09 October 2006

Love Is All Around

How will you make it on your own?
This world is awfully big
And girl this time you're all alone
But it's time you started living
It's time you let someone else do some giving

— Theme Song from the Mary Tyler Moore Show (Season One)

Prancilla returned to the Cold City region this weekend, which has been whipsawed between summer and winter weather. Yesterday it was summer, but Wednesday is forecasted for winter. The loss of Prancilla to Prestige U. in Lake City (formerly Staid but MultiCulti City) has been one of the dramas of my return to Cold City. As academics, we are constantly on the move, like pilgrims or strippers or politicians, always looking for a better colour of sky. Oh sure, some academics land a job and stay forever, but increasingly we roam, even if only in our minds as to where we could be, where we should be, and where we are.

As such, building community remains one of our salient challenges. Of course, the institution presents itself as our community, our nexus, our centre. But sterile and coerced institutional "community" is not what I’m interested in here. I had that at Sadistic College, and it was awkward and uncomfortable, even if real relationships did grow from that generally infertile ground. We all know the rictus smiles and forced presences of work, and that is not community in an organic sense. No, what I have been thinking a lot about lately is how we perceive community, how we recognise it, and how we fetishise it. Of course, community as a term is often thrown around nowadays rather carelessly, with a certain political smugness that places it above reproach. Not to be too callous, but who cares about community with a capital C? We may live in abstractions such as these in the classroom, or the voting booth, or in our research, but for those of us who aren’t megalomaniacs, community is what we live within, not an esoteric paradigm but a material reality. And when we got it, all is good with the world, and when we don’t, well, if you’re smart you’re planning your next move.

Cold City lives up to its unkind moniker in its fascinating resistance to Ausländer, outsiders, transplants like me. This unkindness has led to a reciprocal disdain, but the simple fact of the matter is that I am here for l’instant, and in spite of my best efforts at insouciance in the face of loneliness, have been working hard at rebuilding community. It is recognising that home is, for me at least, completely temporal, a state of mind rather than a place itself. Mr. Gordo likes to proclaim, partially because Mr. Gordo has no plans to move to Cold City and partially because in piques of bad humour I can say so myself, that I “hate” Cold City. And indeed sometimes I do hate Cold City, the rigour with which it can complicate quotidian life, the “Friendly one day, Cold the next” attitudes that make one always feel dislocated and vertiginous and lonely and alone, the miserable pay.

But the truth is that I am ambivalent about being here. It is a nice if increasingly apparent temporary perch: I am a big fish in a small pond, I could be in Montana or Newfoundland, and sometimes I feel a surge of power in the fact that I came, I settled, and have largely been successful in this effort. My car is registered in Cold Place, I carry a Cold Place Driver’s license, and I am registered to vote locally, I know my way from point X to Y better than most transplants. I just have no one to really call when I want to go see a movie, or have a quick bite, or shoot the shit on a walk in a park without a two-week advance notice. I am here but not here simultaneously, and this seems to be the problem. Then again, my motto following Sadistic College has been ‘nothing lasts forever,’ and so I approach the problem of quotidian life chez Cold City with a certain understanding of temporality, even if such a condition offers cold comfort to emotion, which seeks permanence, however foolish such a sentiment can be.

I know that I am most comfortable in a clique, a clika, a group of close and strong friends, not too large and not too small, who spend lots of time together not for the occasional get-together but for everything: shopping, eating, gossiping, phone conversations, travel, events, etc. For many, this is the modality of youth, teenagers and packs of 20-somethings. Many people seem to grow out of this when they "graduate," in the teleological sense, to monogamy and coupledom, which seems to close down the possibilities of the clika, inverting that energy into the couple, the home, the children, the pets, the cars, and other assorted accoutrements of bourgeois possessive individualism. Many LGBT folks don’t have this socially sanctioned mechanism to fall back upon, so remain reliant on community (via the clika or some other milieu, such as the gay bar, softball team, or increasingly the chat room) to a far greater extent.

I would venture to argue that, in some crucial ways, academics share some of the dynamics of LGBT social formation in the necessity of the clika/community. Like LGBT folks more generally, we are oddbins, we are deeply resented by other “normal” people, we practice esoteric arts and speak in tongues. Today at brunch, Prancilla’s ex-colleague and friend Professor P. related the story of meeting an academic in Puerto Rico (oddly enough, another refugee from Sadistic College), and recognising him as an academic by his tone of voice and the words he was using before speaking with him. We form a strange fellowship, but exist in institutional structures that do not necessarily reward nor inculcate community. All of this is rather macro and airy-fairy, however, in the face of the individual struggles to settle and resettle and resettle yet again as we jump around the map from school to school, job to job, looking for a better colour of sky.

The last couple of weeks I have been obsessively watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show on DVD. The first four of seven seasons has been released on DVD, and at 24 episodes per season, that is a lot of Mary, even for a dedicated fan such as myself. But as I sit in my garret, with the radiators hissing approximately twice a day, with another winter in Cold City approaching rapidly, I want to be Mary, even as I find such marathon watching to be as depressing as it is enjoyable. I identify strongly with the narrative and premise of the show, which at the time was revolutionary: a single career-oriented woman in the big city, with no husband, children, nor other feminine encumbrances. The happy, hopeful theme song has been running through my mind as I do my walks and errands around town— Mary in Minneapolis, Oso in Cold City (minus the nifty polyester pant suits). Will I make it on my own (again)? Where is my Rhoda? Prancilla was my Rhoda last year (or am I Rhoda and Prancilla Mary?), and as good as it was to see him this weekend, along with the mutual sadness at saying goodbye after a brief visit, he has moved on to his own MTM fantasy in Lake City.

