What I Hated the Least Today 202/365: Doctors

What I Hated the Least Today 202/365: Doctors

I have an insurance card and I'm not afraid to use it
I have an insurance card and I’m not afraid to use it

I have a health insurance card. That in itself isn’t particularly surprising, as where I live, health insurance is obligatory. My card is special though because I made it so – I had my academic titles added on it because I could. Where I live, academic titles are a decorative property – it won’t earn you a living, but it will earn you a better approach from people. I’d almost venture to say that my PhD secures me a humane treatment, but I don’t want to push my luck too far.

Since you present your insurance card to staff before you are granted any treatment at all, the staff that will attend to you will know that you’re a fellow doctor. It’s seriously working wonders. Some of the doctors and nurses I dealt with were not only polite, they were positively friendly. I know this to be not the default behaviour. As all of them took vivid interest in my titles and inquired how to enter them in the correct order in my medical files, I’m sure that it was a smart move to adorn my insurance card with the little extras that make people treat me nicer.

From Academia to Actual Life; or, The Downward Spiral

From Academia to Actual Life; or, The Downward Spiral

I waited for five years to start serious work on my dissertation. During that time, I became chums with the dean, since I was constantly writing him requests for the extension of my studies. My department was well pleased with the extensions because a student proofreading and editing workforce can be more easily underpaid and overworked than a regular employer. Fair enough. As my fifth year of studies drew to its close, I inquired when the date was set for submitting one’s dissertation. There was no date set, but the committee board was kind enough to contrive a random date for me. This happened to be about a month or two earlier than I reasonably expected. Serve me well for asking.

While I optimistically assumed that there would come the time when I’d be ready to write my 120-page manuscript, it turned out that one was never ready. With the deadline looming in two months, I gathered my research so far and discovered that only my reading notes would provide material enough for several full-length books. Even if boring ones. The idea of a dissertation is to have a main idea called the thesis. It’s rather hard to find a solid main idea in literature, unless the idea is that the writers write. Not much of an original thesis. Equally difficult was to determine the purpose of the dissertation. Besides getting a doctorate, a dissertation in literature obviously has no practical purpose.


To cheer myself up, I paid a social visit to the head of the department to inquire if she’s keeping me as a department member after I graduate. She isn’t, because to get a position in literature, someone has to die to vacate the place, and as to proofreading, the department does not wish to go this way. The latter argument comes across as hilarious: obviously, a proofreader is least wanted at a department dealing with languages and literatures. Perhaps I should try a department of nuclear science. I could proofread their formulas. The news from the department head was slightly in odds with the informal communications I had been receiving from other department members, who expressed their hope that I would like to stay with them in future.

Thus reassured of the pointlessness of my undertaking, I proceeded to painstakingly craft my dissertation. I did not deceive myself in thinking that the examination committee would actually read the piece, but they are sure enough to open it at a random page and tear it into pieces. Not literally, but literary. Curiously, I reached the target page count a week before the deadline. That shocked me out of my senses. I expected to be finishing the morning of the deadline day and having the work bound in hardcover, as required, by using an extra special extra super extra hot extra fast binding service and paying a week’s wages for it. Instead, I casually strolled to the shop and had my order ready three days before the deadline.


Meanwhile, my job hunt wasn’t going well. I applied for several academic positions, all of which required a PhD or a soon completion thereof but for some reason wouldn’t take my promise of graduating soon too seriously. I don’t blame them. Some potential employers abroad were bluntly racist in demanding a previous knowledge of the language of the country, presumably because they wish to teach English literature in a language other than English, so abiding by the laws of logic. It’s not really racist, but it’s languageist for sure. At an interview for an English teaching position in a commutable distance from my home, my academic me was confronted with the actual world. I incurred a few bumps and a lapse back to my smoking habit when I realised that no job in public education would earn me enough to cover the elementary living expenses. This particular job would pay the rent and the commute. But I’m not sure that I can stop eating.

I was chuckling when leaving the interview room because, apart from its being admittedly inconvenient, it’s quite funny how things fail to work. So far, I’m failing to work as well, and I’m looking forward to visiting the labour exchange the first thing in their office hours. Of course, I don’t suspect that they would get me a job, but I expect to have a lot of fun face in face with the clerk. I enjoy not working for a while, but it’s a lot of work to look for work, it’s even more work than an actual work. Besides working on finding a work, I’m working on my own work, which is the implementation of a free-lancing plan. I figure I might just as well be a starving free-lancer in the comfort of my home rather than a starving employee in the friendly and dynamic working environment of a supermarket chain. I’ll keep you posted!

My Black Friday the 13th; or, Screech, Screech, Screech

My Black Friday the 13th; or, Screech, Screech, Screech

I’m not superstitious. But my recent Friday the 13th was like Friday the 13th.

