Grumble, grumble…ETS

Sometimes life is cruel.

I took the GRE subject test Literature in English four weeks and 2 days ago. The test results were scheduled to arrive 4-6 weeks after the test date. So…as of this past Saturday, my eyes are glued to the mailbox.
Today, an envelope arrives, addressed to me and bearing the return address of the ETS.
Heart-rate rises.

Stomach begins to roil.

Palms begin to sweat.

Fingers begin to tremble.
After a stern, “Just get it over with,” I open the envelope. To stall, I read the cover letter explaining how to interpret your scores, noting that subject test scores are on a scale from 200-990, unlike the general test. 
Finally lift the flap of the slightly thicker, green-tinted score report. Trepidation and fluttering feelings escalate as eyes slide down the lines of typewriter text to find a blank box underneath the heading “Subject Test Scores.”
URRRGH.
A last-minute decision to apply to Mary Baldwin College’s Masters of Letters in Shakespeare required me to request another online score report request, separate from the other 7 I had requested last month. 
Each time you request scores from the ETS, they send you a copy to confirm. Talk about cruel.
In my opinion, they should be required to include a notice on the OUTSIDE of the envelope informing you what it contains. Some modicum of mental preparation would then be possible, and Drop Zone emotional trips like mine could be avoided. 
All I have to say is, there had better not be any more envelopes from the ETS until the actual scores arrive. I don’t think I could take another one.

GRE Literature in English

It’s over. 

Now if only I didn’t have to wait 4-6 weeks to find out my score.  I’ve already calculated all the probabilities, and I hate waiting.
Why didn’t I read more postmodern philosophers and dramatists?  Oh yes – I remember why.

Greater Expectations

Only one week stands between me and the GRE subject test in Literature in English, which I have been dreading for the past two months.  Unlike the creator of the study site I have been using (Vade Mecum), I did not study for fifteen hours a week for five months.  Two months will have to do, ready or not.

On Tuesday, I took the full-length practice test sent to me by the Educational Testing Service. When I finished scoring my 2+ hrs of effort, I had to face a number that was good, but still lower than I had hoped. I had expectations, and I was not able to meet them.
Of course, since then, I have been studying harder than ever, and I hope the test next Saturday will show some of that effort. But nonetheless, not measuring up to my own standards was a blow.
This weekend, I have been hit by another example of how powerful expectations can be.
On Thursday, my family’s twelve-year-old Dalmatien, Pepper, had to be put down.  His legs had been getting weaker for several months, and he was finally unable to stand up at all and was in pain most of the time.  
In the back of my mind, I knew he was getting old, and that he might not make it much longer. I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.  I still expect to hear him bark when I get home and have to fumble for my house key.  I still expect to step over him when I start a load of laundry.  I have expectations, and they are not fulfilled.
Of course, since then, I have been digging up more memories than ever: when he used to drag me around as a skinny eleven-year-old, when he ran through the snow using his nose as a snow plow, when he stood on the doggie gate and tapped me on the shoulder with his paw to remind me to pet him. But nonetheless, not seeing him when I walk in the door is a blow.
Expectations can be powerful – and painful.  I am beginning to realize that I have a lot of expectations, like those about my dog, that I am not aware of having until they are not met.  I expected to get into grad school last year.  I expect God to answer my prayers the way I want Him to, not the way He knows is best.  I expect life to make sense.  And when it doesn’t, I get disappointed, discouraged, or angry.
One of the hardest lessons I am learning this year is to recognize that my expectations do not fail because they are too high, but because in God’s grand picture, they are pitifully small.  I am like the woman at the well in John 4, so caught in the idea of physical water (“you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep” vs. 11) that she could not see what Jesus was offering her.  
He did not meet her expectations. He exceeded them. 
As I wrestle with my unmet expectations, especially this week, I am driven to think about the people who plant seeds for giant, shaped gardens like this one.  All they see is a few misshapen, shrivelled grains of life being buried, when in reality, it is the foundation for something beautiful.


Image (c) International Peace Gardens, North Dakota.

