Screw It

Nov. 19th, 2009 12:32 pm
arguchik: (Default)
[personal profile] arguchik
I'm just going to indulge my negative self-talk, get it out here where maybe I'll be able to see it properly, and maybe deconstruct it or at least find some way around or through it to an "other side" that must be better than where I am. Somehow. It must. Be. Better. I'm starting to feel a gut deep panic that I am never going to finish my dissertation, that I will spend the rest of my life looking back on this as a fool's errand, a waste of time, money, effort, and emotional energy. That in itself is bad enough, but along with it I feel like I'll never be able to start up a different career, either; that I'll end up stuck in dead-end, low-paying jobs doing work that starves my brain--and I'm just vain enough to think that I deserve better (HA, "deserve"). It's not the money that really bothers me, though I am sick of living like a fucking graduate student, for fuck's sake. I'm sick of being a graduate student. I feel like an idiot, a slacker, a failure, a poser, an object of well-deserved ridicule and derision, unworthy of being taken seriously as a friend or a colleague, and I'm tired of feeling this way.

At the same time, I wonder why in the hell I rejected my father's approach to life. He had his day job, which was "just a job" to him. It ended up resembling a career, but only because he stayed at the same job for the vast majority of his adult, working life. He did not grow up in a time, place, or class that fostered a need to "love," to feel "called," or even to enjoy the work he did for money. It was always just a paycheck to him, a way to stay fed and clothed, and to feed and clothe his family--in short, a means to the end of security, and he was FINE with that. At the same time, because he stayed at the same job for so long, he got raises, he saved scrupulously toward retirement, and he was also able to afford his hobbies, i.e. his real career, which was entirely separate from his job. He always said that he didn't want to do the things that he loved doing, for money--that getting paid for, say, his woodworking, would take all of the fun out of it. There is something to that. I feel that way about knitting--I am extremely wary of people who urge me to knit on commission. I don't want to turn myself into a knitwear production machine--I enjoy knitting precisely because it is agenda-less; I don't have to knit anything I don't want to knit. Why are we so eager to turn our beloved activities, whatever they are, into wage slavery? Probably because doing work that's meaningful or fun makes wage slavery feel like something else, something other than what it is. And maybe that's not a good thing: just so much mystification and reification, and our direct complicity in that. At the same time, I would much rather spend my working life--since it is also the majority of my waking life--doing something that doesn't suck, that gives me something beyond wages, so there's that. It's a paradox I can't really resolve: in order to critique mystifying, reifying cultural practices, I have to work through structures that require me to avoid demystifying them.

Ahem. Where was I?

As a kid, all I saw was my dad's lack of ambition. I didn't understand, then, that he came from a socioeconomic class that was far lower than the one he enjoyed as an adult--and it's not that we were well off, or anything. But my father experienced real hunger as a child; real poverty and the social stigma and persecution that went with it, of a kind that I can only imagine--thanks largely to his efforts. Someone who grows up through something like that...sure, we all know the fairytale about the billionaire who came from humble beginnings and clawed his way to wealth, or whatever; but I think stories like my dad's are far more common. He made his way upward in the class structure, sure, but he remained acutely aware of how fucking easy it is to lose everything--because he was old enough to actually remember the Great Depression, having come of age in the thick of it. His focus was not on climbing further, flying higher, but rather on building a fortress for himself and his family, a foundation and 4 secure walls to ward off the constant threat of loss and desperation.

