Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Say a Little Prayer

A few months before I gave birth to my daughter last year, my husband and I went out to lunch with a fantastic couple who befriended us when we lived in our apartment.  As we were getting ready to part ways, the husband said to us, "You'll be in my prayers!  My thoughts won't do much for you, but my prayers will."  I delighted in his comment, because it was true. 

Don't get me wrong: if you're thinking warm thoughts about me while I'm in labor, or giving a presentation, or taking a test, or attempting for the fiftieth time to get my baby to drink from a sippy cup instead of just chewing on the spout, I appreciate the solidarity.  I do.  It's comforting.  If I'm on your mind and in your heart, that means something to me.  But ultimately, it's not efficacious in the way that prayer is.  And I've grown weary of the pretense that it is.

In recent times, I've heard multiple people say that they're "sending positive thoughts" or "sending positive energy" to someone who needs support.  Now, pardon me for saying so, but that's a bunch of New Age bull.  You can't "send" thoughts or energy to someone of your own accord.  You can tell them that you are, were, or will be thinking of them; you can ask God to help them; you can do both.  But sending out some kind of warm & fuzzy thought & energy transmission?  I'm afraid that just doesn't work.

So please, folks.  If you're not the praying kind and you want to tell me you're thinking of me, go ahead: I appreciate it.  But don't try to circumvent God with some crazy feeling transmitter.  That's nothing but a would-be prayer where you're the god.

Friday, May 27, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday: Gratitude Edition

As always, visit Jen's blog for more!

Back when my brother and I were very little and our family would say grace before eating, we would recite: "God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food."  After a few years, my parents switched it to the familiar "Bless us, O Lord" version, and we never turned back.  I've always kinda missed the old one, even though it's the condensed variety.

Perhaps that explains why I married a man with the last name Campbell.

So for this week's quick takes, I'd like to start by saying: God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for...

1. The Russian Supreme Court's overturning of a judge's earlier decision not to allow an American family to adopt little Kirill, a darling little boy with Down Syndrome.  I blogged about this a couple months ago when I read about the initial ruling, which stated that Kirill could not be adopted because he is "not socially adaptable."  His new family is absolutely overjoyed, and deeply thankful, and I could not be happier for them.  

2. Sanity.  You may have read about the Canadian husband and wife who are keeping their baby's sex a secret as "a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation."  I'm not even going to comment on it, because Sarah at Sarah's Journal wrote such a stunningly beautiful piece about it that I can't think of any more that needs to be said.  (h/t Leila at Little Catholic Bubble)

3. Beautiful flowers right outside my kitchen window.

4. The weather forecast for Memorial Day (please, don't let it change!) combined with dollar admission to celebrate the reopening (following an awesome remodeling) of a local pool.  I can't wait to take Baby Girl swimming!  There is even a specific time on the pool schedule for toddlers in late morning, before the sun gets too crazy!

5. Sonic's milkshakes and "tots."  My husband and I have been fans of the Sonic commercials for years, and often when we've seen them I've lamented the fact that we've never lived near one and, accordingly, have never been to one.  That all changed on our way home from vacationing in Delaware with my husband's family last week.  I had the midmorning nursing mama munchies, and -- hurrah! -- we saw a sign indicating the presence of a Sonic off one of the exits.  We pulled into the lot, and my husband suggested that I could go in and order while he waited with the baby in the car.

Yes, that's right.  Despite the fact that every Sonic commercial that's ever been on has featured people eating in cars, despite the fact that when my friend Ashley has posted about taking her adorable son to Sonic to meet up with her best friend the accompanying photos have always been taken in a car, despite the fact that Sonic's prominent slogan is "America's Drive-In," neither my husband nor I realized that you do not have the option of going into the Sonic.  You can go through the drive-thru, or you can do the drive-in option whereby an employee roller skates out with your food and sets the tray on your window, but you cannot eat in.  Grasping this took a few moments of my stumbling around the grounds, looking for a door that didn't say "Employees Only" on it.


Long story short, we went through the drive-thru and ordered milkshakes and tater tots.  They're just called "tots" on the menu; I teased my husband that he wouldn't be able to order them that way despite quoting Napoleon Dynamite a gazillion times, and I was right.  We enjoyed everything immensely.  Now I want to go back.  Sigh.

6. Summer clothing.  I fit in it this year!  And it doesn't fill up our hamper in two days.

7. My Backstreet Boys Pandora Station.  From Boyz II Men to The Temptations to Stevie Wonder, it just gets it right every time. 

Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Grad School Story, Part III

This is the last part, I promise.  Parts I and II are here and here, respectively.

I began the summer of 2008 with renewed hope for a successful graduate school career.  Both my husband and I had experienced a difficult first year of graduate school, but things were looking up for both of us.  I had selected a topic for my candidacy paper that I found personally compelling, and he had started working as a research assistant on a trial basis for a physics professor whose work he found interesting. 

My entire summer was consumed with researching and writing my critical literature review.  Focusing on the information and communication needs of parents with special needs children made the experience fascinating, emotional, and cathartic at the same time, even through the most tedious moments of searching, reading, cross-referencing, making notes, writing, and re-writing.  For the first time, I felt very much at home in my work, even if I didn't feel at home in my program.

As the deadline for submitting approached, I sent my paper to my candidacy advisor, Jeff.  He made a few suggestions for improvement, but was generally complimentary.  Each student had been assigned a three-member committee of professors who would judge whether his or her paper and oral defense merited full admission to the doctoral program.  The advisor was included on this committee, but did not have a vote.  The other two members were assigned to me based on my topic.  Jeff recommended that I meet with them before submitting my paper and defending it to see if they had any suggestions for improvement.  One of the members, "Gene," kindly read the paper and met with me to discuss it.  The other, "Bernard," issued a tersely worded refusal to my emailed request, using language that led me to believe he felt as though I'd been trying to cheat by asking for his impressions before the actual defense.  I was a bit taken aback, but I responded that it was fine, I understood, and thanks anyway.

Here and there, I would discuss the candidacy paper with various other members of my cohort.  Most of them didn't start it until mid-summer.  As the date for my defense approached, I ran into a student who told me that he had already defended and that it had gone fine.  He laughed as he revealed that he'd written in over the course of a week and had worn shorts to the defense.  I was surprised, but encouraged: if a week's worth of work and casual clothing were good enough, surely I had it in the bag!  "They want to know why you're researching what you're researching," he advised me.  "Make sure you address that."

