The Chicken and the Egg

When I was in Senegal, I came down with my first bout of chronic gastritis. I am able to name that mystery ailment of stomach cramps and perpetual nausea only in hindsight. When I was there – not to the discredit of the fine Senegalese doctors I saw – I had no idea what was causing me everyday distress in my bowels. From the moment I woke up until I glided into sleep that night, I bore discomfort in my chest, my stomach and my throat. The first few weeks were awkward for me. I was the only boy in the program, but was no longer able to perform the quintessentially masculine mastery over my body. I was distraught, constantly uncomfortable, belching slow, endless burps from an empty stomach, all as I gripped my stomach and responded to questions in my practiced, if a bit inflexible, French. The other students in the cohort pitied me and would offer me anything they had that might soothe my problem. Before the first week was through, my parents and I were discussing the possibility of me withdrawing from my program in Dakar. “I’m not mentally present,” I told them, almost crying as I clutched my distended belly on the red leather coach in the back of our school building. “I don’t think I can do this.”

As you may know, I didn’t withdraw from SIT Senegal. Rather, I sank into a paranoiac life. I began hoarding spicy ginger candies that I could buy for 15 CFA at a little stand around the corner from our school. I would eat at least five or six of these everyday, at any moment when I began to feel queasy and uneasy. I never didn’t have one with me, and I knew exactly which ones I liked (I did not care for the pineapple ones). I wasn’t as adventurous as I would have liked to have been, mainly because I was young, anxious and undeniably foreign, but also because I didn’t know when my body would suddenly turn on me and start calling the shots. I often lived vicariously through the freer women in my program, half-wanting to go with them to eat sandwiches prepared at the dodgy sidewalk café, but always content, nevertheless, in my croque monsieur, my dried mango and my digestive cookies. 

There was a girl in my program who left Senegal. Unlike me, she came down with something while we were there. Perhaps it was from food she’d eaten; an apple or orange she hadn’t properly sanitized with eau de javel or an ill-placed, ill-sipped glass of local water served at a restaurant, or her own body rebelling against her because it could. Needless to say, this girl had the fortitude to leave Senegal in the middle of the program, much to the shock of the employees of our program. The director shook his head in disbelief when he told us that no one had ever left the program, not even years prior when the ebola outbreak struck West Africa and stalled study abroad applications. I won’t go into the details about this girl, but I will note that nearly everyone had grown tired of her literal belly-aching by the time she actually departed. She complained ceaselessly about her perpetual nausea, her inability to name and thus fix her problem, and her unending fear of eating anything. She wanted, desperately, to be home with her parents, not because they could fix the problem (her parents, if I recall, were therapists) but because home is where comfort lies. Being sick abroad is absolutely terrible. You can take my word for it, as someone who felt they would vomit any minute while sulking about the Panthéon.  

I bring up this anecdote for a couple of reasons: 1) to give some context for what I’m currently dealing with (or trying to deal with) 2) to underline a key point which I’ll make in this post 3) to draw a picture of what it feels like to be in this body.

I bring up this anecdote – of Senegal and the girl who left – because I remember being asked by one of the students after the girl left halfway through our program, whether or not I had overcome my own gastric woes. The question was posed to me after everyone (myself included, I must concede) ragged on the girl [in an admittedly harsh manner] about her endless complaining. I told my friend that my condition hadn’t improved, a response she undoubtedly wasn’t expected. Her face lit up with shock and pity, but I did not accept it. 

“My condition hasn’t improved much at all. I just stopped talking about it.”

Continue reading “The Chicken and the Egg”

life in the bunker

Your quarantine begins on March 8. Spring break opens with the administrative murmurings of temporary closure. Days later, the news is confirmed with an email from one of too many deans. New Haven is quiet over the breaks, but this time the silence hurts rather than heals. Undergrads, grad students, postdocs secret themselves away to home, to silk-sand beaches, European cities, or dusky archives. The air is cold, but the sun sings of the coming of spring. The trees know it before we do. For them, very little has changed.

A handful of your friends meets up every now and then to get work done at a local café. Then “the ick” arrives in New Haven, and suddenly that is no longer possible. Cafés, restaurants, bars close here as they do around the world. The streets are empty. They even shut down the traffic lights downtown, claiming there’s not enough people to sustain so intricate a spider web of streets and signals. The entire earth retreats indoors to endure a new normal.