Presidential Jewelry Debates

After the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, we may not know much, but we can be assured that both presidential candidates will not fail us in the realm of fashion.  Both are savvy to the most important issue of all: jewelry.*
McCain: And I’ll tell you, I had a town hall meeting in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and a woman stood up and she said, “Senator McCain, I want you to do me the honor of wearing a bracelet…” And I said, “I will — I will wear his bracelet…”
Obama: Jim, let me just make a point. I’ve got a bracelet, too…
Sorry.  This is out of my usual topic range by a lot, but I couldn’t resist. Somehow, everything seems funnier in a transcripted version.  
*Note: taken completely out of context for satirical purposes…

What could be more personal?

The personal statement.

The sworn enemy of college and grad school applicants.

Personal statement, I will face you, and you will lose.

Personally.

It’s funny how surreal a life decision seems until you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to begin to make it real. I have been talking about graduate school for over a year now, and (again) am now beginning the concrete steps of applying. There’s something scary about it – it means putting yourself out there for possible rejection, and it means choosing one road instead of another. Robert Frost was right:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

But the process of writing a personal statement (or many, since every school wants something a little different) forces you to think about who you are as a person and why you have chosen to pursue further study. Do you have the characteristics necessary? What in your life thus far has prepared you?

For me, the issue of the “gap year” still hangs over the statement. And as I write, I begin to see the ways that this year is beneficial, even necessary to my development. I asked a former professor what I should emphasize since I come from a small Liberal Arts college. “Evidence of independent work or thought” was his reply.

Hmm… I have spent the first few months of this year working from home doing independent writing, research, and editing projects. I have crafted a reading list to fill in the gaps of my literary experience. I have taken the initiative to relearn French and will have to do so again with Latin. I have had time (more than I wanted, actually) to think about what I want to study and what I really enjoy researching.

Don’t misunderstand me, I still dislike writing personal statements, especially because there is a high likelihood that no one will read them. In addition to studying for the GRE subject test (a mere three weeks away now!), gathering transcripts, contacting references, filling in applications, and proofreading writing samples, the personal statement is just one more task.

But on the other hand, reflection, no matter how tedious, provokes thought. In that sense, maybe there is a purpose for the personal statement after all.

Amidst the rubble…

Yesterday, part of the beauty of largely self-scheduled work, I took a trip to the massive, annual Labor Day weekend flea market in Hillsville, VA.

The number of people and vendors is astounding, and a few minutes calculating the profit earned by the lemonade stands resulted in another “astounding.” The only thing that could improve the crowd would be if the event took place in Flatsville instead.

It was early, damp, foggy, and cool when we arrived. The day before, it had rained all day. Walking through the parking areas was like tramping over a water mattress, except with more mud. The smarter sellers had tarps and straw spread around their tables to soak up some of the wet.

During the course of the eight-hour day, I walked probably seven to ten miles. The sun came out mid-morning and by noon the mud was turning into half-baked clay.

The booths are laden with dusty glassware in green, red, and blue. Boxes of assorted, yellowed papers are shoved under the display cases of old coins, Pez dispensers, and antique fishing lures. Enormous shelves hold reusable window etchings, hand-crafted jewelry, stacks of LIFE magazines, and dilapidated old books. Canvas is the decor of choice, followed closely by plastic.

The people mirror the goods. Fanny packs are back in style. So are grocery-style carts and hand carts with milk crates and a bungee cord. Baseball caps and sunglasses are sold on every table, but most people bring their own. Some are members of the old crowd, darting from table to table at 7 a.m. with eyes squinted to find a particular item before their competitors do.

Teenagers tend to stroll among the streetside vendors, looking at puppies, cheap perfume, and the college boy running the Funnel Cakes booth or the scantily dressed girl beside the Nascar display. Parents roam the aisles to find second-hand furniture and bulk lots of picture books while their two year old strains at the furry brown harness and leash fastened around her waist.

The true collectors know what they’re looking for. They have to scrounge through four dozen dust and grime-coated boxes of miscellany to find one postcard from the 1950s. They have to scour ten different lots to locate an original Don Knotts autographed photo. Sometimes the search seems endless and pointless. But if it were easy, it wouldn’t be so satisfying.

