Category Archives: academia

The Heat Death of a Wandering Star

A fortune teller in Northern California looked at my palm and said, “You’re going to lead an unnaturally long life.”  Then she slid my money back across the table and added, “I feel bad for you.”  This was in 2008 or 2009.  My memory of the year is less distinct than the mournful expression on her face, how she pulled off her chintzy Madame Sofia veil, leaned back, and lit a cigarette as if to say, sorry, kid, that’s how it is.

I was supposed to pay her $30 for 30 minutes, but we sat there for almost two hours while she read my tarot cards.  By the time she got around to looking at my hands, she’d already told me three important things about my future.  I was going to travel across an ocean.  I was going to do things no one in my family had ever done.  And I was going to outlive everybody I knew.  As of 2018, two of those three predictions have come true.

It’s amazing how quickly life can change.  You leave the house every day and say, this is the job I do.  This is the market where I shop.  This is the person I live with.  These are the faces I see as I walk down my street.  This is the field with daisies nodding in the wind.  This is me.  For the moment, at least, this is me.

And if you succeed, if you’re healthy and disciplined and dedicated and proficient, if you don’t weaken and get that regular colonoscopy and save your money, you might last long enough to see all your variables change.  Then you’ll say, this is me—isn’t it?  But you won’t know how to answer.  You’ll remember the fortune teller saying, “I feel bad for you,” and you’ll understand what she meant.  You won’t know how to recognize yourself.  You’ll be a survivor.  And nobody actually ever wants that.  The last man standing is, by definition, all alone.

Some of us die and are reborn in a single lifetime.  In my four-and-a-half decades, I’ve already lived several full lives, played roles that had perfectly formed inciting incidents, climaxes, and denouements, which in earlier times or in other places could have described the total breadth and depth of a person’s lived experience.  I’m 44 years old, not too old but not that young, either.  Most days, I look 10 – 15 years younger than that.  Is that good?

I spend a lot of time lost in my own head, reading, walking around and looking at things.  And I’ve managed to orchestrate a life where I can do that.  I can become fascinated by very simple experiences, the wind in different kinds of trees, for example, or the way sound echoes on the canal beneath my bedroom window.  There’s a lot going on everywhere you look.  Sometimes, it’s hypnotic.  Sometimes, it’s beautiful.  Sometimes, it makes me want to scream for a real long time.  The world is too much.  It isn’t interested in making sense or being rational.  We’re the ones who make it matter.  But do we really?

I don’t recommend going to fortune tellers very often.  If they’re good, you’ll know too much.  If they’re bad, you’ll be wasting your money.  If they’re stupid, you’ll feel stupid.  And if they’re clever, you’ll feel even more stupid.  A fortune teller is like a bad pizza.  You paid for it.  So you’re going to eat it.  You might feel disgusted afterwards.  You might not want to talk about the experience.  You might want to put it away in the file labeled Decisions About Which I Will Feel Forever Ashamed and vow never again.  But you’ll probably be back. 

It’s how magical things work.  It’s how art works.  You go see the performance piece at the museum and it has some guy drenched in urine and suspended upside-down by fish hooks from the ceiling for hours over plaster of Paris horses having sex.  And you think, wow, that is neither pleasing to the eye nor conceptually interesting.  It’s pretentious and it’s trying way to hard to be something that isn’t boring.  You write scathing things about it on your blog.  You try to put it out of your mind because you know that every minute you spend thinking about it is a minute you’ll never get back.  But six months later, you go, I wonder what’s showing at the museum.  So do you want anchovies on your plaster horsefucking pizza this time?  Of course you do.  Want to know the future?  Just let me shuffle these cards.

I took piano lessons as a kid.  I was very serious about them.  My teacher was a professor in the music department at the university.  He was a lot like Mr. Rogers.  He radiated that improbable blend of whipsmart intelligence shrouded in simplicity and humor.  He was a remarkable man, a truly gifted person who knew how to appreciate life.  And one of the things he really appreciated was teaching children classical piano.  I learned an immense amount about how to be a decent human being just by spending time with him. 

I remember us sitting in a room with about 50 grand pianos.  He played a single note and we listened to it until it passed away.  Then we discussed its shape, its color, its temperature.  There was an entire life in that sound, a whole universe from the big bang to the last chapter of the Book of Revelation with dinosaurs and empires and prophets and an Industrial Revolution and fiber optics and climate change and insane politicians and Mad Max and the heat death of a wandering star.  All we had to do was listen.  And, like gods, we knew we could always play another note—that, in fact, we or someone of our great pantheon would play another one and would inevitably bring another cosmos into being.

Years later, far away at a different university, I’d study the Metaphysical Poets and I’d encounter Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Shadows in the Water.”  It contains these lines:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seeméd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

And I’d write a half-baked undergraduate essay on the metaphysics of sound as expressed through the semiotics of Traherne’s mirror imagery.  Fabulous.  The only important thing about it was that I remembered listening to my piano teacher play that note when I read “Thus did I by the water’s brink/ Another world beneath me think” and thought: exactly.  Our second selves these shadows be.  The gods look down from Olympus and see their reflections in us as we, in turn, look and listen to our own universes encapsulated in the breadth of a single note—as above, so below.  Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.  I’ve lived many lives, been reborn into many universes.  Godlike, I’ve brought universes into being.

All being depends on context, which is to say, on the existence (meaning) of a universe.  One of the many reasons I love Carl Sagan is that he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”  This is as true for the pie as it is for the pie maker—they both depend on the existence of a universe to contain them and give them meaning.  By extension, if the pie maker is the last man standing in his universe, all meaningful correlation between the existential condition of the pie and that of the universe eventually breaks down. 

In short, one can only eat one’s own apple pies in solitude for so long before one goes insane.  The existence of a pie implies both future and past in space: in the future, someone will sit in a landscape and eat the pie which the pie maker made in the past.  Because of this, if you succeed at the game of life, I will feel bad for you. 

You will outlast your universe; your apple pies will no longer be meaningful.  You will survive and will have no one for whom you can make an apple pie or anything else.  You will see the sky fall, the stars burn out, the destruction of the world.  You will be haunted by memories of times long past and people you loved and wars that no one remembers.  That is a truly horrible fate.  Do you want to win this game?  For your sake, I sincerely hope not.

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2010

First, a Sincere Declaration of Thanks

I’ve spent most of my life running in circles looking for something authentic, then waiting for permission to explore it, and harshly criticizing myself when I didn’t get that permission.  Maybe other people have different experiences, but this has been mine, my personal through-line from childhood to the present.  So I try to be as sincere as possible when I write about my frustrations and failures.  Because what else can I do?  While it’s true that sincerity doesn’t make you friends, at least it makes you the right sort of enemies.  I imagine this blog post will do more of that.

Still, I try to avoid self-pity and, because of this, I usually take a long time to form opinions about what I’ve done or failed to do and how others have reacted.  I ruminate.  I turn things over, trying to see past faulty assumptions, convenient rationalizations, and other self-serving anodynes.  Most people probably do this to some extent, but I think I do it more.  Sometimes, it works.  Other times, what I took for a true perception, for reality, eventually dissolves into just another subjective field, just another corridor of the maze that I have come to think of as my life.  In a maze, you never know what the next twist will bring.  Usually, it brings another twist.

With this in mind, I should begin by saying that in 2010 I came very close to ending my life.  This essay is about that time, but it’s not just about depression and not really about suicide.  It’s not a success narrative where I write about how I overcame great difficulties and am now nearing perfectibility.  It’s not about taking revenge on others through a misguided petty hit piece.  And it’s certainly not about castigating myself for the many imaginary errors I’ve regretted and then dismissed over the last eight years in order to keep getting up in the morning.  It’s a slice of life—a big, fat, ugly slice that tries to embrace the broadest range of experience in order to get closer to the truth.  In this, it’s a lot like an advanced non-fiction exercise.

“Advanced” because it is not easy and not something you would assign to a 17-year-old English major in an introductory writing workshop.  “Non-fiction” because it’s a mode of creative expression that pretends a certain degree of inviolable objectivity, even though we know that’s impossible.  Every memoir, no matter how fabulous, must begin implicitly or explicitly with an assertion of truth or at least with a sincere declaration of authorial good faith: “I did this.  I saw this.  This happened.  At least, I think it happened.”  Rousseau’s Confessions does it with style:

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.  With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood.

This is my favorite passage from the first part of the book because literary historians have proven that the Confessions contains many misstatements if not deliberate falsehoods.  Such graceful bald-faced prevarication is a rare and beautiful thing.  But I am not so talented.  And I have no plans to weigh my heart against a feather on the last day. 

Instead, I will put it this way: I suspect I am not a horrible person.  I have faith that I’m not even tactless.  I believe my greatest defect is that I lack the imagination necessary to see several moves ahead.  I lack interpersonal foresight, which has made me a poor manager of nervous egomaniacs and a terrible chess player.  But I love chess.  And that is a serious problem, even if I hate the high-strung pampered egomania of academic writing programs, because everything toward the end of my PhD program was just a version of that game.

Robert Greene, in the acknowledgements of The 48 Laws of Power—a book loved equally by goateed 25-year-olds with a Libertarian Bitcoin fetish and the morose IT professionals you see combing the self-help section for books on how to become an alpha male—has a similar protestation of sincerity:

I must also thank my dear friend Michiel Schwarz who was responsible for involving me in the art school Fabrika in Italy and introducing me there to Joost Elffers, my partner and producer of The 48 Laws of Power.  It was in the scheming world of Fabrika that Joost and I saw the timelessness of Machiavelli and from our discussions in Venice, Italy, this book was born. . . . Finally, to those people in my life who have so skillfully used the game of power to manipulate, torture, and cause me pain over the years, I bear you no grudges and I thank you for supplying me with inspiration for The 48 Laws of Power.

