A different kind of scary

I haven't even started writing, and already I'm feeling overwhelmed. A bit scared, even, which I guess is appropriate given today's date.
There is so much to process. From the last year or so, in general, but especially the last two weeks. Writing has generally been my way of working through things, trying to understand them, put them in context, make them real. But now, after so many pages written of an entirely different sort, writing in a journal feels strange.
I'll get the hang of it again, I guess.

My first instinct is to record, try to write it all down and commit it to permanent memory and a nice clean storytelling format. However, I know that if I go down that road, I will end up with one or more aborted entries that fizzle out before they reach any sort of conclusion, and then the guilt will build, and I'll put off writing anything new until I've finished the old stuff, and... well, we've been there before. It all ends in tragedy. Instead, I'm going to try to jot down a few fragments here today, as they come to mind. More may appear in the future, scandalously out of context and order. I think my best bet for longevity this time around is to avoid trying to force my head into any sort of logical mold, and just go with the flow. It may make for confusing reading, but even when I try to make sense I often fail, so why fight it?

I realize that, according to the unspoken and unwritten yet eerily universal canons of the online journal, I should have a new title to commemmorate the start of a new era, or some such elevated concept. But, um, I happen to like my title just fine, it fits like those ancient jeans that I cannot bear to throw away although they should never be worn in public. I suppose that simile falls down a bit since I am indeed wearing this journal in public, but, well, I'm just all nonconformist like that. See me not caring about following the rules! I'm such a rebel.

Oh, and one last meta-note before I get to the actual content portion of this entry (assuming there's going to be one, which may be an erroneous assumption). While I have no desire to be anonymous according to any meaningful definition of the term, I've decided to hold off on using my full name in relation to the journal. "Things" are approaching a point at which there may actually be people occasionally running searches on my full name, and I'd rather avoid certain moments of embarrassment and/or annoyance. So I'll just be going by my first name (not that there are many Dawns in Italy, but it's a start), or sometimes using my nickname Plin (which used to be confined to my husband, but has now become a pretty normal form of address). I'd like to ask you to do the same, should you ever feel the need to refer to this journal anywhere online.

So. I was saying...

We just got back, two days ago, from a trip. This was no ordinary vacation, though: it was all about closure.

The thesis defense was not at all what I expected. I actually didn't have any clear expectations, just fragments of other people's experiences and my own fears, stirred into a foaming potion that twisted my innards into balloon animals just thinking about it. I knew I had to drink it, but mostly I just wanted to ignore it.
Documentary evidence that it's a real placeThe morning after we arrived in Memphis, slouching tiredly into the brand-new and surprisingly vast Holiday Inn managed by university students, greeted with a lovely arrangement of well-wishing flowers from my sister and a close family friend, we made our way through the morning chill to the journalism building. (I am told that no one realized this was a degree in journalism, which amuses me. My topic is indeed such a far-flung relative, there are no obvious shared genes, but journalism it is.) It was a strange feeling to wander about this campus I'd never seen before, never even really imagined as a tangible place, although I'd been enrolled for four years. I was seeing my soon-to-be alma mater for the first time, and it was strange but oddly reassuring. It was a surprisingly lovely campus, which makes it sound as though I expected it to be a dump, but... well. State-funded urban campus in the mid-South? I guess I kind of did. I stand duly chastised.

We were greeted with a warmth and generosity that left us both speechless. Everyone we met was so kind, so overflowing with charm and compliments and good-natured teasing ("You're flying out Friday afternoon? There's no way you'll finish all the changes before Sunday at the earliest. You'd better reschedule."), we felt at home right away. That sounds like a cliché, but I mean it quite literally. We were walking over to the Piggly Wiggly for groceries to stock the refrigerator in our hotel suite (in a surprise move, the bill was footed by the department, for which we were exceedingly grateful), having coffee in the student center, working in the computer lab of the graduate student lounge, and I even got to give an undergrad directions to a professor's office. It was a real grad student moment, and I felt as though I truly belonged.

