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I’m traveling on…

I just got home from an enjoyable weekend getaway to western North Carolina. The foliage is now past its peak color, but you can see from the photo I snapped with my cellphone that the weather and scenery was beautiful. Many of you – indeed most of you – know that I lived in western North Carolina for around two years while I working on my master’s degree at Western Carolina University. In addition to the sometimes all-consuming work load of graduate school, my life was a complete mess during much of my time in WNC. Going back to the mountains in the fall reminded of my how much natural beauty I missed while I was living there because I was either too busy, too emotionally numb, or both to really enjoy it. I know it’s a simple thing to say, but thinking about this makes me sad. I was in one of the most beautiful places on Earth for two years and I didn’t take a single day to enjoy the natural splendor all around me – and when I tried I wasn’t really able to. Of course, being back in the mountains also reminded of the things I enjoyed about my time at Western – the work load was heavy, but I did enjoy my studies. And being back in the mountains also reminded me that it won’t be long until I return to graduate school to pursue a Ph. D. Being as I don’t use the old blog here nearly enough, I thought that I was long overdue for a post that’s more personal than a book review I writing more for myself than anybody in cyberspace. And it’s a good time to update my faithful reader(s) on my progress in ending my so-called exile.  Or in the words of the old spiritual, I’m getting ready to travel on…

First things first, I took the GRE in late July.  If you are staring down this gauntlet that is useless as a predictor of future success, remember that it’s only a test. I let myself get a little too stressed over it. Practice and focus are key. Find your weaknesses and study those sections most. Both Kaplan and the Princeton Review sell workbooks and there are also a number of websites that offer free practice sections. Most history programs use the GRE verbal as a gatekeeper in the admissions process. All people below this score, please turn back. For most programs it’s 600 and some of the elite schools won’t look at anybody who scored under 700. This isn’t really fair, but it’s a practical way of separating the wheat from the chaff in the early stages of the admissions process. One tip for anybody getting ready to take the GRE: have a clear idea of where you plan to apply. ETS will send your scores to four places for free. I picked my four based on where I thought I might apply but I have since decided not to apply to two of them. ETS charges $23 for each additional report. Today, I cut a check for $69 to send three reports and if I had done my homework in advance I would have only had to pay for one additional report.

I scored high enough on the GRE so that I’ll never have to take it again. One hoop jumped through. My next step was to decide which programs to research. There were obvious choices for a specialist in southern history – Georgia, Chapel Hill, South Carolina, Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU, and so on. But I am also planning to have a heavy emphasis on religion, which also narrows the list quite a bit. To find out which professors are currently directing dissertations, I went to the American Historical Association’s website, where they keep a reasonably up-to-date directory of dissertations currently in progress, listing titles and advisors. From this, I made a list of schools where I thought my interests matched fairly well with some of the research currently underway. I ended up with a list of something like 20 universities. For the next phase of research, websites are a charm. University departments have pages for each faculty member that typically list research interests, publications, current graduate students, and sometimes even links to their CVs. After I narrowed the list down to ten or so professors, I sent out introductory emails to politely inquire if they are indeed taking new students.

After sending out my emails (which was a little nerve-wracking, since some of these people are very well-known in the field of southern history), I was able to start an email dialogue with several professors. I was also sure to find out about funding at their schools, always an important consideration. Out of eleven emails, all but two responded. One politely told me that I would not be particularly well-served working under him (I was disappointed with this one because I had met the guy a few times and had only heard extremely positive things about working under him). After this phase of correspondence, I winnowed some programs out of consideration and came up with my list of which schools I am applying to: Florida, Auburn, Chapel Hill, Temple, and Yale.

I have also started to assemble application materials. Most of these are not terribly difficult to pull together. I have a good writing sample and I’ve had my GRE scores sent to all the schools. I’ll need to get transcripts mailed and the applications actually filled out (this is usually the easiest part of the entire process). I’ve also written a statement of purpose (the most difficult part of the entire process), but I’ve sent it to some people to read over. When I have their comments and make the revisions, I’ll move on the paperwork with all possible haste. I hope to have all the applications in by the end of this month and then the waiting game begins.

Applying to Ph. D. programs in history involves a lot of waiting. You apply in the fall and hear back in the spring. When I get word sometime around April, then I will have to travel to each school I got into to visit with the professors and meet with other graduate students. Then I’ll choose where I’ll go for a Ph. D. It’s a huge decision – as serious in the life of an academic as picking a spouse. Not only is picking an advisor going to determine how smoothly your experience as a graduate student will go, but you will be forever linked to that dissertation director and the university for the rest of your career. This is no time to make a bad decision – goodness knows I’ve made my share of those.