If we read this carefully, we have to smile.  Greene is doing what we might call an “inverted Rousseau,” making the same assertion in a backwards way: this is a book about real things; therefore, I thank all those who have manipulated and tortured me for providing good material and, in the process, I declare my sincerity. 

Greene puts us on notice that his book is based on subjective material that emanates from his and Elffers’ lived experience, creating a Rousseau-esque escape hatch.  As The 48 Laws of Power is all highly subjective (essentially a kind of implicit portrait of Greene stitched together in historical anecdotes), the value of whatever he writes defaults to his apparent sincerity (“I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood”).  It’s not about an objective truth process.  It’s about rhetorical ethos.

That is wonderful because ethos might be the only sincere rhetorical mode.  After logos topples from an unstable foundation of assumption, appeal to authority, and generalization; after pathos is unmasked as merely a screen of emotion recollected in tranquility; the persuasive credibility of the speaker is all that remains.  In a world where absolute truth does not exist, everything is ethos.  And so I construct my own ethical escape hatch. 

2010 was the worst year of my life, the year after my mother died of lung cancer; the year after my first book was published; the year I got my PhD in English; the year I attended my last AWP Conference; the year I traveled to the deep South for an excruciating week-long job interview and realized the English department clichés also obtain south of the Mason-Dixon Line; the year I got very ill; the year I was admonished by my mentor for questioning the value of my degree and told to be grateful for indefinite unemployment; the year my father began another surly adolescence; the year I began to think that there was no place for me in this world.  There are many years I’d relive if I could.  2010 is not one of them.  But I have been told to be thankful for these experiences because they have supplied me with a lot of inspiration.  As such, this writing is my sincere declaration of thanks.

Prelude

You never know what the next twist in the maze will bring but, in 2009, I think I was doing as well as could be expected when I stood in front of the department graduate adviser’s desk and said I needed a leave of absence to visit my mother in hospice.  For some reason, that moment stands out as a prelude for the upcoming year.

The adviser, the department’s resident medievalist, seemed to exist in an acid vapor of contempt for all creative writing students and their keepers.  She disliked me in particular because I’d dropped her Old English seminar the previous semester and she’d taken it personally.  Since I was doing a PhD with a creative dissertation (the final product would become Gravity, my first story collection), I didn’t need to be in her class.  But she needed me there.  Or, at least, she needed to feel loved by as many students as possible.

This was the woman who would thereafter try to prevent me from graduating so that my funding would run out.  This was the woman—whether due to old workplace feuds or out of resentment that there were more creative writing events on campus than dramatizations of Piers Plowman and undergraduate maypole dances—perpetually tried to block funding to the creative writing program and force out the graduate students depending on tuition waivers.  Her style of chess was to kill the pawns first.  Attack the supply lines, starve the more dangerous units in their fortifications, and wait for winter.  Classic medieval siege tactics.

However, standing before her desk, I was barely aware of the billowing acid cloud.  I was half-blind with grief.  All I thought about was my mom and how I had to get back to California to see her.  Looking back, I’m surprised I even had the wherewithal to stand up straight, much less ask for a leave of absence.  But I was very responsible.  I took everything seriously.  I thought a lot about my future in academia, especially in creative writing instruction.  And I felt my future depended on me contentiously following up on every detail.  I was, essentially, as sincere as I have ever been in my life.  I shouldn’t have been that sincere.

Given my emotional state, what the adviser said to me didn’t register until I’d left the building.  The conversation went something like this:

“I need a leave of absence to go to California because my mother is dying of cancer.”

She rolled her eyes, looked out the window as if she were considering it, sighed, then shook her head.  “No can do.  You only have so much funding.  Your funding will not cover you for another semester.”

“My mother is dying.  She doesn’t have long.  I’ve completed my course work.  My dissertation only needs to be approved.  I don’t even need any more credits.”

Another sigh.  More contemplating the clouds.  “Well, that’s really too bad.  You have to be in residence or your funding will run out while you’re gone.  Good luck.”

I stood there, trying unsuccessfully to process this. Then she rolled her eyes and asked me if there was anything else.

The grief robot turned and left her office, got on the elevator, rode it down to the bottom floor, walked out to the fountain in the center of the courtyard, and stared at the water for a long time.  Only then, did he think of the graduate adviser rolling her eyes.  Over the ensuing 9 years, the moment of her eye roll would be impressed in his memory as a perfect metaphor, a perfect image foreshadowing all the inspiration and gratitude to come.

The Tragedy of Not Dying

A hospice is a horrible place.  It’s like being given a lollipop for a bullet wound.  You’re bleeding out and everyone tells you to enjoy your lolly.  It’s cherry.  It’s got a smiley face.  Why aren’t you happy? Visiting my mother with my father there added another layer to the experience.  In spite of the pain and horror of the place, in spite of watching my mother waste away in her bed, hallucinating and suffering and being afraid, I came to understand that my father’s grief was different from mine.  I was feeling bad for my mother.  He was feeling bad for himself.

This was still 2009.  My only course, aside from empty dissertation credits, was a German reading and literature seminar.  The professor, a kind old man about to retire in his late 60s, loved his students the way he loved his trees—which is to say, far more than he loved the university.  I asked him for advice because he was the only person I could ask.  And he made it possible for me to exist in two places at once.  I gave my own writing students two weeks of work and held online course meetings via Skype and I emailed my German professor my work, which made it seem like I was present.  This is what allowed me to fly to California and see my mom for the last time.

In those first awful trips to the hospice, I’d naïvely hoped that my father and I could come together in our grief and support each other.  Of course, this was pure fantasy since he’d always enjoyed being a father but had rarely done any fatherly things.  I could count the number of times we’d gone to movies, the one thing we could do together because it involved no conversation.  And there were a few other misadventures over the years where my mother badgered him into going to some school play (he stood by the door to be the first person out) or taking me fishing (we did a U-turn at the access road to the lake and went home) or camping (it rained and so we packed up in the middle of the night and left).  He never beat me and he brought home a paycheck.  To the best of my knowledge, he never stepped out on my mother.  But he was never involved more than that; though, he lived with us in the same house—somewhat more than a housemate, somewhat less than a relative.

So my hope that he would be able, somehow, if in a manly way, to share this painful experience with me, was not based on reality.  After a certain amount of talk about how sad he was, it became noticeable that he never talked about my mom.  He sat by her bed, lost in his own self-pity, as the cancer ate its way through her brain and wasted her body.  As she died by inches, he proceeded as usual, focusing on his own needs above all else.

I witnessed this.  My wife witnessed this.  But I was so aggrieved I could barely speak.  Sometimes, my wife had to help me walk from the car to my mother’s room.  Have you ever been so upset that you can barely walk?  Until you have, you won’t know the feeling.  When you have, you’ll never forget it.  It transcends description.

I focused completely on my mom.  I waited for her moments of clarity.  I told her I loved her.  I told her the good things about my PhD program.  I made jokes and she tried to laugh.  One day, my great aunt—a stately old Italian woman who sounded like my late grandmother and seemed covered in the old-world charm that vanished with her generation—showed up with a peach and a kitchen knife.  She cut slices and fed them to my mom with a smile on her face.  Even now, as I write this, I cry a little because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.  That kind of goodness doesn’t exist much in this world.

It was a very difficult time.  Two weeks later, I returned to finish my program.  In one of her last moments of clarity, my mom had ordered me to go back.  She didn’t want me to see her die and me being in the PhD program meant a lot to her.  I think she felt ashamed that she wasn’t going to be around to take care of my father and me the way she always had.  And knowing that I was going to get a doctorate was a relief, as if it would be the next best thing.  She also had a lot of pride in her appearance and the cancer had been unkind.  So when I offered to stay, she insisted that I not.  About two weeks after that, my father called and said to say good-bye to her.  I told her I loved her.  And I think she died shortly thereafter.

I miss her every day.  But this isn’t about that, either.  It’s about the aftermath, how everything changed as a result of her death.  Some people are the linchpins of their families.  When they go, everything goes.  That was what happened.  I flew back again for her funeral.  She was buried holding a photo of my father and me.  It was a closed casket and I don’t remember much else, just bits and pieces.  I was out of my mind. 

As we moved toward the Fall semester of 2010, I felt melted down and recast as a different person.  I’d lost my happy thoughts.  I didn’t go out or talk to many people other than my wife and my program mentor.  I stopped writing fiction.  Most of what I did was perfunctory.  But I knew I had to get my degree.  Even if I collapsed afterward, I would complete the PhD.

The Reading Series

The year before, I’d allowed myself to be persuaded that working as the assistant coordinator for the university literary reading series would “look good on my resume.”  And I did my best as the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, flier maker, venue securer, introducer-to-the-introducer, complaint taker, fielder-of-calls from mentally unstable bookstore proprietors, irradiated scapegoat, and general handler of said low-rung celebrity infants terribles

Sometime before I left town for good, one of the faculty members admitted to me that the assistant coordinator position was really only supposed to entail flier making and that the professor who was getting paid to be to be doing the other things had dumped the rest on me.  But by then I was so depressed that I couldn’t summon the necessary outrage.

One writer wanted a per diem that wasn’t in his agreement.  Another wanted intel on, in his exact words, “the most fuckable students who might be around.”  The butch lesbian poet would only communicate with me through an intermediary because I was straight and male.  The playwright was supernaturally high throughout his entire visit and had to be physically guided to the stage.  The “local writer,” penciled in because there was a vacancy in the schedule that month, struggled to contain her spiritual darkness through the entire event such that when I handed her the honorarium (significantly less than what the other, slightly more famous writers had received), she snatched it out of my hand, hissed a “Go fuck yourself,” and then smiled broadly at an approaching faculty member.  These were some of the more endearing ones.

