, and it is much better, more intimate and true, if I allow the vulnerability to be there. If I assume that it is returned.

But that vulnerability, tied to imperfection, can lead to taking offense when there is none, to expectations, to a host of problems where the kneejerk reaction is to lash out, push away, protect, destroy.

What does it say, I wonder, that it is such a human impulse to push and destroy rather than be intimate?


I’ve stopped asking when things will get good – I realize, after all, that there are good things going on, it’s just that I get overwhelmed at times and can’t see the forest for the trees. Or something wise like that.

It’s really more accurate to say that I’m trying to stop vocalizing the thought – I still have it, and often. Today is a great example of that. I woke up several hours later than I had wanted, groggy beyond belief. (Apparently, since not only did I reset my alarm, apparently, but eventually decided to unplug it from the wall.) I had over 100 email actually needing some moderate attention, because I basically ignored my computer last night. In that, there was email from my sister passing on a message from my mother that was heartbreakingly sad, several notes from former colleagues about the suicide of someone I knew professionally at UW, and a whopping single email from anyone I work with, my exec editor, in response to a question I mailed last night.

So I’m surrounded by death and feeling, at the moment, if I just packed up and left, it wouldn’t be noticed by anyone. (Or more realistically and accurately, if I turned off chat clients and shut down email, basically going on radio silence, it wouldn’t be noticed by most.) What a charming mood this puts me in.