When my PhD and I broke up

 

I thought it was the work of my life. I tried to make it stick. I changed, and it changed, and we played mental games against each other until years of relationship snapped in half like a twig.

We met, as it so often happens,  through well-meaning friends.

"I think you two would hit it off."

“You’d make a great match.”

“Everybody wants this.”

I didn’t have much going on in terms of a traditionally conceived future, but I did have a keenness to write and a bunch of ideas, so I thought, yes. Yes, I want to do this. And then I parsed it around to This is what I want to do, which sounds the same but is absolutely not, by way of its absoluteness.

We got engaged right away. A long-distance race that should end up with me changing my name (Dr Starts with G!). Its friends were nice, mostly. There was a visiting professor who smelled moldy and wouldn’t look me in the eye and chewed on his own beard like it was made of sugar cane, but that was fine. I worked hard and did well on my coursework. Things were fine for a while.

I got some form of life purpose out of it. I don't know what my PhD got from me in return. No, I do know — it got my weekends. My evenings. My holidays. When you’re doing a PhD, you can’t really not think about it, even when you’re not thinking about it. There’s no natural end to it — maybe you run out of funding and you have to push a thesis out of whatever your brain’s equivalent of a uterus is, or you reach the point where you have absolutely nothing else to say, or your spouse and friends organize an intervention, and then you’re done.

But until then, you chip away at this thing and you’re never really not chipping away at it.

I defended it when people talked trash about it, calling it things like useless or pointless or demented, and reacted with self-righteousness when other former PhD students in recovery told me it would never last. "Just you wait", they'd say. "What the fuck do you know about my relationship", I'd think.

And all along I'd look at even the happiest PhD/student pairings, and feel not even a smidgen of thrill or anticipation of jealousy. Is that who I am? Who I want to be?  Teaching, writing, doing research, lather, rinse, repeat?

The teaching was my favorite. I have always loved teaching, since back in the days when I was a high school student in Norway and they plonked me in front of a group of leirskule children and told me to teach them salsa (I couldn't dance salsa but it didn't matter — I have a Spanish name and anyway we spent the entire time trying and failing to get the  boys to stand next to the girls). I loved teaching so much that I took twice the teaching credit requirements.

And I also loved the writing — no, the writing was my favorite. Let's face it, some of us don't write a packing checklist without the hope that someone will read it and think it's a fresh and daring take. So what if I had to write papers on Gayatri Spivak's 'material predication of the subject'*.

* I warn you, this is a real thing but it's best not to ask any more questions if you value your sanity.

But these things, which I enjoyed so much on their own, turned out to be terrible together — like a big gob of mayonnaise splattered onto a bowl of lentil soup.

When I searched for some inner voice to tell me what to do, all I could hear, whispered softly with the conviction of a lifetime, was Not this. Not this.

When I looked in the mirror and tried to figure out who this tired-looking, confused, gray person was staring back at me, all I could see reflected in those pupils were the words Not you. Not you.

But I felt guilty about my full fellowship, the spot I had taken from someone else who would have really wanted it. I felt useless and rudderless without it, my only skill being able to argue successfully for one thing and its exact opposite. How much does that pay? So I chipped away at it some more.

By the third year of fieldwork, I had figured out the answer to the question I was asking — that the true source of people's political power is the stories that they tell themselves. And then it hit me that I didn’t have a language to tell that story. I had to throw out my script about political opportunity or resource mobilization or institutional veto points. I couldn't compare anything to anything else anymore. I could have started again, I could have made it work, I could have gotten excited.

But I wasn't excited. I was tired. So I didn't.

We separated way before the divorce was official. I started seeing other occupations. I cheated on my PhD very publicly with a full-time administrative job for a while – it wasn't passion (my new lover was most unhot, and all it ever talked about was proper invoicing) but it was against the rules, and new, and different. Taking a job in billing made me feel alive and independent again. It was an act of defiance. It hardly matters that the sex was awful.