A couple days before my defense, I received a request to email my presentation slides to Bernard.  It turned out that he wasn't going to be in attendance, but would be listening in via conference call.  Oh well, I thought, one less person in the room might be nice anyways.  My defense date arrived on August 18.  It wasn't scheduled until 3:15, and my nerves worsened as the day wore on.  Early in the afternoon, I donned a business suit and took the bus down to campus.  I printed out all of my notes and copies of my slide presentation for my committee members.  Then I walked down to my assigned room, eager to get started.

A few minutes after I arrived, Jeff and Gene showed up, and Bernard called not long after.  I then had to leave the room so they could discuss their initial impressions of my paper.  After a few minutes, I was invited back in, and I began my presentation.  I thought about the advice I'd received from my colleague, and I explained to my committee why my topic had personal meaning for me.  Frankly, this was a big deal.  I'm not the slightest bit embarrassed about it, but my brother's autism doesn't come up much.  Some people know me for a very long time before I mention it.  I struggle to introduce it, because I feel like I can never accurately convey who my brother is as a person with that label.  Autism is a part of him, and it certainly has a major impact on his life, but it's still just a part.  Plus, the challenges and abilities of people with autism have such a wide range that using it as a descriptor is minimally helpful.  People tend to conjure up images of individuals who are either savants or completely nonverbal, neither of which apply to most folks with autism, including my brother. 

After giving a brief description of my family's background, I delivered a presentation on my paper, complete with the required PowerPoint.  Once I finished, it was time for my committee members to ask questions.  Jeff didn't ask any; I think he felt that, as a nonvoting member, it wasn't his place.  Gene asked me a few, but they weren't too difficult to answer.  And then Bernard spoke up over speakerphone.

"It isn't clear to me at all," he began, "why there is a reason to look at this group in particular.  What is so different about their way of looking for information online?  How is the experience of these parents when they're looking up information different from, say, me looking up information on vacation I want to take?"

I felt like I'd been punched in the gut.  It was obvious from his derisive tone of voice that he thought my entire paper was worthless.  The comparison he'd made really stung, too: growing up, we went on vacation exactly twice -- once to Niagara Falls and once to Gettysburg -- because traveling is very difficult for my routine-oriented brother.  "I -- I would say that this type of information gathering is much more -- important," I stammered.  The idea of comparing the information needs of isolated, frantic, and sometimes grief-stricken parents to someone planning a trip to the beach made me sick.

"All right then, forget the vacation -- you could put anything in there.  What about me looking up information on colleges for my son?"  And so it went.  That second one hurt too -- my brother could never have gone to college.  I struggled through, trying to explain why I felt this group was worthy of its own study.  Gene gently helped me to better understand Bernard's point by mentioning similar studies of diabetes patients' information needs -- how was my group different still?  I finally realized what my colleague had meant when he told me to explain why I was researching my topic -- it wasn't about personal motivation, it was about worthiness of scientific inquiry.  In Bernard's opinion, I hadn't even come close to demonstrating that.

After the questioning session, Jeff and I were asked to leave so that Gene and Bernard could discuss my presentation.  "I gotta tell you, Bernard really didn't like your paper," Jeff said while we waited in the hall.  It was obvious he didn't agree, although he conceded that Bernard had some points.  He tried to offer an explanation for Bernard's hurtful response: "He's had some professional setbacks lately."  Once you get to know him, you find that Jeff is a nice man at heart, but he is the quintessential socially awkward, head-in-the-clouds type of professor.  This was as close to a comforting remark as he was able to offer, and I knew it, so I smiled weakly in gratitude.  He told me that I probably wouldn't fail, but earn a "conditional pass" such that I would have to do some sort of specified work to make up for my initial failings to earn full candidacy.

Not long later, the event was over, and I was free to go.  I whisked down the hallway, head up, heels clicking the floor.  As soon as I entered the stairwell my eyes flooded with tears.  I broke down in sobs. 

Looking back, I realize that my paper was flawed.  Bernard's criticism was actually correct: I never provided any sort of argument as to why parents of special needs children were worthy of study in our field.  To be honest, I never knew that I had to.  Part of that is my own failing -- I should have read more critical literature reviews to better acquaint myself with the genre, I should have been more diligent.  But I know that it wasn't all my fault.  Jeff is a pioneer in his field, a highly regarded scientist, and a very prolific author, but when it comes to advising, I don't think he knows quite what to do.  I doubt it was a coincidence that the majority of the five "conditional pass" folks were from his lab.  He simply didn't provide much guidance when guidance was sorely needed.  Ironically enough, he was the one who had spearheaded the idea of changing the candidacy process from an exam to a critical literature review in the first place!

A few weeks after my defense, I received my official letter stating that I had earned a conditional pass.  It included comment sheets from each of my committee members.  Bernard's indicated that he had really wanted to fail me outright.  I threw it in the garbage.

It was decided by the graduate program directors that the process by which conditional passers could earn full doctoral candidacy would be by earning a master's degree through completing a thesis.  Some doctoral programs require that for everybody, but mine didn't, so this would be an extra step.  I didn't mind the idea of getting a master's along the way.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized: I didn't mind the idea of getting a master's, and getting the hell out.

And that's what I did.

Yes, there was more -- but not much.  I was incredibly nervous about telling Jeff, who at that point had replaced Jolene as my advisor, but he took it well.  He was surprised.  He was even regretful, and he told me that he thought I was smart, which coming from him was very high praise.  My courses that fall were all in other departments, and (not surprisingly) they were far better than the ones I'd taken my first year.  Still, I was unswayed.  One of Jeff's other advisees recommended that I start looking for jobs early, as there are many more applicants than positions around here, so I took his advice.  I had expected to finish my fall courses and then spend the spring semester writing my thesis while still holding my graduate assistantship.  But when a teaching job at a local career school came along within a couple months of the beginning of my search, I decided to apply for and (joyfully) accept it, even though that meant I had to pay outrageous out-of-state tuition fees for my "thesis credits" that I took in the spring (because I had only lived in PA as a student, Penn State still considered me out-of-state for tuition purposes).

I started teaching during finals week of fall semester in early December 2008.  That was insane, but my decision to bag the Ph.D. was one of the smartest I've ever made, and my teaching position was a delight.  (It will be the topic of a future Love Letter to Central PA!)  I managed to finish my thesis and successfully defend it on June 19, 2009, two days after the last day of my school's spring term.  As of August 2009, I am an official master's degree-holding alumna of the Pennsylvania State University.

