I'm never going to accomplish anything; that's perfectly clear to me. I'm never going to be famous. My name will never be writ large on the roster of Those Who Do Things. I don't do anything. Not one single thing. I used to bite my nails, but I don't even do that any more.
December 20, 2014
This past year, as it's loomed clearer and clearer to me, my parents, family members, and nondescript acquaintances that I will in all likelihood pursue a career in the academic world, I've been reminded of how powerful the allure of prestige is. It happened because of a series of developments which aligned the stars, if you will, for me to be perceived slightly less like an unambitious, potential-wasting underachiever, and maybe more like a smart-ish student on her way to academic glory (Teaser: At the end, you get a nice diploma, unless the college registrar decides that, hmm, well, six months is still not early enough to get to your file and send you your stupid diploma after all). (I'm still waiting, btw): 1) No, I still have no apparent career prospect, no "Eureka" moment where I thought, hey, this is what I want to do, one hundred percent. 2) I'm doing pretty good in this program. The faculty is supportive. I have a shot (maybe) at getting into a great research program with a scholarship. I have a job that pays okay, so the hobo life I've been harboring for some time is not quite imminent yet. 3) It looks like I could like this life. Looks like. Appearances—this is the most important element of the story. (There was also, in bringing up even the possibility of my getting into X program, the money factor—but this is something else that I'll write about in a separate post, because who doesn't want to have a nice, pleasant discussion about family and money? [1,000,000 raised hands] I can't see you.) Some assortment of people have brought the idea that I should apply to a few different programs and schools. Common denominator: they're all "prestige schools," the closest equivalent we have of Ivys. They're prestigious, they're well-perceived, they make good small-talk subjects and provide good first-impression material. Something for the family to be pride of. More than the université, anyway. But this is a tired subject and I don't want to talk about how undervalued public colleges are in France, except to say that, please, I know the Sorbonne is historic, like Methuselah-level of historic, but at some point you have to acknowledge that there are seasons, with changing temperatures, and windows that don't close shut ever are a problem. No, what people bringing up these schools did, was stir up some repressed feelings about elitism and about how much of a prestige-whore I actually am.
Because of course, I've been guilty of that, too. I've pictured myself walking down the ivy-covered hallowed halls of many a schools simply based on the amount of prestige they exuded and I perceived, pored over syllabuses and Blue Books, thought about which inspirational quote/witticism my valedictorian speech would open with. I have issues. But beyond that, I have to admit I did, and perhaps still do, find the whole idea appealing. And it's not a yearning that's based on money, or popularity, or likability (although that's debatable; the work can easily be substituted for the person, especially if the person lacks an incredible amount of self-esteem). Still, it is solely based on perception, prestige, and the perception of prestige. It would make me feel better about myself to be introduced as [insert prestigious school of your choice] graduate, so-and-so, than whatever the alternative is. At least I think it would? I hate that I'm part of the problem, but what can you do. It doesn't mean that I'm not proud of where I've been educated or where I come from or anything like that. But it does mean that as I'm writing my research propositions and running after professors asking for recommendation letters to apply to Columbia (see, I'm doing it again, the subliminal thing: it's written down, I've written down the thing, I will do the thing because it is written, and they all lived hap—)... I do wonder, what is it that makes me want to go there so badly? Of course, if I'm being objective and nice to myself, the answer is obvious: It's in New York City. Sure. That's 99% of it. But I don't know, I still can't get rid of that gnawing feeling I have, some days, that I'm doing it to feel good about myself. I do know I'm considering taking the agrégation exam only because I want to know whether I'm capable of passing it or now, but that's an easy conclusion to reach. I have no desire to be a teacher of any kind, so taking that exam would just be me testing myself, seeing if I have what it takes. But then, I have to ask myself, do I want to pursue a PhD because I actually enjoy doing research and attending conferences and writing about my research and those conferences? Or is it because I like belonging to the """"elite"""", whatever that word means? Because I feel flattered by it, the acceptance of peers, of smart, educated, well-read people who belong in a Lumet or Sorkin or Sherman-Palladino script. I feel elated when a professor compliments my work or me, because it makes me feel like I'm on their level, like I can play in their sandbox, like, see, I'm not an ordinary student. Of course crippling self-doubt and humility soon takes over and I brush it off, like I should. But still. I wonder.
(Sidenote no. 651762458: As I write this dumb post, here's what just appeared in my email inbox: "Thinking about Graduate School?" Whoops, too late, New School, sorry.)