Needless to say, it was not the greatest collection of individuals.  They generally came across as worn out, mediocre, vain, full of fear, full of resentment, and perpetually on the hustle for any crumb of recognition.  Calling them fools wouldn’t be accurate because they were all reasonably intelligent.  They simply knew the score too well, knew they should have received more for their dedication and efforts.  You could see that loathsome awareness stamped on their faces.  Now they were privileged to read their work to the smirking tenured faculty who hadn’t hired them, a menagerie of twitchy English students, and whichever townies may have wandered in looking for free wine.  It wouldn’t get much better than that.

I disliked the visiting readers even though I saw myself and my fellow grad students reflected in them.  Most of the people featured in the series that year hadn’t been picked for life’s cheer squad.  They were the leftovers, the understudies, the adjuncts with slim books from presses you’ve never heard of.  Many, it seemed, faced depression so considerable that they were pharmaceutically enhanced 100% of the time.  I wondered more than once how they could continue to produce writing.  The greatest irony was that most of them had already gone further in their careers than anyone currently in my PhD program stood to go.

There were a few exceptions, a few graceful and brilliant souls who’d agreed to come as personal favors to various faculty members.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them as well as the moments of hilarity you find in every English department.  2010 wasn’t all doom and gloom, just most of it.

The second time I was told to go fuck myself was around 3 AM on a Sunday morning toward the end of Fall semester.  My insomnia had become pretty dependable at that point and I was already awake when the phone rang.  I got out of bed, told my wife I had no idea who it was, and shuffled into our tiny living room, where I sat on the couch and listened to the breather on the line.  He was panting hard.  I thought it was quaint that in this day and age people still gave breather-masturbator calls.  The caller ID came up with nothing.

When he realized I’d said hello and was listening, he rumbled out a “Go fuck yourself” and hung up.  I sat in the dark for a while, thinking about the human condition.  Then he called back.  It was F, one of the few grad students who’d been asked to read in the series.  He mumbled some things and then shouted that he thought I had a problem and should get help.  He was drunk off his ass.

I asked him why he felt that way and he broke it down for me.  F had read with his wife, you see, and I’d made the mistake of introducing him before her.  Neither of them were ever going to get over it.  Plus, she was a Navajo princess and I’d introduced them as husband and wife.  You don’t do that to a Navajo princess.  Didn’t I fucking know that?  What was wrong with my head?

“Princess?  Really?  I thought you guys were from Pittsburgh.”

He hung up again and didn’t speak to me until I ran into him at the AWP Conference a few months later—where he was keyed up and sweaty, slapping me on the back, telling me how he’d been featured in a very cool spontaneous reading held on one of the convention center’s escalators that drew an enormous crowd.  Now he had a pocket of phone numbers to network.  Amazing.  He didn’t remember a thing about calling me in the dark and telling me what I could go do with myself. 

Or maybe he’d repressed that memory along with his courtship of the Navajo princess, that hard winter living as tribe’s writer, the majestic swish of his khakis as he hunted buffalo, armed only with an unpublished manuscript.  I haven’t seen him or heard a thing about him since the conference, but I suspect he’s either got tenure by now or he’s back in Pennsylvania selling pre-loved automobiles like it’s a poetry slam.

The End, My Friend

Depression is a very idiosyncratic and personalized illness.  But those who have it tend to have a few things in common, one of which is that depression can be cumulative in its gravity and magnitude.  Today, you’re not feeling good.  Tomorrow, you can’t get out of bed.  The day after that, you’re standing on a chair with a vacuum cleaner cord around your neck and you think you’re the only one in the history of the world who’s endured such a linear degeneration.  Feeling alone is a big part of it.

I felt alone until I discovered  Darkness Visible by William Styron and recognized a lot of what I’d been going through.  I don’t know how I found the book, whether it was in the fiction section of the library where I sometimes studied or whether I encountered it in a used bookstore or somewhere else.  While it wouldn’t be true to claim that the book “saved” me, I can say it helped enough to get me down off the chair, multiple chairs, actually.

Reading it was an emergency measure, but it was something I could depend on.  I didn’t talk about my feelings.  I’ve never been very good at that, not even with my loved ones.  But I could read someone else talking about his.  And since I loved Styron’s fiction, I felt like I could trust him.  If he said it, I could accept it enough to be able to think about it.  And that was usually all it took for me to keep going.

By Spring break, I was prepared to submit my dissertation.  I missed my mom horribly and my wife and I returned to California to take care of the empty house where all my mother’s things sat gathering dust.  My father wouldn’t go near the place.  When he wasn’t drunk, he was hard at work rediscovering his hormones in erratic, awkward, and desperate ways.  Our relationship, never substantial to begin with, began to splinter irreparably when, out of guilt, he started to regularly criticize my mom. 

He was a self-righteous Catholic for most of my life, who often amused himself by telling me to get my ass to church and that since I’d been baptized I could never not be a Catholic.  But after a year of drinking, trash talking, and a pissed-drunk rape attempt on my cousin in front of me, he was ready to start up a relationship with an equally neurotic married woman who’d run after him at an event.

He confessed this to me one afternoon because I guess he couldn’t confess it to his priest.  Then he added that it was like a DH Lawrence love story.  Then he said she was going to get a divorce from her despicable husband and they’d marry each other.  Lovely.  I didn’t want to hear about it.  I especially didn’t want to hear him ask me to be his best man.  I could hardly speak.  It shows how detached and self-involved he was that he thought it was something he could ask me. 

“What about all that Catholicism?” I remember asking.  I don’t remember if he answered.

Around that time, because he wouldn’t help me clean out my mother’s things, I’d been over at the house, crying, putting her clothes in Goodwill boxes, packing up old photo albums, doing all the things we could have done as a family.  Instead, my wife helped and we did the best we could in a few days.  Much was overlooked, things from my childhood, things in the garage that I really do wish I could have kept.  But we only had so much time.  Now I imagine my father and his new wife paid at some point to have it all carted to the dump.  But I have no way of knowing, since I haven’t been back in years.

I do recall taking to the gardener, who revealed that he’d had my mother making food for him right up to the point where she went into the hospital for the last time.  She couldn’t lie down straight in bed.  So she was sleeping sitting up in a chair in order to breathe, then walking around on crutches, cooking and cleaning.  According to the gardener, he screamed at her frequently.  She was fucking dying and this is how he treated her.  That’s abuse.  It’s horrible fucking abuse.  And my mother, who was just about a saint in every way, did her best.

My mother was a talented painter and sculptor, but he’d left her art in a shed that had a broken roof.  It rained a lot that year and most of her work was ruined.  I’d been standing in the backyard, looking at the shed, unable to get in because he neglected to give me the key to the deadbolt (probably because he didn’t want me to see what had happened) when he called with a task for me.  It was something small, something to do with getting a TV boxed up for him and cancelling the  TV service that my mom had in her hospice room.  I’d already taken care of it, but he spoke to me with contempt, as if I were very lazy.  He said, “After all I’ve done for you, couldn’t you take care of this one thing?”

I thought of my mother on crutches, making him breakfast.  I thought of her art destroyed through neglect.  I thought of my father drinking a case of my cousin’s high-end champagne and then trying to fuck her in front of me.  I thought of all the nasty things he said about my mother when she was gone, after he’d cried his eyes out for himself, after he blamed me for not being there when she died, after the sizeable amount of heirloom gold from old Italy that my mom wanted to come to me but that disappeared right around the time my father and his new cadaverous lady friend got a second condo in San Antonio.  I thought about all these things and saw that no matter what his paycheck had been worth, no matter how much I may have cost as a child, no matter what my mom and he may have given me as a teen or a confused 20-year-old, I owed him nothing. 

I felt something snap and a certain coldness overtook me.  My depression had come to be replaced with something more useful: calm, thoughtful anger.  We had it out.  He told my wife and I we had to be out of the house.  Within 48 hours, we were.  I’ve never looked back.

Gone for Good

I got my PhD without fanfare.  My wife and I went out to dinner and it was nice, just the two of us.  I knew I’d miss my mentor in the program and her brilliant husband.  I’d miss certain things about the university town and my own writing students, several of whom had become more like friends.  But I was glad to be done—done with the degree, done with my father, done with trying to hump the dream of being an academic creative writer.

In the eight years since the day we drove south, blasting M. Ward’s “Helicopter” with the windows rolled down, I’ve thought about 2010 quite a lot.  I still get depressed.  But I can cope.  I’ve learned that it is possible and, for me, even preferable to have a life outside academia.  And I’ve come to accept that family isn’t really who raises you when you don’t have a say in the matter.  It’s who you choose when you do.

I miss my mom every day and I write fiction every day.  As of this writing, I’m working on my third collection of stories with a novel draft mostly written.  I’ve published over 30 items in magazines, worked as a freelance writer and journalist, and lived in 9 countries.  I’m healthy.  I really don’t have anything to complain about right now.  And sometimes I even give myself permission to think I’m happy.  Somewhere, there’s a Navajo princess riding through the clouds over Pittsburgh, but I doubt our paths will cross again.


Way Up High in the Manhattan Sky

Reeling this morning from my all-Trump-all-the-time ulcer-inducing news feed of despair, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I’ve been a compulsive news reader since I learned how. And, for the last few months, my morning habit has evolved into a kind of shamanic pathworking. Not the startup-bro takes ayahuasca at Burning Man to dream up new apps sort of thing. More like: I drank the cobra venom and I might be having an aneurysm but, if I live, I’ll probably learn something. Because that’s why we read the news, right? To learn something?

My wife walked into the room, looked at me breathing in front off the laptop, and walked out. After living with me for close to two decades, she deserves a merit badge for humanitarian service. I accept this. Nevertheless, we can’t bring ourselves to compromise on certain things—when the enfant terrible will be impeached, for instance, or when certain GOP representatives will disrobe and start flinging fecal matter at Rand Paul live on CSPAN. You can’t agree on everything.