Quarantine has been a void. Time doesn’t matter. Diet doesn’t matter. Discipline doesn’t matter. There is a rhythm to life but you can’t catch it, can’t jump into it. As you grow accustomed to the tempo, there’s a change – things get faster, your feet get slower. Your body sags and dips, you stutter. You slip, you fall. You heave yourself up, try to get back into the saddle of the day, but it’s not so easy anymore. Wouldn’t this be an easy transition? Most of your work can be done at home, anyways. You have all your books. You have a working computer, a stablish internet connection. You have assignments, tasks, lectures to keep your days ordered and organized. Yet, you can’t catch a break. Although you cannot master the dance of the new normal, your graceless feet-tripping is in sync with everyone else whose feet clatter in this endless night. Every day is Friday evening, but you have the flu.

In the first few weeks, you were feeling good. You’re still gainfully employed and grateful. You did not quite ache for the presence of others, but found the sudden prohibition on connection unnerving. You formed a closed loop with friends to steady the course, and vowed to hang out with only one another as you wait for this nauseating song to end. Yet it whirs on, your feet ache, and no doubt you and your selected friends have outgrown the charm of one another’s presence. There are voices in my ears telling you things you know are not true, as is prone to happen every time the seasons change. April showers water the flower of dread in your mind’s garden.

The semester picks up again, and you and the teaching staff for your course stumble your way through the first few sessions. You-all meet perhaps too often, sometimes just to hear the simulacrum of another person’s voice or to consider the facsimile of another person’s face. A cyber fatigue creeps – you know it very well, now. Something about Zoom wrings you out. A day full of back-to-back meetings and go-see’s around New Haven is the equivalent of two one-hour Zoom meetings, during which you have not moved from that uncomfortable chair in your living room. You sigh because you’re tired of talking to people. You sigh because you miss talking to people.

You go on walks around your neighborhood. At first you do not like this. You are disturbed by how few people wear face masks. You wear yours in order to remind people of their lack of consideration for the health and wellbeing of others. They’re so selfish, you sneer in the vault of your mind. On the days you forgot yours at home, you feel every particle that lands on your body. You are nauseated by every surface you must touch. Every door handle and credit card terminal fills you with dread. You wash your hands, but you never count to 20 (or is it 40? You can’t remember). You wash your hands with scalding hot water, because your mother said that only hot water can kill germs. But viruses aren’t alive, and thus cannot be killed.

You listen to the news as you get in your morning exercise. Or maybe you listen as you eat your third bowl of Cheerios. Who can judge you, sitting there in your underwear on your couch, your cat (or a friend’s cat) skating around your feet? Korva Coleman tells you about something stupid and/or terrible that the president said in his now-daily coronavirus briefings. You laugh at the absurdity, or your furl your brows – there is no difference. You complete another uninspired set of sit-ups and feel the muscles tense under your paunch of quarantine weight. Outside it’s raining.

The semester is over and you let out a sigh of relief. You finish your grading, send out your grades and wish your students a good summer. Then you find that you have nothing left to do. It’s the end of April, and you’ve given yourself until June to begin working on your dissertation. You come up with all sorts of funny ideas on how to fill the month between now and then. They are funny because they are absurd — you lack the discipline or the resolve to get them done. You clean your apartment for the fourth time this week. You take your daily two-hour nap.

You’ve taken up alcohol as a hobby. The clerk at the liquor store at the end of the block now recognizes you, even when your face is covered by your repurposed pillowcase mask. You smile to greet her as you enter, but she can’t see it. You buy your six pack of Lagunitas, your Spanish red, your bargain whiskey. You swipe from behind the plastic curtain draped between you and her.

You find yourself in “the weird part” of YouTube. Why do yo find videos about wasp nests being removed from the inside of walls so fascinating? You love when the man pulls out the fat wriggling grubs and feeds them to his clucking hens. You watch with contentment as a mink flushes rats from their underground dens, only for their necks to be snapped by a motley crew of hounds. Your YouTube algorithm is entirely fucked up. This is who you are now.

You break social distancing protocol every week, it seems. Sometimes you go to the store simply because you know you shouldn’t. Sometimes you meet your dealer and he chats you up in his dirty car for far too long. You don’t know where he’s been, who’s company he’s kept. You may have even had an illicit Tinder date out of desperation, your body starving, your mind ratty with stir-crazy boredom. The two of you are so anxious that whatever happens between you isn’t very good. And even if it’s good, this person has already proven themselves reckless and irresponsible. You two have no future together. Of course you never speak again.

You’ve gotten fat.

You’re hungry all the time.

Are you depressed?

You’ve started talking to yourself… or now you’re more comfortable doing it without the fear of someone in the hallway, through the wall, hearing you.

You started reading a book and did not finish. It’s like you can’t absorb anything. You read the same lines over and over again. You give up and check what’s going on on Twitter. When you put your phone down, the book has tumbled to the floor and it’s now nighttime.