The horror started soon after Thursday turned into Friday. I was burning the midnight oil, marking second-try essays of students who are not even my students. They are preys to Professor Womack, as much as me, who deals with those students whom the professor fails the first time. It is part of the package of my doctoral student duties – that means, I’m not paid for my trouble. It toughens one up though. Consider this conclusion from an attempted literary critical essay by a last year English Studies major. An authentic excerpt, mistakes not excised:

I found out that Mary and Blanche are different in terms of their origin because Mary is Irish and Blanche is French which gives both difference characteristics. [Professor Womack’s comment: A real discovery! Ha!] With their origin faith is connected, Mary is a believer and Blanche is not. [Enclosed is a bunch of grey hair, which the professor was apparently pulling out as he was reading. His verdict: There exists no grade adequate for this essay. F minus, twice underlined.]

The rewritten essay was a repetition of the same plague with minor variations. I concurred with Professor Womack’s desperate evaluation but did my best to communicate the result euphemistically. The essay falls short of the required academic level in all respects, I wrote carefully. I was wondering how to suggest, without risking that I’ll be sued, that the student might reconsider taking her last, third try, as this would only be a perpetuation of everyone’s misery – when something happened.

A loud high-pitched screech pierced the air, coming from direction of the flat’s corridor. I jerked, and my cat, sleeping on the window sill next to me, twitched her ears and tail and sat up. There was silence. The fridge was humming, the laptop was purring, but there was silence. The cat lifted her huge tragic eyes to me with a hurt look. Sh, shh, mommy doesn’t know what it was either, Ella, go back to sleep, I tried to appease the cat. Unimpressed, Ella curled up and placed her head on her paws so that she could go on staring at me accusingly.

friday-13 (4)
I’ll-murder-you stare

My cat totally hates me. Speaking about enemies who are plotting my demise while excluding my cat (she had an alibi), I thought that the heart-wrenching screech could be the ghost of failed students past. About half an hour later, when I was busy failing another failed essay writer, the next screech occurred. It must have been the ghost of failed students present. The screeching continued to appear regularly at irregular intervals. If it was the ghost of failed students future, I can expect quite a career in this field.

The cat and I went to explore and identify the source of the ghostly noise. It appeared to be the fuses located above the flat’s entrance door. I put on rubber-sole shoes to avoid the hazard of electrocuting my cat in case I electrocute myself, climbed a stool and opened the fuse box. As I was fiddling with the switches, finding nothing extraordinary, another ominous screech came and I nearly tumbled because it was incredibly loud and extremely close. It would be the fuses.

The screeching went on throughout the night and the next day. It seemed to orgasm occasionally, with the intervals between the individual screeches shortening to thirty seconds. Sleeping was impossible, anything was impossible. I occupied myself with running a live journal of the fuses and making a few sex tapes of the fornication with my phone. The cat, surely in order to spite me, soon adapted to the sound and the fury and slept soundly, moving neither limb nor tail.

I napped a few times, though neither a closed door nor a blanket over my head did much to muffle the noise. I woke up with a horrible headache, popped some painkillers for breakfast and called the landlord. He promised he would send over an electrician. Speaking about electricity, that morning I retrieved from the mailbox the first letter to arrive at my new address. It was an electricity bill for my first month. While I did expect it wouldn’t be easy on the wallet, as I don’t take it easy on the heating, I didn’t anticipate that the sum would be the whooping equivalent of my half a month’s wages.

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The sex life of the fuses

I performed a series of Google searches, whose quick succession reflected my increasing frustration:

  • how to cheat an electric meter
  • how to steal electricity from neighbour
  • how to get wifi without electricity
  • how to live without wifi
  • how to kill yourself fast and easy

Sleepless, exhausted and dejected, I was deciding between smashing the fuses (which would solve both the screeching and the electricity bill problem) and smashing the fuses while frying myself (which would solve pretty much everything). As the last resort of the hopeless, it occurred to me that I could stay over with my mother. A sleepover at my mother’s is always an act of utmost bravery and strength. She keeps her flat freezing cold (to avoid the above electricity bill problem), her radio volume loud and her chatter about the latest soap opera developments flowing. Which hell is worse: listening to my mother’s incessant lament over Esmeralda and Fernando’s fate or witnessing first-hand the sex life of the fuses?

[Play below to enjoy the screeching at 04s, 35s and 01.07min]

As I was slowly getting comfortable with the discomforting idea of taking a bus to my mother’s place, smashing her radio, sending her out to walk her dog and taking a nap on her couch, I received a text. It was from my mother. She informed me with regret that she was lying in bed with flu and that she couldn’t understand how she got it. I texted back that her flu might be related to her recent hike across half the town in rain and wind, which she performed for the sake of proving that she can. She accepted the news with disbelief. I accepted her disbelief with disbelief, wondering whether she was sixty or six.