This is very exciting for me – and also a time of great soul-searching. I’m essentially signing myself up for at least five years of indentured servitude. I will work 80 hour weeks and have to try to figure out a way to squeeze more time out of the day. Like ever other graduate student, I will be made to do the work that others refuse to do. I’ll sacrifice relationships with family and friends for the sake of doing more work. I will not get a full night’s sleep for months at a time. I will be resigned to a life of bare subsistence.I will endure the hazing ritual known as comprehensive exams. I will have to defend my research, writing, and ideas in the face of withering criticism. And when it’s all over there will probably not be a job waiting on me.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m traveling on.

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At some point over the past two years, I cancelled the virus protection on both my laptop and my desktop computers. I won’t get into the reasons why because it involved a disagreement with another person whom I vowed I would never use this blog to defame. Antivirus software is a lot like insurance – you buy it hoping you never have to use it and if you go without it for a long time and don’t need it, complacency sets in. But if you get caught without it, you really wish you had it. Just like living without insurance for your heath, home, or auto, eventually you will pay the price for not having some kind of virus protection for your PC. For the past six months or so, I have been meaning to purchase TrendMicro, Norton, or some other brand of security software, but I haven’t had any viruses for a long time and it’s easy to put off paying $50 a year for a service you haven’t needed in a while. When my streak of good luck ended on Thursday night, I was, shall we say, less than pleased. I was blaming everybody I could think of for this turn of events: the aforementioned individual I will not defame, the punk who wrote the virus, and even the antivirus software companies for charging so much for their service. When I woke up on Friday and I realized that my system really took a hit and I would have to go through the great hassle of  formatting my hard drive and reinstalling Windows and all my software I became very irritable. I was snapping at everybody for everything – all over something that was really my fault.

This annoyance with the computer virus was magnified when you consider that I haven’t really felt like myself the past few weeks. I try to be very open about the fact that in the past few years I’ve dealt with moderate depression. Those of you who are close to me know why, and it’s something of an understatement to say I’ve had my difficulties since 2008. Over the past six months, I’ve done a lot to transform myself and this has dramatically improved my mental state. I have improved the stress level of my day-to-day life, I’ve started eating right and exercising, and I make it a point to do things that will keep my mind sharp (ie: reading scholarly monographs, writing in my blog) for the day my exile ends and I return to academia. For the past few months, I had been feeling really good and even went off of my antidepressants. On May 7th, however, I was temporarily laid off from my job at the Furman University Dining Hall because they need less help during the summer. Financially, it’s not easy, but at least I am drawing unemployment. But I’ve found that without the structure of having to get up in the morning and go to a job, the wheels fall off. I sleep too much, become lazy, and eventually depressed. Thankfully, I go back to work in a week to work during Furman’s robust camps and conferences schedule. Relief from the lack of structure is on the way, but that’s really not the issue if you’re thinking big picture. The fact is that I am not where I want to be in life – which is back in school pursuing my academic career. There are days when getting where I want to be seems so far away that it be should be measured in light years. 

There a few steps I need to take. Obviously, I have to reapply to graduate school, which involves filling out forms, sending out writing samples, writing personal statements, have transcripts mailed, and visiting schools and professors. But the first thing I need to do is take the GRE. This week I scheduled the exam for July 20 (at 1 p.m.) and the stress has become visceral. Basically the GRE is like an advanced version of the SAT that you have to take in order to be admitted to just about any graduate program. I have studied and memorized close to 500 relevant vocabulary words to address my weaknesses on the verbal section. But the math section is another matter entirely. I sat down on Saturday afternoon and cracked open the GRE prep book and turned the math section. An hour later, I felt overwhelmed and was near tears. It’s been 9 years since I took the GRE, 13 years since I’ve taken any math class, and 16 years since I’ve had any algebra (a key skill set on the GRE). I have long since forgotten how to execute most of the quantitative problems on the test. I became angry and was snapping at people (my poor mama) and acting like a complete jackass. Suddenly I had decided that I wasn’t going to be able to do well enough on the GRE to get into a good graduate program and so I would be stuck cooking pizzas for the rest of my life. Combine that with my frustration and lashing out over the computer virus and I was really in rare form. Does this sound silly to you?