Eventually, I left the country and moved across the Atlantic ocean for a while. By the time I got back to Europe, I was done.

It was my fault. It was nobody’s fault. It felt for a while like a cataclysmic personal failure. It felt also wonderful, truly wonderful, to be free of it. Because that’s what happens when you leave home every morning with your good-on-paper clothes on. They feel scratchy and accentuate your lower back fat and they’re wrong, even if they’re what you’ve been told to wear, and they’re trendy and you’ve spent a fortune on them.

One day, I tossed them in the trash and left home naked. And I was cold, and scared, and vulnerable and free.

And I never, ever looked back.

Three nihilist life lessons I learnt from Hello Kitty

 

Hello Kitty. Famous for no discernible reason, and criminally useless. The Kardashian of cartoon characters.

It started as a practical joke that quickly got out of hand, but I am now at the stage of wearing Hello Kitty For Men shirts I bought for a lot of money in a pop-up store in Tokyo.

So, clearly, I have given this some thought.

It’s not that I hate Hello Kitty, although I do think she’s awful. I am drawn to Hello Kitty the same way people are to sour milk: it repels you, but you have to smell it. Because when I look beyond the bovine eyes and the non-mouth and that stupid say-nothing do-nothing expression, I see something of myself there.

Specifically three soul-crushing somethings.

Specifically these.

One: If you keep your mouth shut and your expression blank, nobody will know how empty you are inside and they will like you more.

Oooh Hello Kitty is so cute, mommy, can i have the [sippy cup / rucksack / pillow case/ chainsaw] with Hello Kitty on it?

And mommy says yes because there’s not much to object to– just a cat-like outline, not even the hint of a smile. Girlfriend ain’t even got a mouth.  

That dead, inscrutable facade is the true mark of a sociopath. But mommy doesn’t know.

The truth is, it is easy to be disliked and judged negatively for expressing any form of thought or opinion — be it about politics, music or mayonnaise, someone’s bound to think you’re a dick. The path to popularity is to talk as much as you want while saying nothing at all.

Caption your next social media post with #livelaughlove (or is it #lovelivelife?) for likes and hearts. Try #blacklivesmatter for crickets and death threats. If you can successfully portray harmless banality in all your interactions, you can coast along quite well. 

Life is easier if you pretend you’re an idiot. Mommy may not know that (she doesn’t have to pretend to be an idiot). But the Kitty knows. 

 
Two: You might as well wear the same outfit all the time because no one ever notices.

Describe Hello Kitty’s outfit right now without Googling. Is it a pink dress thing? Is it a shirt and pants combo? Is she ass-naked and showing her no-no parts on that bib you bought for your niece that says I Heart My Gay Uncle?

You don’t know. Or you think you know, but you’re really not sure. Even though you have seen Hello Kitty a bazillion times. That’s because nobody truly pays attention to anything, but most particularly nobody truly pays attention to you.

Not to the new haircut you researched painstakingly before getting. Not to the $175 Carolina Herrera shirt you wore to your birthday dinner. Not to the botox. 

 All that money you’ve ever spent on clothes, hair products, gym —  it’s all been a waste.

And it will always be a waste.

 

Three: The basis of your human nature is nothing but a collective agreement that is now crumbling to dust before your very eyes.

Back in 2014, the creators of Hello Kitty caused international headlines by claiming that Hello Kitty was, in fact, not a cat. She was a girl. Forget the cat ears and the cat whiskers and the KITTY IN HELLO FUCKING KITTY — the Sanrio company wants to gaslight you into believing that cat has always been a person and I guess we’re all idiots for ever thinking otherwise.

Hello Kitty is attempting to Rachel Dolezal her way into membership into the human condition, by simply declaring herself to be a human. And if Hello Kitty can be a person, what the hell does that make you?

A carbon-based life form. That’s all.

Hello Kitty is not the nihilist anti-hero we want. But she’s sure as fuck the one we deserve. 

Gym rules for the modern gym-goer I figured out by myself like a big boy

I have learned all these things the hard way so that you can learn them the… soft way, I guess?