Oh, and that "Internet find" that I mentioned ever-so-briefly in Part I?  Turns out that Jeff and a few collaborators published a paper on social communities for people with autism last year.  Its references include at least ten of the articles I worked so hard to find during that long summer of 2008, yet my name is not listed among the acknowledgements.  It's not plagiarism, not at all, and the project its based on wasn't even inspired by me -- Jeff had already begun it when he took me under his wing.  But the fact remains that that I'm the one who originally found those sources.  A shout-out would have been nice.  Oh well.  I'm not mad, just all the more relieved to be done.

Do I regret writing my literature review (and, eventually, thesis) on a topic so "close to home"?   A little.  I know my failure wouldn't have stung nearly as badly had I written about something else.  Do I regret going to grad school in the first place?  No.  Even though I hated it, it's over now, and I'm happy to have the degree.  I'm enormously grateful that I had the opportunity to do postgraduate work.  For all the shortcomings of my program's coursework, the classes I took in other departments were excellent.  I learned a lot in them about some really interesting topics (attachment parenting, sociology of the family, and discourse analysis); plus, their demanding workloads really pushed me to learn how to learn and to think critically as a scholar.

As an aside -- I'm beyond delighted to report that my husband's graduate experience has just continued to get more and more awesome over time.  The professor with whom he started working three years ago is still his advisor, and they have a fantastic relationship.  She balances a staggeringly impressive curriculum vitae (that's a resumé in academe) with a kind, supportive personality.  My husband's scholarly pursuits have blossomed beautifully under her guidance.

I hope that this series has not come across as being motivated by bitterness.  It has been wonderfully cathartic to write about these experiences.  I wanted to be honest, and let's face it -- my graduate career honestly stunk!  Truly, I wish nothing but the best for my former colleagues and advisors.  Jolene's other advisee, along with several other students who worked with her, adored her and found her to be incredibly inspiring.  As I mentioned previously, Jeff is an outstandingly prolific researcher who has influenced his field more than I could possibly imagine.  So maybe it's all me!  Ultimately, I think the combination of my graduate program and me was just a marriage made in hell from the very beginning -- which only serves to remind me of how happy I am that my real marriage is absolutely heavenly.

Through all of my grad school trials, I maintained my faith, though I often wondered what God's purpose was.  I don't claim that it now "makes perfect sense," but I think I do have a much better idea than I did then.  Jen wrote (in a much more profound way than I could hope to) about learning that "to be a Christian is not to make God part of your story, but to realize you are part of God’s story."  My graduate school story has been lived; I learned lessons in patience, sharpened my skills as a scholar, and offered up my various sufferings to God.  But maybe, in the grand narrative, I'm not the protagonist anyway.  Maybe the protagonist is Jeff, whose heart was softened by reading my work.  Maybe it is my husband, who has had an excellent graduate school experience here, and who has undoubtedly grown as a husband and a man in supporting me through my saddest days.  Maybe it is my daughter, who will benefit from my education in ways I can't even begin to imagine yet.  I don't know, but I don't need to.  I trust that -- whatever the reason -- my academic journey was the one I was meant to take.

And now I get to hang out with my beautiful baby girl every day, giggling like crazy over peek-a-boo and busting a move to S Club 7.  Motherhood rocks absolutely.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why Don't I Remember to Pray?

[Source]
The other night, my husband, daughter, and I went out to dinner with my husband's parents and two sisters.  It started out well: our girl was captivated by the flat-screen televisions and ceiling fans, not to mention the music and other patrons.  When she got restless, we fed her some Baby Mum-Mums.  When she tired of those, we moved on to some pureed prunes with oatmeal.

But that only did it for so long.

A few minutes into her supper, our little one was throwing her arms out and her head back, screaming, her face covered in prunes.  We pulled her out of the high chair; it didn't help.  She continued to let us and everybody else in the restaurant know that sitting there was torture, pure torture, and she couldn't wait to bust the heck out of there.

My husband is the most easygoing person alive, and situations like that just don't faze him.  He quickly but calmly finished his food and, once we got to the car, remarked that the baby had done quite well for most of the dinner.  I, on the other hand, rapidly transformed into a massive stress-ball as soon as she began to show signs of fussiness. My response to my husband's positive reaction was to basically scold him for being so chipper, and to please just let me wallow in my discomfort and anxiety.

Ugh.

It wasn't until later that I thought to myself, why didn't I pray?  Why, during those tense few minutes that felt like geological eras, didn't I spend just a few seconds asking God to please calm her down -- or better yet, to help me to handle the situation in a more constructive way, like my husband did?

I have a bad habit of forgetting to pray in situations like this.  It's odd, because there are other times when I do remember -- when I'm looking for lost keys, I'll ask God to help me find them; if my husband is taking a test or giving an important presentation, I'll pray that it goes well; sometimes I find myself starting an "Oh please God!" while watching a tense moment on a TV show, only to come to my senses and stutter, "um, well yeah I know it's just pretend, so I don't really have to be scared for that person, but now that I have you, I'd feel a lot more at peace if the plot went in a nice, safe, happy direction..."  But put me in an embarrassing, stressful moment like the one in the restaurant, and giving God a shout-out is the furthest thing from my mind.  Instead, I opt for the wallow-in-anxious-misery-so-that-everyone-else-can-feel-just-as-uneasy-as-I-do route.

I'm not sure why this is.  I'm certainly not the holiest person on earth, but I'm also not one to only don my religious hat on Sunday: I think about God throughout the day.  Yet, somehow, I manage to ignore Him on certain occasions when I'm overwhelmed with stress.  Is it because I'm so caught up with anxiety that I can't sense His presence?  Is there a twisted, self-righteous part of me that would rather seek refuge in my misery than in His mercy?  Look at me, my life is so hard -- I have a child!  She doesn't always behave perfectly! Wahhhhh!  Nobody knows the struggle, the hardship!

My suspicion is that it's a bit of both.  Ultimately, in situations that play out like the one at that dinner, I choose anxiety over peace.  I may not actively think, "I am so NOT praying about this" -- in fact, I know I don't -- but in submitting to frustration and resentment, the decision is already made.

That is something I need, and want, to change. The daily challenges of motherhood are realities that I must face every day.  There is no reason that I cannot embrace them with a smile and a prayer, instead of a tensely furrowed brow and an off-color, under-my-breath grumble.  I know the change will not come easy: I am a naturally high-strung person who has habitually capitulated to stress for years.  But, at the very least, I know exactly to Whom I need to turn for help.