I guess we all get like that from time to time and, clearly, I needed a break. I went and exercised, which included walking two miles briskly and running one. It cleared my mind and helped me to realize that perspective might be the most important thing to have when you are dealing with a rough patch in your life. In reality, the GRE is just one small hoop I have to jump through on the way to getting a Ph. D. I might not be a math whiz, but I’m not stupid either. Yes, I’ll be able to become proficient enough to score moderately well on the math section. Furthermore, most history programs look at the verbal score more than the math – so why was I acting like a jerk over something that doesn’t really matter all that much in the big picture? Because I lacked perspective. I didn’t lose anything on my computer. Nothing. So why was I letting a computer virus make me an ass when I really only had myself to blame? Again, no perspective. It’s not that big of a deal. Don’t take yourself so seriously, Chris. Geez.

What’s more, I have much to be excited about. I am doing SO much better than I was this time last year. While getting what I want out of life is not yet in my grasp, I am much closer than I was twelve months ago. In early June of 2010, I had just completed my MA, and pretty much crawled across the finish line, lucky to have finished in one piece. Since then, I’ve published a peer-reviewed article, which will go along way when it comes to grad school applications. Furthermore, I have completely cleaned up my diet, gotten in better shape (always a work in progress), and lost in excess of 80 pounds. This has probably added 20 to 30 years to my life. I feel better physically than I’ve ever felt. If a year ago, you’d told me that I’d even be capable of jogging a mile I would told you that you were crazy. The strides I have made concerning my health really can’t be measured and I’m very proud of what I have done. While my personal life still has really messy and confusing moments, quite frankly I am so much better in that area than a year ago that it’s really hard to describe in words.

Perspective – it’s a wonderful thing. It can turn you from a gloomy and depressed malcontent to hopeful, confident, and downright effervescent individual.

Now, if only I could do something about the Cubs. But, hey, I’m not a miracle worker.

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Let the good times roll…

I’ve been wanting to make the blog more a bit more personal than book reviews (like most of you even care), and last month, I wrote an entry about how good the previous month had been. I really enjoyed writing it, and from the looks of things, you guys enjoyed reading it (all 20 or so of you). I might try to make this sort of posting a monthly feature here at my small piece of internet real estate. I have no unifying theme this time around, but here are some things that I think you might like.

Among the funniest things that is going on around here is my father’s battle with the squirrels. On our back deck, we have a birdfeeder. As anybody with a birdfeeder knows, squirrels love birdseed and have a great amount of ingenuity when it comes to acquiring the seeds. They will jump, hang upside down, risk life and limb, or do anything it takes to get the food. We have always enjoyed quite a nice variety of winged friends, especially cardinals, but also wrens, finches, and the occasional robin or jaybird. In fact, the window where our table faces out offers a nice view of the visitors. We like to eat and watch the birds also eat. Squirrels, however, are quite cavalier and will run off the birds and this has pushed my father over the edge. One beautiful day we are enjoying lunch and my father looks out the window and quickly gets up. The next thing I know, he’s in the bathroom, has opened the window, is holding a Benjamin pump air rifle, and has taken dead aim on our pesky neighbor. This particular rifle shoots pellets with enough force to easily kill small game or really infuriate large animals. He came back to the table with the look of a very satisfied man. Nobody, and I mean nobody, messes with our birdfeeder. And we have the squirrel carcases to prove it, if you’d like to find out personally. However, it appears that the squirrels are learning not to mess around with Old Man Bishop and his Benjamin pump rifle.

On a more upbeat note, probably the biggest thing that’s been happening in my corner of the universe was the marriage of Ben and LeighAnna, two of my best friends, last Saturday. I was honored to be a co-bestman for the occasion and I especially enjoyed the bachelor party. Let me be clear that an internet blog is not really an appropriate location to divulge the goings-on of a bachelor party, but I will say that everybody had a wonderful time. Let’s just hope that Chad never decides to put the pictures he took that night on Facebook. Wednesday, I went to pick up the tux. As it happens, I was fitted in late January and had lost around 30 pounds in the intervening months. The only thing that actually fit were the shoes. I was resized and went back the next day and, as you can see in the photo, the suit then fitted perfectly and all of us looked quite dashing for the ceremony. The ceremony was a beautiful and simple affair that lasted less than ten minutes – probably closer to five. The best thing was that there was not one ounce of pretense; this was a ceremony that perfectly fit the personalities of the couple getting married. LeighAnna wore tennis shoes and Ben wore pink socks (I’m not going to tell you what my socks looked like) and they actually high-fived at the point in the ceremony where they tell the groom the kiss the bride – don’t worry, they still kissed. Here’s the thing that I admire most about this couple: they are always themselves, no matter who is around or what the occasion is. There will be no surprises between them because these two people are real. Not only are they real, but they’re really in love. And I can’t think of a more fitting celebration than Saturday’s festivities. It was also good to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in a while. Especially Ben’s father, Erwin. He is one of the most engaging and interesting people I’ve ever met and if you think you are going to draw a box around Erwin Frazier and somehow categorize him, forget about it. He’s a free thinker in an age when people are not particularly thoughtful. A lot of other really good stuff happened this weekend that was related to the wedding, and I will be eternally grateful to Ben and LeighAnna for the joy their wedding brought into so many people’s lives – including mine.