You miss your mother.

You’re wearing that shirt again. When was the last time you did laundry? Changed your sheets? Brushed your teeth?

You have so many plans for when outside opens again. First is brunch with your friends. Bottomless mimosas. Laughter. Sunlight. Next is a concert. You’ll match your mask with your fit. That should be enough, right? Then maybe a quick trip somewhere to spread the ick. A poor Caribbean country too desiccated by the sudden drop in tourism that they don’t turn you back at the border. Hot sand between your toes. American food served poolside by brown servants coughing in their elbows. Cocktail umbrellas. Pinyah coladas. You wake up from your fantasy. 80,000 Americans dead.

It seems a package from Amazon is waiting for you every morning. You feel conflicted because Bezos is trash and people are dying in Amazon warehouses. Each parcel could be contaminated. You wash your hands after handling, although you feel like it doesn’t eve matter. You don’t want to support this company anymore, but you also don’t have much of a choice. You’ve been conditioned to not tolerate anything other than two-day shipping. Why wait 8 days for your conditioner to arrive, when it could be here by tomorrow at 8pm, for two dollars cheaper? You order because you alone cannot defeat Bezos’ monopoly and you feel defeated. When your purchase arrives twenty seven hours later, you’ve already forgotten that you’re upset.

This is your life in the bunker, cruising along the Möbius strip. Your new normal. You stare out your window, and for a minute you forget that you’re in the endtimes. A cardinal is singing somewhere. Fat bellied robins pick at worms in the grass. The trees bud, blossom, thicken, scatter pollen, dance in the breeze.

The air is cold, but the sun sings of the coming of spring. The trees wave to one another. For them, very little has changed.

Image by Papa Ibra Tall

good riddance

I began 2019 on a plane to Paris. I was going to conduct some archival research, or at least this was my excuse. In hindsight, I didn’t really do much research, although I did spend most of my time in the belly of the BnF. I went for the purpose of pushing myself to do something I found kind of frightening. The prospect of traveling to another country unaccompanied made me a bit too aware of how free I truly am. I write this two days after leaving the infantile protection I still enjoy within my parent’s presence, having returned to New Haven where I’m entirely an adult, like it or not. A year ago, the notion of my independence, much coveted as a child, filled me with an unanticipated kind of dread. Even though I had technically been living on my own as an adult during my first two years of grad school, I hardly felt as if I really was independent. Yale had taken over my guardianship, was paying me an allowance, taking me to my doctor’s appointments while giving me enough space to think I was doing all of these things myself (all that’s changed is my awareness of this). Yet, I still found myself frightened by my own freedom. The existential cliff of being autonomous and ungoverned, finally cast off into dark and ominous waters. I could go to Paris and have experiences I think I need. I could stay and wonder what would have happened had I gone. In both scenarios, I would be forced to bear my own consequences.

            I had to acknowledge that it was me who controlled the tempo and key of my life.

                        That this frightened me so much, as I was forcing myself to apply for the grants, come up with the project description, get the letters of recommendation, buy my tickets, and book my lodging, told me one important thing about myself: I did not trust myself. I had my freedom finally, but I did not know what freedom meant or that freedom could possibly feel so undesirable once it was attained. The burden of choice, the threat of repercussions. Placed atop my feigned belief in being able to handle anything the world or God threw my way, my mental composition seemed unfit to handle the everyday crisis of being. At times I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, that things were too hard. Like most people my age, I leaned into the web of lies that tells us that other people can steel our resolve, that things like love and companionship can illuminate the sea’s darkness. I grew lovesick for love I’ve never had. The notion of friends having social connections to which I was not firmly attached bothered me, because I perceived of their activities together, as friends among themselves, as based on my exclusion. How absurd, but one cannot really be aware of oneself when they are so preconditioned to silence reason when feeling takes the mic. I expected people to just “get me” and for me to just “get people,” because it all seemed so easy when I looked in on other people’s lives.

            My voyeurism told me that I was insufficient in some way. I had convinced myself that something out there could fix the aching lack, and I was disappointed when I could not manage to find this something.

            All the while, I had not been able to name what was ailing me.

            I was too naïve to realize that my pain wasn’t any different than anyone else’s, and that for most it was a tolerable, perhaps even permissible, pain. A pain for which the word pain may seem even too harsh, too acute. Not a pain, but an ache. Not an ache, but discomfort. A bit of gas Indigestion. Nausea.

I started wondering at 14 if, when I was being assembled at the plant, someone had fastened something a bit too tight

Added a bit too much of a strong ingredient.
Overcooked, overstuffed, ruined it?