But one thing we do agree on is that, after reading political posts for an hour, one should not look at emails, blogs, or news about the academic job market or the entertainment industry. Doing so inevitably weaponizes the cobra venom to such an extent that instead of a golden journey to Ixtlan with Don Juan, one finds oneself slipping down to Xibalba with the Lord of the Smoking Mirror. Ghost jaguars. Shrieking bats. Night winds. Tentacles. The American Healthcare Act. Steve Bannon in a bone necklace gesticulating at the moon. A real bad trip.

I was just about to read some Penelope Trunk on why it’s better to marry for money and get therapy instead of going to graduate school for an MFA when my wife came back in and asked me if I’d lost all sense.

“I’m, uh, reading.”

“Why do you do this to yourself?”

“Because, um—what am I reading? Shit!”

I was still in a trance. Penelope had already led me partway down to Tezcatlipoca’s Place of Fear and Torment. I closed her blog and the five newspapers I had open in the browser before I could go any further, but the damage had been done. You never emerge from a news pathworking unscathed.

For example, I’d read in the L.A. Times that Dave Chappelle just cut a $60 million dollar deal for 3 Netflix comedy specials at $20 million per special. And, in all honesty, I got the same feeling I’ve had in the past while reading about Trump filing Chapter 11 six times and defrauding his contractors while possibly laundering money for the Russian mob; Bannon and Puzder beating their wives; and a recently fired U.S. Attorney getting headhunted to teach at NYU as a sweet payoff in which he can “continue addressing the issues I so deeply care about.” Right.

There’s something sickening there, like justice has nothing to do with any of it—just graft and lots of vigorous lying. How many gold-plated toilets do any of them need? I got a very unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tried not to think that such things exist in the same world as the famine in Sudan or North Korean death camps or the East Chicago water supply so full of lead that 1000 residents are being asked to relocate. Don’t play in the dirt, kids. Just Netflix and chill.

Still, reading about Chappelle was a nice break from the moral Andrea Doria taking place on Capitol Hill, even if the obscene payout did make me a bit nauseated. I think Dave Chappelle is one of the funniest people on the planet. He’s brilliant. There is a very small cadre of extremely talented comedians in the world, of which he might be the foremost member. Very few entertainers are on his level and he definitely deserves to get paid for his work. There’s no question about that. But $60 million on top of all the millions he’s already made seems a bit excessive, no? How about that children’s hospital in Sudan where so many children need help that “the hospital has run out of beds”? I wonder what a quarter of a million could do there? I wonder what $1000 could do.

If anything, the article on Chappelle caused me to start thinking philosophically about what an amount of money like that really means in the life of any individual. I know you can buy a lot of bottles of Pernod-Ricard Perrier-Jouet. And I know you can reach a level where everything becomes relative. If you’re partying with the rich and famous all the time, $60 million might still be an important chunk of change, but maybe it’s not as much, relatively speaking, as one imagines at $50,000 a bottle.

I find myself thinking, what if Dave took 2 of those $60 million (he’d still come away with $58 million, which would be enough to purchase several small islands and a Bavarian castle) and devoted that fragment of his inconceivable wealth to changing someone’s life or the lives of several people who could would clearly and directly benefit? What could be done for someone who can’t afford a prosthesis, for example, or someone living in a shelter who doesn’t have the resources to get back into the workforce, or a family in the Rust Belt living in a transient hotel because they lost their house? Such people aren’t hard to find right at home in the great United States.

Moreover, it may be that someone with over $60 million in the bank could easily hire the right assistants (a whole team, a task force, an entire building’s worth of henchmen and secretaries) to make something like that happen ricky tick. We’ve seen far stranger things in the media lately. We’re bound to see stranger things in the months to come.

Cool dude.

I know Dave has been involved in a lot of charitable events and donated his time to good causes—all of which is as admirable as his talent. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about direct action in the lives of people who would be forever changed. Is that naive? It’s certainly not as easy as giving a NGO a big tax-deductible donation or volunteering to participate in a charitable event. Then again, genius-level comedy isn’t easy, either. It takes guts, brilliance, a gift, and the determination to make it happen—just like anything good in life.

Someone in college once said to me, “Yeah, money can’t buy me love, but a certain amount of money will give me the power to make finding it more likely.” I thought about that for years before concluding that it was pure garbage. You can find love in a ghetto. You can find love in a refugee camp. You can find love after everything has been taken away and you think your life is over. As my wise grandmother used to say, “If someone loves you, they’ll come and spend time with you while you mop the floors in a slaughterhouse.”

That seems right. Quality is not quantity. And love, happiness, tranquility, and the satisfaction of doing good work are all priceless, being essentially internal achievements and therefore free to all human beings. But one thing money can do is create conditions for healing the world. And that matters, maybe more than anything. Why do I bring this up after too much Sean Spicer on a Wednesday afternoon? Because it’s been making me ask myself the same old question: What is good? And, once again, I must conclude that quality and quantity are mutually exclusive categories. Show me what you’re doing. Show me how you’re going to heal the world. Then I’ll tell you what’s good.

What is it like to be Dave Chappelle—to be a brilliant artist and to have so much money that it sets you apart from every other artist in your field, except for a very exclusive group of people who happen to be as fortunate and gifted as you are? I have no idea. I do know, like most people, I love his work. But, at the same time, I think of the dreams most people have of a little house with a dog and a garden somewhere quiet where they don’t have to live in fear, of no more crushing debts, of a dental plan, of their kids having reasonable chances to work for a decent future, and of some kind of profession that doesn’t produce night terrors. And I know what it isn’t like to be Chappelle.

These are very modest dreams, but they’re ones that most sincere people have. Most people don’t need half or a quarter of a million to realize such dreams. Most people don’t need or want a super yacht, don’t need to be on the board of the Bank of Cypress, don’t need a tower in midtown Manhattan with their names way up on top in gold. Shit, most people don’t even need tenure—even though the failed sideshow entertainer who passes for our President wants to destroy PBS and the NEA just for kicks; even though, for 30 years, the academic job market has been run by people who dress up in SS uniforms and burn offerings to Ronald Reagan in their secret masturbatoriums. But I know reading about such things is imprudent. It’s Paul Ryan’s Popul Vuh.

So I’ll be trying to detox from the news for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll work on my novel while I wait for the next paid writing assignment to appear in my inbox like sweet life-sustaining mana from heaven. One thing I won’t be doing is reading any more about Dave Chappelle discovering El Dorado. Because I feel reasonably certain that today someone’s going to die because of money and it won’t be him.

 


Nobody Knows It But Me

classroomLong ago, I was an English teacher at a private high school in central California. It was a good, if demanding, job and unlike many of my colleagues, I seemed to manage occasional moments of non-misery in the workplace. In fact, the two years I spent working there taught me more about human nature than two decades of university teaching, freelance writing, and working abroad ever did.

Without a doubt, teaching over 100 adolescents each semester schooled me not only in how people will behave when going through some of the worst years of their lives but the extent to which many parents are feverishly inadequate when it comes to raising kids. With respect to family, no one wants to admit they have no clue what they’re doing. Everyone must pretend things are running smoothly and they’re in complete control.

I found this pretense interesting, particularly during parent-teacher conferences when ashamed, bewildered parents would whisper, “What do you think I should do?” as if my ability to manage large groups of adolescents somehow qualified me to give them advice. At first, I would explain that my two degrees in English plus minor gifts in speaking in front of people and writing did not mean I had a solution to why Jimmy couldn’t sit still or why Leticia cried through every class and felt compelled to layer everything around her in Purell, or why Leo circulated pictures of his girlfriend’s vagina. Over time, I developed a less draining response: “I do not know.” All Quiet on the Western Front may prepare us to think about the meaning of war, but it will not prepare us for Leo’s girlfriend’s vagina.

I suspected then, as I still do, that confronting such situations is not within the job description of a high school English teacher. But maybe, in the hundreds of outrageous situations in which I found myself in that job, I could have done more. The questions I ask myself now are the questions many parents asked me then: what should I have done? Was there anything to be done at all? There must be an expert somewhere, a veteran administrator or someone with a PhD in education theory, who can speak to this. Maybe a prison psychologist.

I wish I could believe that. In spite of my lingering questions, I think I’ve come to believe the opposite: there actually are no rules—not just for teaching or parenting, but for any area of human experience. A friend once said to me when we were going through our own high school torment: “This is the meaning of life: we all suck and we’re nothing.” I don’t think he fully appreciated how profound that statement was when he said it. 27 years later, I’m still seeing it prove out.

We all suck: no one—and I mean this in the broadest, most inclusive, most general sense—actually knows what they’re doing to the extent that assumptions and judgment calls are unnecessary. Perfect human understanding does not exist and human error is ubiquitous. Even our attempts at artificial intelligence are subject to our limited assumptions about what intelligence actually is (or can be). What can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt? The truth is: nothing, unfortunately.

Surely an engineer will feel confident that, say, as energy is transformed or transferred, an increasing amount of it is wasted. Surely something as dependable and consistent as a physical law (in this case, the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is immutable, absolute, not a matter for interpretation. But even something as ironclad as a law of physics is not without its exceptions. Some things are givens within the parameters of a particular knowledge paradigm, but those givens are always relative to and dependent upon the parameters themselves.

For example, within the agreed-upon bounds of thermodynamic theory, basic laws obtain as a reliable set of rules for the behavior of energy, entropy, and temperature at thermal equilibrium. But we also know that even within that theoretical framework, an empirical finding like the Second Law is subject to exceptions. In 2002, researchers at the Australian National University, in a paper entitled, “Experimental Demonstration of Violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics for Small Systems and Short Time Scales,” found that “systems can undergo fleeting energy increases that seem to violate the venerable law.” And while this is only one small example, it is by no means isolated or anomalous to the extent that we could dismiss all such exceptions out of hand.

