27 April 2008

Analysis 6: conclusion

I don’t feel I gave up much. I would like a little more time for hobbies, but my interests outside of work are not passions, not things I need to have central in my life. I don’t want to give the impression that I work all the time, because I don’t—I aim at 40 hours a week, on average—but work is what shapes my life.

Perhaps the work/job distinction should be explored. I certainly count research as work, not as something I’d do anyway—I mean, it is, but since it’s an expected part of my job, research is work in the daily sense. But then there’s The Work, what to some extent I chose over The Life, because I felt the need for work that was a vocation, work that helped make life meaningful. At one point when I was in graduate school, some of my non-academic friends, and their academic mother, were reading Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life; they found the idea that women were likely to put together a series of lives consoling. It was what the mother had done, and my friends, unsure of what they wanted to do, hoped form would emerge out of patchwork for them. I saw myself with a more traditionally masculine trajectory, and that is (so far) what has happened. I didn’t seem to have the experience of being broken down and re-formed in grad school that some of you report, perhaps because I wasn’t firmly formed when I started. I got to grow into the identity I had long desired, rather than losing pieces of myself.

And though I chose The Work, I have A Life. I have a really good job. Most of my colleagues are sane, most of my students are nice, smart people who work hard, the library is decent, the location is acceptable. My house, which I can afford and which is in a good neighborhood, is filled with books and cats and sunlight. I am very happily married. I have access to the cultural amenities of a big city and to the intellectual life of my campus, both of which get some of my time. I have friends, and some of them aren’t even academics.

I don’t have everything I want. But if, when I was 20, a fairy godmother had said, "Look, you can have work and love but you’ll have to live your life in exile; or else you can live in a place you love and take your chances on the rest," I would have thought that was a no-brainer. In fact, I’d make the same choice now.

A tiled patio over whose white walls tumble jasmine and bougainvillea, shaded by a pepper tree, whispers the fairy godmother. Geraniums that grow into hedges, lantana that grows tree-sized. Plumeria. Wisteria. Mountains. La la la not listening, I say. La la la love my work.

It’s hard to know what matters to you till you lose it. And if you lost something else, that might be the thing you truly can’t live without. The path not taken doesn’t exist. The only path is the one you’re on.

What I have is what I wanted most.

26 April 2008

Analysis 5: Health

Again, it depends on where you stop telling the story. I find I’m reluctant even to start this one. I seem to be fine now. Around the time I got tenure, though, I had a series of injuries and stress-related ailments that took years to resolve. Much time spent seeing different doctors and physical therapists. Much research time lost. Much wondering whether I would remain impaired for the rest of my life.

It started with a broken rib, sustained when I fell onto a trailer hitch while trying to get a good picture of a pageant wagon in York (see, work-related). I was reasonably active up till then, as time allowed, but exercising with a broken rib is painful. Recovery was slow. I had to become more assiduous about exercising than I had been.

When I thought I’d made a comeback, I injured my shoulder, which provoked symptoms that were misdiagnosed as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, despite my insistence to doctors that it all started with this shoulder thing . . . . This one’s harder to call, because the diagnosis was work-related, but the shoulder injury may or may not have been related to work ergonomics. At any rate, it’s hard to recover from an injury that’s being treated as a different kind of injury entirely.

On top of the years of pre-tenure stress (and job-market stress, and relationship stress previously recounted, and other grad school stresses my readers no doubt can easily imagine), the physical stresses and pain—I believe—contributed to various other problems. I don’t want to recount them here. Like I said, I’m fine. But a couple of bloggers I keep up with have reported, this spring, on health anxieties that were very familiar to me from personal experience. I know what procedures you’d go through for diagnosis, and how it feels while you wait for results, and how you research stuff on the web, thinking about what might happen and how much time or physical ability you might have in various scenarios and what you’d do with it.

So, as with the long-term relationships, if we stop the story now, it ends well. Of course, in the long term, we’re all dead. And maybe you consider that even a few years of injuries, pain, ailments, and doctors means that I did, in fact, give up my health for my job. Now I work at staying healthy, as I did not pre-tenure, because I know that the expense of time and energy on exercising and getting good food at regular intervals is far, far less than the expense of not getting exercise or eating right. And that sounds like a sermon, which I didn’t mean to give.

