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.

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.

And I would drive one hundred more

I wake up with Cruel Summer in my head, the Bananarama version, not the Ace of Base one (although they are exactly the same).

I think it’s on my mind because the city may not be very crowded at all with it being a Friday between two days off and a weekend, but H is in Iceland and the Foxes are in Ireland and I don’t really have any other friends so they’re all away and I’m on my own.

On my way to work I find this little fella parked outside a row of panelák:


It’s a very old and very well kept Fiat 600, which is essentially a tumefied Fiat 500 with a little extra ass and one hundred more — what? One hundred more cylinders? Horses? I don’t know anything about cars that matters. I only like about six different cars ever built, which are all European and old, and mostly italian, and all of them tiny.

But we used to have thousands and thousands of these back home, only there they were called Seat 600 (seiscientos) and they were made in Barcelona and they were the first and only car Spaniards could afford so everyone had one, or memories of one. We didn’t — we had a Mercedes and an imported Mini because we were so precious, a family trait I have certainly perfected — but the seiscientos is engraved in the collective memory of every Spaniard regardless of your papi’s tax bracket. 

So I know it’s going to be a good day.

Because everyone is off work the office building is practically deserted. We have also been told that the cafeteria will be closed, so no free food today. When I arrive I see the cafeteria staff have barricaded the entrance with a bunch of trolleys, so I head down to my desk.

Your flying crew today consists of me, Other Copywriter (henceforth known as Other) and SEO Guy. No designers. No UX team.

Other is feisty and dark and lovely and looks a bit like Jennifer Lopez if Jennifer Lopez sang lead vocals in your cousin’s garage rock band. A bit.

SEO Guy is a very friendly American who sometimes destroys my copy with excel sheets of stupid shit people are entering into Google which needs to be added to whatever content I’m working on so that our employer won’t plummet to page 16 in people’s search results.

Since there is no free food today, I leave our office tower and cross the street to the Arkady mall and into the food court, past the crowded fast-food outlets, and into the nearly empty salad place. There I attempt to construct a salad order from scratch in Czech in my head, give up and head to Nordsee where I ask for a plate of seafood paella and pretend this fits my eating disorder diet.

I take my tray and choose a table next to a businessman and his very young daughter who starts jumping up and down in her seat and then pisses herself.

I crank up the volume of the Jessie Ware track I’m listening to and pretend this isn’t happening. 

Life is pain and ridicule, is what Other says to me when I get back, although I forget the context. I think it’s because she doesn’t like her new haircut.

Then I go to the work gym and back to my desk where I write some more promotional copy and just like that, it’s Friday evening and everyone is gone except me and SEO Guy and they’re literally vacuuming under my feet so I finish typing this and go home.

Not a target demographic for God’s creative power

Three million years ago, two Byzantine monks arrived in the Czech lands bringing the wrong alphabet and Christianity. Only one of those things stuck, but now we get two days off in the middle of the week.

And what I do with my two free days is go hunting for breakfast, which ends up being a spinach mango protein shake which looks like this:

Then H and I go to the gym, where I try very hard to move really heavy stuff with my legs. Then we go to Delmart where they ask me what ingredients I want in my salad and because of my astonishing ability to restrain myself I order spinach, chickpeas, smoked salmon, avocado, artichoke, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, boiled goat, deep-fried hedgehog, aircraft bolts, plutonium and olive oil.

Then we go to EMA which is a hipster/preppy coffee house next to the Hilton and the plot by Masarykovo Nadrazi where they claim they’re building a building by Zaha Hadid but we don’t believe them. And I ask for an iced coffee with no sugar and H begins reading to me out of a book someone has left behind, and he says out loud

“In Jesus’ name and on the authority of His Holy Word, I call these debts PAID IN FULL!”

so I grab the book to see what it is, and it is called God’s Creative Power and it has a chapter about literally praying your mortgage away.

H has a mortgage but isn’t baptized. I am baptized but I don’t have a mortgage. We are not a target demographic for God’s creative power.


Then H goes singing and I come home to watch Trainspotting for the first time in my life, because we’re going to Aero later in the night to watch Trainspotting 2 and I want to know what happens in the first one (what happens is drugs and poo).

And then we go out in Žižkov and take pictures on our way to a restaurant where I order a chicken burger. H eats all of my fries but none of his own, so that when the waitress comes to collect the plates he looks like the one with all the self-control.


Today I go back to the gym where I try very hard to move really heavy stuff with my hands, and then I come home and lay in bed with the fan on reading a novel by Chuck Palahniuk while H packs for his trip to Iceland tonight.

And that’s how I spent my two free days in the middle of the week.