1- Don’t burst into the locker room like an Ostrogoth warlord

You know what people do in locker rooms these days? Take naked photos of themselves in the mirror. Do you know what happens when you fling the locker room door open and catch someone mid-selfie? They drop their phone on the floor, and there through a badly cracked screen lies a picture of half their penis. Out of focus.

Do this instead: knock gently, count to forty, then open the door slowly and walk backwards into the locker room, keeping your eyes on the floor.

 

2- Don’t cling to the bicep curl machine in desperation like it’s your father’s approval

He doesn’t really love you, despite what mom says. The bicep curl machine doesn’t love you either. Let it go.

Do this instead: let more deserving people enjoy the bicep curl machine. Just like your father’s approval.

 

3- Don’t antagonize the receptionist with practical and necessary questions

She’s busy and can’t be bothered and all she can see when you talk to her is your gelatinous upper arms. One more annoying interjection from you and she’ll roll her eyes and you’ll be getting the shittiest locker for weeks — the one that’s set so low that you need to bust your kneecaps to reach it, then crack your skull open against the door of the next locker if and when you manage to get up.

Do this instead: figure out the goddamned WiFi password on your own.

 

4- Don’t make eye contact between sets with the short guy that smells like a donkey

Just — trust me on this.

Do this instead: scribble something on your little notebook so that people think there’s a method to your being there. But there is no method, is there. You’re pure, unbridled chaos.

 

5- Don’t make eye contact between sets with the personal trainers

Just — trust me on this.

Do this instead: run the fuck away whenever a trainer gets too close for comfort, which in my case is a half-mile radius. I don’t need to know what the hell I’ve been doing wrong fitness-wise for years, and I don’t think you do either.

 

6- Don’t ask for help when you staple yourself to the bench under a 120 kg barbell

This is pretty self-explanatory, but here it goes: if you are like me and have no friends, you won’t have anyone to spot you (i.e move 75 percent of the weight while repeating “it’s all you, bro!”) while you bench press. You could just not do bench presses or just use dumbbells or whatever, but sometimes it’s Monday and Monday is International Bench-Pressing Day. So we staple ourselves. We do.  

Do this instead: pretend this was your plan all along. Nothing to see. Lalala. Eventually one of these three things will happen: a) someone will discreetly lend you a hand and set you free; b) the gym will be closed for the night and you’ll become a permanent part of the equipment; or c) your ribcage will give way with a horrifying crunch.

 

Happy gymming.

(00:30)

Me:

Bed time, at last.

(01:47)

Brain:

IF IT HADN’T BEEN FOR COTTON-EYE JOE

I’D BEEN MARRIED LONG TIME AGO

WHERE DID YOU COME FROM WHERE DID YOU GO

WHERE DID YOU COME FROM COTTON-EYE JOE

The Gay Toronto House Party

Image result for karen mean girls

I am at a house party in Cabbagetown, Toronto, hosted by a delightful young gay couple I met at my gym on Yonge & Something. I am wearing jeans, a black tank top, and a paddy cap.

A red-haired woman asks me the second question everyone always asks in Toronto. The first question is what’s your name. Then they pretend you don’t have an accent and avoid asking you where you come from because they once read an op-ed written by a frothy thought-policemaperson about how you’re a cryptofascist for othering others by questioning their origin.

And they go straight to asking you what you do for a living because Canadians are the greatest people in the world, but they still need to know where you rank in the grand scheme of things.

So I tell her the truth — that I am the Editor in Chief of Arthritis Monthly magazine. I say it like that, capitalizing Editor and Chief because job titles should always be capitalized in Toronto.

To this she oohs and aahs and how-interestings. Yes, it is quite interesting, but also very challenging, I say. It’s not easy to fill up an entire magazine with fresh arthritis-related content every single month plus the special summer issue.

