“Dear Life” – by Alice Munro (or Some Personal Reflections)

I’m cheating a little here because I haven’t really finished the book yet. And this is more of a reflection on my life for the past few months during which I haven’t been able to write, rather than a book review per se.

I haven’t written anything ‘voluntarily’ for almost over a year, and just like a foreign language, the skill, no, the sheer will of writing slowly disappears with its lack of usage. You lose its grammar, its vocabulary, its syntax, its flow.

I have spent every minute of my ‘free time’ this semester watching Netflix and Amazon Prime shows, YouTube videos, and browsing through meaningless Buzzfeed articles or shopping sites to fill in the gap in my life. Because none of these actually required me to take a minute to reflect on and acknowledge how shitty my life was. For the few minutes or hours my brain was wired to the moving images in front of me, I was allowed to forget I was still making mistakes in life well into my 30s (okay, not ‘well into‘ really, but you know). I didn’t have to face the fact that I had the tools to get out of the shithole I had dug for myself, but I just couldn’t push myself to use them. Or maybe I didn’t have the tools after all.

This is why I haven’t really written anything or even read anything (besides scholarly articles) to, however cliché it sounds, ‘feed my soul’, because writing or reading require you to face reality, your reality. And that’s absolutely scary when you’re still writing and re-writing your reality, and you have no idea how the ending will go. They demand that you pause your life for hours and face your joys and your demons. They cannot afford your brain to shut off, which is what you do when you laugh at Kimmy and Titus’ banter on “Unbreakable” or shudder at the thrill “Bosch” provides. They want you to understand the grammar rules, to finish the vocabulary, to review the syntax, and to analyze the flow of your day, your week, or that moment you decided beer would solve everything but didn’t.

“Dear Life” has, in this context, come at quite an opportune moment. I did learn earlier of the beauty of ‘that is not said’ that short stories provide; and today, as I read through Alice Munro’s words and sentences, they make a little more sense, and provide me with some sort of comfort. The comfort that just like her short stories, things can be left unsaid, yet still matter. The relief that I can still write my own future, with its good and its bad. It’s okay to make mistakes even at 31 years old. 31 years old is not too old to get heartbroken, procrastinate, or lie down in bed well past 9 am because you just can’t be bothered with life.

My life doesn’t have to be a 300-page novel with a clear start and ending. It can be a series of short stories; some find their happy ending, but most of the time, I am and will be left troubled with the missing details and at a loss as to how I should feel. But it’s okay. Each story matters.

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Second semester

I don’t know how my first semester here ended, but it did. Was it satisfactory? Overwhelming? Challenging? Boring? Disappointing? Up to my expectations?

Frankly, all of the above, and to be even more frank, I didn’t have much time to really digest what was going on and to find the right description. My goal was to survive day by day and finish most of the readings I was assigned to. Some were eye-opening and superb, while I did seriously wonder why on earth I was reading some others. Just like everything else in life, pretty much.

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… or a Lijphart reading about the differences between political systems

After a short winter break (too short compared to the two-month winter break in Korea), I’m back for my second semester and into my third week already a month has already gone by. Maybe it’s just the beginning, or maybe I’ve become more phd-tuned, but this semester is revealing itself to be much better. For once, I love all of my classes (okay, the word ‘love’ might be a bit too strong for some), I like my schedule, and somehow I don’t have as much reading as last semester (which still seems terrifying and I feel like there’s something I’m missing). At least I can finish about 95% of the readings I have planned for every week. My schedule also allows me to attend the Monday lunch seminars at the African Studies Center, which I was not able to last semester. Learning about the challenges, changes and future of most African countries is depressing more often than not, but also fascinating, if this word is appropriate to describe it. To be surrounded by all these professors studying and researching about diverse parts of African history, politics, economics and culture is also quite invigorating and it is my small hope and dream that one day I too, will be able to join the ‘cool gang’ of ‘Africanists’ (and maybe diversify the “old white men” club I’m seeing here, like everywhere else…)

I am also taking a class titled “Islam and Politics”, which I love just as much as my “Human Rights in Africa” class (taught by none other than my beloved Professor L. :D). I realize that there really is nothing that I know about Islam in general. Somehow, having grown up in Mauritania and having spent the next ten years in Korea, where I was probably the most knowledgeable person among my peers about Islam and Africa, I had come to believe, I guess, in some pretentious way, that I actually did know something in this field. Well, among professors and students who actually do study it here, I realize how pompous and mistaken that was on my part.

And in a way, I’ve come to ‘blame’ (not really, but kinda sorta) people who simply ‘assumed’ I knew something about Africa and Islam just because I grew up there. I mean, I was a teenager. Much of the growing up in Mauritania had to do with reciting lyrics to BSB, N’Sync and Westlife songs, giggling about boys with my girlfriends, trying to do ‘cool’ things like going to the beach with my friends after school and nearly drowning, studying, laughing at teachers. I wasn’t trying to understand the gender dynamics of Muslim women as seen in Mauritania or distinguish the linguistics of all the dialects spoken there. Unless that’s what teenagers usually do… then, okay, my bad.

As always, I digress every time I find the tiniest opportunity to complain. Well, the point being, I am glad that two decades later, I am finally learning something about where I spent 15 significant years of my life.

