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.

21 comments:

Natasha Rosen said...

What a great post. I have missed reading your updates.

What I think is so brilliant about this post is the way you've so artfully connected what's happening in your own life back to the seismic economic shifts in the nation.

profacero said...

From TIAA-CREF, $62K so far and dropping, $150K left to go. I don't really care, of course, since it wouldn't have been enough to retire on and we don't get social security in LA, so retirement is just for one's final illness, but still.

And glad you're still in the blogosphere, I thought you'd quit!

Zawir Al-Hamidi said...

Congratulations, you have a great blog.

profacero said...

Also -- in this post I appreciate the reminders of the fear of economic collapse.

It paralyzed me for weeks until I decided it was just bad for me.

Somehow I got over it but I need to remember to give myself credit, I think, for how scary it was.

Natasha Rosen said...

Please don't name your cat "Mr. Twinkles," anything but that!

Anonymous said...

I don't know you at all - I'm one of those people who's found you by linking through links - but yours is the one blog that I follow outside those of my friends. I'm also an academic, though UK-based, and also had fantasies about escaping the job or, well, just doing the parts of the job that I love - the teaching, the research - and making all the admin disappear. (In the UK, the Research Assessment Exercise and constant auditing are killers.) Even those fantasies have evaporated as the economy constricts: indulging in them irresponsible when times are so tough for so many. Anyway, you are certainly not alone. I always feel most conflicted when dealing with grad students: it's such an enormous commitment, but sometimes I wonder, "do you really know what you're getting into?" All these people wanting to be inside; and so many inside, wanting to get out.

GayProf said...

It's almost summer -- Put the bourbon away and think of healthier things, like vodka.

UD said...

Oso my friend - GayProf's right -- it's almost summer --

Love
UD

Anonymous said...

Oyyy Veyyy! It's a cold a dreary spring day, and the stock market did take a tumble, but it'll be better soon. You'll recharge your batteries . . . stay away from bridges, balconies, and get some vitamin E. Don't let things "be done to you" . . . take charge, fuck 'em all. You seen a literary agent yet for your post?

Moreen said...

Commitment. Committed. Obsessed. I almost felt as if you stood looking through my monitor, thinking it was a mirror.

I really can't think why we've committed to institutionalization to foster learning. It turns us all into mad things, and learning itself generally flys away in disgust.

So, why are you still in the madhouse? I haven't really been able to answer that question for myself lately.

postacademic said...

Your post reminded me of me, at my depressed far northern tenure track job which I in fact quit outright just before hitting 40. The depression / alcohol / snow combination seemed destined to bring me low. Four years later, I am in fact thinner and cuter than I was then, but every single day I regret having left - I regret losing the job security, I regret losing the ongoing relationships with my students, I regret losing my professional identity, and I even regret losing the life-raft relationships I developed with some of my colleagues as we clung to one another in hard times. And although there was something to the dynamic self-destructive glamour of saying "fuck you, I quit," that wore off pretty quickly.

This is just to say that it's not necessarily better on the outside.

I empathize and wish you a fabulously restorative summer break. And as my mother would say: keep your pecker up!

Anonymous said...

Where are you? On the TIAA-CREF decline, try $100,000; but as they say, easy come....it moved back up and so now my loss is "only" %30,000 not counting what it could have been at this point. I'm going to be teaching the grandchildren of my first students, until age 70 no doubt....cannot imagine how anyone can do that...

Anonymous said...

Oso Raro

Donde estas? Te extranamos.

pocha said...

I miss you!

Bede the Youthful said...

It is so not worth it. Write a cheesey young adult fantasy novel about pirates or wizards, make money, retire from academia or teach one class for fun.

It's never going to get better just worse. You'd be better off in a fucking coal mine.

sincerely,
defeated doctoral candidate

Your said...

Oso Raro, I miss you. Your writing kept me going in some tough times. Hope you're finding ways to thrive, wherever you are.

Anonymous said...

Just discovered this blog and though very well-written, I must say it's totally depressing. I don't mean to imply that you as a person are depressing, it's just the combination of urban and academe that depresses me.

But thanks for reminding me that I made a very wise choice years ago to end my academic career with an M.A. and escape the Ivory Tower and the city. It took courage to leave the promises and supposed securities.

I taught for a number of years at a small community college in a small mountain town in Colorado and loved it, stayed away from the politics and had none of the pressures you "real" profs must feel.

And now I'm living in relative poverty in the wilds of Montana and loving every minute. I believe we all know what we personally need to do to be happy, sometimes we just lack the courage.

But remember, there's a price for everything, some prices are just higher than others. I'd rather be poor than dying under the pressures of academia, but that's just me, and I'm sure some people love it.

Anonymous said...

Oso raro, your fans await . . . are you working on a novel? Did you jump off a bridge?

Bobba Lynx said...

I've been gone, too, and am coming back soon. I hope you've kept up with the comments on your blog and are doing well.

profacero said...

Where is your manuscript? If you come out with a book, will you announce it here? In code, at least?

Anonymous said...

Oso Raro is doing well . . . I hope to entice him out of his sleep . . .