For those who still do — Run away!
A friend at work stopped by and said that he understood what I'm going through, and that he's on his third dog and that this one may be his last because it's so hard to lose them.
It is hard to lose them. I pray we get a few more months of health out of Patrick ... even though that's not what the doctors have said. It would be a nice time for a miracle.
Here is the paragraph that hit home with me. Because this is what happened to me ... though it wasn't personal.
On the other hand, I have often had occasion to say to students that the things that draw them to advanced literary study--a love of learning, a love of literature, a deep desire to share those loves with students through teaching--are not the things that drive most English professors, and have next to nothing to do with what they would be expected to do in graduate school and beyond. The student who enters grad school intent on becoming a traditional humanist is the student who will be labelled as hopelessly unsophisticated by her peers and her professors. She will also be labelled a conservative by default: she may vote democratic; may be pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, and anti-gun; may possess a palpably bleeding heart; but if she refuses to "politicize" her academic work, if she refuses to embrace the belief that ultimately everything she reads and writes is a political act before it is anything else, if she resists the pressure to throw an earnest belief in an aesthetic tradition and a desire to address the transhistorical "human questions" out the window in favor of partisan theorizing and thesis-driven advocacy work, then she is by default a political undesirable, and will be described by fellow students and faculty as a conservative.
I couldn't believe that I was considered conservative for wanting to become a traditional humanist. Hey, I didn't even tell 'em I was a Christian (mostly because I wasn't until my second year).
But you know what? Fuck it ... my problem is I took it too seriously after the fact. I had a hell of a lot of fun in the creative writing program for two years, and I read and talked and wrote and learned. I took some of it seriously, and the rest — the politics, the unhappiness of many of the lit majors — I just ignored. And then I didn't want to live with the results of my decision: I refused to play the game because the game was rigged. Well, if you don't play, they cut off your pay.
And here's the kicker: I had the life I wanted. I was having the time of my life. I had enough money to get by, a nice car, a nice little apartment in South Philly, and a nice little office. There were plenty of young coeds interested in my attention.
And because of my position as a journal assistant, I didn't have to teach. I had access, in fact, to three offices that were the journal's and the department supply closet, which kept me in everything from printer paper to legal pads. Even better, I had the journal's credit card for the college high-speed copier.
Additionally, I was doing some volunteer work teaching immigrants in Center City and had developed a bunch of friends from there. In fact, the director said that she'd never seen the teachers bond so quickly. We'd hit the Caribou Cafe (the old one, on the north side of Walnut Street) after class, and talk about philosophy and art and literature and and our experiences in class.
I'd read a novel down at Penn's Landing, or in a diner, or wherever. A Passage to India was read in the Melrose Diner on Snyder, Marguerite Duras' The Lover was read on the steps of the University of the Arts (at which point a girl from my undergrad days at Seton Hall recognized me and gave me her phone number), and B.S. Johnson's Albert Angelo was read at Penn's Landing, and the moment I finished John Prine came out and did a concert. In the summer, I wrote half a novel and drove down to New Orleans, straight through, on a whim, and then over to Florida, and then back up through Charlottesville.
During the semesters, I had off every Friday,and I'd drive up to Princeton to see a good friend and we'd have lunch and talk about everything under the sun. About that time I got it into my head that I wanted to see the world, too, and began the process of applying to the Peace Corps.
Alas, my wonderful, literary life filled with fantasies of world travel that would ultimately result in a best-selling novel and lots of ... er, fringe benefits, couldn't last. Two years and time was up for IB Bill. I graduated.
So I helped the department secretary move into my friend Brad's place, then later I helped them both pack up their truck and move to Tennessee. They got married and live in Knoxville. My good friend John from the volunteer work went to Gabon as a Peace Corps volunteer. Pretty much the entire creative writing program graduated and left town, including me. I went to Manila, Tonia went to Prague, Aaron to the Canary Islands. Ray and Val got married and moved to Champaign, Illinois. Brad and Nancy to Knoxville. Only two Ivy Leaguers stuck around--and they went to Penn.
