Tuesday, June 12, 2007

No Wake.

So said the sign as I stared across the Chicago River. The water is tinged green rather than the bright blue of the lake. I’m not sure why – if I find out on my boat tour tomorrow, I’ll be sure to let you know. The sound of running water is strangely drowned out by traffic and whistles and city noise. I found it strangely pleasant to watch the water and the people milling about in front of our table. Everything was progressing, I thought, glancing at the sign that warned the boats, but gently. I sighed, feeling comfortable. I pondered it for a moment, then mentally shrugged and smiled after the waiter took our order.

“So.” I said, turning to face my companion, “how are things?”

Advisor had arrived in the middle of the afternoon, meeting me in the lobby as we had previously arranged, then heading to a table outside at my suggestion. He ordered a burger and soda while I snacked on fries he ended up finishing. We spent a little over an hour outside, speaking of politics and goals, salaries and taking interviews you don’t necessarily want to increase your future salary. I spoke of my problems with how some of my peers appear to treat their students, and he pursed his mouth while he considered.

I mentioned some of my problems at work – areas I find excruciatingly frustrating because they’re so needlessly difficult. He nodded and shrugged, offering that there were different problems everywhere and being sympathetic and encouraging.

“It’s just political in a subtle way, but problems seem to pop up far too often for me. Perhaps it’s temperament or fit or something, but it just seems awful some days and fantastic others. Did you protect us from all of that? Or was it just better at Grad City?”

“Better in some ways, protected in others, worse in still others.” He guessed. “And,” he paused, adjusted the bun on his burger, looked away, then spoke, “you had more than your share of politics at the end.”

I nodded, wondering what to say as my attention drifted to the sign across the water. Gentle, I told myself. We can move forward and not create something disturbing behind us. We haven’t spoken of my defense since I left, though we’ve exchanged polite emails about paying for color figures (he did), providing letters for grants (he did), and informing him as my publications were slowly accepted. If there were questions, students contacted me directly. This was fine – Advisor and I just avoided each other when possible.

The thing is that I really liked and respected him. We got along well, and I spent hours over the years in his office, saying I wasn’t good enough and receiving the encouragement and reassurance I needed. We talked science and service and balancing hobbies and work. He was consistently supportive, providing plentiful supplies and software and opportunities for collaboration. Though he sometimes worried he wouldn’t find money to send us to meetings, we always ended up traveling. He, conversely, would sometimes stay behind. I liked him – had chosen to work for him and wanted him to be pleased with what I’d done.

“Things got better,” I decided to confide, “after those papers got published. I was really afraid I was stupid and inadequate until I got them in print. Terrified that you were all right until those reviewers said the work was good enough after all.”

He winced and sighed. Opened his mouth, then closed it. “I’m glad it’s better.” He finally offered quietly. “When you sent the email about your cover, I sent it to your whole committee. I was proud of you - am proud of you - and I still regret… Well.” He stopped and took a bite, giving himself time to think.

I thought about it very briefly before changing the subject. I wasn’t going to apologize for saying disrespectful things before I left. I don’t know what happened in closed door meetings, and find I don’t need to know now. I also don’t need apologies, I suppose.

I do want us to be OK. So we exchanged gossip about colleagues – he knows faculty, I know students and our acquaintances overlap enough that talking is very interesting. There are problems at Grad City of which I hadn’t known, as well as some successes he hadn’t shared in the years that I’ve been gone. Likewise, he was eager to hear about my grant, offering a new letter to accompany the resubmission. He grinned at the news of my chapter and sat back with raised eyebrows at the mention of my possible trip to Italy. He looked appropriately impressed and pleased, I decided. We shared family news and I got to coo over new pictures of his children, then we paid our separate checks and headed in our different directions.

I met with Carrie – she’d called 5 times but I hadn’t had my cell phone with me as I sat by the river and mended hurt feelings that lingered too long.

“How was it?” She whispered as we sat in a session.

“Good.” I offered quietly in return. “Really good, actually.”

“Did you yell?”

“No.” I shook my head and smiled. “I never planned to. I like him – I wanted us to be friendly again.”

“Forgiving.” She said with a shake of her own head. “Nice.” She continued to characterize me. “Strange.”

I shrugged and listened to more people talk, feeling peaceful.

She finished her talk later in the afternoon and ordered me to attend a dinner with some of her colleagues. I sighed, but wandered along behind her with another young woman who works with Carrie.

“I feel weird.” Suzy noted. At my inquiring look, she elaborated. “I work with those people and I was standing there when they were inviting Carrie, but I wasn’t invited to this thing. So I don’t feel like I should go.”

I nodded in understanding and frowned. I avoid exclusive parties. It’s just not my thing.

But I followed anyway and stopped when we entered a pretty bar in one end of the hotel. There were 4 older faculty members – all men – and a group of young, pretty women. Suzy and I – the only uninvited guests drug along by Carrie – were the only ones who didn’t fit the mold of thin and fashionable and rather sexy. As everyone snuggled together on the overstuffed furniture to make room for Carrie to join them, I frowned darkly. I didn’t like the vibe, though I absolutely know it’s all in my head. It just felt weird and looked strange and I shook my head at my friend as she motioned me toward a stool.

“I’m going up to the room.” I said and watched her frown at me. “I’m just not up for this.” I said, motioning at her boss between pretty blondes, and hoping I wasn’t wrinkling my nose too obviously. As I walked toward the elevator, I ran into Advisor as he was heading out himself.

“Hey,” he greeted me, “I thought you were going out.”

“I was. Now I’m not.” I offered, then smiled at him. “It just wasn’t my thing.”

He glanced over my shoulder and nodded. Then we spoke of jobs he thought I might like, offering to send me email with introductions to relevant people. I accepted easily and said again that it had been nice to see him.

“It was the best part of my day.” He said. “Thank you for meeting with me – I’m really glad we got to talk.”

“Likewise.” I smiled. “I appreciate you taking the time.”

“So you’ll come visit?” He said. “Let me know if you’re ever back in Grad City?”

“Of course.” I said easily. “I’d like to give a seminar sometime.”

“This year?” He asked immediately. “I’ll get you on the schedule when I get back if you’d like.”

I nodded, thinking that would be fun, and hugged him good-bye. Mentoring is hard, I’m sure. Balancing self interest versus what’s best for your students, offering advice while still figuring out your own life, managing multiple projects and interests and papers. I don’t envy faculty – much as I might criticize, I really am awed by the job some of those folks perform.

I’m not sure I fully understand it, but Advisor and I seem OK. Maybe it was time, maybe we both let good history override the awful moments, perhaps we understand that allies are far better than enemies as we work through the world of research. Regardless, I’m content as I spend the evening alone after room service and a nice shower and television.

Plus, it’s not as if I had lunch with Pete.

1 comment:

Katya said...

girl you have been busy!

and i have been lazy...:(

sorry i abandoned reading you.but im back now!witha vengeance!

maisha

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