Had someone let the pot boil dry?
And if so, must the boy be thrown away?

Continue reading “good riddance”

How I’ve grown during my second year of graduate school

Summertime, and the living is easy.

Hey. It’s been a while. I’ve been away from my blog, trying to figure some things out about myself. I have let myself go in more ways than one, and am in the process of (re)injecting some discipline back into my life. It’s hard. I often want to give up, and find that an amorphous life, while undesirable, is certainly easier. But then I get frustrated with a formless, shapeless, shiftless life and fly into a fit of trying to do too much, only to slip even further into a voided life. I’m on my way, though, and that’s all that matters.

Continue reading “How I’ve grown during my second year of graduate school”

year in review: onwards

If you try your best, you can.
If you try your best, you can.
The best you can is good enough.

“Optimistic,” Radiohead, Kid A

It’s the end of August and school is about to start again. For the past month, I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about my upcoming second year of graduate school. Throughout this summer I’ve been slowly and carefully reading the marginalia from my first year of graduate study, unpacking situations, reliving conversations, and trying to learn from my experiences. I was unhappy, perhaps the most unhappy I’ve ever been in my life. Everything I had once thought about myself, the great pillar of my self-worth, seemed suddenly called into question. I was worried that I had made a mistake in coming to grad school, or in picking Yale, or in deciding on a research topic which seemed to get more frayed and frayed at its edges. I was unsure of what it meant to be a scholar, of how scholarly writing or scholarly reading should look. I was disenchanted with academia and uncertain of the weight of my dreams. I was unsure of myself as a person, not really aware of how people understood me, displeased with how my friends had begun to treat me, and unsure of how to remedy these situations. I was very lonely, and I felt at times as if no one wanted to be around me. I began to think I was a person undeserving of close friends.

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Year in review: picking myself back up

I haven’t been doing well this year. Lots of things have happened (that’s intentionally vague) and I didn’t have any time during the semester to sit down and process everything. Perhaps this is why the summer is always terrible for me; I suddenly have all of this idle time to think about the previous semester, to unpack statements, review glances, scrutinize past decisions. And it’s only coincidental that my summers are always full of idle time to just sit around and think, instead of busy doing things, being places, focusing on something more present. Anyways, I have been trying to write a post reviewing my first year of graduate school. Each time I sat down to type it out, I was disappointed with what I produced. It is not wise for me to begin writing when I am already anxious or sad, and while that may have worked in the past, I find it only makes me feel worse, while also making me self-conscious about the language and syntax I am using. The first draft was okay, but I lost it. The second draft was awful, and I haven’t looked at it. I am feeling optimistic about this one, although I know that it will take multiple posts to really doing the work of isolating and growing from the past year.

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winter blues

It’s taken me eight semesters of college for me to realize that I don’t like the spring semester. My emotions are all over the place because of my seasonal affective disorder, and I have a hard time being focused. I described to my friend today that fall semester is usually imbued with this excitement, and charged by the prospect of new beginnings. New friends, new classes, new experiences, new adventures. Yet, the spring is more or less biding time – waiting things out until the weather gets warmer, or until I have concrete summer plans. I am less inclined to make new friends, and feel almost ambivalent about maintaining the relationships I’ve built. I have these light therapy lamps (they’re not; they’re LED lamps which I was told “are just like light therapy”), and I sit under them often, but it doesn’t help much.

Time for some updates.

I have not been writing as much I had hoped. Lol, New Year’s Resolutions. I wish I could tap into that fount of creative energy from junior fall, when I first started this blog, and posted something every other week. It’s not necessarily because I have a lot going on right now. This semester, as I said, has been a little odd emotionally, but it is what it is. Right now, I’m fine, which is why I am writing to you all, and not to myself, as I had done last week. The manuscript project(s) I’ve been working on have been put to the side, although I do occasionally glance over it/them when I have the time. I have been rereading old work in between studying and writing my thesis, which is productive, and my ability to read without trying to change everything has gotten much better. Nevertheless, I feel creatively stifled right now, and I’m not sure why. I have all these cool ideas for blog posts, like this one I’ve been mulling around for a year now on race as a visual culture, or other posts which would be a little less monumental like a piece about Marxism / Marxist cultural studies, a piece about cultural ideology, and more posts about doing research & being a student, but I haven’t sat down and said “Let’s write this thing.” Hopefully in the coming weeks, when I am not so busy working on my thesis, I’ll be able to focus more on this, but that’s what I was hoping for for this semester, since I was done with grad school apps. Hm, I’m sure the spark will come back.

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