In fact, our entire narrative of scientific progress is predicated on discoveries which alter existing assumptions about how the world works. As Thomas Kuhn observes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.” The scientific narrative changes. Because it was always a narrative, never an unassailable, omniscient catalogue.

Nothing is beyond interpretation, not even the bedrock assumptions of our most materialistic sciences. Rather, ways of knowing amount to best possible premises always subject to discourse and development over time (to say nothing of the complexities of the information technology we rely on to document and transmit that discourse). We do the best we can. We develop and codify optimal principles for a given field. And then we work with those principles until we encounter a paradigm-disruptive discovery that forces us to revise our theories.

But we’re nothing: Even the most qualified and intellectually responsible claims are part of a conversation (discourse) which is grounded in work that came before and which will be superseded by discoveries and realizations that follow. In many cases, an individual contribution to any field is no greater than a minuscule inch forward with vastly disproportionate implications.

Still, there are careers to develop and Cessnas to purchase and grants to chase and colleagues to slander and books to write and mistresses to support and students to convince. In Polishing the Mirror, the guru Ram Dass—then a social psychology professor named Richard Alpert—describes what he felt was a hollowness at the center of western academia:

In 1961, I was thirty and at the height of my academic career. I had a PhD from Stanford University, and I was a professor of social relations at Harvard. I had arrived at a pinnacle of life as I thought it should be, professionally, socially, and economically. But inside there remained an emptiness—a feeling that, with all I had, something was still missing. Here I was at Harvard, the mecca of the intellect. But when I looked into the eyes of my peers, wondering “Do you know?” I saw in their eyes that what I was looking for was nowhere to be found. In a social or family setting, people looked up to me and hung on my every word because I was a Harvard professor, and they clearly assumed that I knew. But to me, the nature of life remained a mystery.

In Ram Dass’ use of the term, we “do not know” much about the world in any absolute sense. We cannot know because our intellectual tools are as finite as the time we have in which to use them. This is not to argue that we should be content with ignorance. But it is a way to foreground a simple suggestion: speculation is absolutely necessary when it comes to developing knowledge.

Assumptions are necessary. Ultimately, belief is necessary. Kuhn, at least, seems to agree: “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” This seems reasonable not just in science but in any field of human activity.

So what remains to be done if we can never fully know our world and ourselves? Everything! Our inability to attain perfect understanding is no reason to abandon the pursuit of outer and inner knowledge. Rather, it leads us to an acceptance of our limitations as individuals and as a species and, in that acceptance, a very personal yet very real sense of freedom.

Maybe the right answer to those parents who wanted advice should have been: you already know how to raise your kids because what you think is best will be the best you can possibly do. Maybe, as my high school friend seemed to imply back in 1989, we are not static, monolithic, isolate objects. We are no thing.

Instead, we are dynamic, dialectic, fluid collaborations—living syntheses of what was known in the past and what will be discovered in the future. Maybe “discourse” is the most accurate metaphor for human experience. If so, all we can do is try to engage in life’s conversation as robustly as possible. Maybe there are no rules beyond that.

“Baby,” I said, “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.” 
― Charles Bukowski, Factotum


True Confession

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First dig two graves. I think Confucius said that. But nobody started off by saying I wanted to stab my girlfriend and bury her in the backyard, but I was reading Confucius. So I dug two graves. Instead, they usually began with I really don’t remember. I’m not too clear on what happened. It was a mistake. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t do it. I did it, but she had it coming. She begged me to do it. I don’t remember digging. I didn’t dig. I’m on meds. I walk in my sleep. I’d had some drinks, Ambien, Klonopin. I couldn’t have done it. If I did it, I didn’t mean it. I didn’t do it but, if you say so, I don’t know. Maybe.

They started all kinds of ways, but they usually finished the same: You need to understand. If you’d been in my shoes. If you were me. If you only knew. You’d have done it, too. They wanted you to see, to make sure you understood, it could have been you. So put a No. 2 pencil through the left eye of your cousin because he took your favorite CD and then say, you’d have done the same thing. How can you say you wouldn’t?

On April 6, 2010, I sat in a motel room in Denver, watching people say this over and over. It was my last year of graduate school and because I’d picked up a paralegal certificate along the way to my PhD, I’d gotten a job transcribing around 100 digitized police interviews for a defense attorney’s office. The original transcriptions had been lost and they were desperate. I told myself it was just another job because it paid like one. But it wasn’t. It was a journey through human dread and pain. Watching those confessions brought back my nightmares, then my relentless insomnia, then my chain smoking, then a depression so thick and wide I felt like I was drowning.

I’d driven out from Kalamazoo, Michigan, two days before in a rented Ford Econoline 150 that I’d meant to use as a living space while I attended the AWP Writer’s Conference at the Colorado Convention Center. The van was completely empty except for the driver’s seat and some bungee cords. I had a sleeping bag, a cardboard box full of books, some clothes, my backpack, and a laptop. The Conference was four days long. I planned on driving over to the hotel every morning, then relocating to a distant parking lot every evening. It was a good plan in theory.

But I felt shaken when I saw the van start moving towards the interstate at a rest stop somewhere in Nebraska. I barely reached it before it rolled into traffic. And even though I’d found a cinder block to put under one of the wheels, I couldn’t relax after that. I kept imagining it going head-on into a family of six. So when I got to Denver, I found the cheapest motel room I could, charged it to my sad broken credit card, put the van in their empty asphalt lot out back with boulders and cinder blocks under all four wheels, and tried to calm down. I told myself at least I wouldn’t be sleeping inside it when the family went boom.

My memory of that time is intensely vivid. I’d never been to Denver before. And, though it was my third AWP Conference, I’d decided that this was the one that mattered. I was about to get my PhD in English; I was waiting on several university job interviews and had one lined up at the Conference; and it was possible, against all odds and popular opinion, that my career plans were actually going to work out. I just needed a little more cash. Hence, the transcriptions. I had a deadline, an envelope of flash drives, and a supervising attorney who never returned my emails. I was transcribing about ten interviews and confessions every day. And I was starting to feel not right the way one feels after watching Triumph of the Will or the 2016 presidential debates: this can’t be real.

I suppose I’ve been thinking about Denver because my old friend, Theo, emailed me the other day while I was watching the final Trump-Clinton debate. The last time I saw him was six years ago at AWP. So the fact that he emailed me suddenly, after so long, was surprising all on its own. But I opened Theo’s email right when Trump started talking about Clinton being okay with ripping babies from their mothers’ wombs, right as I was starting to feel the old out-of-control nightmare anxiety rising in my chest, the sense that things were not right, that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Theo wanted to know how I was liking Kentucky, if I was still writing, why he hadn’t seen me at any conferences. I thought, Kentucky? And then I remembered. That was the interview I’d had at the 2010 AWP, a small regional college located close to the Tennessee state line. While Trump was saying, “In the ninth month. On the final day,” I looked at Theo’s paragraph and thought, this is what he remembers about me. This is what motivated him to write to me after six years. Trump says, “That’s not acceptable,” and I think, Jesus Christ.

How do you make a true confession? You sit in an interview room at the police station, sometimes in a hotel room or a conference room. White walls. Simple table or none at all. It’s not often an interrogation room. It’s for interviews. It’s small and everything is plastic, metal, Formica. Maybe people walk around in the background. Maybe it’s completely quiet. Lean forward in the steel chair that’s bolted down and doesn’t swivel. Fold your hands on the table that comes directly out of the wall. Start off with: “I’m not sure. I don’t remember.” And even though he’s recording what you’re saying, he’s also nodding and jotting it down on a steno under your name, which tonight is something normal, like Jim. He notes that you have a wandering right eye, a cleft lip, and a green tattoo of a cat on the side of your neck. He notes this in spite of the fact that it has already been noted in your file because he’s bored. But you’re thinking, trying to remember. You’re a bit stunned. You think you can talk your way out of this.

File after file, story after story, it only got worse. Around 9:00 AM on the first day of the Conference, I found myself in the back row, watching a panel discussion entitled “Decolonizing Poetics: Womanism and the Art of Decolonization.” As I sat there, I listened with my right headphone to a man explain how he pulled his brother out of their burning vehicle. He’d been driving, had a BAC off the chart. He said he didn’t know his brother was dead. And in my left ear: poetry’s essential role in the decolonization of bodies from centuries of white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative intrusion. It was hard for me to concentrate on the evils of patriarchal hegemony while listening to someone crying, saying I didn’t know. How could I know? And the detective saying, I understand. Take your time. I was typing furiously on my laptop in order to keep up. People thought I was taking lots of notes on the decolonization of la mujer.

The room was packed, which was good. My undergraduate creative writing students from Kalamazoo wouldn’t be able see me from the hall. I was in no shape to interact with them. Of course, I hadn’t slept. Around 3:00 AM, I’d watched The Mothman Prophecies in the motel room, probably not the best thing to do, given my state of mind. But it’s one of those movies you can sink into, like Blade Runner, Vertigo, or Chinatown—movies I always keep with me, maybe just to have them playing in the background while I’m doing something else. I’d shut the laptop in the middle of a deposition involving a juvenile accused of multiple homicide. Even though I’d only transcribed about one-fourth of the files and I was half a week behind, I just had to stop for a while. I smoked a pack of Camel Lights and watched John Klein have creepy phone conversations with Indrid Cold until the sun came up.