Feeling suicidal but too tired to act on my feelings, I stretched out on my bed in clothes, waiting for Godot the electrician. Later, waking from a Guantanamo-like nap interrupted by each screech, I proceeded to sit in my chair with a death stare on my face and do nothing. Godot wasn’t coming. We’re all going to die here, I told my cat, who ignored me. I called the landlord again, who cheerfully announced that the electrician was coming on Monday. I thanked him with an uneasy mixture of gratefulness and fierce hatred. We’re dead, Ella, I intimated to the cat after I hung up.

friday-13 (3)
One kind of stool

I reached for the last draught of vintage before I die but knocked the glass over and spilled it on the laptop, the smartphone, the table, the floor and the cat. The latter was particularly upset and retired with a threatening meowww in the corridor. She was completely oblivious of the inhuman screeching resounding regularly right above her head – possibly because she is no human but cat. When I dried up the flood in the flat, the doorbell rang. Terrified as if she never heard the sound before, the cat swiftly escaped, climbed her favourite window sill and crouched there, ready to kill. I was tempted to call through the door that if it was Noah, he was late, but it was the landlord.

The landlord asked me about my stool. Sleep-deprived as I was, it took me a while to get that he probably didn’t inquire about my digestion but wanted me to bring something to stand on. I procured the stool. He stepped on it, listened, nodded, and then unscrew the smoke detector mounted next to the fuse box. He took the battery out of the device. The screeching stopped. Is that it?! Have I been subjected to torture for almost twenty-four hours because of a faulty smoke detector battery? I asked. Apparently, yes, the landlord observed drily. I thanked the cat and petted the landlord (maybe the other way round) and collapsed. Wake me up when the Black Friday ends.

Academic Emails: Dear Professors, You Are Funny

Academic Emails: Dear Professors, You Are Funny

The first email that I received in the New Year was by Professor Pfeiffer, one of the aldermen on the board designed to protect, provide for and punish the English Department’s doctoral students as required at a particular moment. In his email, Professor Pfeiffer confused New Year rituals with Christmas rituals and randomly decided to present the gift of a grant project participation to a set of selected students.

I know better than to take the professor seriously, as he is infamous for seeking to impose order on the natural chaos of the academic universe and unerringly failing pathetically in the attempt. Besides his ill repute as an organiser, Professor Pfeiffer has been apparently drinking heavily in celebration of the arrival of the New Year and the exam period, which showed in the curiously contorted language and style of his email:

Dear PhDs-to-be,

a successful New Year is wished to y’all! It is my pleasure to inform you that you have been picked to participate in a grant project that will dispatch you to two conferences abroad and PAY FOR IT. Yay! If you’re not interested, let me know ASAP. Otherwise send me until Saturday [sic!]:

  • details of the conferences relevant to your field that you want to attend
  • justification of the department’s subsidy of these pleasure trips
  • your CV (male students) and your measurements (female students)

Cheers *raises a slivovitz shot*
Mike

I may or may not be fabricating a little, it is however true that the email was written partly in Czech and partly in English, which presented a particular challenge in decoding the meaning. With little hopes in the seriousness of professor’s immodest proposal, I promptly emailed back, attaching my resume, my conferences and my nude photo. Joking distastefully. I chose a conference in Scotland as justified by the strong argument that I do Scottish Literature, and a conference in Finland, based on the explanation that I’ve never been to Scandinavia. I’ve never been to Canada either but I didn’t dare to be too demanding.

The professor didn’t confirm the receipt of my elaborate email because as a professor, he is aloof from the ordinary course of studentkind. I get it. If the academia ever becomes silly enough to award me a professorship, I will soar so high that Google will use me as a vantage point for their bird’s eye view maps.

ScotLit
ScotLit

While I heard nothing from Professor Pfeiffer, I received a bounty of two emails from the head of the department the next day. I was confounded to dumbfounded, wondering what the department’s head has to do with either the grant project, Professor Pfeiffer or me, besides her being the department’s head.

I was honoured by a personalised email first, which I cherish as a holy relic. It was a brief but affectionate note, which is striking, considering that the department’s head scares the head off me and that we are by no means on first name terms – not even on speaking terms for the matter because I’m afraid of her so much. She wrote with multiple typos that I took the liberty of clearing in this transcript:

Mara, sweetheart, fit your CV in enclosed template. Xoxo, Lena

A group email followed shortly, addressed to about a hundred people who have or had any affiliations with the department in the past ten years or so, including drop-out postgraduates, employees on maternity leave, IT helpdesk, cleaners, the janitor and the ghost of the department chair past. Lena, or Professor Vickerman, neither uses blind copy nor does she ever update her mailing list, and there’s no Unsubscribe link either. Thus she wrote to half of the small university town as follows:

Cheers, PhDs,

very nice conference requests you sent to me, very nice and very smart, but. But one of the conferences HAS TO TAKE PLACE IN 2016!! So, off to the darknet you go and don’t return until you have one conference for 2016.

Good luck. *evil laugh*
Professor Elena Vickerman
English Department Head-ress
University of Eastern Patagonia
Address, phone etc. etc. etc.

I was wondering who plans ScotLit conferences two years ahead. I’m not wondering anymore because I soon knew the answer. No one. There is one conference known to be in 2016 distantly related to the subject, which is the big-time big-deal all-around annual gathering of the European Society for the Study of English. I neither precisely study English, nor do I particularly want to go to a mass event of this scale, but. But I’ve never been to Galway, Ireland, so. I’ll keep you posted – in 2016!