The class in Political Theory is also quite awesome, if I may say so. The reading may be dense, but short, and the tiny number of people in that class shapes a certain coziness, all the while being intellectually stimulating. It’s also quite intriguing to see how much I actually enjoy philosophy, when, back in high school, I thought it was the lamest subject because it was so ‘out there’. I thought philosophers were people refusing to get out of the material comforts of their home and environment all the while pretending to bear all the emotional and intellectual burdens of the world. In a way, yes, it’s true. I’m getting paid to study, having my three meals everyday (and sometimes more), with a decent place to stay, and trying to debate what it means to be just and the higher moral grounds we as human beings should be aspiring to. And yes, it’s true that when you’re trying to tend to your family’s everyday needs without a decent job and with a mortgage to pay, trying to figure out what Aristotle meant in his books and how his thoughts can be applied or interpreted today may not be among your priorities.

Digital-Aristotle-Thoughts-on-the-Future-of-Education-by-CGPGrey

 

And yet, somehow, I persist in naively believing that people are more than beings that need to be fed and clothed. Yes, those are basic needs that certainly should be met, but an intellectual pursuit on some level should also be conducted in parallel, for those primary needs to be fulfilled in a better and fairer way. Or maybe I’ve finally reached a point where I’m blindly believing in my illusions.

So, all in all, my semester is going great. 🙂 – is the point of all this blabbering.

Also, it's quite awesome I can understand this.

Also, it’s quite awesome I can understand this.

PhD: How to be a successful extroverted nerd

What does a PhD mean? 

A door I should probably not open, or that I should have opened way before I actually applied for one and came to do one. My first motivation when I decided I wanted to go for a PhD was simply and purely, my love of studying. Yes, I know it sounds extremely nerdy, even for a phd student, or too vague, but the simplest answer is often the most obvious. There is nothing more exciting and invigorating than reading a paper about a topic of your interest, or discovering new areas of potential research, or comparing different countries/cultures/populations/systems.

Like many others I guess, my idea of a phd program was spending most of my time in my special spot and reading on my own, taking notes, going to classes, engaging in debates that made me feel smart and stupid at the same time with other fellow students and brilliant professors.

But a PhD program, just like any “Job” (yes, no matter how much others don’t want to buy it or accept it, it IS a ‘real‘ job), involves more than just yourself and your own, personal work. Worse, you have to spend as much time ‘networking‘ and ‘out in the real world‘ as any other ‘real job‘ and still manage to find time on your own to come up with your creative idea that apparently generations of much smarter people and scholars before you somehow managed to miss. Considering it’s mostly nerds that go on studying for years and years, it is quite surprising how much of extroversion is needed from the academia.

Don’t mistake me, I do enjoy going out, meeting new people (to a certain extent) and ‘having fun’ in general. But when it comes to ‘selling/marketing myself‘, engaging into small talk with people to whom I feel obligated to look and sound smart, all the while looking and sounding totally confident, outgoing and easygoing, pretending to be genuinely interested in someone’s area of research I just have no fucking clue about, it’s just… EXHAUSTING.

Discussing topics outside my field  (source: http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/page/10)

Discussing topics outside my field
(source: http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/page/10)

The idea of finding myself alone at a reception, even for the few seconds you ‘shift from one group to another’, or of having nothing to talk about with the one person I somehow found myself with from the beginning, even for seconds, is daunting. Have you ever stopped yourself from going to get some food at the buffet when your stomach is clearly sending you signals and when the cheese and dip have never looked more inviting, just because you were genuinely scared of finding ‘your’ group scattered to different places when you came back with your food? And then, god forbid, you would have to eat by yourself while appearing completely at ease with yourself, when you’re simply dying inside, wishing somebody would come and talk to you and save you from misery.

Even though I may be all smiles (which I usually am), these are the thoughts and fears going through my head all the time in these situations. Two hours end up feeling like an eternity and I’m emotionally and physically exhausted until the next day.

But I know that’s what I have to do. I have to let my petty existence on this earth and at this university be known to other students and professors. I somehow have to come up with a clear research idea I am forced to ‘pitch‘ every time I’m in such a setting. One positive side of that is that I end up saying aloud my very vague research idea to so many people with as much ‘smart bullshit’ as I can muster that I actually start believing in it, and above all, in its feasibility. I have to go to professors and ‘talk’ to them, tell them the kind of research I would like to do in an intelligent manner when really, all I want to tell them is how awesome I think they are, and that’s about it, so could they please allow me to do any work for them, pretty please?

Engaging a professor (source: http://academicats.tumblr.com)

Engaging a professor
(source: http://academicats.tumblr.com)

And these are the good ones. Most of the time, they’re just professors I am plainly scared of, but that I have to talk to because they’re ‘important’ and to let them know I’m still here, hello, and yes, I’m dead serious about this whole thing (which I am), so please tell me how to live my life.

I mean, yes, it all makes sense in a way. I study because in some weird narcissistic and egomaniac way, I believe my ‘research’ and my thesis, which only a handful of people on this earth will end up reading, will contribute to making this world a bit better. So although I would like to spend most of my time being inspired on my own, I have to tell other people, especially those who will buy into the lie I tell myself and tell them, so that they can fund me to save the world.  And this is all before I actually write my dissertation and go into the job market, which is apparently worse than the Hunger Games.

And of course, this has to be done all the while I convince myself and others that really, when I have humanity’s stake in my hand, how could I possibly think about getting married and having a family of my own? That would be so selfish, psht.