When I became a PhD Student…

…my entire life changed in ways I can’t quite describe, but will try to do so as accurately as humanly possible.

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I started off thinking that this journey would be one of accomplishment and accolades. Who doesn’t want to be a Dr.? Seriously. As far as I can tell, I’d be the first in my family – on both sides – and I could finally be like some of my colleagues at the CDC who use a whole slew of letters in their signature line. Imagine, Mrs. Government Worker, BA, MIA, PhD, BIYATCH! I thought it would feel great to say I was a no limit soldier, as far as education was concerned.

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I also started off thinking that this wouldn’t be so bad. Much like how I naively thought that my Master’s program would be manageable while working a part time job, I naively thought this PhD could neatly fit into the hours after my full-time day job. I was discouraged by PhD students on 3 continents. I was warned by Professors everywhere, but I thought… pshawww… they don’t know me, like I know me. I got this.

Spoiler alert: I don’t got this.

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You know what else I don’t got? Any free time! An evening free of grad school guilt! Disposable income that doesn’t go to books! And, I’m going to blame my soon to be gone gallbladder on this PhD too… yup, I lost an organ, ya’ll.

Ok, so no, my PhD isn’t directly to blame, but a lot of things changed the minute I was admitted to my PhD program. I’m going to say that “bad genes,” as my surgeon put it, and bad habits brought me to this day.

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1 – I eat a lot of quick and nutrition-less food these days. – When a PhD happens to you, it’s like nurturing a pregnancy, except there are no doctors to tell you what to do and you stay pregnant until you decide that you’ve gotten over the fear of giving birth. Lucky for me, I have a spouse that tells me to put the chocolate mousse down while reading the latest 20th century military war chronology. Others are not so lucky. If it has a wrapper, it won’t go bad in my bag for a day, and it can withstand tropical temperatures, I’ll probably eat it with reckless abandon. Oh, and did I mention I don’t eat meat… and I live in Africa? This means, my quick foods are highly likely to be deep fried, cheese or potato based, and/or purchased on amazon.com. Gone are my long leisurely weekends of making nutritious meals to last a week. If you find me in the kitchen NOT standing at the microwave and without a book in my hand, your eyes are deceiving you.

2 – About 6 months ago, I vowed not to beat up on myself about my weight. – This one act of self-love turned into non-exercise of all kinds. If it didn’t entail lifting a book to eye level or working while standing (b/c that’s just good for your lumbar system), I didn’t beat myself up for NOT doing. This means, all that fatty, sh$tty food I ate went straight to parts of my body that I didn’t even know I had. Who even knows where their gallbladder is? Really??

3 – I started letting other people make life decisions for me. – I realized that I needed to delegate a lot of my responsibilities to others, because there’s no way on God’s green earth it is possible to work my job, finish this PhD and live my life – succesfully – at the same time. So, to reduce stress on the latter and the former, I defered to people much less educated than wikipedia to make major decisions for me, including some about the state of my health. I let nurses tell me that I was too young for the surgery I obviously needed. I let those same people give me extended courses of antibiotics for issues they didn’t know how to treat. Essentially, I delegated the wrong decisions to the wrong people. So, I’m paying the price for breaking Management Rule #1 Delegate Authority but not Responsibility.

In short, consider this fair warning about getting a PhD and other acts of “doing too much,” which seem great on paper. I have to admit that in my attempt to get book smart, I’ve done a lot of dumb things. It makes you wonder, how they let me into this program at all. But, in any case, I hope those of you out there with academic ambitions, who still have all your organs take this as a warning. A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a game of chess, not checkers. So, train, prepare, and take care of yourself for the longhaul!

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2014 in Books – A Year in Review

IMG-20150129-00190At the start of every year, I have to look back on my year in books. In 2014, somehow I managed to move to Africa, get married, start a PhD program, start a new job, and read 49 books. Three books shy of my goal and still satisfied with myself, I have to tell you which works were worth reading and which I should have spared myself the life minutes.