Editing; or, Annotating Another’s Annotations of My Annotations

Editing; or, Annotating Another’s Annotations of My Annotations

I knew a professional disaster and a workplace feud was impending the moment when Professor Womack promoted me to a co-editor of a post-conference publication of papers on poetry. I’m the least likely co-editor of such volume – that is, the least likely second only to the chief editor, who shall not be named. It’s one Doctor Martin Simmons.

An inside informant enlightened me that Martin is convinced that I don’t like him. Apparently, he arrived at this not quite incorrect conclusion after I repeatedly pretended I didn’t see him. Martin is however preposterous to believe that he is receiving any special treatment on my end; I am the person known to pretend on the regular that she doesn’t even know her mother. I just don’t like people.

I don’t like people in general and I don’t like Martin in particular. He’s the department’s troublemaker. When he doesn’t cause trouble, he does nothing. This is the best option, since when he doesn’t do nothing, he experiences short intense bursts of chaotic activity. This leads to trouble and we’re back to square one. And I don’t like squares.

Martin has one skill. He speaks his mother tongue. As this happens to be English, he might admittedly come in handy at the English Department. It was a wildly extravagant idea to entrust him with editorial work though. Because editors, those dry unhumorous creatures crouching in front of their flickering screens, follow rules, for your information. I’m talking to you, Martin.

I received all papers for proofs after Martin had brutally molested them editing-wise. He was apparently working with multiple softwares on multiple devices, so Windows was violently clashing with Linux, and blood and bytes were dripping from the screen. He was also working under all sorts of conditions, including drunk, high, asleep, comatose and combinations thereof.

Nope, we are no Oxford University Press
Nope, we are no Oxford University Press

The department’s expert in the Chicago Manual of Style that I am, I imposed its rules on the papers. After removing Martin’s errors, I removed the authors’ errors, while constantly praying to all deities I could think of to remove Martin out of reach of the manuscript. The deities failed me. Try as I did to edit sober, I started drinking at last, condescending to work Martin-wise. *sip sip*

I produced a work of love, begotten with my Chicago Style book tucked in my bed, along with me, my husband and my toy mouse. (Toy mouse is not a euphemism please, and absolutely none of us was engaged in any inappropriate behaviour.) Hoping to circumvent Martin, I stealthily emailed my book to the typesetter. I only put Martin’s address in the blind copy field, trusting the copy won’t see him.

All was going fine. So fine actually that I suspected that Martin went for a trip to Belize. Which, I hear, is nice this time of year. (Belize is a euphemism.) I received my typeset book and read it for the hundred and first time. It was a very enjoyable read. Just kidding. I annotated the non-editable .pdf file with requests for the typesetter as to what I’d like to have fixed. At which point a disaster happened.

Martin must have overdosed Redbull to the extent that it woke him from the dead. He stormed the so far smooth publishing workflow with a vengeance and proceeded to annotate my .pdf annotations with his annotations. Martin obviously doesn’t speak Chicagese (as of Chicago Style), while I speak nothing else. As a result of which we spent a night emailing the hardcopy file to and fro and exchanging invectives via its annotations. At one moment I also nearly Skyped him but I was too drunk to dial.

#amediting
#amediting

Below are snippets of our increasingly hysterical serial conversation concerning the usage of the serial comma. Martin learned his English in self-declared backwoods of Vermont, but could it be that the serial comma didn’t make it so far to the north? Did it drown in the Great Lakes while trying to swim from Chicago to the east? Shock was experienced by all as Martin learned about the serial comma from me the first time. (Also, I totally needed Google Maps for this paragraph.)

Mara Eastern, 28. 11. 2014, 00:12:21. Add serial comma please.
Martin Simmons, 28. 11. 2014, 00:56:45. What is that?
Mara Eastern, 28. 11.  2014, 01:36:12. What is what? You mean the comma?

Mara Eastern, 28. 11. 2014, 00:15:42. Serial comma missing.
Martin Simmons, 28. 11. 2014, 01:08:30. Is that some Chicago mumbo jumbo?
Mara Eastern, 28. 11. 2014, 01:38:47. See Chicago Manual of Style § 6.18, p. 312. [And I screamed at my screen, Also known as American English, of which you’re a native speaker.]

Mara Eastern, 28. 11. 2014, 00:24:54. Serial comma.
Martin Simmons, 28. 11. 2014, 01:11:53. Me no likey serial comma.
Mara Eastern, 28. 11. 2014, 01:46:38. ??? [And I yelled at Elizabeth II, which is what I call my second laptop, WTF?!?!?! Meanwhile in Buckingham, the Queen twitched.]

Martin gave up at about three thirty in the morning when I mailed him my annotations of his annotations of my annotations of his annotations of my annotations. It’s not that I blame him. Just kidding. Of course that I blame him and hate him. I would so much love to know how much he hates me in return. Though I doubt that his hatred compares to mine because my hatred for Chicago-illiterate editors is as deep, broad and high as my love for the Chicago Style. *air hearts*

A Quirky Academic Meets a Normal Academic: And Hilarity Ensues

A Quirky Academic Meets a Normal Academic: And Hilarity Ensues

Academia is one of the few places that accommodate quirky people. Which is why I’m there. Annoyingly, academia also includes perfectly normal people. Which is where the clash between the normal and the quirky happens. Guess on which side I am. (If you hazarded “normal”, I forgive you because you must be new here.) As a junior academic at the mercy of senior colleagues, I have it tough. But I fight like an angry grumpy cat.