Friday, May 20, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday

Visit Jen's blog for her quick takes, and many others!

1. I've added a new page to my blog featuring some of my all-time favorite posts by other authors.  It is not a complete list by any means -- I've been an avid blog reader for years, and sadly I didn't think to bookmark a lot of my most beloved reads until recently.  But the ones I've linked to are all fantastic!

2. You know how our smiles in photographs tend to be somewhat forced and fake-looking when posed?  I decided a while ago to combat that issue by thinking about toilet humor whenever I'm posing for a photo.  It's great to know that, in all likelihood, when you see a picture of me smiling, the thought that was most likely going through my head was, "POOOOOOOP!  HAHAHAHA!"
Like here!  Guarantee that's what was happening.  Can't say what my husband was thinking.
3. Speaking of, my husband and I were just noting the fact that although the birth of our daughter has radically changed our lives (for the better!) in practically every imaginable way, it has not yet impeded us from proceeding on with our typical fart-joke banter.  Soon, however, we will no longer be able to take advantage of her tender age, and we will be faced with a difficult decision: continue on and risk raising a child who thinks scatological humor is perfectly acceptable in polite company?  Or stop, and deny our daughter the opportunity to know her real mom and dad?  Parenting is tough, folks.

4. While we're on the subject of tough parenting: my daughter is 10.5 months old, and sleep is still a major issue in our house.  Her nighttime nursing frequency is really getting out of hand.  She slept through the night from 3-5 months old back in the fall, but once she gave that up there's been no turning back.  In my mom-as-martyr moments, I like to reflect upon how I've been sleep deprived "this entire calendar year!"

Truth be told, the lack of sleep does make a difference, and I've found myself being forgetful, easily confused, and often just plain stupid.  At one point I was sending an email to Lindsy (I believe it was about the Stephen Colbert cover of "Friday") and I intended to type the acronym "LMAO" (yep, I use that one, and "LOL" and "ROFL," might as well just accept me as I am), but instead I typed "LAMO."  I didn't notice the typo, but my husband happened to glance at my screen and commented, "At first I thought you wrote LMAO, but now I see you put lame-o."  I confessed that this was not my intention, and I fixed it, but I couldn't help but note the hilarity of my lame misspelling.  Ergo, I refer to all of my fumblings that I blame on sleep deprivation (read: all of my fumblings) as "lame-o," spelled "LAMO."

5. Oh, if only I could go back to those days when I actually got good nights' sleep!  Those were the best of times, for sure!  Wait, what?  Yes, sleep is awesome, and I probably need more than I get, but I've gotten two fabulous reminders this week of how much I need to STOP wishing that I could be living someone else's life, especially that of former or future weez.  I highly recommend them both: "It Ain't Out There" by Sarah and "O that green grass." by Maria.

6. To follow or not to follow?  I've noticed a number of blogs lately with a "follower" gadget on them, and sometimes I feel like I'm doing my favorite authors a disservice by not being a "follower" of their blogs.  But I don't use that feature to do my blog reading; I'm a Google Reader gal.  I looooooove me some Google Reader, so I know I'd never use the follower feature to do any of my blog reading.  Is that okay?  Would I be a better citizen of the blogosphere if I started following my favorite blogs publicly? 

7. Many a moon ago, I worked at Dunkin Donuts.  It was a fun time.  For a while afterwards, I couldn't handle the smell of their coffee or the taste of their doughnuts, which wasn't terribly surprising.  In recent years I've come back around.
I first saw this item advertised a couple years ago, and now I see it's out again:  
Yes, that is, in fact, a blueberry waffle breakfast sandwich.  I think the blueberriness of the waffle might be a new development.  It looks...awful, and yet...I gotta admit, the curiosity is killing me.  I might just have to get one of these monstrosities, if only to report back here.  

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Grad School Story, Part II

You can read Part I here!

My husband and I were married on July 21, 2007, just a little over two months after we graduated from college.  We had been dating for over four and a half years, and we were ecstatic to finally be man and wife.  Woohoo!

After our wedding and honeymoon, we settled into a nice apartment in State College.  Everything was new to us -- the town, the home, the neighbors, the marriage!  We spent early August getting new driver's licenses, registering our cars in Pennsylvania, learning our way around town, and...oh, right, getting everything squared away to start graduate school at the end of the month.


Newlywed status tends to make brides feel rather radiant, and I was no exception.  I was filled with hope as I prepared to begin graduate school.  I was looking forward to enjoying my coursework, meeting interesting colleagues, and performing brilliantly in my role as a teaching assistant. By the time school was about to start, I was thoroughly convinced that my advisor, the professor I'd met at the recruitment weekend in March, would actually turn out to be a fantastic mentor and friend.  Oh, I might have resisted it, but graduate school was going to just scoop me up and make me feel warm and fuzzy and I'd love it just as much as I had loved undergraduate.

Right.

My advisor (I'll call her "Jolene" -- yes, all the professors in the program wanted to be addressed by their first names) had one other graduate student, whom I'd also met at the March recruitment weekend.  He invited my husband and me to hang out with him and some other students before the school year began.  He was a friendly fellow, and the other folks were nice, too, although we didn't really click with them.  Right around the time school started, he forwarded an email to me and a bunch of other people advertising t-shirts his friend was selling in honor of the Penn State-Notre Dame football game: "Feed the Christians to the Lions!", they proclaimed.  I cringed. That was mild, however, in comparison to another shirt I saw a couple days later in a local shop: "I don't give a Notre Damn," and another one I saw a lot of students wearing, "You've got Jesus, we've got JoePa."  To this day, I just can't manage any excitement about Penn State football. 

Scheduling my classes was a bit of a nightmare.  The majority of the other students in my "cohort" were international -- I think only six out of 24 were American -- and all the international students were specially advised earlier in the summer and placed into their courses.  As a domestic student, I was offered no guidance, and by the time I realized which courses I needed to take and the mechanism for registering, one of the classes I wanted was full.  Desperate, I emailed the professor (I'll call him "Jeff"), begging to be let in.  He advised me to come to the first session even though I wasn't enrolled, as some students always "find the class is too much for them." 

School started, as it generally does, on a Monday.  My first class was actually not a course I was taking, but the one I was TA'ing, and the professor for the course was none other but Jolene.  She had me stand up and introduce myself.  I'd known ahead of time that this was a senior-level course, but looking around the room that morning really brought the point home: these students were a couple years my junior at the youngest, and some were probably older than I was.  They knew it, too.