Finally, I have to say that it’s March. And March means many things, but it always means that it’s almost baseball season again. Perhaps it’s because I’m an avid Cubs fan, but something about the start of baseball season buoys my spirits and makes me feel great. Every new season reminds me that warm summer nights lay in the very near future. There is nothing like a night at the ballpark, complete with hotdogs, cool refreshing beverages, and seats on the thirdbase line. What teams should we watch out for? The Phillies have one of the best rotations in baseball history – I think even better than the Braves teams of the mid-90s. The Red Sox and Yankees will be competitive. In general, the teams out west look pretty weak to me. One of the most interesting divisions to watch will be the National League Central. Of course, the Pirates and the Astros will go nowhere. But the Brewers might turn out to be really strong, the Cardinals have a lot of question marks but huge potential, and if the Cubs can shore up their defense, they will be dangerous. Perhaps as the season draws nigh, I will have more to say here about baseball. If the Cubs have a really great season, I will probably have quite a bit to say. If they Cubs have a terrible season, I’m sure I’ll have even more to say. One final word about the coming season relates to the Cubs. This is the first season after the passing of Cubs legend Ron Santo. He gave us all inspiration, joy, and laughter. He will be sorely missed by Cubs fans, and baseball fans everywhere who understood what he meant to the game.

That’s all I have for now. Another great month has passed, and I’m looking forward to the next thirty days. And, of course, let the good times roll!

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I started my blog around five weeks ago, and while I haven’t posted all that much, I can tell from site stats that a few of you have actually been reading it.  Normally, I write when there is a news story I feel compelled to comment on, or if I’ve just finished a book and want to write about it. Today, I just want to write. And so it looks like you are stuck reading about my life.

But if I were to pick out any month for people to read about it, it would have to be the one that is just now passing. I’ll spare you the sheer rapture of a blow-by-blow account of the last thirty days, but I will share some reflections on the highlights.

First things first, I’ll start by saying that I’ve always been an overweight person and, in spite of all the teasing and joshing, some of it really harsh, I never really cared all that much. Sure, there were times in my life that I pretty much let my weight define how others saw me, but I’ve always generally been satisfied with myself as a person. I’ve always been aware that teasing (of this kind) generally means that people like you enough to poke fun at you. I was never thrilled with being fat by any means, but it wasn’t keeping me finding happiness, intellectual fulfilment, or anything else postmodern humans like myself so desperately want. But with the crumbling of my marriage and an opportunity for a second chance at life, I realized that I was thirty years old and that if I didn’t start taking my health seriously, I would be dead in twenty or, if I were lucky, thirty years. If I happened to survive, my body would be riddled with serious health problems like type-two diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and probably lung disease from ten years of on-again, off-again cigarette smoking.  And so I’ve made some big changes. I’ve cleaned up my diet dramatically – cut out all soda and fast food (two crutches I did not need), and started eating less. I call it the PTFD diet. Or, PUT THE FORK DOWN! I’ve been exercising a good bit and enjoying it somewhat. I started out the year at around 305 pounds, and I’m thrilled to say that today I weighed in at 269 pounds, a weight I haven’t seen since high school. I started with a goal to lose 80 pounds (my target weight is 225) and I am almost halfway there. Yesterday I had to go to the Goodwill Store and buy two pair of cheap pants because my jeans didn’t fit me anymore – and there is nothing quite so gratifying than being able to put on smaller clothes. And so it’s been a good month…

