Over the weekend I sent my dissertation director what I think of as my semi-annual email message; since getting a tenure-track job, I've rarely gone more than nine months without dropping her a note. Sometimes it's because I need something; sometimes I want to thank her for something; sometimes I'm giving her a heads-up that I'll be coming through town. And when none of those conditions has applied, it's simply seemed politic to stay in touch: sooner or later I would need something from her.
The subtext of these messages used to be, "look how well I'm doing! how on the ball I am! please be proud of me, or at least remember I exist." It's not that I didn't think she cared about how I was doing, and it's not that I didn't wish to have a genuine relationship with her; the desire for such a relationship may in fact be the primary reason I kept writing. But telling myself that it was strategic to keep in touch made it easier to contact this woman I'd never had a personal relationship with, and who was bound up in so many ways with my generally brutalizing experience of graduate school.
Seeing her one-on-one this past winter and even two summers ago, however, made me feel that we were getting closer to an adult relationship. It's not that I got to know more about her, really, for if there's one thing graduate students make it their business to know, it's every last scrap of gossip about their professors' lives; I've been thinking about my advisor as a person and a personality for a very long time. But that day in January I felt a sudden, intense emotion for her--something more than just admiration and the desperate need for her approval. It's the difference, I guess, between knowing that someone is a complicated person and not caring that they're complicated; at a certain point you realize or decide that someone is in your life, and matters to you in ways that aren't just about you.
So the message I sent was a strange hybrid. The bulk of it still foregrounded the important things that have happened in my professional life (i.e., how amazingly I'm doing, and how deserving of head-patting), but I added a few lines about my personal life and people we know in common before concluding by asking after several specific matters in her life. The combination felt awkward. I'm not sure it's a message I'd want to receive, or would know quite what to do with if I did. But it seemed like a good start.