The semester wore on.  I soon realized that my first impression of Jolene had been right.  (I eventually started referring to her as "Jo-Mean" around my husband.)  I felt like I could not please her, not because my work was subpar, but because of simply who I was -- or wasn't.  She had plans to travel to Asia for a couple months the following summer to research, and she asked me if I would be interested in going, too.  I politely told her I wouldn't, to which she responded, "Oh, come on, Louise, where's your sense of adventure!"  I like adventure well enough, but I had no desire to leave my husband for eight weeks to participate in research that I still considered superfluous.  She, on the other hand, made a point of mentioning that she had instructed her husband and other family members not to visit her while she was gone, because she wanted time away from them.

My duties as Jolene's TA did nothing to boost my self-confidence. One day, the cabinet that held the classroom projector was locked, and she needed to use it for her class.  I remembered the combination, but even once I set the dials, I couldn't open it.  "Get it fixed!" she snapped as several students looked on.  I scurried up to the building's tech support, my eyes burning with tears the whole way.  The IT specialist came down, squeezed the lock, got it right off, rolled her eyes and left.  I wanted to disappear.

Not long after, my husband and I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment trip back to Youngstown to go to a YSU football game.  During my last two years in college, I was a student trustee, which among other perks allowed me to go to the university president's box for all the football games and hobnob with the local elite (and, more importantly, enjoy free food).  I had been invited back, and I was happy to accept.  I told Jolene about my plans, partly to make conversation, and partly in a rare attempt to appeal to her jet-setting nature.  "Well, remember, when you come back, you'll just be a paean again!" she laughed.  Trust me, I remembered.

My classes were nothing to write home about. They each met once a week for three hours, which drove me berserk.  One of my professors spent two or three weeks talking about nothing but Wikipedia.  The only written assignment we had the entire semester was keeping an annotated bibliography of all the papers we read, yet somehow it took him until many weeks beyond the grading deadline to assign each of us our "A" at the end of the term.  Another professor assigned each student one of the course topics and had us teach ourselves via -- what else? -- PowerPoint.  I did manage to make it into Jeff's class, and I received some positive feedback from the curmudgeonly professor.  I liked a lot of the material, but even that course frustrated me: we were placed into groups of five to work on "team" written assignments, ostensibly according to our research strengths, but I couldn't help but notice each group had a single token native English speaker.  Of course, in my group, that was me, tiredly correcting subject-verb agreements in drafts that my colleagues had sent me hours later than promised.

It took me months to realize how unhappy I was.  My husband and I were sitting around one night after dinner, and suddenly I said, "You know, if it weren't for the fact that we're so happy together, I would be completely miserable right now."  Of course, I'm glad it was that way, and not the other way around; all the academic success in the world wouldn't make up for an unhappy marriage.  In the meantime, my husband's experience wasn't exactly joyful, either.  His coursework was incredibly demanding.  Many a night, he would return to school after dinner to work on homework with other students, and he wouldn't come back home until after midnight.  Thank God we were married during that time.  I don't think either of us would have gotten through it as well as we did without each other.

In the spring, something interesting happened: the candidacy process for my program changed.  Instead of taking a written exam to officially become Ph.D. "candidates" (meaning we were granted full admission to the Ph.D. track and were expected to ultimately earn our doctorates), we were now going to have to write a critical literature review on a topic of our choice that would, ideally, end up being part of our doctoral thesis.  I was excited about this development.   I loved writing, after all, and this project sounded like a more meaningful and useful task than taking a test over our first-year coursework, much of which was completely unrelated to my research interests.

I had been attending meetings for one of Jeff's research groups for most of the spring semester, and as the school year wound down and I realized I needed to secure summer funding, I bravely asked him (via email) if he would be able to pay me for the work I was doing.  The entirety of his response was: "sure."  I was delighted.  Not only did that mean I would still have an income, but it also made my next move more natural: I asked him to advise me for my candidacy paper.  Jolene was going to be gone the whole summer, so she was happy to have someone else assume that responsibility.

Before I could begin writing, I needed a topic.  I knew I wanted to focus on information and communications technologies in the context of some kind of community, but I didn't know what community in particular.  Finally, one morning, it dawned on me: I would write about families of children with developmental disabilities.  Growing up with a brother who has autism, I was painfully aware of the isolation experienced by many families of special needs children.  When we were kids, nobody had ever heard of the Internet, but I thought it stood to reason that the information and social opportunities available online in recent years could be helpful for families like mine.  Excited to have finally found a promising area of study within my discipline, I began work on my literature review as soon as the spring semester ended in early May.  I was filled with hope again: hope that I had found my niche, and hope that this program was what God had wanted me to do after all.

That concludes the second chapter of my graduate school story.  You can read Part III here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Meaning of Sacrifice

I'm out of town this week, so my blogging time is sporadic and brief -- but I wanted to share this quote from Scott Hahn's foreword to Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre (yes, I got it and I've started to read it!):

"Paul's vision of the Passion is stunning.  He shows us that it is not merely about how much Jesus suffered, but about how much He loves. Love transforms suffering into sacrifice."

I love this quote!  "Love transforms suffering into sacrifice."  It is something that I have known all along -- that sacrifice is suffering you do for another -- yet I have never thought to articulate it in such a way.  Of course, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice in laying down His life for ours.  How beautiful it is to know that in our sacrifices, big or small, we imitate the One who is Love itself, performing the greatest act of love in history.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Grad School Story, Part I

Yesterday was a special day for my husband and me.  It was the five-year anniversary of the day he proposed.  It is hard for me to believe that much time has already passed since the beginning of our engagement!

Reflecting on our engagement and the earliest years of our marriage (which began a little over a year later), combined with a recent Internet discovery that I'll discuss later, has inspired me to write about something I had originally planned to avoid: my graduate school journey. 

This journey began right after his proposal. The summer of 2006 wasn't the easiest for my then-fiancé and me.  He had decided months before to do an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) during his last summer of college to improve his chances of being accepted into a graduate program.  We had started dating in high school and we both went to colleges close to home, so we were accustomed to spending a lot of time together.  We knew that we wouldn't be able to that summer, as none of the REU sites were close to home.