25 April 2008

Analysis 4: Children

This is more what it looks like to others than how I feel myself. I never much wanted children, though I also always thought that I might, eventually, change my mind. The grad school boyfriend (see #3) wanted children, and so I thought I could see my way to it, someday, eventually, if everything worked out. But I didn’t really think through, then, what would be necessary in terms of time, arrangements, type of job, location and cost of living, all of that—especially energy and time.

After we broke up, I realized that I really did not want to have children, for many reasons. This became a problem with most potential partners until I met Sir John. He was flexible on the issue, which meant he could accept my wishes. Later, when I felt more flexible, he had decided he was happy as we were, and in turn I accepted that, quite easily, really. Now that it’s too late (well, probably, and yes, there’s adoption), I find babies and small children look much more attractive to me than they used to. And yet I don’t really like being around them for very long, and I don’t know where we would put a child—not in terms of physical space, but in the shape of our lives. It’s not as if we have swathes of time we don’t know what to do with. We both work a lot, we both have fairly substantial commutes, we’re used to routines that would have to change a lot to accommodate a small person. And having been the child of older parents, I think there’s a lot to be said for not having parents more than 40 years older than their kids. In some ways, I wish we’d had a kid years ago, but looking back, I can’t see when would have been a good time any more than I can see how a child would fit into our lives now.

Bottom line: I know I would not be a particularly good parent, though I sometimes feel I should have had a child. I’m a thinker, not a feeler, so what I know wins out. However, I recognize that some people see me as having sacrificed motherhood to career, and I am aware of possible alternate lives in which this would have come out differently.

I do like being old enough that no one asks any more when I’m going to have a baby.

23 April 2008

Analysis 3: long-term relationships

I’m married now, so this doesn’t look like something I gave up. But I married Sir John when I was 40. That gave me time for a number of long-term relationships, all but one of which foundered, for assorted reasons.

I won’t even go into anything pre-grad-school, except to say that my focus and ambition in college seemed off-putting to many of the young men I knew then, and that I was myself ambivalent about marriage at that time. I wanted a close relationship, but I feared falling in love with someone who would want a capital-W Wife, not a partner, someone who with good and loving intentions would protect me from risks, change, travel, and growth.

In graduate school, for five or six years I was in love with a man who wound up leaving with an M.A. and getting a high school teaching credential. That could have been perfect for us as a couple, and I had high hopes as I entered the job market that I’d get a position in a region he’d consider desirable. But I didn’t. In hindsight, it wouldn’t have mattered. If I’d got a job in the city where he settled, he would have come up with some other reason not to commit. My focus and ambition put him off, too. He wanted more play time, and a wife whose job could be left at work. Having him around did loosen me up a bit and meant I had more fun in grad school than I might otherwise have done, while he probably got more work done with me around than he would have without me. At any rate, when I started my first job, I certainly felt that I had sacrificed love to career. But I could do no other. My work was very important to me—more a vocation than a job.

I made that quite clear to the next boyfriend, someone who had had a crush on me for awhile. Given the timing, it was clear that we would have either a fling or, after two months, a long-distance relationship. I would have been fine with fling, but he wanted relationship. Well, okay. I guess. Here’s what you should know about the academic job market and the tenure process, to understand why I am going to have to concentrate on work about the way I concentrated on the dissertation. . . . Somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he told me I was cold, hard-hearted, selfish and obsessed with my work. I was baffled. "But I told you all that six months ago," I said, and broke up with him.

My job is in a smallish town where there is not much social life for anyone over 22. One of my friends, in a similar position, went to EVERY campus event and met her husband at a reception for professors who had recently published a book. That approach didn’t work for me. I was probably ambivalent about getting involved with another academic. Certainly I see a lot of advantages in having "married out," as it were. But for awhile, anyone else I met was put off by the Ph.D. When I moved to the suburbs of the nearest city, I dated some men with medical degrees, and a photographer who thought of my work as a creative job comparable to his. At that point, I stopped feeling that I’d never find anyone, because clearly there were presentable candidates.

