Thursday, March 14, 2013

I Need To Talk About Jim

It happened well over a year ago when I sent a form to an invited guest lecturer as part of my old job.  The form was sometimes my first contact with an academic coming to our campus for a two-day visit.  That initial email was the beginning of my job responsibilities shepherding the guest and all their visit entailed.  The form told us everything we needed to know to set up, orchestrate, and pay for Professor she or he, from this institution or that.  The visitor would be involved in multiple events  at minimum, the public lecture and reception, a small invite-only dinner  perhaps a class visit, a lunch with graduate students, breakfast and/or dinner with a local colleague, family member, or friend.  Someone has to take care of these logistics: the travel (some domestic, some international-don't forget about their visa), lodging, local transportation, meals, catered events, publicity, payments. To get all that information it takes a fair amount of back and forth, emails, calls, juggling, shifting, changing to accommodate everyone you can.   You really, really want quick responses because each piece of information hinges on three others. Once you have all that set and documented in an itinerary, you share it with everyone involved.  Doing it well is an art.

Some invitees take the process seriously.  They understand that the goal is both to maximize the visit and ensure one's enjoyment & ease.  Others want to respond in a timely matter but are crazy busy and still others barely respond.  Why they don't respond is for a number of reasons: it's not important enough to interrupt their lives, it's low-priority because it's months away  regardless of their rationale the lack of quick response ends up making it a nightmare for everyone  especially the coordinator. 

I never know these people until they actually arrive and I never spend any time with them.  I don't listen to the talk cause I'm setting up with the caterer and making sure everyone has what they need including late-comers and early-leavers.  During the reception I'm running around and don't have time to mingle.  I'm never invited to the dinner.  I stay after to clean up and lock up.  

The form asks if you have dietary restrictions or preferences.  This invited guest, I shall call him Professor James, was on sabbatical in Key West, but giving a number of talks around the country and he'd been great about responding.  He didn't have constant access to the Internet or a fax but had printed off, filled in his form, and mailed it back.  Under the question about dietary restrictions/preferences he'd written, "NO Onions!"

Well.  Here was a man after my own heart.  One of my very first posts was about my hatred of raw onions.  I was a lifelong no-onions-girl, at least raw ones.  I felt compelled to share this connection.  So when I next emailed I mentioned my surprise, my pseudonym (and wish for privacy at work about my blog) and the link to my post and thus began a four-month back-and-forth conversation.  Here was an academic who actually noticed and was interested in me, lowly me.  

It was surprising.  Professor James dove head in  even called for a 45-minute long chat   about the onions, writing, our troubled relationships with our fathers, and more.  It was astonishing, unexpected, and made me ecstatically happy. In a short time through a distance, this stranger knew more about me than all the people in my office put together.  I had been working for a long time in an environment that, for the most part, didn't recognize people without PhDs. Though we hadn't yet met  it felt incredible to have someone really "see" me.  I was so grateful. 

That back-and-forth with Jim gave me a shot in the arm  he was an academic and a writer and a published author who was valuing my writing, my thoughts.  We strategized about how to spend some time talking during the visit.  It was a moving target.  He was a really popular guy. Everyone wanted time with him.  The blanks on the itinerary began to fill up, chunks of time were being signed away.  As a last resort we figured I could take him to the airport and that would give us an hour to share thoughts.  I was so looking forward to it.

Then the week before when I sent Professor James' itinerary around, one of our secondaries emailed a request to drive Jim to the airport.  He wanted to spend that time with him.  I felt trumped. I felt robbed.  I felt small.  I deleted myself from the schedule and sank into a depression.  That feeling stayed with me for the rest of the week and through Jim's visit. I found myself avoiding any connection at all.  I was not among the privileged.  Who did I think I was to merit a slot on his agenda?  I blamed Jim.  I felt betrayed and tossed aside.  Later, when Jim commented on the change and said he "was counting" on that time to get together, I didn't know what to think.  I felt embarrassed.

But wait, you're thinking, why didn't I just say arrangements for the ride had already been made?  Why didn't I ask Jim if it was what he preferred?   I didn't because emotions aren't rational and I went to a place where I didn't measure up, where I could perform and orchestrate and coordinate and dazzle and still I wouldn't matter.  It was a place I'd lived since I was in second grade.  It was an old place and I ricocheted into the depths of that despair.  It wasn't Jim's fault at all but at the time I didn't know that.

Once his visit was complete, our connection died off.  I knew he was busy with lectures, finishing his sabbatical, then getting back to his university, starting up with students and classes.  After communicating with frequency (often multiple times a week), the connection, a lifeline was gone.  

Then, after almost a year, Jim sent this email:

Just read "Lost without Normal." One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was: Write your way through transition.  When normal is lost, THAT is the time to write.  The writing will orient you & help create the new normal.  It's hard but it works.  Thinking of you, JD

Out of nowhere  there he was  sending me a bucketful.  I got filled.  My writer's cup runneth over.

So  as part of "writing my way through"  this is the shameful stuff I've been avoiding.


  1. this is very sad but i love this one - julie

    1. Loved this one too; very courageous to write. They say once you say out loud what hurts most it hurts less. I hope this is true for you. NYT article by Jacob Bernstein says his Mom, Nora Ephron, said turn your hurt into a joke and be the one to make the joke. I like this one because, being a believer in God, I find God to have a sense of humor. We trudge along through life thinking we know best or we have the 'plan' and then the rug gets pulled out from under us in some way or another; we are humbled by our ineptness to make the path we planned. We reorient yet again through tears AND hopefully laughter. In childhood more than now so of my best memories were of laughing till I cried or crying till I laughed.

    2. Thanks to you both...I think there is an element of laughter through tears in life but it did not come into play in this incident! I will hope to better handle life's lessons when the rug gets pulled out from under me---as it always will! Thanks for your comments!

  2. This is wonderful, so well written, and difficult emotions/behaviors laid out so articulately that not only do we understand, but know that we have been there too! You are an astute observer of humanity! -- Megan