So in addition to feeling all manner of crappy described above, I also feel like...well, frankly, like I should have listened to my father, followed his example. What is this "something" we are all encouraged to want to "make" of ourselves, anyway? Why do we feel so compelled to do that through capitalist frames and structures? But I can't seem to move past it. I want it, despite wishing I didn't and feeling like I don't have what it takes. I turn to things that give me a quick fix of feel-good: TV and movies, because they pull me into a narrative that's going somewhere, unlike my own; knitting projects that test and stretch my skills; spinning my wheels on the internets. These are all leading me nowhere (except knitting, which gives me a real sense of accomplishment, albeit not the accomplishment of finishing my dissertation, which is what I'm really hungry for--in that sense, it is often mainly a diversion), and in their aggregate ultimately make me feel worse about my life and my choices. I don't drink to excess, I don't do drugs, I don't overeat...but all this stuff has a narcotic effect on me just the same, pacifying me and distracting me, however fleetingly, from feeling this emptiness and longing--and thereby sparing me from actually doing anything about it. And there's that voice hammering against the inside of my forehead, "I should know better; I have been down this road to nowhere before, and the only way I got off it back then was by crashing my "car" into a "tree" and chopping my way through the thick underbrush until I came to my current path." And that's the problem: what I call my "current path" really isn't, anymore. I left it a couple of years ago, and since then I've been standing next to my broken down car on this fucking main highway, my hazard lights flashing as I wait for some kind of roadside assistance that isn't forthcoming and probably doesn't exist, because I somehow can't comprehend, can't believe, that I have to go hacking through the forest again. (So it comes back around to egotism again...shame and guilt are twisted like that, I guess.) And yet, in truth I don't know why I feel any reluctance about diving back into the proverbial forest. The time I spent doing that, before, was perhaps the best time of my life. I felt alive and fulfilled. You'll probably think I'm romanticizing it--and of course I am, to an extent, because how does one not?--but I have pages and pages of handwritten journal entries to bolster my claim that, even when things were difficult and I was prostrate with grief, or whatever, I loved every minute of my life, and I was perfectly content to focus on the individual steps rather than worrying that they might not lead me to a place I wanted to go. I did not doubt myself because I loved what I was doing. Every day was an adventure, and I felt free. Now I just feel thick and slow, earthbound, static, MEH.

Date: 2009-11-19 09:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
My personal philosophy ... Everyone I know who got there dream job doing what they loved when they were young learned to hate what they do now (ask Jeff he can rant about his job amusingly for at least an hour). I'm sorry to agree with your dad, but the longer I live the more I'm convinced of the wisdom that life is best when earn enough money doing what you can stand, so you can send your spare time doing what you love/enjoy.

Now about you ...
I'm not completely clear on what car/tree/highway analogy meant but it occurred to me you might not be the same person who wrote those journal entries, after all you've gotten older and as we, children of Empire, bumble into middle-age I think we get regretful of the path we are on as the roads/choices before us narrow or disappear. I certainly feel/felt that way. It's perfectly natural, cut yourself some slack. WALLOW away, try some over indulging in vices, have a middle life crisis, pitch a fit or whatever, then listen to your parents voice, get over yourself, tell the negative inner voice to fuck off. Find what will make you content for the rest of your life or some sort of middle ground.

Date: 2009-11-20 07:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you. I would love to hear Jeff's rant sometime--he is very funny, and I could really use some pure, genuine laughter.

I'm definitely not the same person that I was then. To some extent, I am mourning that, because some of the biggest things that have changed since then are the result of deeply painful and alienating experiences. Part of what's going on with me is that I have become extremely wary, afraid to fully engage with the world. My guard is up, irrationally high, and I don't like it.

The metaphor of the car crash, and leaving the road, etc. was an obscure reference to my divorce--leaving the well-traveled road, the accepted and acceptable narrative, and striking out in a new direction, one less charted. I didn't specify in my post because it could really be anything; I think many people suddenly find themselves going off in a direction that they never expected, or even imagined, for themselves, and it can be both scary and exhilarating because you have no idea what to expect around the next corner.

Thanks for the advice. I appreciate it--and really needed to hear that it's normal and OK, most of all. And to cut myself some slack. It's just a difficult thing to do, sometimes.

Date: 2009-11-19 11:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've said this kind of thing before, but it's relevant here so I'll say it again. the way I see it, you have two good courses of action open to you:

1. give yourself a clean slate/free pass on everything thus far, modify your work methods, change a few other lifestyle aspects, and pretend you just started writing your thesis today.