The other day I received a mail from Professor Pfeiffer, one of the angry old men who guarantee my doctoral study programme. At face value, he asked me to submit my individual study plan signed by me and my supervisor. In between the lines, he was blaming me for not having delivered the document yet and was craving my blood. There ensued an exchange of passive-aggressive mails between Professor Pfeiffer and my supervisor, all of which I received in copy.

Doctor Jefferson, my supervisor, wrote along these lines: Dear Pfeiffer, Mara was the first to come have her documents signed in September. Will you kindly fix the mess you notoriously have in your darn papers? Xoxo, Emma. On which Professor Pfeiffer wrote laconically: What you say may or may not be the case. But I got no papers from her. Pff. When I discovered that the paperwork I was required to procure now was different from the paperwork I had already handed in, I thought it fit to visit Professor Pfeiffer in person to avert a looming feud.

My Scottish blue pencil
My Scottish blue pencil

Except I’m not a people’s person. So in the process of solving one problem, I created a bunch of new ones. I should have known better. I cornered the professor in his office while chancing to wear skinny jeans, furry heels and red lipstick. (My outfit, not the professor’s.) It was clear from my looks that I was meaning business. (Irony intended.) I knocked on his door, and undecided whether I heard come in or not, I proceeded to let myself in using the key left in the door from the outside.

Has no one stolen your keys yet? I said by the way of greeting as my head emerged in the office, the body tentatively remaining outside in case I was not invited. Uh, er, nope, the professor managed to respond but looked as though he were confronting the spectre of a white rabbit. Actually, what he was facing was an army of black owls, which happened to be the print of the obviously work-appropriate shirt I was wearing. (Sardonic sneer.) Come in, sit down, the professor ventured. I waited for him to offer me something. He didn’t. I should have brought my slivovitz.

I initiated a bit of beating about the berry bush, that is, small talk intended to prove me as the normal member of society which I am not. I talked weather (So, it’s freakin’ freezin’, right, professor?), but for mysterious reasons it didn’t work. Also, I’m kidding. As a respectful student with a reputable language register, I spoke thus: Good morning, Professor Pfeiffer, I’m so sorry to bother you, but I’d like to apologise for any inconvenience caused by my failure to submit my paperwork in time. I will rectify this regrettable situation immediately. Please don’t fire me.

The professor seemed well pleased with the outcome, admitting that the individual study plan was a momentary random idea he got on Friday. I understood that instead of going for beer, like any sane person on Friday does, he sat down to contrive a plan how to engage doctoral students in a regular one-to-one interaction with senior department members. With a benevolent gesture, he waved my questioning stare away and observed, beaming with pride, that his brilliant plan was working because I indeed came to him for a talk.

Sticky notes love
Sticky notes love

Whatever. I concluded that Professor Pfeiffer was simply feeling lonely, so I offered I’d come see him more often. He refused in order to save his face. Not a people’s person but a people’s expert nonetheless, I decided that some Scottish Literature talk was what the professor needed. I asked him an academic question or two to cheer him up. It worked perfectly. The professor started purring like Lil Bub and observed casually, Perhaps Professor Berryman is mistaken to believe that you don’t know what you’re doing. On which I screamed internally, WTF?!?!

Now this hurt. A lot. Professor Berryman is the single person with whom I disagree on everything, and more than everything, yet whose lifetime achievement I deeply respect. I actually started to suspect that he hated me, hated me so much when I saw his sternly disapproving face in the first row of a recent conference where I presented my leftist separatist paper. Professor Berryman, of course, is a strictly right-wing globalist who strangely enough managed to retain his visionary optimism throughout his long life, while I lost mine very promptly in the process of growing up. Heck, professor, but does that necessarily mean I don’t know what I’m doing? I’m crying internally.

Disinclined to further discussion as I was processing this mortifying piece of news, I suggested to no one in particular that I could ambush Professor Berryman and demand that he reconsider his shockingly low opinion on me. Professor Pfeiffer contemplated my plan and contended that I might prefer to return home to my proofs. I was wondering whether to interpret this paternal advice as something like, Your research sucks, but cheer up, we need your proofreading. To spite Professor Berryman in absentia and demonstrate that my visionary optimism is not dead yet completely, I decided against this discouraging interpretation. We literary scholars have it tough, always interpreting stuff.

The First Day of a New School Term

The First Day of a New School Term

I entered the new school term with my teeth grinding. Literally. It was when my insomniac spouse shook me awake in the middle of the night and hissed, Stop it, Mara, for god’s sake! He insisted insensitively that I was grinding my teeth. I assured him that it must be only the bed creaking and suggested that he mind his own sleep and don’t interrupt mine. He argued that he woke me to save me from the bad dream that I appeared to be having.