The supreme irrelevance of the panel discussions at AWP is a thing of legend. After 90 minutes of decolonization, I remember meeting Theo on the mezzanine, where we drank vending machine coffee and read the Conference program. “Play Ball: the Language of Sports,” “The Writer as Literary Outsider,” “Bollywood, Bullets, and Beyond,” “What’s Not Funny About Serious Disease?” “The Person Within Myself.” I thought they were hilarious and stupid, but Theo was upset. He took everything seriously and was trying to figure out why he’d flown to Colorado just to listen to low-rung literary celebrities talk about whether they wrote on a word processor or with a pen. I told him I’d heard there was going to be a meet-and-greet with some Big Six agents from New York. But Theo just looked at me. No one was going to be interested in his book-length memoir about teaching English in Guam.

Theo was skinny, had bushy brown hair, and wore ripped thrift store clothing, whether from choice or necessity I never knew. He also smoked but wasn’t concerned with quitting. I think he needed to smoke because, in his own very quiet, withdrawn way, he was just as stressed out as me, maybe more. He was about to hit the job market with no publications, no interviews, one composition class of which he’d been the teacher of record, and a six-year PhD in English that he’d financed mostly through private loans. I never asked why he’d done it like that or what he planned to do after we earned our degrees, but his protracted silences and occasional outbursts didn’t militate in favor of wine and roses. Instead, he sat across from me, slurping chemical coffee and shaking his head: “’Aroused, Parched, and Fevered: the Translation of Sexual Poetry?’ Goddammit. Why am I here?”

I didn’t have an answer. I was there for the interview. That was my reason and I felt it was a good one, maybe the only legitimate motivation one could have for going to AWP.

He stood up, said he was going to go wander around the area, maybe find a bar where he wouldn’t have to see perspiring writers handing each other business cards. I watched him walk down the convention center mezzanine as long as a football field. I didn’t know it at the time, but his brother had been involved with a conservative group demonstrating against the “Ground Zero Mosque” that was supposed to have been built near the site of the former World Trade Center. Theo was constantly talking about how crazy the Tea Party was, about how Obama couldn’t get anything accomplished because of GOP obstruction. At the time, I think we all felt that American politics couldn’t get any more embattled. And Theo seemed to suffer from the political upheavals that year the way we all do now, worrying that no one is capable of guiding us away from self-destruction, that our world is careening out of control.

I put my time in. My interview wasn’t until lunch the next day. So I drifted through random poetry readings and panel discussions, across the book fair area where small presses and magazines had tables covered with all the books they’d published that year. Lost Nose Quarterly. The Dingus. Barbaric Yawp. Boilerplate Cadenza Press. And then the big trade houses, tables manned by the best dressed interns in the world who’d drawn the short straw and had to sit there glowering at peons all day.

I knew a few people, grad students from my university, professors, employees of magazines that had published my stories over the years. I was happy to see a few of them. But I didn’t talk much. I simply exchanged nods or a quick word, keeping my distance. This is because AWP is a place of reckoning for most English studies people. You will inevitably notice your friends and colleagues there in the process of making horrible life-wrecking decisions. For example, if you’re going to walk around with your girlfriend where people will notice and tell your wife all about it, why not let it be at the world’s biggest book fair and writer’s conference?

I remember colliding with a professor I’d known for years, who normally dressed like Agatha Christie, but that day was done up in black leather and heels. A wispy undergrad who’d been unsuccessfully attempting a mustache was holding onto her arm with both hands.

“It’s you.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s me.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I have an interview.”

She did a double take. Her companion looked from her to me the way one watches a flying squirrel jump from tree to tree. It’s alien and incomprehensible and a bit unnatural. But we’re all mammals, so one has to look.

“You do?”

“Yes.”

It seemed crazy to her that someone could be considering me for an actual job. I recall telling her where and seeing the look of relief on her face when she realized it was somewhere far away from anywhere she would be. Why? This happened a lot in my world and not just with me. It was as if people were living in pampered, self-congratulatory reality bubbles. And, when those bubbles collided, there was immense cognitive dissonance, distaste, even dread. I must have been a destructive force to her—someone presenting a very unflattering reflection. All that black leather. She’d bought it for a reason and I was ruining her cosplay experience with young Werther.

She mumbled out something like good luck and moved into the crowd, pulling Werther along with her. I watched her go, feeling grateful that Theo hadn’t been there to analyze, for an hour, why she and the kid and the conversation we just had was so fucked up. But that year everything was fucked up, painful, riddled with lies and disappointments.

At the same time, I was learning that the way to make a true confession is to believe there is a truth and you know it. There’s what happened. There’s what you think might have happened. And there’s what you confess. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only person left alive, the only one who saw, the only one who’s supposed to know. You’re being asked to tell a story. So you do.

Jim’s interview is long, full of silences, false starts, retractions. The detective has gone from uninterested to barely awake, murmuring his questions from behind the camera.

“I’m coming out of the Elbow Room,” Jim says. “It’s late. They kicked us all out at bar time. And that’s when I see Sean. He’s got a board.”

“A board?”

“Yeah, like a board with some nails pounded in it. And I say, ‘When you gonna give me back my Steel Wheels?’ And he goes, ‘Fuck you, Jim,’ and tries to swing on me. And I had a pencil in my pocket.”

I write it all down, word for word, but I don’t contextualize: maybe you’re not stupid, but you’re drunk. Or you’re not drunk, but you’re scared. Or you’re scared, but you’ve been in this steel chair before, which makes you really scared. Or you haven’t, which makes you terrified. And the detective says, I understand. Take your time.

Back at the motel, I made progress with the work, but it took a toll on my body as well as my mind. I subsisted on beef jerky, fruit cups, and tap water while I typed until my fingers ached. Like any good student, I had a due date. I had to get it done. I moved between the particleboard desk and the moldy bed, changing positions whenever my back started to hurt too much.

“You sure about that, Jim?”

“About what?”

“Him swinging the board at you.”

“I think he did. It looked like he was.”

And there you have it: the moment of truth, wherein Jim enters what could reasonably be called his own personal Air-Conditioned Stupid Place or The Shitcloud of Unknowing or, my personal favorite, The Solid Gold Stinking End of All Life—that empty space between the known, the unknown, and what gets said about it, where admissions of guilt are born and go to die. And you go with them. Maybe the only thing the court will know for sure by the end of its time with Jim is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to make a true confession.

Three people I didn’t know in a very warm room at the Hyatt Regency. I was sitting in the stiff-backed desk chair. They were sitting on the bed.

Left, Betsy: Victorian lit., floral-print dress under beige grandpa sweater, belly bulge, black leggings, bags under eyes, gray-streaked brown hair still damp from midday shower, unmistakable hangover wretchedness on her like some kind of odorless colorless gas. She scowled at me over her tumbler of coffee.

Middle, Jack: British Modernism, cadaverously thin, didn’t know what to do with his hands baby-blue polyester suit like a sagging dirigible, black tie with salmon swimming up toward the knot, rimless glasses—the expensive kind that darken when you go outside—now half-dark.

Right: Abeline: creative writing: Levis and a man’s white button down, hair combed behind her ears, tight practiced smile, multiple silver rings on each finger.

How long, I wondered, had this hiring committee been looking?

Abeline dropped her hands on her knees. Her silver rings clinked. “You know, it’s a funny story. We saw this guy in the elevator—where was he from?”

Silence.

Then Jack, to the carpet: “He—”

“Ole Miss.” Betsy frowned into her coffee, then snapped her gaze up as if I were about to argue.

“Yes. Ole Miss.” Abeline’s smile never moved. She leaned forward to refocus my attention. “He was wearing a wig and a fake mustache. Can you believe that?”

I opened my mouth, but she wasn’t asking me.

“Ha,” said Jack.

“Typical,” said Betsy.

They looked at me. I said: “That’s strange.”

“Not so strange. Actually, no.” Abeline tilted her head to the side in the way of a raptor about to steal an egg from a nest. I realized her smile was small so it could stay fixed without hurting the muscles in her face.

“Not so strange for AWP.” Jack shot a glance at Betsy, who glared at him.

“He was looking for a different job,” Abeline said. “Going behind someone’s back.”

I attempted a smile. “Are you enjoying the conference?”

Jack cleared his throat. “So we like your CV. It’s a good CV.”

Abeline nodded. “It’s a very good CV. You have a lot of teaching experience. I suppose that should count for something, right?”

I nodded. I was having trouble processing, following the implications. Something? Should count? Did that mean the default was that it counted for nothing? And if you stripped away my teaching experience; if you discounted my letters of rec.—which hadn’t and, I knew, wouldn’t be mentioned because they hadn’t been read; and if the entire committee was made up of two lit. professors, who probably didn’t read much outside their specialty areas, and a creative writer, who seemed more a product of natural selection than a sympathetic colleague; my hybrid fiction-theory dissertation wasn’t going to matter. I had nothing. I was screwed.

Betsy peered at me, a knowing grin spreading across her face. “What makes you want to work in our department?”

“Ha,” said Jack.

Abeline nodded, looked me over.

I’d prepared a speech. I’d practiced. Because I was scared. Because there was a woman who wrote on the internet about what not to do in an academic job interview and I’d believed her. Because I had one interview and this was it. I launched into a disquisition on their department, on who was publishing what and how I thought my work would make a good fit, on my student-centered decentralized teaching style, on my commitment to diversity. And, though all of it was true, I saw the expressions on their faces change like time-lapse of a decaying corpse. I saw each of my memorized bullet points float away into the abyss between me and the three professors sitting on the bed. But the woman on the internet had said, focus on what you can do for them, not on what you want them to do for you. So I focused. I focused like a motherfucker.

4:00 AM. Beyond exhaustion in the dead gray motel room, I was almost done with the transcriptions. Dry mouth, stinking of instant coffee, I didn’t even have the energy to feel my usual anxiety. I watched a tiny spider on the window sill laboriously rope the legs of a fly three times its size. It seemed to take a long time, the fly getting tired, then struggling in frenetic terrified bursts, the spider crawling all around its body, staying on top of it, relentless. It seemed like a big meal for such a little spider.