I started the year off strong with Jose Luandina Vieira‘s The Real LIfe of Domingos Xavier, the English translation of the 1978 A Vida Verdadeira de Domingos XavierThis story of the kidnapping and disappearance of Domingos Xavier unravels the experiences of every day Angolans during the fight for independence. Confronting marxism and modes of resistance, as well as the slow development of the MPLA in the face of continued Portuguese domination, the book is a solid read. In its original version it is credited with authentic local vernacular, a credit to the author – Angolan of Portuguese origin. By February, I was re-reading a book which made a significant impact on me when I first read it back in 2009. Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity by Vijay Prashad is an exploration of the collaborations of African and Asian origin people and ideas. In this global, historical review, Prashad investigates untold stories of interactions that pre-date European colonial intervention, as well as modern-day relationships of resistance. It’s a really powerful text and an easy read for those interested in world history that doesn’t center on White history. Rather than focusing on the cultural clashes, he focuses on cohesion – showing how much more of the latter there have been.

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The Black Count by Tom Reiss

Then I struck literary gold in March when I read The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. The book is long as hell, but it’s pretty interesting. I have to be honest and say that I really couldn’t keep track of the three generations of Dumas men here. The revelation that the person who inspired the classics of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was actually a Black man of Haitian birth shouldn’t be all that shocking. I was most interested, however, in the changing racial and social landscape of France – a country that is notorious for pretending to be colorblind and for proclaiming that racism doesn’t exist there.  The real value was reading of how powerful Blacks could ascend in 18th century France and how their equity slowly evaporated with time.

Then I spent the summer months reading some unrelated texts that were interesting in their own right, but more for professional or pleasure reading. I read Stanley McChristal’s My Share of the Task: A Memoir to understand better the man whose 2 decade long career was dethroned by an expose that only covered 2 weeks of his life. Then I read Pearl Cleage’s Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs which is really just a collection of diary entries by the author, thespian, feminist, educator & activist. It’s pretty funny.

I hit a dud in July with Amanda Kovattana‘s Diamonds in my Pocket, about a Thai-English woman who revisits the tensions of her biracial childhood. Her English mother and her Thai father meet, mate and marry, but their views never really seem to match. The premise sounds more interesting than the book actually reads.

Shiva Naipul’s North of South: An African Journey really helped me settle in to my new African life and to commit to my exploration of Asians in southern Africa. This author, the now deceased younger brother of V.S. Naipul, travels from Trinidad to Africa in search of very little other than experience. What comes off as a Brown backpacker’s tale from Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia of the 70’s continues to ring true for me here in Mozambique today. Some people seem to virulently dislike this travel journal and to critique the man who wrote it. It rings pretty true to me, so I’m not sure what that says about me. He definitely cut out all the paternalistic positivity, a la “we are the world” sentiment, people expect to hear from those who come to Africa. Unlike people who seem to dislike the book, he clearly didn’t come to (1) help the people *side eye*, (2) find himself *double side eye*, and/or (3) seek a backdrop for adventure *eye roll completely.* So…it is what it is. Every time I get in a car, I can only think of his words describing how Africans either drive “dangerously slow or dangerously fast.” So true, Shiva.

The week before my wedding, I laughed like hell reading Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, but I don’t think it’s politically correct to say you like anything about the man right now. Too soon for praise, maybe? Moving on…

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The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (1964)

Then I latched on to fellow Barnard alum Jane Allen Petrick’s Hidden in Plain Sight, a text about people of color in Norman Rockwell‘s paintings. She searches to find Rockwell subjects to understand just who these people were who were incorporated so subtly into his Americana classics. Clearly, the book is a labor of love, not necessary a wealth of information. But, the topic is interesting and Petrick’s appreciation of the human connection between Rockwell & the people he paid to pose really shines through.

Then I read some really shitty e-books, because they were free. So, steer clear of Motherhoodwinked (though for someone battling infertility, this may have some therapeutic value), The Path To Passive Income (I should have known when the author was “U, Val”), and Heather Graham’s blog series Why I Love New Orleans. Don’t bother…

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Then just before Thanksgiving I honed in on South African writing with Nadine Gordimer‘s novel The House Gun and the biography of fellow Witsie Robert Sobukwe (Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better) by Benjamin Pogrund. Both were longer than necessary, though for vastly different reasons. Confronting violence and privilege in South Africa from vastly different angles, these two books are authored by and about writer-activists. Honestly, the back to back reading was a bit more valuable to me than each individually. I’ll spare you the summary, because I think you should read them yourselves.

