A rather grisly tale for my return to blogging

So… after so long an absence, what news from Sycorax Pine? First, the reason I in fact have time to write is this: I turned in a complete draft of my dissertation to my adviser on Monday. It runs about 250 pages – a length unbelievable to me even given my extreme self-consciousness about my own, shall we say, verbosity. At any rate, my adviser will almost certainly have excellent and terrifying changes to propose when he has made his way through my longwindedness, and then my terrible enslavement to work will begin again, but until that point, I have a little more time available to read, blog, sleep, watch the Netflix I have had out since December (!!!!), spend time with the people I love and, you know, actually concentrate on my teaching work.

I am now speeding my way homeward on the train to visit with my family, and this yields the other strange event I have to report, more immediate in time and troubling to the conscience. In truth, it is by far the oddest and most disturbing travel tale in my experience. I was on the train, talking on my cell phone and telling D how tired I was, how much the uncertainty of the job market (still no news on that front) was unsettling me, and skimming over other such delightful topics of exhausted narcissism, when suddenly I heard (or perhaps felt is the more appropriate word) a harsh and sustained series of thumps beneath our car of the train. “Um,” I said to D, “We just hit something.” “Like a branch or like a person?” he asked. “Oh no, it definitely didn’t sound like a body,” I instantly replied (based on what knowledge, I now wonder, of how the human form sounds hitting a fast-moving train?). The train slowed and then stopped, and as we sat on the track for the next two hours, it became increasingly clear from the expanding crowds of police investigators and arrival of television crews that we had, in fact, hit someone.

This was upsetting, clearly, but more upsetting was how, um, un-upset everyone seemed to be. The frisson of gossip (really more characterized by excitement than horror) traveled up and down the many baffled cars of the train; the conductors were unable to tell us anything besides “We are a part of an in-progress police investigation and can’t give you any further information, but it will not affect your safety.” The next reaction, however, was almost universally one of annoyance: “I’ve got places to be,” one of my fellow passengers said, “I don’t understand why we can’t just go on. I mean, if the guy’s dead, he’s already dead, right?” What kind of people were we, I began to wonder, we who were on this train? Such is the blessedly and perhaps unnaturally insulated nature of my existence that I am rarely separated from the end of a life by a matter of about a foot of carpet and metal casing, and I felt myself, like my fellow passengers, instantly deflecting this knowledge and focusing on the accident’s effect on my immediate life. Suddenly I felt mired – no, completely walled in, by the boundaries of my own consciousness and of self-interest.

So that is the jolly news of my day. Better (or at least less morbid) news to come, I hope!

4 Responses so far.

  1. That's quite a dreadful experience you had. Do you think feeling completely walled in is a self-defense mechanism that helps us deal with such experiences? I don't really know, just wondering.

    On another note congratulations on finishing your dissertation.

  2. Wendy says:

    Welcome back, Ariel! I've missed you! Congratulations on completing (or at least getting that first draft done) your dissertation.

    Regarding your train experience - quite horrifying. I'm not surprised at the reaction of the people on the train - it seems that people put up a wall to emotion with things like this. Years ago I witnessed a truck getting hit by a train. I was the only person to get out of my car to render assistance to the driver of the truck. Many people became annoyed that traffic was now held up and they couldn't get to their destinations (people even honked their horns!). I think it is a defense erected to keep out the horror - at least I hope so, because the alternative (that people are really just narcissistic and don't care about their fellow human beings) is just too depressing to consider.

  3. Gracie says:

    I'm glad you're back. I've missed you and your book & movie reviews (what shall I watch next?)
    I'm very happy to hear about your dissertation and wish you well on your job search. As a non-academic, I would like to know how the completion of the former will affect the latter.
    With regard to the train incident: I think we have to have that defense mechanism or we couldn't cope with the world we experience.
    I suspect that if you (and the others on the train) had skills and/or training that would have been useful in that situation, they would have kicked in and individual responses would have been quite different.
    If I couldn't distance myself, I couldn't bear the injustice, the pain, the poverty of the world.

  4. Hi everyone! I am so glad to be back with you all! I agree that it is definitely a coping mechanism (and one of the things that made it possible is that we could hear by not see the accident itself, which made it seem unreal), but it is still quite a leap from the psychological cushioning that numbs us to the horrors of the world and actually being annoyed that the end of someone's life got in the way of your commute. Sigh.

    In answer to your question, Gracie, about the relationship between completing the dissertation and getting a job: Many departments won't hire someone until they actually have the finished, accepted dissertation in hand. Others (like the ones I am applying to) make it a condition of hiring that you have the dissertation submitted and accepted by the time you start teaching in the fall. Others are even more relaxed about it, although that stance is increasingly rare.

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