Starfish Semester

(click the player above to hear “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens)

It’s Monday, about 2:30 in the afternoon, and I am lying on my bed, arms and legs spread out, like a starfish resting on a rock at the bottom of the ocean. I say this every semester, but I can’t emphasize this enough…this was one of the most grinding, demanding, exhausting, work-filled, break-deficient, shovel-to-the-face semesters during my time at OSU. It was a lot of work, but it would be disingenuous if I said this was solely the product of my program. I signed up for so much, and I could have said No to several of these tasks. But I didn’t, and now I’m in a constant search for pockets of time in order to get work done. Today, I’m resting. I decided to allocate time after work on Mondays to doing nothing. Most Mondays, I’ll run some errands, catch up with friends, cook an elaborate dish that takes the rest of the evening to make. (chicken piccata is way harder to make than it looks) But today, my body is telling me, If you don’t rest and take time to recover, I’m gonna take that time from you. That ends up becoming nights of crappy sleep, always feeling like I’m catching up, constantly moving pots to and from the backburner. The worst part is that when you’re out of time, you don’t have the chance to really reflect on what you’re doing. I don’t get to ask myself, Why am I doing this? Is this effort all worth it? Am I building towards something, or am I delusional in thinking that, while really, I’m just addicted to overworking myself? I’m resting on this bed, with small traces of lavender and currants from the candle lit in my room. I have the time now.

So is this all worth it? How exactly is the semester going? Do I want to keep getting grinded down by the end of the day? I really have to think about this. Now, I have the time to ask…

Here’s what my semester looked like, broken down in a series of bullet points:

Dissertation writing


There’s a small part of me that is still amazed by just being here. I’m currently completing my doctoral degree at an R1 institution. I’m writing a dissertation, a phrase I thought I’d never have the right to say. So, technically, I accomplished a long and difficult dream, and I’m now here, doing that…but, holy crap, this is exhausting. I am always reading something, or writing something, or re-reading what I just wrote, all while an ever-present sense of what I’m working on hovers over me like a specter, reminding me of its existence. I knew that writing was going to be hard work, and hard work is not something I shy away from. I know what doing hard work is like. I’ve worked in my dad’s construction company, carrying sacks of concrete and piles of bricks; I’ve rebuilt engines; I’ve worked 14-hr shifts behind a bar. But this is a different kind of hard. My brain is getting racked with information. It’s like I’m loading by brain with knowledge while my skull serves as the stand mixer that, if all goes well, is mixing it into something useful. I actually like writing, but the editing process is what gets you. I once spent a week reading a textbook that I thought was going to help me with my research, until I started the writing part, figuring out where everything goes. After a good five pages of writing, I realized that I was misinterpreting the author’s main argument. It took a week to figure out what I was doing wrong. The best way to describe all of this- it’s an intellectual marathon, my goal a long way from now, but still always ever-demanding. Sometimes, when I’m feeling stuck, I’ll go for a small walk to clear my head. I really needed a walk after deleting those five pages.

My dissertation is on the comics of COVID-19. To be more specific, I’m looking at what insight these comics offer when it came to learning about what surviving COVID-19 was like in the pre-vaccine period, and how these artists responded to this historical moment. As a scholar of medical humanities, I’m really interested in the stories people share when experiencing illness and trauma. I get to ask questions like, what are they experiencing and how is the text reflecting that? What can we learn about illness through these narratives? How can the storytelling experience contribute to their recouperation? Something really interesting I learned involved experiencing a distorted sense of time when living under statewide lockdowns; without things like routines and daily interactions with others, time can lose its own meaning. When I read stuff like this, I think about what I went through, my friends and family, the stories that helped us get by that time, and I think, I kinda have to write this…because this is why my field exists in the first place. When this thought comes back into my head, I get this renewed sense of purpose, making me want to write again. Sure, this isn’t a constant, and if I let it, it can turn into a vicious cycle, where writing is only done after a lot of reflection and introspection. For now, I look forward to the good days- a “good day” is when I have read enough and feel confident enough to write, and then I write. This is not too sustainable, either, but a good day is helpful enough to make up for several bad ones. And on those good days, I feel good about what I wrote. I like the good days, and I like what I’m writing.