Of course I was having a bad dream, I have nightmares on the regular and I certainly don’t intend to avoid them by not sleeping. (That’s what I didn’t say, I’m not this articulate after a rude wakening – or any wakening, for the matter.) I was dreaming that the doctor who was to do my nose job had the corpse of a patient in his office, a mattress on the floor for a hospital bed, an oil lamp over the operating table and a dirt floor under it. It was all very encouraging.

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I commute to work by trains operated by the national Czech Railways. This is a peculiar company that only employs monsters. Their ticket sellers and collectors are carefully chosen to maintain a top level of professional grumpiness in staff. Rumour has it that if their employer is caught smiling at a customer, he or she is fired on the spot. Their trains were manufactured mostly in the seventies to the eighties of the last century; these machines complete the company’s arsenal of Halloween props.

My train was fifteen minutes late. This was a pleasant surprise. Anytime a Czech Railways service arrives on time, we make it a national holiday. (No, we don’t, but we totally should.) Once seated, I put on a distant stare and began to consider how to frighten my students this time into doing something for my class. When a ticket collector opened the compartment door with a bang and yelled, Getchya damned boots off the seat! This was aimed at a fellow passenger, but I nearly got a heart attack. I wish the ticket lady minded my fragile health.

In my station, I managed to elegantly lower myself from the carriage on the ground without planting my face on the concrete. This was quite an achievement, considering the height of the carriage steps and the limited movement allowed by my narrow work-appropriate skirt. The railway hall was crowded as though it were the first day of a new term. Wait. It actually was the first day of a new term.

I had to go for blood tests before my class. I grew so ridiculously health-conscious when I hit thirty that I requested a preventive care exam. The nurse who took my blood hated my veins. In turn, they shrank with fear and hid from her. The lady vampire kept on poking around my arm with the needle and grumbled in what sounded like Mandarin or Martian. She was kind enough to give me a tiny piece of plaster before shoving me out of the room.

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The department where I teach was deceptively quiet because I arrived to classes in progress. The door of my office, shared with about a dozen fellow doctoral students, was unlocked but nobody was in. Heck, we must tell the new recruits that they’d better lock the door at all times because we want no more thefts here. (Imagine someone would steal my Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition. The horror, the horror!) The door is fitted with a knob from the outside, but it can be opened with a strong pull and a bit of rattling anyway. This was demonstrated to us by a colleague. I didn’t dare to ask how the idea of breaking in even occurred to him.

I headed straight to the heart of the department. Contrary to popular belief, this is not the office of the department head, but the secretary’s office. Our secretary Camille, also lovingly dubbed She Who Knows Everything, is the single person who stands between us and the outbreak of zombie apocalypse. She is barred from leaving the department for holiday for more than two days in a row because without her, nobody would know what to do and lethal chaos would ensue.

I came to ask Camille for the day’s action plan, and I wasn’t disappointed. Besides equipping me with instructions for the new term, she had some documents for me to sign. One of them looked like a job contract. I had no questions because I trust Camille the most. A long time ago, I did inquire to learn more about the erratic payments arriving at my account from the university with irregular frequency and in random amounts. Camille tried to explain the intricacies, failed and advised me not to worry and be happy as long as the cash is coming. Or until we all end up behind the bars. (My remark.)

My handsome senior colleague entered the office and greeted us cheerfully. I retorted with a surprised Oh, why, hello, because it always strikes me how handsome he really is. It’s not normal for anyone who is less than ugly, fat and old to make a career at our department. (Sorry if I don’t know the politically correct terms for ugly, fat and old. Is it interesting, healthy and mature?) However, said colleague is not only a linguist, he’s a translatologist, and because I’m a literature person and proud, any possibility of a mutual understanding between us is obviously precluded.

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Another senior colleague enters the office and is greeted by Hi, Mara, because she happens to have the same name. It always confuses me badly. I ask no one in particular if I may leave now. Given my moderate fame as a proofreader, I hardly ever manage to meet a colleague without incurring a job. Indeed, the handsome translatologist says he’ll email me something; and my namesake retorts that now that I mention it, I can expect 120 pages next week for bibliography proofs. Uh, like a 120 page-book or a 120-page bibliography? Someone behind my back puts a hand on my shoulder and purrs, Easy, easy, a 120-page book. It’s the head of the department. And she scared the hell out of me.

I retire to my empty shared office, decided to soothe myself with some coffee. The shared instant coffee looks as though it had been standing in full sun for the entire summer. It probably had. It’s baked into a solid discoloured block. I wipe the dust out of the least dirty mug, dig into the hard coffee cake and transfer bits of it in the mug. I hope the hot water will disinfect the drink if necessary. Also, I make a mental note to bring my own coffee. I don’t finish the coffee; if coffee it is. On my way to the toilets to rinse the mug, I almost get caught in a crushing crowd of students endlessly streaming from the department’s largest classroom. I hide behind a snack machine to avoid the stampede.

