Friday, April 4, 2008

Everything You Do Pisses Off Someone, Or People You Meet In Grad School

I realized it last summer when I'd drive up to my house and there'd be my neighbour, on his driveway, washing it off with the hose. Every day. Sometimes it didn't matter if it'd rained during the afternoon. He'd be there daily at five scrubbing down his driveway. And if it hadn't rained: he'd mow the lawn. Every single day at five o'clock he'd go out on his 20x5 lawn (he's got the suburban detached house on the smaller lot) and cut the grass. In the winter, during snowstorms, he'd be out there shovelling his driveway. He'd start as the storm was starting, then he'd be out every hour on the hour clearing off the snow. Many times he'd actually be shovelling as the snow was falling. And that pissed me off. Then, after the precipitation had stopped, he'd be out again, scraping every single flake off his walkway and driveway. It was a strange compulsion that led him to take pride in a patch of asphalt that was bone dry December through March.

The man would shovel snow even when it hadn't snowed. If it had been windy that day, and some snow had blown onto his driveway, leaving a thin white film that would've melted naturally, he'd shovel it.

So that whole episode made me reevaluate my own life. I'm a cynic and a pessimist, but I have a tendency to be personally offended by things other people do that in no way affect me. I realize that's a bad thing, which is why I've tried to shift my thinking. Instead of getting upset, just smile. Laugh. Recently I was going to get bagels when an old man stopped beside my car to critique my parking. He said, "Next time, do me a favour: park so people can get by." I said, "I will." Then he said, "Park so people can get by. Can you do that?" I said, "Yes." Then he drove by.

He'd felt obligated to stop beside me and tell me I'd parked in a way that obstructed his progress. He'd even repeated it. Yet he passed me easily. So I just smiled. Serenity Now--in a way. But it's not really working.

I'll tell you why. The people I now dislike the most are the ones who're exactly like me. It was inevitable that I'd get to this point. As a writer, it's a productive position, but as a person I'm going grey at twenty-four.

What did it? Was it graduate school? No and yes. But, in another sense, yes. I've met some terrific people--original, creative people--who were just there to learn. And I've met some serious scholars who were just there to learn. But, at its core, graduate school is an organized gladiatorial slaughter. It's a charnel house. It's a white sepulchre. It's the Coliseum. Everyone lines up against each other to fight against egos and grades. Some people inflate themselves; some people deflate themselves. Some are genuinely interested in conforming; some hate to do it, but they conform anyway. Some just end up wisecracking.

At some point you realize you're in it, and you just have to figure out how you'll deal with it. Which is how I believe I became even more introspective and judgemental than I'd ever been. Which is saying something. In the midst of constant grading, ranking, and scholarship chasing, you realize what appears to you to be smart and what appears to you to be stupid. It's the same with real life. Why's it stupid? Because you wouldn't say it or do it. Why's it smart: Because you'd say it, you'd do it. Only what's smart in academia will offend all practical sensibilities; and what's smart in real life isn't smart enough in academia. You find yourself--and you've promised you wouldn't do it--noticing when classmates mispronounce Marcuse. You judge them when they lower their voices to pronounce words they've read somewhere but never heard. Like inchoate. In-cho-t. Nope. In-co-ate. You're always dancing. Because you don't want to do it, you don't want to get to that point. But understand something: if you're going all the way to the PhD, you have to. Or you confuse yourself into believing you have to. I'll live the rest of my life knowing my professor smiled at me as I mispronounced Montaigne. Then I corrected someone when she'd mispronounced Said. What was the right thing to do? You don't know. Almost everyone's afraid, and there ain't no grad school etiquette.

Grad school comes at a point in your life when you should be thrusting into society. But you're held back those one, two, three, or seven years and you mature in a brutal, airless environment. Not unlike meat.

You don't have to be there. That's probably the objection people'd have to this confessional purge. Ha! You don't have to be there? Grad school is like taking a leak--if you have to go, you'll go.

Then you get confused because there are some genuine, honest people who want to help you in very indefinite ways. And because they're professors, and you're a student, you listen to them. But you're twenty. You're thirty. You shouldn't be allowing yourself to be parented anymore. But it's like you're a child again. Some people love Mother U. Some people--the good ones--love teaching. They stick around, ABD or not. Some people just want to be "doctors" and crack the whip. Some try so hard. You see them all stuck in their own spheres and it, if you're a sensitive person, freaks you out. You'll only ever understand and relate to maybe two or three people in your entire grad school experience. The rest'll seem to be wasting their lives, on ego trips, miscast and flailing, scared but overstuffed, asskissers, or angsty and despondent. My favourite TA once told me, "If you make two friends while you're here, consider yourself lucky." What a strange, strange place.

That's what I think. In a way it's like going to war.

1 comment:

metro mama said...

Wow. You say a lot here I can relate to. Actually, I'm one of those people who mumble words I've read and never spoken (I know far more words than I actually use in conversation). I think I'm a little less cynical though--I think I've made about 4 friendships that will last. But that's true of anywhere--any place you work, or group you belong to. But yes, grad school is fucked up.

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