2. burn it all and do something new. something involving the life sciences (botany perhaps, but others maybe also) might be one good choice - you seem to have a great energy and enthusiasm whenever you talk about things of that sort. something craft oriented - maybe not getting paid for knitting, but perhaps making dough for something knitting related. or like you said, something tolerable but not very exciting that pays the bills.

either one though starts with letting go of guilt and anxiety and just giving yourself a pass to be what you are now rather than what you thought you should be by now.

Date: 2009-11-20 07:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you, sweetheart. I know we've had conversations about this before, but I appreciate hearing it again. I sometimes lose sight of my options, particularly when I feel like I have none (hence the guilt and the anxiety). It is nice to be reminded that I do, and that any of them would be viable and perfectly fine choices.

I think my favorite thing about your response is that it looks like Chris the Wrestler is saying it to me. LOL. Trying to pump. Me up.

Date: 2009-11-20 12:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
My understanding is that at least a good chunk of what you're talking about is part of the ritual of getting a PhD. I went through a lot of the same feelings you're having when I was finishing up my M.S. -- thankfully my advisor gave me a great article on the subject so I was able to realize it wasn't just me.

Since then, I've found that the same thing seems to happen on any large multi-year project, and I've been through several. You start out excited and have a feeling that anything is possible and that the course you're going down is perfect without compromise. By the end, you're slogging through, cutting and slashing and nothing seems to fit, and you're just wishing the hell would end. You look at your final product and rather than see what went right, all you see are the imperfections and failure.

Some time later, you can look back and be proud of what you've done, as well as laugh off the imperfections.

As for your dad's approach to life vs. others, I think it's hard all around. Part of that is the whole messed up system we live under, part is probably just what it means to be human.

Now back to work for me... :)

Date: 2009-11-20 07:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes, unfortunately it is part of the ritual of working toward any advanced degree. I don't think it has to be, but it is, and that's what I have to just accept and to deal with. I went through it when I was working on my MA, too.

The narrative of the "big project" is extremely helpful. I needed to be reminded of that, too. Part of my current bout of writer's block is coming from feeling like I have nothing new to say. Of course I feel like I've already said the things I have to say, because they've been rattling around in my head for awhile--but I haven't said them "out loud" as it were. I haven't put them out into the academic community.

Date: 2009-11-20 04:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Want to get together for a heart-to-heart soon? Maybe an Ugly Mug date?

Date: 2009-11-20 04:14 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes, please.


Date: 2009-11-20 06:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
As a kid, I was very confused by the work-centric American lifestyle when my family returned to the States from Germany. In Europe, it didn't matter what you did for a job -- you could have worked in a shop, in a restaurant, whatever. It was just a job, and the focus of life was on spending regular time with family and friends. I still find it odd that when people meet you for the first time, their second question is usually, "what do you do?" And they don't mean for a hobby. I resent having my work define me as a person (although I do have to admit that "ecologist" pretty much covers a large portion of my interest spectrum).

Whatever you want to do is fine with me -- I'll always hug and respect you and want to spend time with you.

Date: 2009-11-24 08:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I have only skimmed this as it is 12:30 at night, oops. And my tendonitis is acting up. But I will say that your dissertation troubles sound like what, in novel-writing-land, is called "the muddle in the middle." Where it seems like it's all crap, none of it hangs together, you doubt yourself. And you keep going, and one day you finish. And then, whatever you do next, you know for the rest of your life that you did something f-ing amazing.

Molly Gloss (if you haven't read her, go for The Dazzle of Day if you're feeling ambitious, the Jump-Off Creek if you want pioneer stuff, or the sasquatch novel if you want something delightful (but I think maybe a little tragic)) talked about this in her novel-writing workshop, which I took a while back. During one novel she was totally stuck so she had her character get up and use the bathroom. That did it.

One day I will even take my own advice with my own novel.

Good luck & lots of good thoughts going your way.


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