I’ve already reviewed the trifecta of the year (V.S. Naipul, Ngozi Adichie, and James Weldon Johnson) in my recent blog post on code switching. So, I won’t revisit these.

And the book that left the greatest impression is a book I was very reluctant to read for a very long time. Emma Donoughue’s Room had been sitting in my house for years before I got the courage to read it and I’m so happy that I did. This novel is the story of a 5-year-old boy who has grown up living in one room, because he is the child of a kidnapping & rape victim. Held hostage his whole life, he doesn’t understand his captivity and struggles to cope once released. Heartwarming, gut wrenching, amusing and frighteningly light – this book is an amazing piece of fiction. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves someone.

P1050740I expect that this year will be filled with books for my research, so I’m preparing for less fiction and more history. More Indians and Mozambicans and east African and southern African themes. I’m finally dropping the goal down to 40 books, so I can avoid the inclination to read crappy ebooks to hit a target. I’m going to save my life minutes for real stories that matter and for texts that have value.

Cheers to a more value dense 2015, filled with really awesome bookmarks!

Minus work, my life is balanced…

Kiss Him, Johannesburg (2015)

Kiss Him, Johannesburg (2015)

Since the clock struck 12, just 25 days ago, much has happened. Yet for weeks, I’ve felt that not so much of it has been worth writing about. I went to Joburg for my poor, poor friend’s wedding (you remember her, right?). I went to Durban to celebrate my birthday. One of my very best friends came to town to enjoy it all. I went to work a lot. I met exciting new people for my research. I made a few new friends. I bought the Minaj’s album (as well as that of Mafikizolo, Chris Brown, Drake and Liquideep). I even made my first donation, as promised, to the Whitman Walker Clinic. All  great things…I tell you. And none of that has seemed worth writing about.

I’m jaded.

IMG_1541I’ve always been a bit of an Eeyore, i.e. the cynic (borderline pessimist) who never understands what the big deal is about things that other people considered big deals. But the problem now is that I feel like I’m doing so much that I just don’t get a chance to stop and smell whatever this flower is called, much less appreciate it enough to write about it. My whole life my parents have reminded me that I’m “never satisfied.” No matter how much they tried to make me smile or enjoy a good day, I was always looking for more of a good thing, so much so that it negated their efforts in the moment. And what’s worse, I think I’ve lost the ability to understand how stressful chasing the next satisfaction really is on me and the people I love.

What most might call “a first world problem,” has followed me wherever I’ve lived, wherever I’ve gone, no matter how much I try to run away from responsibilities. So, maybe it’s just a character flaw? I don’t know how to relax. I never have. Is it possible that I never will?

I’ve spent much of my adult life talking with counselors and therapists, friends and people who probably didn’t really care enough to listen with both ears, simply trying to find outlets to vent. But it has occurred to me now that talking about all the things I do, rather than actually limiting those things, will not offer much relief. I watched a really great Ted Talk on ‘work/ life balance’ a few weeks back and I thought “shit, so a gym membership won’t fix this?” (Nigel Marsh: How to make work-life balance work).

When I originally heard the term back in 2009, I was a skeptic of the value of ‘work/life balance’ debates. First, I didn’t have much of a family and I’d just started my job, so work was still exciting for me. Almost 6 years down the line, I’m figuring at this rate either my body or my brains will fight against any willful efforts at procreation, so there’s nothing to balance there. According to the IRS, my husband and I make a family. That should be enough to tear me away from my office, except my sense of work ethic keeps me attached to my seat complaining about people I don’t particularly like and work I don’t find particularly meaningful. Not to mention that at this very moment, my work eats a piece of brain and two pieces of my soul on a daily basis.

My poorly thought out solution was to chase my dream of completing a PhD.  But, there’s a fundamental problem here. I didn’t actually quit my job. How many more hours of the day did I gain by pretending that work isn’t the real focal point of my life? Negative 8 hours.