It’s all in when you stop telling the story. I had a few bad years in there. This does not compare to people who are tenured in tiny remote towns where moving to the nearest city would require driving three hours or more one-way. But it’s not like I’m a Smug-Married-at-22, either. I have a colleague who started graduate work in her 40's, after another career. She treats the long-distance relationship that entailed as no big deal—she'd been married for 20 years, her children were nearly grown, it revitalized the marriage. I'm the other way around. Long-distance? Been there, done that, epic fail. Now I want to be with Sir John.

22 April 2008

London lodgings

We interrupt this series of self-indulgent musings to bring up a question: does anyone have any experience with/knowledge of Hughes Parry Hall (and associated student halls) at the University of London? I'm trying to sort out a trip next summer (got my start through Dr. Virago's posts from last February, thanks for those!).

Analysis 2. Choice of where to live:

My feelings about this one have see-sawed considerably over the years. I knew when I started that I’d be lucky to have a job, anywhere. During adolescence, I thought exile was romantic, and I kept that attitude for awhile, reading Lorrie Moore characters with a positive spin. I wanted to get a good long way from the people I grew up with, and stay there; grad school took me away, and I didn’t want to go back. What’s more, I had a strained relationship with my family, who moved away from our home state while I was in grad school, so I was happy to get a job a long way from them, as well as from home state. It meant I didn’t have to come up with reasons not to visit. Too far, too expensive, that was simple. I hoped for a job in a particular region (more about that will follow), but that didn’t pan out. Where I am suits me well.

Still, the older I get, the more I miss my home state. I lived there all my life before graduate school, and the climate and plant life still seem "right" to me, as twenty-plus years of "real seasons," bulb flowers and hardwoods do not. I have lost touch with the friends from high school that I wanted to leave behind. I am now secure in my identity. I’d love to go home, but I’d have to change professions to do that, and I do love my job. There really are no comparable jobs in my home state—the choices would be a much more high-powered institution (not likely), or a significantly higher course load (not desirable, even with palm trees).

Also the older I get, the older my parents get. I don’t like their part of the country either, but if I had a different kind of job, I think I might plan to move much closer to them for, say, five years, and then move on—either back where I am now, or try to go home after they die. As an academic, I don’t have that option. I’m here for good, unless I leave the profession, or turn to adjuncting (right out), or go into administration (still a bit of a gamble as to place, though there are slightly better opportunities to move). I’ll have to rely on FMLA if there comes a time when I really need to be near my parents for awhile.

One thing really helps me, though, and that’s that I chose this life. I didn’t choose where I’d live, but I made a very deliberate choice to leave where I grew up and accept whatever the job market doled out. I am old enough (and my parents are old enough) that I was brought up to marry, not to have a career (aside from some qualifications "to fall back on"). My mother hoped that I would marry a professor at the local university, live in a big beautiful old house, have some babies, and see her all the time. Many of my high school friends stayed in town for college, as did I, so I remained enmeshed in relationships it might have been better to leave behind sooner. In particular, my high school boyfriend and I couldn’t seem to stay broken up, in part because of the way our break-ups affected the dynamics in our group of friends. Having seen similar effects among some of my students, I think if I had stayed home, we might well have wound up married and unhappy. When I left to cross the country for grad school, I was terrified and at least part of me felt that I was ruining my life. The path of least resistance would have been to stay and do what I was brought up to do or whatever most of my friends were doing. And I chose otherwise. I’m proud of that. I have a life I made, not the life someone else expected of me.

21 April 2008

What did I give up?

Inspired by Squadratomagico and others, here’s a list of what I might seem (to myself or to others; at one time or another) to have given up for the sake of my chosen career. We all know that a story may be comic or tragic depending on where the narration stops, so I follow the list with analysis. Not all of these items involve true sacrifice, and on some my point of view has changed more than once.

