Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In Retrospect

Reason #4731 not to re-read the personal statement that you submitted to a school at which you have been rejected: discovering a typo in the final sentence.

Good job, self.

I could be the first subject for a slightly-misleading-as-to-its-actual-purpose-but-catchy series of video advertisements with the following slogan:

...should have gone to the Writing Center...

I'm picturing a spinoff of this delightful British campaign for Specsavers:

It would be a huge hit, trust me. And, even better, my fee is no higher than a Ph.D. application fee! (My agent will be standing by to take your calls.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

You Win Some; You Don't Dare Lose

If we don't win the last game of the Series, they'll dismiss us. ...I know these guys. I know the way they think, and they will erase us. And everything we've done here, none of it'll matter.
This quote, spoken by Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), is played as one of the solemn, vulnerable moments in the Oscar-nominated film Moneyball.

Watching the movie tonight, I was grudgingly impressed. I thought the writing was strong (yes, Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing, The Social Network, and A Few Good Men worked on the screenplay). Although I couldn't forget that I was watching Brad Pitt in the role, I was drawn in by his character.

As I reflect on the movie, however, I am struck most by that one quote.

It expresses the source of tension in every successful sports film. The team hits a turning point mid-season, but none of their efforts matter unless they win the final game. In a movie, it provides a convenient and triumphant ending. (Biopics tend to conclude with a victory, even if it means excising part of the true story.)

The equation is simple. The competition has to have high stakes in order to draw viewers and generate buzz.

As one who gets frustrated by losing Monopoly or pick-up soccer, this type of competitiveness makes a great deal of sense to me. When it carries over to other pursuits, it becomes slightly more problematic.

The problem is that we cannot stop time after reaching a desired plateau of success. Life fails to conform to the dramatic arc of a film. (Read more about Beane's continuing story.) We are left with a discrepancy between the reality that everyone fails and loses and the mantra that a winner is always in danger of being erased.

In my experiences as a student and as a tutor, I have found that a great deal of anxiety surrounds the writing process because we are taught to think of writing, as well as most other academic work, as a similarly one-shot, high-stakes endeavor. Rather than making revision a natural part of the writing process, it becomes punitive. The paper has to be perfect the first time. End of story.

Don't get me wrong. I think the ability to handle pressure and seek excellence is vital. As an example, careers such as medicine and military service are imbued with responsibility that leaves little room for error.

But what happens when the high-stakes mindset becomes the default setting? In this model, there are no second chances. All previous accomplishments can be nullified by a single mistake. As a result, criticism and failure are devastating. Rest is impossible. The pressure builds and builds because no accomplishment is safe or can protect us from the inevitable failure that will someday follow.

This type of performance anxiety seems frankly unsustainable, and yet I buy into this mentality more often than I would like to admit. The irony is that my best tutoring moments and most candid conversations spring from weakness and struggle. When I give up on perfection, I am in a better position to focus on the other human who brings his or her own set of fears to our encounter.

But the drive to succeed remains, and I can't help wondering if this is a tension I will just have to learn to live with. You might even say, with all proper caveats inserted, that it is a tension as American as apple pie or -- dare I say it -- as American as baseball.

Rainy Sunday Soup

(Disclaimer: I actually made this soup last week. Today, although similarly chilly, was a grits-for-brunch kind of day.)

You Better Not Hate Butternut (Squash Soup)

Makes: 2 servings


-1 tbsp butter
-1/2 of a butternut squash: gutted, peeled, and cubed
-approximately 32 ounces of water
- 1/2 onion, diced
-1 clove garlic, minced
-1/4 tsp fresh-ground black pepper
-ground red pepper
-4 oz sour cream


In a medium saucepan, stir together the garlic, onion, black pepper, and about 16 oz of water. Bring these ingredients to a boil and stir periodically until onion becomes transparent. Add the squash, another 16 oz of water, a few dashes of nutmeg, and a dash of salt. Maintain high heat until the mixture returns to a boil, then reduce heat to low/medium-low and simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring periodically.

When the squash is soft, use a potato masher or the back of a spoon to mash the squash to a smooth consistency. Add a few dashes of ground red pepper (to taste); then turn off the burner and remove the pot from the heat.

When the soup has cooled down (about 15 minutes), stir in the sour cream. (Cooling the soup first minimizes separation of the cream.) Return the soup to the burner. Over medium heat, slowly raise the temperature while continuing to stir. When the soup is hot, it's ready to eat.