I ask myself that question about other, bigger things. Things that are so embedded into my brain as signifiers of how I define myself, or how I think other people perceive me. I wonder, do I really love reading? Do I read a lot because I love it, or because I love that it makes me look smart? Obviously, even I can recognize that it is a silly question to ask myself. No one can sustain 20+ years of pretend-reading without truly loving books and all. I love reading. It sustains me. But of course I've done it all, things you do before going out in public, things you do when you become you in the morning, when you put on your "You" suit: Which books will I carry around with me today? Which will be in my bag, which will be in my arms? Not that one, it'll make me look dumb. Not YA, God. I'll defend reading YA and readers of YA because that's the right, open-minded bookish thing to do, and I actually genuinely believe in defending that, but God forbid anyone see me leave with Papertowns sticking out of my book-bag. No, not that one, the movie adaptation just came out, I don't want people to think I just read books after seeing the movie. No, not that one, it's too popular, I don't want people to think I'm just a mindless follower who sticks with buying every new item on the best-sellers table at Barnes and Noble. No, not that one, it's too obscure, I want people to kinda-sorta know what or who I'm reading so they know how literate I am. No, not that one, I've been carrying it around for over a week now, and even though I still haven't finished it, I don't want people to know that I haven't finished it yet. Yes, this one, it says, This Is A Serious Book and the cover looks good and the name of the author sticks nicely from my bag. God. What a jerk. You have to have had some kind of traumatic concussion to the part of the brain that produces common sense and barely intelligent coherence, for you to think that, a) You are what you read, b) Someone other than you is judgmental enough to think that people are what they read, and c) People will remember what book you were carrying in your bag last fucking week.
If this was therapy and I was lying on a couch monologuing with ('with'? more like, 'monologuing at') a guy I always picture having Ira Glass's voice (although, at some point, every imaginary being in your life starts talking like Ira because you can't escape it—Stay pause with pause us. It's the "WBEZ Chicago" factor. Just look at the Mail Chimp wave. Anyway.) If this was therapy, Ira would probably tell me that, "You see, it's because you don't value any other part of yourself but your mind. You're ultimately very much a self-deprecating, low self-esteem, zero self-confidence individual, but some particle of this self-effacing quality is false modesty. You know you have potential, you know you are quite well-read. Even if you feel like a fraud most of the time, you do know that deep down. But because you don't value any other part of yourself, you feel like this thing you hang onto for self-worth is almost sacred, that your mind can't fall off its pedestal, you can't be caught lowbrowing it, because that would mean admitting to the world that you have nothing for yourself. It would mean that your mind was as ordinary as your personality, your face, your everything-else. It would mean mediocrity.”
Ha! There it is. What all artistic types, weirdos, freaks, loners, pseudo-intellectuals and actual-intellectuals fear like the plague: mediocrity. If one would step forward and declare, I shall follow B'Frank's tenets and live in Happy Mediocrity as a modest craftsman, (and if we were, incidentally, back in Ye Olde Land) they would thereby disclose their uniqueness, in a weird Catch-22 that the whole "normcore" trend parallels. I'm normal, not like all y'all, a hipster Tami Taylor says. I don't know. It's honestly not like I like it. That's a big reason why I adore the Palladinos so much. They're all over the map. High-brow, low-brow, and everything in between. Of course a life of only Baudrillard, Aristotle and Christine de Pizan is not sustainable—it's not even healthy. Or endearing. What a drag. I want everything. I need everything. The trash, the not-trash, the what-is-deemed-trash-but-is-actually-not, the what-is-deemed-trash-and-actually-is. I just have a hard time saying it out loud, mostly because it is what I present to the world, it is what has inadvertently been used to define me. This neurotic, bookish, well-read person, who would rather talk with you about Jason Ritter on Parenthood and Bridget and Tibby's friendship in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but will never bring the subject up first, because of what, reputation? God, who fucking cares.
Why do I always end up writing about these dumb, tired subjects? Elitism, prestige, the face we present to the world. Umpff. On a side note, I finally, finally started Diane Keaton's memoir, Then Again. I'm only just a couple a pages in, and already I've received several punches in the guts. This one is going to be a doozy. Probably the last book I'll read this year, too. (Screw you, Goodreads challenge. I tried my best to hit 50. I still deserve a pat on the back, don't you think?) So this'll segue into what I'll probably write about most next year, or at least try to write about more, because I've been too afraid to do so until now. Family.
PS. Please don't let me pursue a career in the academic world. plzplzplz. #earlyNY2015rezols #4realyo.