He ended up doing his REU at Penn State.  "Is that in Harrisburg?" I asked when he told me he was applying.  "No, State College," he replied.  I had never heard of the place.  I looked on the map and observed that it was right in the middle of Pennsylvania.  The names of the few surrounding towns appeared in thin, tiny font.  "Is there anything there?" I asked him over the phone during one of his lunch breaks.  "Oh, yeah," he replied, "there's a couple main roads downtown that have a lot of restaurants and stuff."  I was unconvinced, but shrugged it off: as long as he was content during his 10-week stay, it didn't matter to me how isolated the place was.  I just wanted the summer to end, so he would be back home.

I spent that summer working at my university, as I had the previous year, ruminating over what graduate program would be right for me.  My undergraduate advisor and boss, a beloved friend, amazing mentor, and essentially my "school mom," passed away from cancer just a few days before my husband and I got engaged.  I was devastated at the loss.  Without her guidance, I struggled to figure out what I should do after I graduated.  I loved school and I knew I wanted to continue my education, but I had no idea what direction to take.  At first I thought I wanted to study library science, but a month-long stint working in our university library changed my mind about that.  I flirted with the idea of going for higher education administration, spent a weekend passionately convinced that I belonged in a computational linguistics program, and considered bumping up my undergraduate minor, English, to full-course status for my postgraduate career.  I was utterly lost.

The fall of my senior year of college was fraught with indecision about my academic future.  In the end, I applied to four different programs at the same universities my fiancé was applying.  They had some similarities and my undergraduate degree prepared me decently well for any one of them, but they were sufficiently different that I had to completely rework my statement of research interest for each one.  As I wrote them and thought about the different programs, I realized that I didn't even like Penn State's, but at that point my fiancé had already applied, so I figured I should too.

Within a few weeks of submitting our applications, we started hearing back.  Ohio University was the first school that accepted both of us.  We were excited to have an option, but not thrilled: their graduate stipends were very modest, and that mattered, since they would be our livelihood.  Soon after, I received an acceptance email from Penn State.  I wasn't overjoyed, because the program to which I'd applied there didn't seem to be a great fit for me.  However, within a few days, my fiancé also received notice of acceptance there, and I became more enthusiastic.  The physics program at Penn State was highly ranked, which could play a role down the line when he'd be applying for faculty positions.  And although our income would still be limited, their graduate stipends were considerably higher than OU's, and much more reasonable in terms of actually keeping a young couple afloat.  I can remember looking up apartments in the State College area and realizing that we'd have a surplus after paying the rent and utilities.  "Just think, the rest can be for food!" I said giddily, mostly joking.  Ah, youth.

Not long later, I received a phone call from a professor in the program to which I'd applied at Ohio State.  I had applied to the master's program, but he wanted to know if I'd be interested in pursuing a Ph.D. instead.  I was on cloud nine.  Not only did they want me, but they wanted me for more than I'd even hoped!  The program sounded like an excellent fit, the stipend was generous as far as stipends go, and I had always had a desire to live in Columbus.  Surely this was the school for me -- for us.  I felt confident that my fiancé would be hearing good news from the Ohio State physics program soon and our course would be set.

In the meantime, Penn State held a recruitment weekend for potential graduate students.  Even though I was fairly convinced that we wouldn't be going there, I still wanted to go.  I had never done anything like it before -- never driven that far from home alone (it's a 3-hour drive), never stayed in a hotel all by myself, never been "wooed" by an academic institution.  The event was held in early March.  I departed on a sunny Friday morning on the trip my fiancé had already made at least a half-dozen times the previous summer (yes, he made the six-hour round trip most weekends so we could see each other...he's a prince).  I was terrified of driving through the winding, rolling hills of central Pennsylvania, and my speeds on Interstate 80 oscillated between 50 and 70 mph accordingly.  But I made it.  I was struck by what I'd suspected when my fiancé was doing his REU: the area surrounding State College was rural and sparsely populated, which was quite different from the vicinity of my hometown.  However, he was still right about the university itself and the surrounding college town.  They were bustling and lively.

I got a migraine that night, my first in seven years and my last to date.  After sleeping it off, I participated in the introduction and tour that was planned for us on Saturday.  I'd received an itinerary before coming to Penn State, yet somehow I'd missed the fact that I was scheduled to meet with a certain professor after the group activities.  I didn't realize it until the weekend was already in progress, but she was trying to specifically recruit me to be her advisee.  Not all graduate programs work the same: some encourage students to join a particular lab or research group immediately, whereas others opt for a more exploratory model.  This was very confusing for naive little me, whose college days were spent at an institution which catered heavily to undergraduates.  I met with her for an hour or so during Saturday afternoon, embarrassed because I barely knew anything about her work.  She described it to me, and I still couldn't really figure out what she did.  It didn't sound like anything I would be interested in.  She came off as a brusque, demanding person, and I had no desire to work for her.  I agreed to have dinner with her and one of her graduate students that evening.  I felt uncomfortable and awkward the whole time.  Sunday morning, I took off for home with relief, only to drive home in a terrible (read: white-out) snowstorm.  Just before I crossed the state line into Ohio, I noticed that a number of vehicles coming in the opposite direction were off the road.  I later found out that I'd seen the results of a 20-vehicle collision that had left one woman dead.

I was glad to be done with the whole affair.

The weeks passed by.  The acceptance letter or email or call that my fiancé and I had hoped he'd receive from Ohio State never came.  Eventually, he emailed the department there to inquire, as he had never received a rejection notice, either.  The response indicated that if he had another opportunity, he should take it.

We had three options: we could both go to Ohio University and try to survive on tiny stipends, we could live halfway between OU and Ohio State so he could go to the former and I the latter, or we could both go to Penn State.  The other school we'd both tried for, the University of Pittsburgh, had waitlisted him and offered me no money, so that wasn't in the running anymore.

The first option simply wasn't going to work for us, financially.  For a while, we toyed with the second option.  It wouldn't have been impossible, and I'm sure it would work for some couples, but it ultimately wasn't going to work for us.  We would have each been 45 minutes away from our respective institutions, at best, and I would have likely been driving into heavy rush hour traffic.  Plus, my fiancé didn't think that OU's program was a good fit for him.

My fiancé never pressured me.  He would have agreed to the split-school option if I had insisted.  But we both knew that wasn't the right choice.  When I first conceded that our only viable option was to both go to Penn State, I cried.  It hurt -- emotionally, intellectually, even physically -- to recognize that I was going to have to give up my hopes of going to Ohio State.  It hurt to accept an offer that I didn't love, didn't really even like.  It hurt to know that, after having an undergraduate advisor whom I'd loved and considered a dear friend and confidante, I was going to start my graduate career with an advisor whose perspectives on research and life itself were radically different from my own.