Almost as great as my weight loss, is another seminal achievement for myself, which I found out about a few weeks ago. One day, I was working at the dining hall, making pizzas and training our new guy, Dustan – a really great guy to work with – and my BlackBerry kept going off. I know I’m supposed to ignore the damned thing at work, but I didn’t. This time, it was an email from a man named Robert Williams, the editor Methodist History, a peer-reviewed academic journal. On New Years Day, I emailed him a submission to the journal that was a heavily revised version of chapter three from my master’s thesis. Like most journal submissions, I figured it would take six months or maybe a year to hear back from Williams, but two weeks later, here I was with an email from the editor of Methodist History. When I saw the e-mail, I figured they had quickly rejected the piece – a youthful effort from an immature historian. But, standing in front of Dustan, I quickly glanced over the email and realized that not only were they going to publish the piece, but publish it in April. So, here’s the ironic part. Here I am, a man with a master’s degree in history who earned a 4.0 GPA in graduate school, standing in front of a pizza oven where he toils to make a living – the epitome of the academic in exile – finding out that my first peer-reviewed journal article will be going to print in three months. I went completely silent and nearly fainted. Overall, Williams and the reviewers were quite pleased with the piece and I only had to add a few minor changes. This is, unquestionably, the most seminal achievement of my professional life up to this point and the timing couldn’t have been better – personally and professionally. Now, it will certainly enhance my chances when applying to doctoral programs in the fall, but most importantly it is a reminder than I am good at what I have chosen to do with my life. True, what I have chosen to do to make money right now is not very exciting, but I am reminded that something good awaits me on the horizon, it just will take patience. And so it’s been a good month…

Finally, this week I made another big change. Since October of last year, I’ve been working two jobs. And usually, I’ve put in about 60 hours a week. On my feet, for six days every week. And I’ve dug deep found energy I never knew I had. My hard work has really boosted my self-esteem and self-pride. But I’ve also found that I’m simply too busy to have a life. Trying to work that much, find time to exercise, and do a little bit of reading is really very difficult. Not to mention that I want to study for the GRE so that I can score at least a 600 on the verbal section (preferably 700). After that, I’ll need to apply to PhD programs, which includes a fair amount of travel to meet with potential dissertation directors. How would I have to time to do all this with two demanding jobs? So, it was clearly time to scale back the hours I’m working so that my life now will allow me the time to make the life I want a reality. So Monday, I gave Publix, a company I’ve actually liked working for, a two-weeks notice. That will leave me working at the Furman Dining Hall full-time, which has a great number of benefits. First of all, it’s only two miles from the house, so I’ll save a lot on gas. Secondly, I can eat for free while I’m there, which is really big deal when you consider that a healthy lunch will generally cost you around six or seven bucks per meal, minimum, if you eat out. Thirdly, I’ll get lengthy furloughs at Furman where I can draw unemployment and thus have time off to both vacation and really nail down my applications to make sure academia is in my future. The paycut will be about 36%, so I’ll really have to tighten my belt, but I think it’s well-worth it. And so it’s been a good month…

Those are the highlights of my month, and really my year, so far. And I also want to mention that the pile of junk that I drive around the Upstate and vainly call a car will hit 200,000 miles today. Yep, it’s been a good month!

And here’s to the next 200,000 miles!

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The Wonders of a New Year…

Including many other things, the new year signals a new chronological historical  marker that delineates time. Moreover, the turning of the calendar is a reminder to humans of the grand order of things, that time – however vague a concept – is beyond our control and is continually happening all around us.  You might be more practical and see the new year in strictly financial terms, as the beginning of a new tax cycle or a new fiscal quarter.  Some simply celebrate with family or friends. Or the new year might just be an excuse to stay up late, drink too much, and, if you aren’t lucky, endure a hangover on the first day of January.

But for many, including myself, this particular new year is a harbinger of hope. This year, I feel inspired to take a more active control of the parts of my life I can control. After so long of feeling that a great albatross was weighing me down, I feel like a great burden has been lifted. Not only that, but I’m looking at life with a certain clarity that I’ve not always enjoyed. I am patently aware that many difficult changes must take place in my life.

But, for the first time in my life, I feel up to the challenges I face.

  • I need to take the GRE and, furthermore, do well on it.
  • I need to apply to graduate school.
  • I need to save several thousand dollars and move.
  • I need to change my diet and loose around 75 pounds.
  • And there’s the little matter of my marital status that needs to be resolved.

While the new year means different things for different people in different contexts, the past year and the dawning of a new beginning signifies to me that I am in control in of my life. And that I’m up to the challenges that life brings.

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