25 April 2009
The Way We Live Now
I have been away, but unfortunately not on holiday. Winter’s icy crust, an onerous teaching load, and the usual preoccupations with destiny have distracted me. In all honesty, I feel as if I have spent the last few months in a fugue state of work, striving for efficacy with five day weeks at the office and weekends spent grading or catching up on my admittedly anemic social life. The electronic world of blogs and Facebook has receded as the real life of classes and students and economic crises and health concerns has moved aggressively forward. I have been poor at responding to email, phone messages remain unreturned, and I am perpetually late to every meeting.
My appointment book resembles nothing less than the scribblings of a mad woman: class, meeting, consultation, forms due, forms returned, report due, report filed, assignment sheets due, assignments returned. Different appointments in different parts of the city mean I am in my car a lot. Sometimes I have to stare hard at an entry and work my mind significantly: What does that mean? Where do I have to be? What is demanded of me?
I feel lucky to still have a job. As the economic crisis rose in intensity after the new year, it was fairly clear that our campus would luckily only suffer minor reductions in staff, but our sister campuses were facing widespread faculty and staff retrenchment. This combined with a series of well-publicized mass layoffs in the corporate sector in Cold City made for a certain siege mentality. Receding into work made sense, both as a distraction and a goal. Even if we seem as if we’ve pulled out of the immediate economic death dive that made up January and February, the Fear remains palpable, both in the continuing gloomy economic news and the unknown beyond the next State budget session, not to mention the dreadful academic market of the past season rife with cancelled searches, even more limited opportunity professional opportunity, and the dreaded TIAA-CREF statements, with their negative figures. I’ve lost almost $9000, how about you?
The whole edifice of American life seems to have been violently shaken, although the extent of the true damage remains unclear. Even to those of us who realized early on the dimensions of the bubble, the broad-based hysteria of property porn, the opiate of flipping houses and putative permanent gains, the unfolding reality still comes an unpleasant shock. The tentativeness of the new administration and the usual political intrigues that seemed so interesting last fall now seem palliative, the last gestures before we hear “Switch her OFF!”
So one recedes into work, at the risk of being boring, or becoming wedded to the office in the way that some colleagues have always been, there on Saturdays, there every weekday, working in the hive, working into the night. And frankly, I don’t really have anything better to do with my evenings. I have no assignations, no boyfriend, no fuck buddy, no appointments for dinner, no jolly clique to join at the theatre or bar. I have become taciturn and curmudgeonly. There are many days when my cellular phone doesn’t ring once. The economic crisis has met the personal in a strange synchronicity, an odd concerto of bad performance art.
The retreat to the office is also a retreat from this place, Cold City, this godforsaken archipelago of exile. I have, on some integral level, given up on the here, like Napoleon’s dreary retreat across Russia, all mud and exhaustion. I retreat to work, but I suppose every silver lining has a cloud. Colleagues compliment me on my dedication to the university, to the demands of the institution. I am proving my commitment through the endless parade of students in my office, the door open for all to see, writing letters of recommendation and mentoring. I am proving my commitment by designing retention policies via assessment that add significantly to my workload. I am proving my commitment by constantly reinventing the wheel in my courses, the perfectionist tweaking and changing details and rearranging readings. I am proving my commitment by signing up for too much service, serving on myriad committees and panels, a very important and time-intensive administrative search with 8:00 am meetings (for which I am late), as well as the ubiquitous extra-institutional service, speaking to at-risk youth, developing scholarship programs, and making presentations to organizations. I’m doing fine, I’m doing well. Now, if only I could get rid of the doubt, of the feeling that everything I am doing is half-assed, disconnected, disparate. The Fear.
I look like shit. I have aged so much in the last two years it is sometimes a shock to myself. My photos on Facebook are artfully arranged simulations. My assistant remarks I look tired. Colleagues note I look tired. Thank God for the relatively boring dress code for academic men. It makes dressing in the morning less arduous. The body has its limits of course, which then become visibly palpable. But more importantly, I feel existentially unwell, so I retreat to the office. There has been a kind of mania to the effort, the unglamorous flapping of a drowning man. On some level, I suppose, it’s been an impressive performance: the spinster professor, with a box full of clippings and a French provincial office. Ideally, the next step is obtaining a cat, naming him Mr. Twinkles, and devoting my limited free time to making him seasonal costumes whilst I develop a healthy bourbon habit. Too bad I’m shit at working a needle and thread.
I have keys to my car, my apartment, my mailbox, my office, my building, and my different classrooms, but I don’t have the key. In this sense, my own personal circumstances mimic the general social and cultural malaise. Being an avatar of the moment, however, is seriously overrated.