Teaching Narrative Medicine

Teaching Narrative Medicine

This semester, I taught the Narrative Medicine section in the English department. I was so looking forward to teaching this section. I got to teach and give lectures on books that drew me to my field, have deep class discussions about health, and life, and how to live, all that. And I had some stellar students who really bought into what Narrative Medicine is trying to accomplish. (as Rita Charon puts it, “Narrative Competence enhances Medical Competence) I remember walking to class, feeling so privileged, as if I’m walking towards the job in line with my academic trajectory. And the class discussions were great. What made this class difficult was the pressure. I worked so long to get to teach this class, so I felt like I had to make sure everything was perfect. Making sure my lectures were sound, being up to date with readings, and my students leaving class feeling like they really learned something. It was great to get the chance to teach that class, but each class felt like running a race, the kind where every second mattered. I would dismiss class feeling spent after, with every ounce of strength left going to the walk between class and my office. I’ve taught for several years before coming to OSU, and have taught classes here as well, but with this class, it was radically different. I felt like I was doing the job I was going to have, and the only way to make sure that happened was to make sure teaching this section was spot-on. I don’t know if that was the right strategy, but my students learned so much, and all it took was working myself down to the bone. Once I got to my office, I would look down at my hands to make sure I wasn’t vanishing. Nope- still there. I’m just really tired.

Editor at QuePasa magazine

Team QuePasa

I remember years ago, I worked as a photographer for an indie rock club in Silver Lake, CA (a music venue that is no longer in business). The place was amazing, and that job gave me so much access to shows and getting to know bands. I got really good at taking those once-in-a-lifetime shots, and I would hang out backstage and drink shots with rock stars. One night, the band Terraplane Sun (a band that no longer exists) was playing, and I remember taking pictures of them, and with each press of the shutter button, I thought, I’m never going to have a job cooler than this one. After getting hired as Editor at Que Pasa, Ohio State Magazine, I was humbly corrected. I’ve always wanted a job where writing was the focus, caring about the content and words I was putting out there. I got a chance to work with a great team, and a faculty advisor who had my back when people…(how do I put this without incriminating myself?) didn’t like some of my editorial decisions. The best part was working with artists and writers who were really enthused about getting published. We’ve published poems, murals, photo essays, interviews, and really strong essays from students and faculty who really cared about seeing their work in our magazine. The energy you get from seeing a magazine go from a series of possible articles to a finished product, printed and holding it in your hands- I can’t think of another job that can offer that.

While I liked working there, it was by no means easy. I would spend hours with my team debating article design and structure, and fight over what sounds best, down to the last comma. It also feels like one of those jobs where you are always on the clock. Someone will always need your input, or will want to pitch an idea, or an event will take place and you just have to write about it. Even at the scale of a student-run campus magazine, the world of journalism is ever-encompassing. I would walk across campus, see an event happening, or read about something that is making national headlines, and this voice tells me, “Hey- QuePasa should write about that”, a voice that is never off. I also had some cool opportunities, like interviewing the wife of the President of Ohio State University, and getting invited to collaborate with student organizations. It feels like a “heavy lies the crown” narrative, where I have a great opportunity, only to feel the weight of it once I got there, imploring me to ask if this is what I want. Overall, I really like this gig, and look forward to the next issue. But if I want to do it well, I know I have to anticipate long nights, working crazy hours, and having hour-long conversations about the merits of the Oxford comma. It’s like my old job, but less drinking and more attention to detail. (actually, no, it’s still pretty consistent)

Volunteering at The James

Volunteering at The James

This semester, I started volunteering at the OSU James Cancer Treatment and Research Center. My job at the James was pretty simple, actually. My title was “Lobby Ambassador”, and my job entailed a little more than pointing visitors and incoming patients to certain floors or escorting someone to a room or clinic, sometimes needing me to push them in their wheelchair. Some days were a bit slow, where I would only help a handful of people after the entirety of my shift. Also, I was never really on the frontlines when it came to helping or treating people with whatever they were suffering from. My coworkers were nice, and I liked my supervisors. From this perspective, it was a pretty simple gig.

But, umm…..can I share something with you about this job? I swear I won’t violate HIPAA laws or anything…

Every time I walked in to that building and clocked-in to work, I was terrified. I had no idea what to expect, and because I had no medical background, I felt not only underqualified, but like I had no business being there. There’s an episode in the show The Bear on Hulu that opens with the main character walking to work with the song Chicago by Sufjan Stevens playing in the background. This is at the start of an episode that goes from simple to disastrous really quickly. I listen to that song every time I walk in the hospital, as if I’m preparing myself for catastrophe. I love reading stories about how people grapple with illness and live with a new way of seeing, and the idea of helping someone with my knowledge in medical humanities feels invigorating. But those are stories told in books; in there, there are real people suffering from real-world illness. What will happen if someone comes to the hospital asking for help and I have no idea what to do? What will happen if someone walks in, bleeding, with their organs falling out of their abdominal cavity? These were the questions that ran through my mind walking in. Thankfully, I had training that reminded me that my role is very defined, as is everyone else’s, which means those who are qualified for helping with issues like those will be there. It was one of the few occasions where I liked rigidly defined roles. And on a couple of occasions, I was able to help in the way that I was best qualified. One time, an older woman who only spoke Spanish came to the front desk with a billing concern. I was able to both translate for her, as well as get her the attention she needed. Another time, one of the front-desk clerks asked me if I could wash a patient’s sweater in the downstairs washing machine. (she had an accident involving taking her sweater off, and also poop) No, I can’t do open-heart surgery or administer someone’s chemo drugs, but I did the things I was trained for, and I did them well. When my shift was over, I would take the rest of the day off, decompressing, putting my shift behind me. Next semester, I will continue to volunteer. I’ll still need to decompress after, but I’m looking forward to helping people at the capacity I’m being asked of.