It’s time I go to find my class. I meet Death at the door. It has the shape of an elderly gentleman, neat but very much marked by age. Exactly like the guy who came for Emily Dickinson when she could not stop for death. Death and I have an awkward moment when we both try to open and hold the door for the other. He wins. I slip through the door, murmur Oh, why, thank you and run downstairs. I run the length of the stairs, not because I’m that athletic, but because when you’re running down the stairs wearing heels, they sort of propel you forwards until you hit something. I discreetly hit the wall at the bottom of the stairs to stop myself. Once sufficiently composed, I enter the classroom.

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As it’s the first day of a new term and I teach freshmen, the first thing I ask the students if I’m at the right place and if they’re at the right place. My metaphysical question not only doesn’t amuse them, but sends them fumbling quite confused for their timetables. A quirky teacher that I am, I threaten that trespassers will be revealed and expelled. Shockingly, everyone is in the right class, and what more, the names on my attendance sheet seem to correspond exactly to the students present. Nobody is missing, nobody is extra. This unprecedented order throws me out of balance, and at this point I remember to introduce myself to the class.

Well, hello, I’m Mara, I’ve been assigned to you to teach you write, and you’ll hate me. To illustrate the degree to which my students will hate me, I immediately ask them to move to the front rows. I’m not going to shout across the whole room for nothing. Shockingly, the students shift to fully occupy the two front rows, leaving not a single seat empty. I’m starting to suspect that this bunch of unexpectedly compliant youngsters will turn out to be my smartest class ever. I continue to explain the mechanics of my Academic Writing class, smiling a lot because strangely, the students look even more scared than I am. I conclude that though the intended outcome of the class is that they’ll end up writing like me, the outcome so far has unmistakably been that I ended up writing like them.

My second group this day looks as though they are collectively sleepwalking. They are perfectly unresponsive, and I must tell them bluntly that when I say please put up your name tags, it’s not a suggestion but an instruction. There’s a thin, depressed-looking youth in the first row. He reminds me of someone. After a moment of indecent staring, I decide that he reminds me of him. Apparently he was sitting in the first row too when he was taking the entrance exam that I was overseeing. What’s the chance! I impolitely point a pen at him (he hasn’t put up his name tag yet) and ask to confirm my suspicions. I do not mention that I wrote a poem about him.

I wish some of my students were less interesting. I also wish all of my students were more eager to study. With a sigh, I dismiss the class early because there’s no point in us staring blankly at each other and obviously failing to respond to mental stimuli. I’m very careful not to turn my back at any of the sleepwalkers, lest one of them should turn out to be a vampire and bite into my neck. I want no blood on my favourite scarf. The last thing I remind the sleepy bunch that they still have a week to ponder and possibly choose to unenrol from this class. If everyone unenrols, I’ll have a term off. The first day of a new term made me badly in need of it.

Aside

Dear Dean, Thank You, I Love You

I shared the other day that the future of my academic life or death depended on whether or not the Dean would grant me an extension to complete my doctorate. And *drum roll* a letter by the dear Dean arrived today to this effect! I’ve been allowed another year to finish (or die in the attempt). So, thank you, Dean, and thank you, all, for your support. I love you. I mean, you warm my cold black heart, here and here.

She Studied Long, and She Died

She Studied Long, and She Died

I’ve always been a slow learner. By slow I don’t mean necessarily stupid, I mean actually slow. Starting with the grammar school, I have had hardly any hobbies because I was studying all the time. At the university, it took me ages to prepare for an exam, but then I usually excelled. It is no surprise that it took me eight years to finish a five-year master’s study programme. The students’ advisor and I were on first-name terms, owing to my constant looking for postponing my exams and extending my study time.

Currently I’m stuck on the brink of finishing my doctoral studies. The regular length of study for my subject is three years. Now at the end of my fourth year, I’ve written and sent a formal application to the faculty dean to request another extra year in which to complete my studies. I’m an avid letter writer and I’ve penned a number of such applications already. However, this time the Dean is taking very long to reply, and if he says no, I wonder what happens to my life as I know it.

I could become a Respectable Married Woman. As I am already married, this project would mostly require the replacement of our greyish cement fence by a white picket fence to cement my respectability. I’d become a village teacher, trying and failing to imprint some English on the brains of uninterested brats. Of course, producing offspring of my own would be absolutely required. This scenario would make my family very happy, and it would make me hang myself on a clothes line.

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I could become an Unqualified Immigrant. I’ve never been too fond of my country and I’ve always envied those born to the privilege of the First World. I doubt that any potential employer would be too excited about my English Literature qualifications issued by an obscure Eastern European university. Neither do I suspect that anyone would welcome a non-native speaker with badly accented English for a secretarial position. Currently I’m undecided between opportunities as a cashier and as a cleaner at Walmart.

I could become a Mad Vagrant. That would consist of me packing my books, building a pile from them in Hyde Park and climbing on it to lecture on the virtues of literature. I’d give the books with their authors’ signatures and dedications with my name to my namesake. Then I’d throw the remaining books in a dustbin, set them on fire them to keep myself warm and go hunting squirrels for food. At which point I’d probably be arrested for arson, loitering with intent and animal rights violation.