Me? I like people-watching. I also like hand-painted glass and old books. My prize find was an 1819 edition of collected works by Alexander Pope, in good condition. I found it in the midst of a big, has-never-seen-the-light-of-day-or-a-dustcloth box full of 1860s Algebra books and 1990s comics.

Hunting through all the rubbish to find the treasure is kind of like dealing with life and people. All of us have a lot of mildew and broken glass inside – remnants of our pasts, our families, our mistakes, our choices. And yet we’re made in the likeness of God. So somewhere, underneath all the mess, there is something worth noticing, worth honoring, and worth seeking out.

Too often, I forget to notice. To honor. To seek out. I am so grateful that God never does (see Luke 15:8-10).

At the flea market, I watched a man find the one coin he was seeking. He lifted it from among the rest, polished it on his sleeve, and immediately tucked it into the vendor’s plastic baggie with all the care of a museum curator. To him, the grunge no longer mattered, because he had found the treasure underneath.

Pretty powerful image, right?

Beyond blurry vision

Questions on my mind this week…

  • Sonnet: Petrarchan or Shakespearean?
  • Why did people in 16th C England write so much?
  • Will I ever finish Brothers Karamazov? and…
  • Why do decisions stress me out so badly?

In between studying for the GRE subject test, this week I have been making hard decisions about my job situation. I have learned well – perhaps too well – to look at both sides of an issue and measure the pros and cons. Yet the pessimist in me persists in saying both options have a lot of negatives, rather than a lot of positives. As a result, I fixate on the decision. “Stewing” is an appropriate word. And after I make it, I continue to second-guess.

I’m sure all of us have watched (or heard about) swimmer Michael Phelps make history with his 8 gold medals (100%) at the Beijing Olympics. One big story was the 200-meter butterfly, in which Phelps’ goggles filled with water halfway through, leaving him blind.

Some people would have taken the incident as an excuse to fail. Phelps went on to win the race despite the incident. “From the 150-meter wall to the finish, I couldn’t see the wall. I was just hoping I was winning,” he told reporters.

As I think about it, I take a few lessons from Phelps and other Olympians.

Phelps was competing against himself and the clock as much as against the other swimmers. He would swim his best whether he was five lengths in front or a length behind. Slacking off when he was winning was not a consideration (see the 200-meter freestyle).

‘Winning’ does not always mean being better than the person next to you. ‘Winning’ does not always mean standing on the top of the podium. Just ask Oksana Chusovitina, the 33-year-old gymnast competing for Germany. In a sport dominated by 16 year olds, Chusovitina’s reaction to her silver medal could hardly have been more jubilant.

And sometimes you just have to race blind, knowing that you are going in the right direction and using your best effort, even if you can’t see the wall.

Grad School Schedule

Well, as autumn rolls around, I intend not to make the same mistake I made last year, i.e. waiting until December to make up my mind about grad school applications. This year, I will be on the ball. Here’s my current attempt at a schedule for myself.

August
-study for English GRE subject test
-research grad schools and narrow list to 5-6
-contact professors at top schools

September
-study for GRE subject test
-register for GRE subject test
-take GRE subject test
-begin writing personal statements for schools

October
-contact and line up references
-finalize resume
-finish personal statements
-revise and proofread writing sample
-request transcripts
-request GRE scores

November
-collect, compile, and send applications

We’ll see how well I stick to the schedule. Along the way, I also intend to begin my study of Italian, possibly refresh my study of Latin, and continue to advance my study of French. Once I settle on a location for this upcoming year, I hope to take a few classes at a community college to work on my language skills.

Fingers crossed for a better outcome this year!!!

Life in 10 – or not 10

Just got back from a week up north for a friend’s lovely wedding. The hardest part about returning, besides saying goodbye to college friends – some for an indeterminate amount of time – was driving past the exit for my college and not turning off and going “home.” Felt very unnatural and sad. But it was great to see everyone for a little while.

During the week, I read “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory, an excellent historical fiction piece. Still working on “Brothers Karamazov.”

Now back to the daily grind.