Sunday, March 06, 2005

After The Call

Sometimes I think about The Call. Mine came from a man in his fifties who once began his advice to a friend of mine, also in her fifties, with the phrase: "If you were my daughter . . ." The man came after I took the job. I took this job because of that woman, actually. I thought she was cool because she wore a watch on her prosthetic arm, right about where the wrist would be. I thought she was tenured because she had gray hair and lots of authority, and she was smart. She was a Marxist. I taught Queer Theory. We talked about British Modernism, labor politics, sexuality. She was just down the hall from me. They fired her the year before they fired me.

We both knew it was coming. We knew our days were numbered when the Men came, the Big Men from ivy schools. They smelled money. Our university was poor, the city campus of a state system notoriously loathe to spend anything on urban education. Our students are poor. Our buildings are concrete Eastern Bloc. Big hires are always cheaper than building dorms and classrooms for putting a place on the map, and our provost knew it. She landed a big fish. He hired his friends. They sprawled out with their big paychecks and their Chronicle articles and the wives who used to be their graduate students. They poopooed identity politics. They drove out the African American scholars. Anyone who could leave left. But my friend and I were stuck there. We couldn't land other jobs. There weren't any jobs. We were old. We wanted to stay in our city. We were toast.

We're still friends though.

It's Sunday. Sundays can be a drag because there is pressure to do something with the rest of your weekend, when really all you want to do is sit in the sun next to the plants and read, or maybe check email, or shop for stuff you won't ever bid on on eBay. My girlfriend is all showered and lipsticked, ready to go to lunch with friends from work. She sweeps through in a breeze of perfume and complains about the dust in the corners of the room. I'm still in my pajamas, sitting by the plants with my computer. I wish she would go. If she's going to leave me alone all Sunday I wish she would just go. But I wish she would just stay here with me.

My job is ending pretty soon. I should point out,however, that this has been going on for about a year and a half now, ever since I first got The Call. I've been getting fired for a year and a half now. Of course the story starts before that. I'm kind of a temporal anomaly, profession-wise, as the Trekkies might say. Not that I would know (I only read the sexy slash fic).

See, my life hasn't really changed. That's the wierd part. You get The Call but then you go on the same as you are, the same as you have been for years and years. You still give papers and go on the job market and work on your book. You still have to grade stuff and read for class. Sometimes you have hope, and other days are just angry.

Friends give you advice. Academic friends tell you to keep trying--keep writing, keep applying for jobs, keep thinking of yourself as an academic. Non-academic friends look at you like you are crazy and might be secretly cutting yourself when you do this, and seem satisfied only when you declare that you now want to Make Money. Neither group is very helpful, really, because they can't bear to think about the places you are beginning to navigate. That's because the dream is gone, and there isn't a good replacement yet. And when the dream is gone, life gets really interesting.

The Call is when the phone rings on the day the entire department is voting on you, and you know they're not going to vote for you but you still hope they will. You think maybe you'll get a vote of confidence. It's a lot like the Thin Envelope, which is when you apply to elite schools and you know you aren't going to get in, because they never have taken you, but you hope anyway. And then the Thin Envelope comes and you stare at it, because you know somewhere in it is the word unfortunately.

A variation of Thin Envelope is when the university press nixes your manuscript proposal. This envelope contains unfortunately, too. And sometimes, regret.

Then there's the Phone Call that Doesn't Come. Imagine snow all around on the ground, and the sounds of shopping. The Call that Doesn't Come is the inverse of The Call, because it doesn't happen. It's when you apply for a job, and they ask for more stuff, and you send it, and you wait in December for an interview. And the first week passes, and they haven't made up their minds yet. And the second week passes, and they are making the calls this week. Then the third week comes, and they aren't going to call you, but maybe they are way behind and making a last-minute push. Stories you have heard of Christmas Eve interviews sit in the back of your mind. And then it is Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas.

No, it's much better to fall back on the substance and weight of The Call. The Call happens, you see. It has a moment, a presence. It's no Jamesian Beast, waiting to never spring. The Call has its histories, it's contexts. It has its versions and inversions. Academic life consists of these. So when you get The Call, no matter whether the news is good or bad, you've gotten it so many times before, it feels familiar. You've been training for it for years. It makes a certain sense that all these many calls, envelopes, not-calls later you get, finally, The Call. After this, if the news is good, you'll never experience it in quite the same way again. You will know who you are. They'll tell you you were right to think of yourself that way. And to prove that you're right, they'll give you administrative duties so you don't have time to read and write anymore. It's the best.

Or they'll tell you you were wrong. You are not a professor. Not here. And it is a speech act, indeed. You aren't. People in the hallway will avoid your eyes. Friends will stop coming by your office hours. Graduate students will no longer try to suck your ass at parties. You know all you need is another job, but it is painfully obvious to everyone that you haven't been tenured at a crappy school. Nobody is going to hire your big old white forty-two-year-old public university dyke ass. You have two years to figure out what to do with your life. Ready?

So maybe you start drinking every night. Maybe you try therapy, but find that the therapists your insurance takes, the ones trying to keep incest survivors and battered wives and transgendered teenagers from offing themselves, are truly disinterested in your professional ups and downs. Maybe you realize your girlfriend really does love you, or else why would she put up with this?

You study for the LSAT. You don't do so well. You get waitlisted at law schools. Your life will be waiting, again. Waiting for some version of The Call.

You finally get the email saying you got the book contract that once would have tenured you or helped you get another job. You laugh. Ha! A strange, private, completely untranslateable victory. Like winning a game of solitaire. You wait. You are still waiting.

I was in bed when The Call came. It seemed like the best way to spend the afternoon, at the time. It still felt like summer. The air smelled like summer.

After The Call I just lay there, with the phone in my hand. My girlfriend burst into tears and sobbed loudly next to me. I remember it started to get dark but I just lay there.

1 comment:

MaggieMay said...

I am just discovering your blog. What a wonderful, powerful piece of writing this entry is. I want to send this to every academic I know, because you capture this so perfectly.