The red-haired woman is single and middle-aged and gorgeous and wants to tell me about all the boys she’s slept with in the past three months. I pretend to listen but my mind is elsewhere, thinking as I am of the next Arthritis Monthly centerfold spread — two blank pages with an old lady crumpled into a tiny twisted heap in the bottom right corner.

One of the hosts is snorting coke off the abs of a shirtless Portuguese waiter. He turns to me and says, “you can’t smoke in the house”.

Then I wake up.

Fragile

My boss leaves one dirty glass and one dirty coffee cup and one used spoon on my desk today. Yesterday it was two dirty coffee cups and a pair of headphones. The week is still young.

In between bouts of frenzied copy editing I read a blog post that Julie Sheridan wrote, which contains an interview with a Scottish homeless man in Barcelona. Julie herself is a fellow copywriter and used to be my colleague in a previous workplace and she writes like a dream, but this one post has made me sad and introspective

Because here’s a man who, you know, lives in a foreign country as an expat and has a good job and savings and an apartment with a dog, all of which applies to me except for the dog (still working on it), and then he loses his job and nobody calls him back for job interviews and his savings run out and next thing he knows, he is living on the streets of Barcelona.

I have the usual questions — why doesn’t he go back to Britain where they don’t have 21 percent unemployment, couldn’t anyone help, did none of his friends have a spare room, etc — but that’s sort of beside the point. I know myself and I know what my answers to those questions would be if I ever should find myself in that situation: because I’m proud, because I’ll never ask for help, they do but I’ll never ask for help.

I don’t know.

If you want to see the real face of homelessness in Prague, you can do no better than to come with me every morning on my walk from my home to the Hlavni Nadrazi metro station. I used to save myself five minutes by cutting across the railway tracks from Winston Churchill square like most people do, but I almost got fined twice by the police and I don’t know how long my clueless smiley expat schtick is going to last.

So now I walk all the way around the tracks, up the park and into the central station like you’re supposed to, and I pass by many, many, many homeless men and women on my way there and back.

Homeless and many clearly alcoholized and many clearly dependent on some sort of chemical I’m not even going to try to speculate on.

I try not to look too closely because I did once, when I noticed a tall, very blond, very young, extremely drunk guy trying to fight his way out of — or was it into — an alcoholic stupor, and I could find no reason why that couldn’t have possibly been me. And then I felt fragile.

Because I am not special, and I won’t be spared. I am just holding on to a civilized life by the skin of my teeth, and so are we all. One bad recession and a few lapsed paychecks away from our alcoholic stupor in the park.

Tip Your Dealer

On Saturday morning I am having iced coffee with Maltese Mario, the freelance urban psychopharmacologist. He looks like shit.

“I need a holiday”, he says, and takes a swig of terrible coffee chain espresso.

Maltese Mario is exhausted because it’s music festival season, and he is the freelance urban psychopharmacologist of choice for all kinds of Dutch and German ravers who come to Prague, Ostrava, Slovakia and Hungary and prefer their fun to be chemically contingent.

He is also an amateur BDSM dungeon master, which I didn’t know about until just now.

“It’s out of control. It used to be fun, I remember, having fun. But now all I hear is oh please yes cover my mouth with tape, like-a dis”, he mimics covering his own mouth with an invisible strap of tape, “and gag me like-a dis and give me pain, more pain, more more pain. But what about fuck? Nobody wants to fuck!”

I nod.

“Seriously. They come for the pain. I give them the pain. For hours and hours and hours, and then I want to get off but they don’t care about sex. They just want the pain”.

Underneath all that amateur BDSM dungeon master facade, Maltese Mario is just a boy, standing in front of another boy — or possibly hovering over him with some sort of whip —  asking him to fuck.

“But if they are masochists, perhaps you could just refuse to keep hurting them? Presumably that would hurt their feelings, which they actually love”, I venture to suggest.

There’s an enormously obese man sitting across the table from a burka. The man is thumbing through a tourist guide to Prague.

Maltese Mario announces that he’s going on a holiday back to Malta, where he will see his mom, veg out by the beach, and not fist anyone.