It seems that the only viable option for me is to stay in the academia, as I’m completely unfit for survival outside of it. Hopefully the Dean knows, though it’s of course none of his business to save student failures from death by real life. My department and I have already become one after all those years; sometimes I dream I have the department’s inventory number tattooed on my ankle. If the Dean says yes, I promise I’ll study more and blog about it less. Seriously.

The Inscrutable Workflows of Academic Publishing

The Inscrutable Workflows of Academic Publishing

Two months ago, I stumbled upon professor Womack, my professor protector, at a conference. This was already a minor miracle, as urban myths surrounding professor Womack speak about his virtual invisibility. I myself have faced him only a few times, even though we closely collaborate on various publishing projects. His surprising presence at this event may have been occasioned by the fact that he organised it.

He took his role of the organiser seriously, as evidenced not only by his very attendance, but also by his wearing a shirt. It’s not that he normally goes shirtless, rather, he notoriously owns only two sets of clothes. One is a thin grey sweater for winter, and the other a faded tee-shirt for summer, both to go with a well-worn pair of nondescript trousers. He has a shock of black-grey hair that he wears Einstein style. His brilliance is famed to match that of Einstein. Even more than Einstein, though, he looks very – academic.

Professor Womack was engrossed in conversation with a senior colleague as I went past him. He is the quintessential socially awkward academic, so as is his custom, he abandoned his conversation partner on the spot and went to pursue a new distraction when he spotted me. I fully expected he would abandon me, too, as soon as he sees someone more interesting, but he kept on talking. I politely followed him as far as to the speaker’s floor, where he began on a new topic. Some audience members mistook our dialogue for the start of the conference programme, and the hall gradually grew silent.

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“So, Mara, has Martin got in touch yet?” inquires professor Womack cryptically, because he assumes that everyone around shares the context of his consciousness. Having no clue what he means but not wanting to look like an idiot, I answer the question with a question: “He didn’t?” Professor Womack pays no heed to the oppressive silence in the lecture hall and threatens: “He shall.” I’m tempted to continue in our Beckettian one-word exchanged by confirming, “Indeed,” but instead I ask what the heck we’re talking about.

Me and the hundred or so people in the audience, who still assume we’re performing for them, learn that Martin should contact me shortly regarding proofs for a book he’s editing. I used to believe erroneously that it’s the editor who does the editing, but experience revealed that it’s a ghost editor who does the heavy lifting. Despite the amounts of heavy lifting that I do, I haven’t developed muscles yet. My strongest muscle being the tongue, I make use of it to inform professor Womack of the five or six tasks that I’m now working on and, oh, also my doctoral thesis. At this point professor Womack is dragged away by a member of staff and made officially open the conference.

It didn’t surprise me that I never saw professor Womack at the conference again after his opening speech. All was silent on the academic front for about another month. Then Martin contacted me. I did the heavy lifting. I didn’t hear from Martin again after I submitted the work. Then my husband calls me that professor Womack called him that he would call me because we have a thing. I find professor Womack’s diverted channelling excessive, but I accept that his ways, like those of god, are inscrutable. I have a missed call from an unsaved number on my phone, so I call back, hoping it’s professor Womack and not some pervert or phone marketer. Professor Womack doesn’t answer, probably because he doesn’t answer unsaved numbers either.

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I eventually reach professor Womack when I use my husband’s phone. Our conversation lasts about half an hour and is exasperating. Professor Womack apparently got hold of Martin’s manuscript, and the sloppy editorial work he saw gave him a seizure. Among other experimental ventures, Martin cancelled the bibliography for the book, the one that I carefully corrected before and that is essential for the book to be listed as “academic” rather than “general”. Professor Womack is very animated as he spits out that Martin also cancelled four-dot-ellipses and consolidated them into three-dot-ellipses. I say nothing but I think that Martin should be cancelled for his own benefit.

Professor Womack goes on that distinguishing between three- and four-dot-ellipses is a task that an editor performs as reflexive behaviour like Pavlov’s dog. I’m actually flattered by the comparison to Pavlov’s dog. Professor Womack throws in another of his epigrammatic witticisms, observing that we don’t want to end up like colleague Pfeiffer with the woods. Professor Pfeiffer never grew out of Indian tales, and for decades he’s been writing solely about Native Americans and the woods. I didn’t see his recent book on the woods, but I’ve seen the editorial condition his other creations. After I mentally process the ever so subtle joke, I get a giggling fit. My giggling fit throws professor Womack in his own giggling fit.

I apologise for being hysterical. Professor Womack can’t hear me because he’s laughing hysterically. When he’s done, he explains that the blame for professor Pfeiffer’s woods was limited to the department building because the book didn’t make it to academic publications databases. Martin’s book however will be submitted to the Web of Science database, hence the shame would be international. Professor Womack doesn’t like the idea of collateral guilt and refuses to spend the rest of his life hiding in gutters. Hence, he announces, he cancelled Martin by sending him for holiday and I’m promoted from a ghost editor to an acknowledged co-editor. I’m not sure if congratulations or condolences are due, but just in case, I’m already hunting for a nice gutter to hide in.