Co-running a Program for the College of the Arts

With my colleague from the Arts and Resilience program at The Wex

When I signed up for working with the College of the Arts, I already had teaching, writing, working as an editor, and volunteering at the James set up. One of my advisors put me in contact with someone when I told her I was interested in alt-ac (alternative to academia) jobs in medical humanities. We met over Zoom, and after several minutes of chatting, she offered me a position to co-run a program she was starting. As I began the discussion for taking on this new job, I could hear a small bird chirping outside, singing a song about the fox who stole one egg too many, only to become too hungry for his own good. The bird was really distracting, so I shooed him away. This has stretched into a year-long project that will be more active next semester, but I really liked the build-up to it and enthusiastically said Yes. I think one reason why I agreed to do this was because this was a chance to really put my passion for my studies into practice. I will be working with the Arts and Resilience program at the Wex. (learn more about that here) It’s an amazing organization that ties art and art-making to wellness, including exhibits and programs available for the greater Columbus area. In the last several months discussing what this will look like, it reminded me of the work my dad did building block walls and laying concrete, where your hands are always working, integral to the style of your work. It’s hard on your hands, but once it’s done, you wash them up, take a second to look at your work, then move on to the next project. Now that I’m near the end of my doctoral program, I really want to work. I want to put my hands to work, forming, shaping, cultivating the career I’ve spent years building. I can already feel so many doors opening outside of my current field thanks to this project. This project will show me what that will look like. I’m going to be exhausted once it’s done, but it’s a kind of exhaustion I look forward to.

It’s Monday, about 2:30 in the afternoon, and I’m resting. All of these thoughts ran through my head in a span of about ten seconds, but the questions still linger. This is a lot of work, and I’m qualified to find a job that can make more money than I’m making now and is less hours of work per week. I can easily stop all of this, find a 9-5 job and be content. I think what draws me to all of this is that….I don’t want to be content. Or more like, I don’t want to settle for content. I want to do work that matters. I want to apply what I know and help humanity, however the hell I can do that. I think one reason why I gravitated towards medical humanities was because it gave me a way to tie what I’m passionate about, writing and studying literature, and apply it to helping others, like in the public sector or something related to public health. My pie-in-the-sky goal is to one day run (maybe own?) a rehabilitation center where narrative medicine is central to its process and a tenet in its mission statement. This is a really lofty goal, one that may never materialize, but the work I’m doing now is turning that into a real-world possibility. And I couldn’t do this by myself- my advisors, students, Team QuePasa, my supervisors and coworkers at The James, and the people at The Wex all deserve so much praise, keeping me grounded through all of this. But then there’s something else….is it okay that I have a job that runs me to the ground after every shift? Is putting myself through this metaphorical meat-grinder worth it? I feel like the only way I can answer that question is until I can actually stop working and look back, but that is lightyears into the future. Maybe not knowing that right now and making the most of my program for now is okay. As I lay on this bed, asking these questions, I’m reminded of another time when I wanted to stop and ask these questions, but couldn’t. When I quit my old 9-5 job to become a full-time student, it put my ambitions to the test. I loved being a student, but it was not easy by any stretch. I worked several minimum wage jobs just to pay my bills. During my second semester of being a full-time student, my car broke down, and I had to figure out how to get to campus using public transportation. Getting to school, a community college that was an hour away driving, turned into a two-hour commute that included three trains and small bus. One day, on the way home on the train, I ended up falling asleep with my face resting on the window. It was the end of the line for that train, so I didn’t miss my next one, but I still needed to get out to catch that last train ride home. A security guard saw me and smacked the window where my face was from the outside with a metal flashlight, the kind police carry. That sound was so jolting, like a hard pop that shakes your bones, to the point where it is not difficult to recollect that feeling over ten years later. On that day, I let out a small phrase from under my breath, saying, “All of this better be worth it”. I’m now doing things that Young Rolando has been working towards that took years to accomplish. If I, Present-day Rolando, could go back, I could confidently tell him that he will achieve goals he never thought possible and is building towards something bigger than himself, and yes it will be a lot of time, labor, and sacrifice, but it is beyond what he could imagine. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and I’m resting. It’s a well-earned rest, the kind that will charge my emotional and intellectual batteries. This time, I can rest well, without the fear of someone hitting me in the face with a flashlight. It’s a good rest.

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