I genuinely feel like out of a 9 hour work day, when I add the time I spend without my spouse and the time I should be working on my PhD, and divide that by the time I spend complaining, I end up losing 8 hours of life energy per day. The 1 hour retained was lunch.

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So, of all the awesome things I’ve done in the past few weeks to take my mind off things and to relax, much of it – like my PhD – seemed to be fulfilling, but still stress-inducing.  I made work out of relaxing and certainly didn’t take the time to stop and enjoy each moment.

Nigel Marsh says that even adding a gym work out to the mix won’t help me be more balanced, just more fit. And I’m inclined to believe him. It’s already one more thing on my lengthy and never-ending to do list… just above “read.”

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Obviously, for me the question isn’t so much about the tension between work and life, but finding value in both accomplishments and happiness. Being a glutton for work punishment may be an outgrowth of my own inability to separate the two. My own personal sense of achievement comes from seeing something through from start to finish. I value measurable accomplishments. Taking the time to live out my own happiness is hard thing to step back and admire. I’m not sure how to celebrate my days spent at the pool. But, it sure makes me feel energized for the days ahead and it just feels good.

Perhaps 2015 is the year to figure it all out…

School Daze


School DazeI’m back in school and it feels as if I never left. It’s all too familiar – that nagging sense that I should be reading, writing, editing, reviewing something. I go out to parties and I feel deadlines creeping up on me like unwanted advances from guys without all their teeth. Everywhere I go, I feel menaced. I feel watched – watched by the God of graduate school guilt. He is not a merciful God, especially when He doesn’t actually listen to my suggestions for ways to shut down the city so that I have more time to study for a final.

A friend of mine once said it’s only when faced with school that we wish ourselves bodily harm. How many distant relatives have we wished hospitalized so that we’d be excused from taking exams? How many times have I said, “just shoot me now” and meant it? Who needs both kidneys anyway?

So, why am I back in school? After all, this isn’t undergrad. Nobody made me go. I don’t need this diploma. I have no idea what I was thinking when I registered for this distance learning course. Well, that’s kind of a lie. I thought things like: This is a good idea. It’s cheaper than in the U.S. You can get global exposure. You can manage this while having a full-time job. I didn’t think things like: You have a full-time job, fullll tiiimmeee. Under eye bags are irreversible. You stopped owning notecards three years ago. You’re talking about an Indian university (think of any HBCU and make the administration 5 times less responsive to your needs). And now that I’m turning in assignments, and wracking my brain for a paper proposal and freaking out that I’ll actually have to take exams – I’m thinking that now might be a good time to pretend like I broke my arm.

Do I really want a PhD after all? If I do, then I can’t do it while working – that’s just a death wish. Right? But I can’t be broke again either. Me and myself (the sane, objective me in the third person) we decided that being broke was no longer an option. Is higher education a good reason to go back on that notion?

Do I have to pretend that I’m smart now? I really don’t want to have to eat, sleep, and breathe my studies. People will ask me cultural questions over dinner and it’ll be embarrassing when I don’t answer with anything that they couldn’t find on wikipedia. I tend to act like a petulant child when asked to prove my knowledge in public settings – I throw my fork on the floor and pretend like its their job to pick it up. And then I throw up on their head when they bend down to retrieve the fork. (I was a precocious 3-year-old) I don’t like being put on the spot, and I don’t like being doubted – especially in public. But isn’t that what getting a PhD is? Always being asked to prove, in a very Freudian way, that my obelisk is brainier than my contemporary’s.

I digress. In the making of this blog post, I have successfully procrastinated yet one more hour. I could have read about the Indian Diaspora, or drafted my paper synopsis, or practiced my Indian head bobble. But, instead I chose to ponder the repercussions of a PhD program for which I have not yet applied. This, my friends, is the delirium of being an adult student. My quest for knowledge has shredded my logical decision-making capabilities and stressed me to the extent of sheer stupidity. And, with that, I’m taking a nap.

*drops my No. 2 pencil and walks out of home office*