On my laptop, Albert Leek was explaining to John Klein that telling the world about phone messages from spirits accomplishes nothing. It was the scene where they’re standing in Leek’s “college professor’s house,” straight out of central casting, with the usual stacks of books, dust, sad photographs, and regret—Leek in a crew cut like some retired police captain who’s seen too much, a little heavy, a little tired, and Richard Gere in his Washington Post reporter’s overcoat. He’s supposed to be John Keel, aka John Klein, but he’s really just the same old Richard Gere, gently bewildered, just crazy enough around the eyes for us to believe he’d go looking for an author on psychism to explain Indrid Cold—the voice on the phone, the invisible presence in every scene, the psychopomp of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

It’s a good scene, maybe the best scene in the movie. Leek is a tormented man, not just by ghost voices but by everything he’s lost in his attempts to tell the world about his discoveries—

“John, I had tapes of their voices! But so what? Nobody cared. I knew a building was going to blow up. I tried to prevent it, but no one listened . . .”

“What happened?”

“People died.”

—tormented the way we feel John Klein will be if he continues trying to reveal the truth.

Five hours later, after a shower, a fast food breakfast, and taking the wrong freeway exit on my way to the convention center, I found myself in “Tips, Trips, and Techniques for Publishing Insiders,” where I watched Charlie Sheen’s estranged twin go over each step in the publishing process as if he’d personally invented it. But I was still thinking about Albert Leek and Indrid Cold and that spider, as merciless as any force of nature, crawling around its prey.

The high point in the talk was when the blasé panel of Big Six agents and junior editors slid into Q&A and began to explain how tired they all were, how overwhelmed, and what this meant for the the future of publishing. Charlie’s twin, replete with slicked back hair and facetious grin, was saying something about having five novel manuscripts to read on his flight back to New York the next day.

Then a hand went up.

“Yeah?”

“But what are you reading for dinner tonight?”

She must have been 24 or 25. No one in the room seemed to know how to react to her question.

Even Charlie hesitated. “I think I’m free.”

Nice. There was an exhalation. Somebody clapped. People laughed. Love conquers all. An elderly woman with long silver hair, her face flushed purple, stood up, said, “Shit,” to no one in particular, and stalked out of the room. She couldn’t accept the inherent beauty of a community of writers coming together to engage in mutually beneficial intercourse.

I thought: somewhere Indrid Cold is watching all this. Toward the end of the scene, we realize John Klein can’t accept that the older man is just telling him to give up.

“I was investigated, almost arrested. My wife divorced me. My kids stopped speaking to me. Do you know what four years in a psychiatric hospital can do to you? Being right is worse than being wrong. If you’re wrong, you’re just a fool. If you’re right, you’re a suspect.”

I knew the lines by heart. Was it better to be a fool or a suspect? What do people want to hear? And why should anyone care? Bring your manuscript to dinner. Wear something sexy.

Somebody raised a hand and asked whether literary fiction, given Harry Potter, was finally dead. One of the editors started to describe how he’d first met J.K. Rowling and what a wonderful person she was. The woman who’d invited Charlie to dinner sat there with arms crossed, not looking at anyone, a smug expression on her face. That’s when I left, too.

If you’re smart, you don’t confess it the way you think it happened. You’re smarter than Jim. You’ll say, The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had born as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You’ll say, I swear I was in my right mind at the time, just as I am now, and I recall everything perfectly. I chose to do it. I planned to do it. Moreover, I’d do it again. As I transcribed those words, I’d know that you were lying. But the detective will merely sigh and say, go on.

To tell a true confession is to confess it like it’s true. It’s not about what happened, what Indrid Cold whispered to you over the phone at midnight. It’s about how you narrate what happened. It’s about your delivery. It’s about suspension of disbelief. If you want to tell it right, you have to set the scene. You lay down some back story. You make it plausible—even if you are lying and are trying to confess a crime you didn’t actually do.

“You always walk around with sharpened pencils in your pockets, Jim?”

“I just had one, alright?”

“How sharp was it?”

“Pretty fuckin’ sharp.”

“Give me the sharpness on a scale of one to ten.”

“Are you kidding me? It was a pencil. All I know is it was sharp.”

Later, after “Horror and Sci-Fi Taken Seriously” and “Ecological Cowboy Prose of the New American West,” I decided drive back to Michigan the next day. Theo found me on the phone in the lounge of the Hyatt, letting the car rental company know. When I hung up, I could see that he was functionally yet unquestionably drunk.

I told him about the interview, how all they’d really wanted to know was whether I’d take a one-year teaching appointment instead of the tenure-track position they’d advertised. Theo shook his head the way you do when you hear your teenage cousin got arrested again. He’d been drinking gin steadily since the night before, his own bottle, up in his room.

I asked him what he’d gone to at the conference and he said, “Do you . . . think I could make it in sales?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Good. Because this English crap won’t hunt.”

I agreed. The English crap wouldn’t hunt. It wouldn’t bark or roll over or bring you your goddamn slippers unless you took it out to dinner. I told him I was driving back in the morning. But he was concentrating hard on standing up.

“Sales,” he said.

I nodded. “Sales.” And I raised my fist.

I finished the last transcript sometime after midnight, then finally got a little sleep. I left my plastic key in the motel’s after-hours drop box and got on the road before dawn, feeling like this was probably going to be the last AWP Conference I’d be attending.

I’d wasted a lot of money and time to bear witness to the fall of the academic-trade segment of the publishing industry with all its slaves, clowns, and dancing bears. I didn’t have a job offer or a book deal. Then again, I wasn’t the one getting plugged by a poor-man’s Charlie Sheen in exchange for him reading my novel manuscript. The road, at that point, felt like a relief.

I suppose Confucius said that you should dig two graves because vengeance is the path of destruction and that which you offer to others, you offer to yourself. The wisdom of this is beyond reproach. I’ve thought about it carefully. However, it does not account for how you will get your victim and yourself into the graves once you’ve committed the act—to say nothing of who will replace the dirt on top of you.

This means you will either need accomplices or the second grave isn’t for you. The entire interpretation changes. And the true nature of Confucius emerges as a lethal, cold-blooded killer. Don’t just take out your enemy. Take out his friend or a family member likely to avenge him. Do it in twos. You’ll be glad you dug the graves ahead of time. Then at least you’ll have a good story to confess.

So It’s the end of October now and I think I’m going to vote for Hillary, even though I have my reservations. I’ve seen too many lousy politicians come and go to consider the alternatives. But the harder thing will be what to say to Theo. I’ve changed a lot in these last six years. I’m not sure how I could possibly explain, in an email, the twists and turns my life has taken since I left Denver in that rented van. If Albert Leek is right, confessions make you into either a fool or a suspect. And I suppose what I’ve written here will do both. But it’s something. And it’s all true, as well as I recall it. Would you believe it? And believing, would you hear me out if my name were Indrid Cold?


The Voice in the Fire

As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow

"Philosopher with an Open Book" by Salomon Coninck (c. 1645)

Philosopher with an Open Book by Salomon Coninck (1645)

students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.

If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.

A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.

With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, 9th gatea conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.

As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.

Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.

It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.

Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.

But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.

I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.

The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.

A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.

Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.

Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.

Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.

Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:

The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.

A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.

Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.

We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.

This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.

Listen. And seek the mysteries.


Surviving Graduate School in the Humanities: Should You Go and What if You Do?

 

“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.” – W. Somerset Maugham

Yesterday, I got an email from a former student asking for advice on whether he should apply to a PhD program in English. This is not the first time someone has asked me this, though I have mostly stopped answering because (1) people must learn for themselves and no one thinks his or her experience will be typical; (2) graduate programs generally present an unconscionably glossy face to prospective students; (3) in order to persevere in an academic career, it is necessary to develop a personal philosophy that allows you to put the work first; and (4) my own experience in academia has been highly atypical.

Still, I consider May 1 to be my 6th anniversary as a PhD in English. This remains, in spite of all my criticisms, one of the greatest (and surprisingly joyful) achievements of my life. So every year around this time, I take a day to reflect on the good as well as the bad—how far I’ve come and what I’ve had to overcome as a result of my long years in graduate school.

As part of that, I write this blog post from a place of deep sincerity, responding to the question: should I apply to PhD programs in English?

Graduate school, especially in the arts and humanities, is an existential riddle very few people solve to any degree of satisfaction. Its dimensions are so far-reaching and complex that many years can go by before those who have lived through it get any kind of clarity about what they experienced.

I might have understood a bit more, a little bit sooner, about my situation than most graduate students. As someone who spent a significant amount of time acquiring various academic degrees and certifications, I have always been studying something. I grew up in an academic household, have been incredibly lucky with finding good teaching positions, and have learned to handle “administrative prevarication” in ways that have allowed me to survive. Not everyone has this experience. In fact, my story is an exception to a very unpleasant rule.

Deep-seated career frustration, depression, and even suicide seem to be on the rise for graduate students. This would appear true even if we assumed that 50 years of back-page articles on dysfunctional academia and the perpetual ranting in the higher-ed blogosphere was inherently anecdotal. By 2016, however, we no longer have to wonder. Over the last seven or eight years, we have been getting a clearer sense of how broken graduate education is in the west. William Pannapacker (aka “Thomas H. Benton”) writes in “Just Don’t Go, Part 2” (2009) that graduate schools

play obfuscatory games with their placement records and rarely give students a realistic sense of what it is like being in graduate school — how it’s not all about the “life of the mind” as two years gradually turns into a decade of contracting horizons and growing desperation.

