Friday, May 09, 2008

I never thought I could *want* the month of April to be over

April is the most beautiful month of the year here in Austin (my humble opinion, obviously). If it lasted all year, that would be fine with me. Well, not really, but I do enjoy spring, or rather, I used to enjoy spring. Somehow or another, being in graduate school has changed that. I'm thinking maybe that's too big a price to pay for a Ph.D. No more loving spring. No, I do not accept that.

People here joke about how awful April is: "April is the month we eat our young." I'm not kidding. This I heard here at UT. The horror of April is not just a myth. I experienced it first-hand this year. I was really on edge. Hair-trigger temper. Flare-ups were common. Old friends sharp with each other. Major decisions made as snap judgments. Geez. This is not right. This level of tension is not really conducive to a what really should be, at heart, a thoughtful process. Over 18 years of working as a lawyer, and having gone through quite a few stressful times, I must say that I don't recall very many that were as bad as this April was.

If it's this predictable, then it should be preventable, or at least manageable. But this is no more and no less than what I learned about balance this semester, this brutal academic year -- it's all in what you commit to do, what you believe you can plan to accomplish. You have to consider each commitment very carefully and recognize that you'll have to say no to some things way before you experience the pressure that results from having over-committed. You have to believe what you really don't want to believe: that you won't be able to do everything you want to, without unacceptable compromise of your sanity, your health, at some level.

I read something recently that suggested that being over-committed has become a mark of success, or something like that. We exhibit our unbelievable lists of things that we must do, of committees we are on, of multiple jobs we have, of meetings we have to shuttle our kids to, of papers we are writing, as proof that we are successes. Who can argue with the guy who can juggle five balls? He has accomplished something real. Hardly anyone can do it. And it's not killing him. In fact, he's nodding his head side to side and whistling a tune and smiling while he juggles. But he does this as an act, a short demonstration of a skill he acquired by hours and hours of repetitious practice. This is not a way of life.

So, now it's May. Things are winding down. Classes ended on the 2nd. All but one paper is finished. Three meetings in other cities are behind me. May's not a piece of cake by any means, but it's doable. UMUC's CIP is the last week. I have until then to polish my talk and think about what I really want to say (the paper is just the beginning of the process of giving a talk, for me). Then comes June, July and August. Somehow, I am going to slow down and not set myself up for a mad dash to the end of the year.

Which brings me to my research topic. I have decided to reject for now everything I concluded through the end of April. I just don't trust any conclusion I reached by participating in a process that I think is fundamentally flawed. I have felt closer to crazy during the last 6 weeks than I ever want to feel again. I'm going to take the summer to think about it, to talk to people who aren't stressed out, to explore the options at a more leisurely pace, to be more open to changing course, to venturing into terrain that's less familiar, to maybe taking more time to unfold the story. Most of my fellow Ph.D. students seem to have these trajectories that were not straight. The process is maybe all there is. Right now I am too focused on the outcome (finishing). I know better than that. But then again, that's what April was about -- not making a lot of sense.

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