MTM gives us a televisual spectacle of community, in modest form. Mary toggles between her work life and her home life, and they overlap and inform one another. The twin poles of work and home are of course the foundation of our lives, and as such was a powerful vision of normality for Mary and her strange friends. What Mary finds/creates, in the fantastical spectacle, is a ready-made community that is incredibly seductive. But real life is rarely so perfect, and so my quest begins anew for the fabled clika. I have made some headway, met some interesting folks, possibilities that were neither present nor needed last year. But make no mistake about it: this is work, one heavy brick, business card, and email at a time. Only to be destroyed again when the next move occurs. The truism that life is what happens when you are making other plans seems apropos here, which is what informs Mr. Gordo’s occasional panics about the state of our lives now, apart and disorganised. But what choice do we have other than to accommodate as best we can the slightly deleterious conditions of our quotidian lives, recognising the increasing temporality of all situations, no matter how solid they may seem, working for something better?

The fact that my ideas about my life in Cold City would be deeply influenced by a television situation comedy from a generation ago only serves to reiterate the deep influence of popular media on what is normal, natural, and expected. When TV Land sponsored the placement of a bronze statue in downtown Minneapolis honouring the Mary Tyler Moore Show by replicating her famous hat toss, one puffed up professor of communications at Macalester College in Saint Paul was quoted on Minnesota Public Radio as declaring it was like putting up a monument to a unicorn, a fake character.

Aside from revealing a complete and total lack of imagination, such a statement conveniently elides the power of representation on reality. Mary’s journey was to become herself, similar to the journeys, consensual or otherwise, academics make when they move. Given both the nature of the academy and ourselves, this is also typically a journey we do, like Mary, alone. And for those of us who make this journey without the markers of social approbation (an opposite-sexed partner, marriage, children, houses, mortgages), we are as revolutionary in our own ways as Mary was in 1970 (minus the flip). Will we make it on our own (again)? For some of us, the question has only one answer: we have to, saving what we can or that has lasting value and discarding the rest so we can move faster.

Love is indeed all around, but the trick is recognising it.


Professor Zero said...

I am still in this mode after, like, 20 years, although I did acquire the house (because it was cheaper than renting).

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Anonymous said...

Great post, Oso.

I passed my third-year review and I apply for tenure in two years. Unfortunately, I can already see two "colleagues" gunning for me. Apparently they think my job should go to their partners. I don't even know how to defend myself. *sigh*

I found a wonderful man here and have a real home for the first time in my adult life. I honestly don't want to know if I can survive another move. Maybe one day I will learn not to get attached to people, places or things.

You know what is so sad? I can always stay and drop out of academia, but that scares me more than moving. It is almost unthinkable.

Jonathan said...

I always thought that C. City had a wonderful, "life under socialism" charm myself, but I only visited.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful as usual.

Well, I guess I am not alone and I am not even finished with the damn Ph.D. yet. Feels like it is taking forever to get there, but I have spent time in other arenas, so it is not like am rushing.

But I have experienced that isolation, teaching high schoolers gives you more of a community than the university. And the corporate world, lord you would not recognize the planet earth with those glasses on -- but they have their problems too.

Everything takes its toll.

malinchista said...

This sounds like a criticism, but it isn't: stop using quotidian; a search and find reveals it to have been used over 15 times in your posts (or some might also have been in comments and/or the related links).

You said earlier that because there is such symmetry or confluence in academe, that is, between our popularly-cultured selves, political selves, and what we do en lo cotidiano, all things achieve monumental significance for that day, week, month, academic year.

Why do you suppose your commenters never engage you; all they say is "brilliant," "I like your use of this/that...." blah, blah, blah. Surely, we are up the challenge of helpful engagement for a colleague of such enormous "potential," no, sticking it out in an interesting but temporary place, and could be more collegial, no, by engaging the posts as "material?" I'm afraid even the blog will bore you too soon.

Said by one from a warm place by the ocean, big fish in small pond, which has, oh, so many benefits ---I work as hard as I want, not as is required; I have colleagues who are warm, and have learned to offer critique carefully (rare, no, in academe?), have students who want to truly "make it" and who manage to offset those in their mercedes and BMWs who want only to regurgitate or negoitiate grades, etc. The big R1s are cancer wards, and that's almost the price to pay for having a hallway full of manic/depressive/unhinged smart people. Me, although a big self-motivator, with aspirations, a ton of hard work always in front of me, has settled for community, small "c." It works; the alternative is one not to fear, but to assess realistically, and it isn't personality, I don't imagine,....alone or only. It really is about getting to that "hey, this is actually good enough, finally, to get to do what one wanted in the first place." Not smug self-satisfaction either, as there is always a challenge, here, there, everywhere. Get these pieces together, what another comment noted, get thee to a publisher, super-pronto, no seas tonto! Mal-inalli.

GayProf said...

I only like long-hair Mary. Once she gets the page-boy haircut, it's over for me.

I would imagine that there are many worse places than Cold City to try and make it after all (Texas comes to mind...).

WM said...

Wherever you are, it is a waste. Come to me instead, and let me try to make up a job for you...I'm quite good at that. You are just a prize and a trophy: Deans know about that.
BTW: I'm amazingly not dead and thus in a position to do these subversive things.