Money (salary, savings)
Choice of where to live
Long-term relationship

1. Money. Obviously getting a Ph.D. in the humanities and teaching is not the path to riches. I knew that going in; I grew up in a college town, after all (as I said in "Ink and Valium"). You spend years living on a TA’s stipend, unable to save, and when you do start making a proper salary, it may not keep pace with inflation. This matters to me more now than it did when I chose graduate school, because I understand money better now. At the time, what I wanted was interesting work, the life of the mind, to spend most of my time reading and writing. My family always lived frugally, so I knew how to get by on very little; the secure salary of a tenured professor, compared to the ups and downs of my father’s income, appealed greatly to me.

My chosen career path was the biggest chance I ever took. I am not a gambler. Security motivates me more than adventure. Looking back, it is obvious that a much safer choice would have been to take a couple of business classes as electives, and then to have looked for jobs with companies where my languages and head for numbers would have been appreciated. I think I could have found interesting work I would have enjoyed, with possibly less stress and certainly more financial security. And I could have gone back to school around 30, had I decided to, with a financial cushion.

It has worked out well enough, partly because I got my way paid through grad school. I did have the brains to decide I wouldn’t go into debt for a humanities Ph.D. I had trouble saving in my early teaching years, anyway, partly because of the siren calls of travel and books, and I’m not proud of that. I knew better, but I didn’t act on what I knew about managing money. Then I married Sir John, who is not an academic and makes more than I do. So, though I intended more independence, I wound up being "rescued" financially by marriage, which is not a good feminist position. I think, now, if you choose a low-paying job like the professoriat on purpose, you should resign yourself to living like a graduate student at least until you get tenure, so you can pay a lot into a retirement account early and get some compound interest going.

I’m doing fine now, thanks more to luck than anything else. But really, money matters more as you get older. It’s one thing living on a shoestring at 25, and another entirely at 50. I don’t have regrets, but I wish I had thought more realistically about money when I went into this field.

Tune in tomorrow for analysis #2.

18 April 2008

Ink and Valium

Poking around assorted blogs, I saw a link to this one. Only I mis-read it. Now I want to have a blog called "Ink and Valium."

I grew up in a college town. When I was a teenager, I sometimes babysat for a family whose paterfamilias worked at the local Uni. Lots of people I knew worked there, so I didn't pay much attention . . . until I was in graduate school, and Mr. Paterfamilias turned out to be a Very Fancypants Scholar. Like, not just Mr. Paterfamilias, but MR. PATERFAMILIAS. You've heard of him. And I remembered discovering that his medicine cabinet harbored his prescription for Valium.

Of course, it could have been for back pain or something. But I can't tell you how much it has consoled me, over the years, to believe that Very Fancypants Scholars suffer from anxiety and pre-tenure nerves like all the rest of us.

That's my Ink and Valium story.

04 April 2008


For the love of God, people: after a preposition, you need object pronouns.
"A picture of Liz and me." Not "a picture of I." Right? If there's someone with you, you still use "me."
"You're with Bob and me."
"Between you and me."

It's not just the students. I've seen and heard my colleagues doing it. English professors. I'm going to start issuing tickets.


That easy-to-write conference paper I was happy about in February? On looking over the rough draft, it appears that the real issue is more or less the opposite of what I was trying to argue . . . and what the on-line abstract says my paper will do.

Of course it's not the first time a scholar will go in and say, "So, this paper changed direction since I wrote the abstract," and it won't be the last. But dagnabbit anyway. I thought that paper was more or less in the bag, and a good thing too, since I have another one that is not going so well. Now I have to revise the one extensively while figuring out something (anything!) to say in the other.

The good news . . . I wrote 2500 words today. The bad news . . . they're all comments on student papers.

02 April 2008

Wonders will never cease

Tonight I taught a class that turned out to be mainly about critical theories. Not, you might say, my main event as a scholar; no one, including me, would have expected this. But the students were certainly interested. We'll see what happens in their written work (always the acid test).

Less appealing marvels: the amount of money I am about to spend on conferences if LRU isn't able to come up with travel funds. I hadn't actually worked out how much until I had to fill in the begging forms.