So, the defense itself? That was the next day, after the department secretary had taken us on a driving tour of Memphis and fed us barbecue and had us wander down Beale Street (pronounced "Bill Street", which caused a bit of confusion at times) and took us to the genteel lobby of the Peabody Hotel (the ducks had already retired for the evening, alas). Jet lag popped my eyes open at 2 a.m., and nerves kept me from being able to close them again. I passed the time frantically re-reading my thesis, terrified of a moment like this:

PROFESSOR: So, I see on page 246 you say blickety-bloo, whereas earlier, on page 187, you maintain the exact opposite. How do you propose to resolve this inconsistency, which renders your entire 350-page thesis devoid of any value whatsoever?

DAWN: [silently implodes]

Cramming for the defense in the wee hoursFinally, as the witching hour of 10 approached, we made our way back over to the journalism building, Dario carrying my books like a high school boyfriend. (He also took about 40 pictures, which I managed to delete the next day by accident along with all of those from the previous evening. It was very upsetting, and I shall never mention it again.)

When I was finally called into the room, I was carrying a hard copy of my thesis (which filled two ring binders) and a cup of coffee. My advisor and the department chair were waiting for me, with my third committee member on speakerphone from Philadelphia. I tried to relax, you can imagine just how successfully. After a brief introduction, my advisor turned to me and said, "So, Dawn, tell us how you happened to choose this topic, what you were trying to accomplish, and what you think is the next step in your process." I, being me, then proceeded to recount the story of my life. Hey, it's a thesis based on a nonlinear approach, what do you expect?

I eventually managed to stop, my voice trailing off as I realized I couldn't really think of anything else to say. Silence ensued. My advisor said, "Okay, then, I'd like to open this meeting to the committee. I'd like to invite anyone who has any questions or comments for Dawn to ask or make them at this time." I steeled myself. More silence. From the speakerphone, Committee Member #3 said, "Mr. Department Chair, why don't you begin?"
It was starting. I shifted to the edge of my chair. He adjusted his glasses and peered at a sheet of paper on his desk, then looked at me. I was ready.
Not for what came next, though. In essence, about forty minutes of the three of them exclaiming about how wonderful I was, how ground-breaking and exciting my thesis, how clear and fluid my writing, etcetera etcetera ohmygod. Oh, sure, they asked questions, but of an entirely unexpected kind, like, "When this is first published as a book, do you expect to encounter more opposition from managers who are unfamiliar with the theoretical premise, or academics who have invested their entire career in maintaining positions that you have shown to be completely wrong?" I exaggerate, but only very slightly. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. It still hasn't.

The defense was meant to provide closure, or at least that's what I thought. It was to mark the end of a long and exhausting process. Instead, it proved to be the beginning of a surreal time, during which I was invited to join the faculty of two universities, it was suggested that I author a chapter in a book by one of the most important names in the communications field, conduct seminars in Rome and Switzerland, chair a program in London, send my manuscript to a publisher people have actually heard of... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. I know it sounds as though I'm bragging, but I'm actually still trying to figure out just what happened. That foaming potion turned out to be a delicious home brew, and I'm still drunk from it.

The Suspects (and a few others) invade Cowgirl Hall of FameThen, there were the people. People who gathered in Manhattan to help me celebrate, people who wrote and called with congratulations, people who sneakily organized and attended a surprise party just last night, people who gave me gifts and just generally bowled me right over with their thoughtfulness. I am in awe at the generosity that surrounds me right now, because it honestly never occurred to me that this whole academic adventure of mine even registered on the radar of anyone outside my own household.

So, it's been a scary time. But scary in a good way. Now, the scary part is the dreaded question everyone asks eventually: what comes next?
I hope that turns out in a good way, too. Whatever happens, you'll know about it. Me and my mountains of nonlinear words and endlessly parenthetical thoughts are back. Scared?