As a backup in case the Manila plan didn't work, I'd applied and been accepted to the Ph.D. program, and asked for a continuation of my assistantship. But then the Commonwealth cut the university budget, and the journal assistant positions — all of them — were eliminated. I applied for teaching but was turned down because of the critical theory thing.
So I went to the Philippines without a backup plan, and that was bad because it turned out I needed one. In retrospect, the Manila episode was an absolutely necessary learning experience for me. But the lesson was painful. The culture shock, both in going and returning, was so great that I have never felt remotely like the same person before I left. That guy — the happy, naive dude who wasn't above using half-understood literary ideas as a way to, well, you get the idea — was gone. Just gone.
After Manila, I came back not only with just a few friends left in town, I couldn't locate me again. That's how alienated I was. I was walking around and everything was completely different — everything. Portions of food seemed obscenely huge. America seemed mind-bogglingly wealthy. And Americans seemed to be unself-aware, whiny, self-absorbed, clueless and full of shit.
Then, a year of under-/unemployment/struggling in the Ph.D. program, at which point I was turned down again for an assistantship. With that, I went to Gabon. If you recall a few paragraphs up, my friend John from the volunteer teaching was already in Gabon. That sounded very cool. I'd be starting out with a friend there. But John turned out to be a quitter and frankly a bit of a punk, and returned to the city only two weeks before I left (basically he quit because he was a big pussy), just enough time to give me an earload of bitterness and anger.
Meanwhile, on the corner of 18th and Spruce, I said good-bye to a good friend who'd helped me in the past 10 months. I left for Africa. The Philippines had put some caution into me (OK, the fear of God), and thus I was careful. The care paid off. I spent two years teaching. An unfortunate motorcycle accident cut the last bit off my tour. It was an odd experience — Peace Corps as a whole, not the accident. I experienced for the first time in my life something you might call surface misery. That is, I was often pissed off and irritable, but there was underneath that a deep sense of satisfaction during my service.
When I came back to the U.S. a second time, I was again different. I wasn't the miserable wretch I'd been after Manila, and I was two steps removed from the happy guy in the creative writing program. I was just different. The Manila demons were permanently exorcised.
This time, the culture shock was treated very carefully. Things went better — except for one piece of unfortunate news. Yes, the friend from Spruce Street, who'd gone to law school in Nashville, had moved on with her life and had in fact tossed several people out of her life, including, I discovered upon my return, me. I was determined not to be a broken-hearted asshole (paraphrasing Frank Zappa here) even though I was one. I decided to move forward. And it worked. I was much happier than I'd been in years.
After taking a year back in grad school (mostly for purposes of recovering from culture shock), I got a job I loved, yeah ... I couldn't believe it, either. Something worked out well for a change. I was working with smart people whom I respected. I learned a lot from them; in fact, I learned a lot of the things I'd hoped to learn in grad school, when of course you can't learn those things in grad school. They turned me into a writer ... I felt lucky. Had a couple of good years.
Then, things evened out. A lot of my friends at work left for other workplaces. The company owner turned into Captain Queeg and decided that the company's success was a sign of God's favor and even Divine admiration and that he, the owner, must be universally admired for his success. Most people left or gagged or both.
In the meantime, almost everyone I'd known in the city or the company was leaving — either married off and raising kids, or moved away, or disappeared. One guy went crazy and another proved to be a criminal. Weird to have spent so much time in a city and moved in circles that, the words of Keats in a different context, were "written on water."
Left with a lot of memories, but not a lot of the people I shared the times with.
So when I'm pissing on about the grad school thing, it's because, yes, there was an element of injustice to it. I'd earned the chance to stay and was screwed for political reasons. But mostly I was angry at having to give up a lifestyle that I really, really enjoyed.
And I'd like to do it again, but I don't think I can live on that little spending money again.
Alas, I didn't mean to go on like this. Quite a long history there. Ack. You know, I'm turning 40, and probably just trying to order some of my memories.