Thursday, August 25, 2005


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Just got back from a short, bleak trip to Southern California to visit gf's people. Saw up close the daily despair of a small family sliding away from any hope of middle class life. Property values are skyrocketing, and even rentals are impossible for people trying to raise kids on one salary, if you can call a mechanic's wages a salary. The meth epidemic is raging, cocaine is plentiful and relatively cheap, and regular people are tweaking their lives away because they can't face a world where all they are good for is cannon fodder in Iraq. And what is our government doing? busting pot farmers and dealers. After I got back I got caught up on my premium cable shows. If you visit places like SoCal, where economic disparities are unbelievable and the despair is so thick you choke on it, you realize that shows like Showtime's Weeds and HBO's Six Feet Under are not so much about, say, drugs and death as they are about people haunted by everyday terrors like whether or not they can hang on to their homes and lives. Weeds, where a single mother must reinvent her pot business every week to keep her family afloat in the style to which it has become accustomed, lampoons the shallow "necessities" of suburban luxuries like housekeepers and Range Rovers, but speaks to the very real strain of trying to keep up appearances when there is no traditional security--a husband who earns good money, for example--to fall back on. That America, the one where families are one death or job loss or health problem away from utter catastrophe, is the America more and more of us are living in every day. And if you wonder why our television shows are getting darker and darker (Six feet Under has been almost unwatchably sad this season), it might be because it's getting harder and harder for a lot of people to watch what's going on in this country and find something to be cheerful about. It's enough to make you thankful for the cheerful banality of the midwest, which I confess, I am.

Monday, August 08, 2005

travelling light

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Be patient with me for a minute while I get sentimental about my office furniture. See, I always wanted to steal this one particular chair. When I first got my job, I saw this great little modern chair sitting in my hallway outside someone's office door. It looked a lot like the picture above, only the legs were just four metal bars instead of the nice intricate chrome in this picture, and it was covered in dark green leather. It actually is a fabulous little chair. It fits the 1969 anti-riot architecture of the school, and I loved its saucy modernism. I whisked it away, and it has sat in my office these seven years now, under my Xena poster. Students often sat on the chair when they came to my office hours. That chair has a lot of excited-to-be-reading-modernism in its vibe. It has a lot of queer-theory-is-cool, too. It is so modern, yet so dark and unassuming. Its leather is worn, humanized, customized to a living presence. I just always liked it.

Friday I took down Xena, dollied my books to the parking lot, and left the key on my desk, as if I was leaving a hotel. I looked longingly at the chair, imagining how I could get it out the door on the dolly, surrounded by framed prints, or wrapped in bags, and scurry it to my car. I imagined turning it on its side to reveal bits of gum stuck underneath, or in any case, the dirt of decades of careless use. I stroked its dark, strange leather, noting for the hundredth time the place at the top of the back where the skin was splitting along the frame. I sat down on it, cooly cupped. I liked it better than the chairs I had brought there: the Ikea lounger, the blue butterfly chair, the plump leather desk chair. I was leaving all those. Why take this one?

I thought about taking things, stealing souvenirs, and why people feel comforted by theft. Does it give us the illusion of control, of continuity, to carry from place to place the objects we have absorbed into our daily consciousnesses and our dreams? Why do people take bathrobes and towels from hotels? Why do people take forks from restaurants? Was wanting this chair like that, or was it some other desire? Would I think of my old job everytime I looked at it, and would its little green turtle self in some corner of a room taunt me with my failures or cheer me with my escapes? I imagined it at home. I imagined it in some future office. I imagined it in a different setting altogether, one I hadn't even considered yet.

I touched its worn seams, turned off the lights, and walked out for the last time. The door clicked. There was no going back. I felt good for not taking it, good for leaving it behind in the time and place proper to it. It's not that I felt at all moral or just about stealing or not stealing it, it's just that I don't want to be Jacob Marley, too weighed down from where I've been to get to where I need to go. But I am still thinking about it. Not the job, or the place, or all the sadness, but that little chair, what--if anything--it might have meant once to take it as mine, and what it means now (if anything) to leave it behind.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

To Market

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Because I'm interviewing for a one-year teaching position today, my thoughts inevitably turn to self-fashioning. If a summer away from your university has made you realize--as I have--that maybe you don't loathe academia quite so much as you simply hate where you've been, you, too, are ready for the Fall Job Market. It helps to be unemployed, or facing unemployment. Bankruptcy is ok only if you've gone through it and have nothing to fear. Once you have nothing--no job, no dream of tenure, success or financial security, no hope of children or a house or even a car that is less than ten years old-- what is it that you want? If you could choose, would you still want a job in academia? This is the kind of question one could pay quite a lot for in therapy, so I'm pleased to offer it here for free, in hopes that it yields you an epiphany on the cheap, sans my 4:30 a.m. night terrors. If you answer yes to my last question, your inner monologue immediately becomes less existential, your task narrower and more focused. As well as more desperate.

So now that you want a job, how do you get one?

1. Wear many hats.

This means that if you do 20th-century and contemporary literature and culture on more than one continent, they will read you as a British literature person and expect you to teach Aphra Behn. Prepare to discover the intricate joys of the incredibly long Eighteenth century.

2. Wear many dresses.

If you talk about women, gender, or sexuality, English departments will read you as a Women's Studies person. Women's Studies, on the other hand, will think you teach Interpretive Dance. You must learn how to dance with your social conscience on your sleeve. Consider having your sophomores revive "Hair" in time for the awards banquet.

3. Love Literature.

"I love Literature. Literature is over, but I love Literature." Repeat until this makes sense.

4. Love-Hate Theory.

I love theory. I mean, I used to love him. We broke up. Now I hate him. I know all his passwords, though. I could tell you them if you want.

5. Love teaching.

I love teaching. I mean, it's a great opportunity for dialogue, right? The best part is how hard it is to pick out something nice to wear every day when they don't pay you enough to even buy new underwear. It's a challenge, and I LOVE a challenge!

6. Love teaching writing.

No sentence too cryptic or convoluted for the sentence doctor! No paragraph too short or long, no topic too rambly, but I can find an idea buried deep within its maze! You're almost there. Now, take the idea you ended with, put it in the first paragraph of your paper, and see if you can go through and support your argument! Wasn't that easy? B.

7. Love everyone.
Example: "I look forward to working with you on the ten-year-old curriculum revision project." Practice tone and eyebrow control until you can sound convincing.

8. Love everywhere.
You can always say: "Houses must be very affordable here."

Now you're ready for that job, no matter where it is. Good luck in the interview, and remember, BE YOURSELF.

And wish me luck.