Perfect with fresh sourdough bread and cucumber salad. Enjoy!

To use an entire squash and container of sour cream, just double the recipe. Refrigerate the leftovers; soup reheats well.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Like Petey in Remember the Titans

Okay, grad schools. Let's have a 50%-off chocolate heart to heart.

I am deeply appreciative of your consideration in not "breaking up with me" over Valentine's Day.

That being said, the stores are now making way for Cadbury Eggs.

Any day now would be fine.

Email is great.

Snail mail is fine.

I would even take a phone call.

You can tell me.

I can handle it.

I just gotta know.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Yet and Now

By virtue of a rare Saturday off, I have time to be in a pensive mood today.

Fridays are turning into rejection-letter days, and the second rejection letter of the season felt worse than I thought it would. In both cases, the schools said my application was very strong and they were sorry not to offer me admission.

Rather than feeling excited that I almost made the cut (again), proving that I am a competitive applicant this year, my brain immediately began to rant, "You're just not quite good enough. In a close contest, you don't have the 'spark' that sets others apart. You're not unique. No matter how hard you try, it's never enough. You'll never be quite good enough."

Come on, brain. That's not helpful. Let's rewind.

The last time I went through this process, I wrote a post called "Hello, 'Yet.'" I re-read it today. At the time, I was applying to doctoral programs with only a bachelor's degree. Looking back, I know how vastly unprepared I was for that level of work, but in that moment the rejections stung. This is what I wrote:
I got another rejection letter - three just last week, to be precise, bringing my total number of acceptances into a PhD program to - you guessed it - zero. In my tongue-in-cheek-but-not-really response on this blog, I wrote "Jen is not PhD-program caliber." And then I paused.

Am I really not? As in ever? Boy, that's depressing.
Well obviously I'm not, because they rejected me.
Um, I think there's a flaw in the logic here somewhere.
No, really.
Don't be silly.
No, really.

Tired of arguing with myself, which is just a little weird, I capitulated and typed "at this point," because "at this point" leaves more room for self-pity than "yet." Not quite sure why, but it does; trust me.

"Yet" is inherently optimistic. Maybe because it sounds a little like "yes." It also implies that the statement that is not presently true will/can someday be true.
That was three years ago.

Now, when I receive letters of regret from high-caliber schools like Northwestern and Vanderbilt (both of whom rejected me that year with no more than a 'Your admission status is now available'), I should be encouraged to be reminded of something I think I already know: Jen is PhD-program caliber now.

Even if I'm not accepted this year -- the odds of 7/450 or 1/64 or 1.562% are, after all, enormous -- I've come a long way toward my goal.

I guess you could say this is me attempting to practice cognitive restructuring, because in this moment my brain is much more cynical, and the emotional feeling of failure outweighs the logical interpretation I've just posited. Psychology. Gotta love it.

I think that's why tea, chocolate, whiny text messages, and Saturdays still exist. It's a good thing, too.

If This Keeps Up...

...I will have to re-title my blog: Perennially Penultimate Ponderings

(that still didn't make the final cut)

(or even the wait list [who knew they had a wait list once removed?])

(but will have no final closure until April 15th)

Womp, womp.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

PSA: A Truth Universally Acknowledged

Contact: Jen, Public Liaison
Phone: 704-255-1887
Night line: 828-859-2905

Begin Jan. 1
End April 15


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a graduate applicant in the period of waiting must NOT be in need of extraneous emails from the admissions department of graduate schools to which she has applied.

Unless the email contains or links to an admissions decision, admissions representatives are encouraged to think carefully before clicking "send."

According to recent research, 95 percent of applicants have already determined from GradCafe, Facebook, and school websites (which they have memorized) that the school will be making its decision within the next month. This information, while important, does not need to be repeated via email.

If, however, you must communicate with applicants, please observe one simple rule. Begin the title of all emails with the following phrase, in capital letters:


Acceptable substitute phrases include:

  • and if all else fails, DO NOT PANIC

The mental health of the graduate student and prospective graduate student community, already tenuous at best, depends on your cooperation.

For more information, please contact the public liaison for the Graduate Student Support Group at 704-255-1887. Thank you.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Beautiful Words for Overthinkers Like Me

“Does it break my heart, of course, every moment of every day, into more pieces than my heart was made of, I never thought of myself as quiet, much less silent, I never thought about things at all, everything changed, the distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn't the world, it wasn't the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don't know, but it's so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I've thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”

--Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Movie aside, I love this book. So much.

Thursday, February 2, 2012