Of course, the lack of accurate information available to students about graduate school is not accidental; it’s an essential component of the academic labor system. Even assistant professors, who should know what’s going on, encourage their students to go to graduate school because it is professionally risky to do otherwise. One might be seen as “doing a grave disservice to the profession,” as one writer said to me in a tone of bureaucratic menace.

But of the many letters I received last month, the majority included some version of “Why did no one tell me?” and “What am I going to do now?”

More than a few confessed the depression they experienced in graduate school. Several mentioned thoughts of killing themselves, and — after a decade of reading letters by the thousands on similar themes — I was not surprised at all. It’s more than accumulated anecdotes. As Piper Fogg recently presented it in The Chronicle (February 20): “67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.”

These are actual numbers. And the reason Pannapacker remains one of my personal heroes is that his was one of the earliest and most honest voices to talk about the obfuscation that I and my fellow graduate students experienced firsthand. What once sounded like a conspiracy theory, fancifully attempting to explain why an English department could be staffed with 8 tenured faculty members and 38 adjuncts, now looks like reality.

There has (at least since the late 1960s) been a dearth of reliable data for most academic fields correlating graduate student health, subsequent career performance, and program funding. I suspect this is because acquiring such information was as difficult as asking someone to incriminate themselves in court. There is a reason the Fifth Amendment exists. The academic analogue might be labeled, “The Conspiracy of Silence in the Interests of Self-Preservation.”

It’s not hard to understand that, particularly in academic culture, speaking up at any point may ruin one’s already slim job prospects. Moreover, it is unwise to use language like exploitation, depression, long-term poverty, unnavigable bureaucracy, Machiavellian feuding, and misrepresentation when talking about what you experienced for close to a decade as you tried to get a PhD. People will tell you to keep your mouth shut and that’s largely good advice, at least from the standpoint of the strategic job search. Unfortunately, it’s not so great from the standpoint of mental health.

Maybe your experience was like mine: after two masters degrees, I completed a PhD in just over 3 years. And though I suffered some serious personal tragedies toward the end of my program, I was able to complete my work with a minimum of trouble. Compare that to Zoe Stavri who writes in her blog, Another angry woman, that her PhD program was “so indistinguishable from depression, that I am left wondering whether in fact depression is a feature rather than a bug.” Or Audry Watters, now a freelance writer and tech journalist, who received no support or leeway when her husband died in the middle of her PhD in comparative lit. On her website, hackeducation.com, Watters explains why she quit:

I quit because I’d lost the stomach for being part of the institution of higher education — one that wasn’t sustaining me intellectually, financially or spiritually; one that wanted me to teach classes for very low wages — as a grad student and then likely as an adjunct faculty member. I quit because I was exhausted and couldn’t handle the obstacle course that grad school and the academic job market still required my running through. I quit because I needed to heal from the trauma of watching Anthony die. I quit because far from that so-called Ivory Tower being a place of solace and contemplation, it had become a nightmare of bureaucracy and politics.  (“The Real Reason I Dropped Out of a PhD Program”)

Historically, what could usually be found (aside from the highly suspect Bowen and Sosa Report in 1989) came from confessions made online by the disappointed and the overlooked—those who no longer had anything to lose, felt they had gotten a raw deal from the academy, and were unwilling to be complicit any longer. Sadly, more of these non-entities exist now than ever before. The upside—if such a word could even be used in this context—is that people like William Pannapacker are telling the truth—at least a version of the truth that teaches survival.

The saddest, most tragic part is that only those who are tough survive. For example, I have survived because I love teaching so much, I’d do it for free and I’m ruthless about avoiding that eventuality. Others, whether through intensive networking or existing connections, survive through a kind of perpetual low-stakes patronage that can be like nepotism or hustling or just an exotic form of luck. But everyone agrees that academia shouldn’t be about these things. And, with the exception of Penelope Trunk, everyone agrees that a graduate humanities degree should not require the prospective student to have a trust fund as a prerequisite. As Alex Pang wrote back in 2004:

No one has born the weight of the decade’s terrible academic job market more than young Ph.D.s. Caught between a culture that insists they cannot leave academia, a system that doesn’t have enough room to allow them to stay, and a sense that Ph.D.s are not suited to nonacademic jobs and nonacademic jobs are unsuitable to Ph.D.s, they have too often found themselves deprived of opportunities and alternatives.

In a highly cited Chronicle of Higher Education column, “Deprogramming from the Academic Cult,” Margaret Newhouse mentions a number of unhealthy attitudes typical in this kind of academic culture, ranging from extreme perfectionism to overwhelming peer pressure to unrealistic career expectations. It’s useful to read her piece alongside a similar Chronicle post by Pannapacker in which the author summarizes Newhouse’s ideas relative to his own career:

Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realize that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified Ph.D.’s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy. Even after several years, many former graduate students grapple with feelings of shame and failure that, to outsiders, seem completely irrational.

For all its claims to the contrary, graduate education does not seem to enhance the mental freedom of many students, some of whom are psychologically damaged by the experience. As Newhouse suggested—perhaps more rhetorically than seriously—graduate school these days seems to have a lot in common with mind-control cults.

Science writer, Gwen Pearson, also thinks of academia as a cult and writes that the “Alternative Careers in Science” workshop she is regularly asked to give at her university is called “alternative” because “They don’t mean becoming a music composer or a patent examiner; they mean getting a job that isn’t a professor in academia. Because, to them, anything else IS alternative, and, ergo, inferior.”

For many grad students, it seems that there is eventually a “looking glass moment” in which they wonder if they truly are inferior life forms and realize that their sense of self has been inexorably altered as a result of living inside academia. Sometimes this is what you’d want: you have acquired a range of implicit and explicit methodologies for leading an intellectually curious life. But just as often, it can be shattering: you feel unfit to be or do anything other than function as a scholar in a university setting. Most people stop at that stage and grieve for the life they could have had if they hadn’t gone into graduate study, for the deep sacrifices they were compelled to make by a broken system, and for the profound opportunity cost involved.

There is an immense amount of unfairness and dishonesty integral to higher education, at least right now in the west. And it goes without saying that reform is needed. But I think Zoe Stavri is correct when she notes that even though it’s obvious reform is necessary “none of this will happen, because the problems in our universities are the same as the problems outside of our universities”—which is to say that the entire concept of an “ivory tower” as a refuge from economic and political realities is nothing but a myth:

The thing about PhDs is they are a scam. On paper, they are studying a topic that you love, and becoming an expert in it, and generally contributing to human knowledge. In practice, what actually happens is the university gets a research assistant for three years, to work on a project that they want studied that is in some way related to a thing that interests you (but is actually whatever they could get funding for). The university doesn’t have to pay a penny for this research assistant: in fact, they get paid to have you there! I imagine it would be a whole lot easier if everyone just admitted that this is what is happening, but nobody does. And instead, the whole structure gaslights and emotionally blackmails PhD students. It shifts all of the problems we encounter as employees into personal failings: clearly we’re not interested enough in this topic that we supposedly chose, and if we cared enough, we’d want to do the work.

If you want to attend graduate school do not dismiss voices like these. Remember, these people—the ones passionately describing what were perhaps life-shattering experiences—are just like you. They love(d) something and want(ed) to be part of it. They are smart, driven, accomplished. And they were cast out of a system as soon as they ceased being functional parts of its hierarchy. By rights, they should be teaching someone like you at some college somewhere. But this is not how things worked out.

Consider further that Pannapacker’s hypothetical of what could happen to any (academically successful) PhD after graduation is a point-by-point accurate description of what befell at least two people with whom I went to grad school:

Everyone has told her that “there are always places for good people in academe.” She begins to obsess about the possibility of some kind of fatal personal shortcoming. She goes through multiple mock interviews, and takes business classes, learning to present herself for nonacademic positions. But again and again, she is passed over in favor of undergraduates who are no different from people she has taught for years. Maybe, she wonders, there’s something about me that makes me unfit for any kind of job.

This goes on for years: sleepless nights, anxiety, escalating and increasingly paralyzing self-doubt, and a host of stress-induced ailments. She has even removed the Ph.D. from her résumé, with some pain, but she lives in dread that interviewers will ask what she has been doing for the last 12 years. (All her old friends are well established by now, some with families, some with what seem to be high-powered careers. She lives in a tiny apartment and struggles to pay off her student loans.) What’s left now but entry-level clerical work with her immediate supervisor just three years out of high school?

I write this not to scare you but to open your eyes. Graduate school is wonderful. It is also hard. It can also damage you greatly. You have to be strong, steady, emotionally resilient, and willing to look at your years of study as valuable in themselves. No matter what people say, a PhD in an arts or humanities subject is not likely to be a strategic career move. You do it because you love it and you are too stubborn not to do it. Regrets are inevitable. However, if you love the work more than you love leading any particular lifestyle, you will be able to put the work first. This means before kids, before money, before love, and before the comfortable middle-class life someone else might be enjoying with your same degree.

Am I saying you have to be a poor monk in order to do this? Not necessarily; though, I’m not ruling it out. What I am saying is that the work must come before all other things. If you can have those other things, wonderful. But they are “in addition” not “along with” or “because of.” If you think it’s impossible to work outside a university setting, read Alex Pang’s excellent blog post about this exact possibility. But, above all else, do not assume that you will be paid or even regarded as anything but cheap labor after all your work and sacrifice.

Make the work your refuge. Develop alternate forms of income if necessary after graduating. And always take extraordinary steps to ensure physical health and mental stability. Contrary to popular opinion, academia is not for the weak. And those who “can’t do” certainly can’t survive in its highly competitive and unforgiving environment.

 

* NoteIf you are just graduating from university with a BA in an arts or humanities field and are wondering about what to do next, this is solid advice: http://chronicle.com/article/What-to-Advise-Unemployed/44491