Something Sweet & Something Sour

aka, pouring lemon juice into my champagne

If you bit into my brain today, you would get a mouthful of something really sweet and sparkly and elated, undercut by a current of something yellow and sour. Today, I taste like lemon juice in sweet champagne.

I cannot find a more correct way to describe the ebullience in me as I left today’s weekly research meeting. More than a simmer, I felt like a big bloated cauldron full of the blub blub blub of big air bubbles rising up over a steady fire. It had been a regular research meeting, and in fact it had gone very well – better than the previous week. My advisor and I were discussing next steps – actual science we could do, after months of trial runs and tweaks and code optimization, actual papers we could write, an actual trajectory for my PhD. The conversation was good, the projects were exciting and within reach, the demands for my time this week clear and eminently reasonable. I took notes as fast as I could, excited and overwhelmed by all the science I could soon get down to, all the aims which seemed now closer to the palm of my hand than ever before.

As I left my professor’s office, I could feel my step quickening on my way to my desk: must walk fast, must get these racing thoughts down on paper, must transfer this momentum before it completely dissipates and I am left in a pile of confusion and aimlessness once more. But even as I threw myself in my chair and started typing code scripts and to-do lists, I could feel the sweetness of elated motivation dissipating to reveal the sour, niggling thoughts that were seeded in the same meeting which made me feel so inspired. Thoughts like

“… I should have thought of this application before….”


“… He asked me to do this and I forgot, he must think I’m incompetent…”


“… Why is he editing his email to our collaborator before forwarding it to me? He must have said how disappointed he is in me…”

Thoughts that helped no one with no task, but thoughts that nevertheless regularly found their home in the crevices of my neural pathways. Thoughts that I knew well, and which knew me well. Thoughts which I was trying very hard to push back into some unspeakable corner of my head so that I could get some goddamn work done before I lost it, this magic motivation which I used to have in spades but now visited me as rarely as an ungrateful grandchild. I was trying to push the thoughts out, and they were trying to leak out of my eyes, sour and biting and causing the familiar sense of burning behind my eyeballs.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had a good cry”, I thought. “Maybe that’s what I need.” I stopped typing and checked in with my body. My body felt like maybe it wanted to cry. “Fine,” I told my body, and sent off my final email for the evening before packing up and taking my body for a walk, “let’s go home and cry. I need to feed you anyway.” 

Walking home, I continued rooting around my emotions. There were too many bubbles in there to see anything clearly. I was still excited, but fading quickly, and maybe a little nervous, and at the same time feeling admonished and put in my place. No one in that meeting had said a negative word to me, or about me, or diminished my involvement in any way. Far as I could tell, I’d done it myself. I poured lemon juice in my own champagne.

But what if you haven’t?”, the sourness argued. “What if you are actually all the things I think you are, and you’re the only thing holding back this project, and your advisor is getting so sick of you that if you make one more misstep he’ll fire you? What then?”

I considered that last point carefully while biting my lips and fumbling for my keys. I guess then I quit grad school? But I have a life here, and a lease until the next school year. Maybe I could find a temporary job until the lease runs out and I get my bearings. Oh, but it has to be in my area of expertise to get my OPT permit instead of a visa and stay here legally once I’m no longer a student. Maybe I could convince the physics department to fund me until the end of the year? Maybe if I teach more…

By the microwave’s fifth beep I resurfaced to reality and realized I’d just been planning my nuclear “in case of emergency” option to a truly disturbing level of detail. I argued with myself and my thoughts: if it were truly that dire, surely my advisor would speak up. He is an entire grown human, if I were underperforming so severely that he was considering firing me, surely, he would say something.

I plopped on my couch, bit into my now only semi-cold pasta, and checked in with myself one last time. The bubbles had evaporated, the sourness had mostly slithered away. Only traces of either feeling lingered. I no longer wanted to cry. I no longer felt overwhelmed. I no longer left particularly inspired, or particularly stupid. As quickly as the feelings set in they were gone, downed in one gulp with no immediate refill.

I wondered if other people took their champagne with a splash of lemon juice.

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