My college years were a spiritual wasteland.  I prayed here and there, but not regularly.  I never missed Sunday Mass, but I never went to confession, either.  Recollecting some of the things I did and said makes me feel very shameful.  I'm sure I wasn't all bad, but I behaved like a selfish jerk in many situations.  As I look back, I realize that my grad school "submission," if you will, was a turning point for me.  I had experienced a good amount of suffering for personal reasons during my college career, but I had no choice in the matter: life happened to me, and sometimes it hurt like hell.  This time, however, I had a choice, and I chose the path that I knew would be painful, difficult, and in many ways, unfulfilling, because I knew it was the best path for us as a married couple.

Some readers may wonder, why didn't you go to separate schools and maybe postpone your wedding?  Why didn't you get a job instead of going to graduate school, since you weren't happy with the program at Penn State?  My response to the first question: I get muddled quite a bit when trying to figure out God's plan for me, but getting married right after college was something my husband and I were absolutely certain was the right decision.  There was no way we were putting that off, and definitely no way we were going to spend our first years as a married couple separated.  As for the second question -- I had no idea what I was doing at the time.  Almost all of my friends went to graduate school, and even though I spent a considerable portion of my undergraduate career convinced that I wouldn't follow suit, by my last year I couldn't fathom doing anything else.  Plus, I was still under the impression that Penn State was the only business-like entity within a hundred-mile radius of the State College area, so the idea that a possible job might exist around here wouldn't have even occurred to my clueless 21-year-old self.  Yep, I really was that lame, folks.

That is the end of the first chapter of my graduate school story.  You can read Part II here!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Spring Cleaning

[Image Source]
Springtime has finally arrived in central Pennsylvania. I think I can speak for most residents here when I say: finally!  It's been a long time coming, as it has been in much of the northern parts of the country.  We had one of the longest, coldest winters I can remember.  April was chilly and rainy; until recently, the most springlike day we'd had was my husband's birthday, two days before the equinox in March!   These last few gorgeous May days have been a most welcome respite.

Spring weather brings to mind spring cleaning.  I hate cleaning.  I deeply admire women who enjoy sprucing up their home.  The results excite me; the process finds me kicking and screaming the whole way.  I've always been like this, despite growing up with a mother who loves to keep a clean and tidy home.  (And while I don't think she loves the process as much as some people, I know it does give her satisfaction.)

Reluctant as I may be, however, I can't ignore how the bright sunlight streaming through our windows accentuates the dust on the furniture and the grime on the floor. I'm forced to take note of the fact that I've been wearing the same few short-sleeved tops that I left in my little closet when I packed away my summer clothes last year to make room for heavy sweaters.  We have an extra bedroom that we don't heat in the winter to save money, so we shut the door: that room is now cluttered with leftover boxes from online purchases I've made during the past few months.  Don't even mention the word "basement" to me.  That's an expletive.

So spring clean I must.  Truth be told, even for someone like me, washing and scrubbing and organizing isn't so bad when I can enjoy a warm breeze and some bird songs.  The prospect gets me thinking: is my house the only thing in dire need of a good cleaning job? 

Ha!  No, of course not.

So, in the spirit of probably taking on more responsibility than I can handle, I've decided to work up a great big spring cleaning plan for myself, focusing on these areas:

1. My home
Maren wrote about learning to love your house and to consider it as part of your life's work.  I don't love my house.  I tell myself that it's partly because it's not mine, anyway: we're renting, and although I'm grateful we were able to find a place that functions as well as this one does for us on a limited budget, it's not a house I would have bought.  But that's a cop-out.  This house is still our home, and I should treat it that way.  As I've said, it's a mess, so it's time to do something about that.  I think my best course of action here is to take small steps.  It can be very hard to do certain routine maintenance around the house with an eager, mobile 10-month-old around.  When I sweep the floor, she follows me around, trying to eat the debris.  Washing the floor is impossible if her dad's not around to distract her.  She's afraid of the vacuum cleaner.  When we're in the bathroom, she likes to play with the toilet paper, the contents of the trash can, and anything else within reach.  The only jobs that I can do with relative ease when it's just we two girls at home are dusting and cleaning the kitchen, so I need to make a point of doing the other work when my husband is around. 

2. My look
I have a lot to ponder for this one!  I've always enjoyed wearing makeup and trying to dress "cute," whatever that means.  My closet has a good number of pieces in it, but many of them are old, worse for the wear, and well beyond their prime.   I don't have much in the way of discretionary funds these days, but I'm hoping that I can slowly start to build my wardrobe with high-quality, flattering items that will last me for a long time.  I'm also eager to look into learning some better tricks and techniques for applying makeup.  When it comes to making one's best appearance, I've had a lot of fantastic inspiration from other blogs lately: Sarah provided some ingenious advice about ways to find your own style, Betty wrote about building a high-quality wardrobe on a budget, Lindsy told a story about her first time shopping at the Gap (for herself, not just her kids), and Jen offered some great insights on the basics of makeup in a guest post on Betty's blog.

3. My soul
Sigh.  Spiritual dry spell on aisle weez.  Maren and Bingley's Wife recently posted about the importance of daily prayer, and I completely agree.  I do pray daily, basically following the ACTS (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication) pattern, although for me it's more like aCTS, since I have always struggled to express my adoration in words, yet am able to heap request upon request (not that the latter is a bad thing).  I know I need more, though.  I haven't been to daily Mass since my (doctor-provided) due date (Baby Girl was five days late according to the doctor, but one day early according to me).  I used to attempt the Rosary during my half-hour commute to work, but I stopped trying that when I stopped working almost a year ago.  It's clear to me that I need to make some changes, but I'm having difficulty figuring out what that should be.  My plan for now is to devote time to spiritual reading -- I'm planning to start with this book about the Eucharist (I just need to order it) -- and go from there.

There are many other facets of my life that could use improvement, for sure, but I think focusing on these three right now will really make a difference and do wonders to make me a better wife, mother, and woman.  If you have any advice for me, please don't hesitate to let me know.  Prayers are most welcome, too! :)

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Addendum: I started working on my "look" today by wearing a denim skirt (don't worry, I'm still pro-pants, I just felt like being feminine), only to accidentally pull a Sharon Stone on a gaggle of mothers sitting at a picnic table as I got out of the car at a local park today.  I don't think they noticed, and I was wearing underwear, but still.  Awesome.

Another addendum: the following conversation ensued when my husband got home from work.
Him: I worked on a lot of different things today -- I coded, I did some grantwriting, I went to a lecture, I prepared for my summer class...
Me: Me, too.  I, um, got dressed, got the baby dressed, heated up the leftovers, went to the park...um...and I didn't really clean, but I blogged about cleaning!

Friday, May 6, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday: One-Line Wonders Edition


Thank you to Jen for hosting!

Since I apparently can't write a Quick Takes post without referencing Rebecca Black's "Friday," I'd like to devote this week's musings to addressing the assertion that it is the worst song ever.  True, with parts like "gotta make my mind up, which seat can I take?" and "yesterday was Thursday, today it is Friday," it's hardly a lyrical masterpiece.  But frankly, I've heard a lot of pop songs on the radio that contain lyrics of similar, if not lesser, quality, and I'd like to take a look at them.  I don't necessarily dislike these songs, nor do I think any of them is the "worst song ever," nor do I think they are ultimately on (or below) par with "Friday," since I'm not examining their musicality.  I just think they have some pretty silly lyrics.  (Note: the title of this post is erroneous, as not all of these lyrics are just strictly "one line," but I liked the ring of it, so it stands uncorrected!)

1. "So that's right, dude, meet me at the bleachers, no principals, no student teachers."
This line, from Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl," has always cracked me up.  I guess that it makes sense within the cheerleader-esque context of the song, but...yeah.  Peak chart position: #1 for four weeks (#2 song overall in 2005).

2. "Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbor!"
This gem's from Outkast's "Hey Ya," a song that drove me crazy when I heard it ad nauseum my first year of college, but now amuses me as (1) it makes me reminisce about my college days and (2) singer Andre 3000 had a guest role on a few episodes of The Shield, our favorite TV drama.  Peak chart position: #1 for nine weeks in late 2003-early 2004.

3. "Don't know what a slide rule is for."
Okay, I admit, I didn't hear this on contemporary pop radio, but I'll bet it gets some play on oldies stations.  This lyric is from Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World."  It has been re-recorded a number of times by various artists (I think I first heard the Herman's Hermits version).  I can't help but love it, especially as the years pass and I forget more and more of what I learned in school.  And although I know what a slide rule is for, I certainly don't know how to use one and never did.  So I guess that scores me a point for youthfulness (quickly revoked when it comes to light that it takes me 10 minutes to send a text message).  Peak chart position: #12 in 1960; #4 in 1965 (Herman's Hermits version).

4. "Uno, dos, tres, catorce!"
This line is from the beginning of U2's "Vertigo."  I don't get it: one, two, three, fourteen?  Anyhoo.  Peak chart position: #31 in 2004, #1 in the UK.  Won a bunch of Grammys.

5. "If I surround myself with positive things, I'll gain prosperity."
I always felt like this lyric, featured in Destiny's Child's "Survivor," was really odd, and not just because the sentiment makes my eyes roll.  In the middle of a independent-woman pump-up jam, we have...a positive affirmation statement?  It just comes off weird to me.  And what exactly are "positive things"?  How do they guarantee prosperity?  All right, I'd better stop, lest I get too negative and disobey my favorite lyric from this one: "You know I'm not gonna diss you on the Internet, 'cuz my mama taught me better than that."  Peak chart position: #2 in 2001.

6. "You know how long I've been on ya?...Since OJ had Isotoners."
Oh, Kanye.  Ima let you finish, but this song has some of the silliest lyrics of all time...OF ALL TIME!  Actually, referencing evidence found in a double-homicide doesn't really qualify as silly so much as it does disgustingly untasteful.  I don't think that the OJ Simpson murder case will ever be funny.  Maybe it's just me, but I doubt it.  Oh, and this line is from "Stronger," by the way, which had a peak chart position of #1 in 2007.

7. "I can blow a bubble with my bum bum bum."
I'm cheating here, since Tom Green's "Lonely Swedish (The Bum Bum Song)" is supposed to be completely ridiculous.  But I wanted to end on a high note. :) I don't think it made the charts, but it did hit #1 on MTV's "Total Request Live" in 1999.


Happy Friday!!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Feel-Good Fast Food?

I subscribe to a few mommy magazines, most of which I've managed to get for free.  The only reason I wanted them in the first place was the Amazon diaper coupons they used to contain (sadly, it seems those days are done).  However, it's not in my nature to ignore reading material, especially if it's mom-related, so I do flip through them when they come, usually while eating or doing the opposite.

One of the recent issues included an advertisement for McDonald's Happy Meals. I'd love to quote the ad directly, but apparently, the magazine which contained it was one of the ones I let my daughter chew on while I was using the restroom, and it is gone now.  But I still remember the gist: we should buy our kids Happy Meals, because for each one sold, McDonald's donates a portion of the proceeds to the Ronald McDonald House Charities.  Oh, how wonderful!  Upon closer inspection, I found some tiny text printed vertically on the side of the ad which noted that McDonald's donates a penny for every Happy Meal sold.

So, McDonald's, what you're saying is, if I bought a Happy Meal every single day for a year I would donate a whopping $3.65 to the Ronald McDonald Charities?  That's supposed to make me feel awesome?

No, actually, it's supposed to make McDonald's feel awesome.  Because plenty of people won't read that fine print and will get it into their heads that buying a Happy Meal is a fun way to contribute to a good cause.  Sales of Happy Meals will go up; meanwhile, the amount of money each McDonald's actually donates in a given day will likely be exceeded by the amount it loses in everyday errors made at the register.  Profit for the win!

I think that stinks.  To be honest, I'm always a little turned off by companies that accept donations for charities, because you know what they turn around and do?  Claim credit for all the donations themselves!  Yes, I realize that the companies take the trouble of collecting them, and sometimes there's a match, which entitles them to some credit, sure.   But the fact remains that those donations are coming from customers.  In this case, McDonald's isn't actually soliciting donations, that's true -- anybody who doesn't know about the program and wanted to buy a Happy Meal anyway isn't giving up anything beyond the purchase price.  But the McDonald's advertising folks wouldn't be buying ad space in parenting magazines if they didn't count on inspiring a lot of extra Happy Meal sales with this deceptively pitiful, self-promoting charity gimmick.

McDonald's sells millions of Happy Meals every year.  The pennies will add up.  That's nice.  But running disingenuous ads?  That's crappy, not happy.

I'll leave you with these words on fast food from Jim Gaffigan, not because they relate to my point, but because they are hilarious: