Monday, February 27, 2012

Place and class

Several of the comments on my last post have been pursuing the connection between class and geographic mobility. And if we understand "class" as being about more than just income and education level, then yes: the perceived ability to move far away from where one grew up does correlate with class; it's about how many and what kinds of connections and opportunities one has.

If your college friends come from all over the country and then fan out to jobs and graduate programs all over the country once they leave, then you have a different sense of what's possible in your life (whether or not you personally choose to leave the city or state in which you grew up). Some of my students literally do not know anyone who lives more than a few hours away, and though our region does feel the gravitational pull of Boston and New York (their baseball and basketball teams are the ones locals here root for), the students who actually move to those cities after graduation--or indeed to any others, or who move out of this state--are almost exclusively those who already have family or friends there.

So in thinking about what it means to be rooted or rootless, I'm partly thinking about class. But one peculiarity of being an academic is that, unlike most people in "our class," we actually do up and move anywhere. The other people in our class? Not so much. They move to the coasts, basically, and in lesser numbers to places like Atlanta and Chicago, Austin and Houston, Minneapolis and Denver, and the bigger, wealthier college towns. I guess I had always known this, and it's certainly true of my college friends--but I still think of my class as figuring out their lives and as not having settled down yet. But at Cosimo's (ahem) 20th college reunion last summer, I realized that no one apart from the academics and a few quirky entrepreneurs lived anywhere but those places. I met person after person, waiting in line for the ladies room or making small talk at the bar, and they all lived in Fairfax or Fairfield County, or in Newton, MA, or in metro L.A. or S.F. And though they were all friendly and interested in who I was and what I did, they all seemed puzzled by where I lived. Like I said: it's not a place that people move to.

So my point, if I have one, is that even the class that seems to have infinite geographic mobility, doesn't. There are real restrictions on where, say, a high-powered corporate lawyer can have a career, and hence where he can live, but there are also cultural and class restrictions that operate to keep us where "our kind of people" live. If we're not living near our actual families (and of course I do know people who have moved back to their childhood homes), we're living near our families of affiliation: people with similar educations, professions, and interests. I'm not interested in criticizing that choice; indeed, if one can't or doesn't wish to go home again, it makes sense to choose one's new home based on the relationships one has or expects to build with the people there.

But those roots are relatively shallow, even for those who live in major metropolitan areas. And as Shane noted in his comment, those of us who live in more unlikely places often wind up doing a version of the same thing, which is to say, socializing primarily with other transplants. I have a few friends who are locals--former grad students, people I've met through arts organizations, or people I know from my church. But the people I'm closest friends with are others who moved here for jobs (mostly in academia or the medical sciences); some have put down roots here and some haven't, but none are likely to retire here. Sometimes I feel like a real local, or at least a civic booster and aspiring local; at other times I feel like I'm part of a community of expats.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Although I've loved each of the four cities and regions in which I've lived and every one felt (and still does feel) like home, it's only recently that I've started thinking about what it means to be rooted in a particular location in the way that most people seem to be rooted. I've never had that kind of relationship to place and I'm not sure I ever will.

My parents weren't natives of the state in which I grew up, and neither were most of my friends' parents; indeed, on the rare occasions when I met someone whose grandparents lived across town or whose parents had attended a neighboring high school, I was astonished. Although the families I knew were all well-anchored in our community--our parents bought houses, joined churches, ran for office, and stayed put for 20 or 40 years--it just seemed to be the natural order of things that each generation moved elsewhere. Every summer of my childhood featured a rolling temporary diaspora as my friends and their families traveled to one state or another, or even overseas, to visit their grandparents and cousins.

And sure enough, I moved across the country for college--and moved again, to Manhattan, then back to grad school, then back to Manhattan, and finally to Cha-Cha City when I got this job. That's more or less what all my friends have done, though some have moved farther and some less far, some more times and some fewer. We've moved basically by choice: for school, for a job, for a partner, or just for a change of scene; our choices weren't infinite and were usually circumscribed in various ways, but moving somewhere new always meant doing something new, and usually something better. Haven't Americans always been a people on the move?

But as it turns out, Cha-Cha City isn't a place that people move to. In my first year or two here I was continually getting asked--by shop clerks, tradespeople, my students--why I'd moved here. When I told them cheerfully that it was for a job, they'd repeat the question. At first I thought this was about the local residents' modesty, or maybe low civic self-esteem: they didn't realize what a cool place this was! And so I talked up all the awesome things about the city, and why I loved it, and why I was happier here than I'd been elsewhere.

But then I realized that that wasn't it. It's that, for most people--not just here, but across the country--it's odd to move around a lot and even odder to decide to settle down in a random location to which one has no personal connections. Most people I meet find it strange that Cosimo and I grew up on opposite coasts, strange that we each at different points attended schools 3,000 miles away from our families, and even stranger that, now that our schooling is done, we live close neither to school nor friends nor family.

I'm tempted to call this a class difference, but it isn't, or at least not in the usual sense of that word: there are plenty of prosperous, educated, well-traveled people in this city and cities like it, people who may have lived elsewhere at various points in their lives, but who are here, now, mostly because they're from here. (And, of course, there are just as many people in my own "class" who have fled their childhood homes but now can't imagine leaving their adopted homes of New York, Boston, or D.C.; L.A., Chicago, or San Francisco; Austin, Portland, or Denver.)

It's that kind of rootedness that feels foreign to me. I'm ready to settle here. I could live here for twenty years. But at any point I could probably still leave on six month's notice--because I'm not from here and because being with my spouse and having a satisfying career is more of a priority than living in a specific place, even one that I love.

The thing is, I love lots of places. Lots of places could be home. But that means there isn't one, in particular, that is home.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Self-improvement without the "self"

Today is Ash Wednesday and I'm thinking about the provocative series of posts that Anastasia wrote last year about fasting.

Although I've never fasted on days other than Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, I'm considering adding in one fast day per week this Lent; Anastasia makes a compelling argument that fasting is a different discipline than just "giving up" something for six weeks, since the point of Lent isn't merely to sacrifice a few pleasures or to find a little more time to attend to the spiritual.

As she writes:
It's about finitude. It's about death. It's about the limits of a body that is dying. There's nothing that makes a person aware of her limits like fasting. And on top of that, fasting exposes the deficiencies of character that exist when one is stripped of ordinary comforts. It's about stark naked mortality. And unless you need the internet or chocolate to live. . . then you aren't getting it.

This is what I feel, too, when I fast (even in the very modest ways that I do fast): my deficiencies of character. Fasting makes me tired and cranky and low-energy, and that means it's more of an effort to be patient with and pleasant to the people I encounter. However, since fasting is something totally within my control, and since I'm very aware of why I have a shorter fuse, it's easier to be courteous than on days when I've accidentally skipped meals. Ideally this makes me more mindful, on other occasions, of what others deserve from me no matter what my mood, my preoccupations, or my state of health.

But there are problems with fasting, too. Anastasia talks about the misuses that fasting can be put to by those with eating disorders or who otherwise find pleasure in pain, but for most of us the temptation is simply toward satisfaction with our own virtue. We live in a culture that easily converts any form of self-discipline into a commodity, a challenge, or a sign of personal merit: take this 14-day juice fast and feel extra-specially virtuous! know your superiority to those who merely eat sensibly and go to the gym! you, my friend, are winning the self-improvement sweepstakes!

And that's what's hard about Lent, in the end: making it about one's limits while not making it about oneself.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Once, in the 1970s, I was young. And I stood beside enormous rocks, and I wore orange and blue (and strikingly short shorts), and life was good.

Now I'm older and less skilled with the color blocking--but life is still good. I've spent a fine holiday-birthday weekend in New York City and now I'm off to a boozy brunch with some friends.

I raise a glass in all y'all's general direction.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy cathexis day!

Like most teachers, I have a few students every semester who have some kind of obvious crush going on. It's usually women and it's usually low-key; to the extent that I can translate their smiley delightedness into words, it amounts to this: "Omigod! she's so funny! and smart! and NICE! I love her!" I had a lot of those crushes myself in college, and I understand that the students who cathect on us are really just working through their own stuff. They're looking for nerdy aspirational models, figuring out what kinds of relationships to the intellectual life are possible, and generally seeking ways of being in the world.

So yes, I have a couple of those again. They're sweet, they're good students, and they make me feel like I'm good at my job--even though I know that their crushes are only partly about me and less about how successfully I teach.

But I also have a student of the rarer and more troubling kind, the fragile and needy one who responds to any off-hand kindness with waves of love so strong I can feel the breeze in my face. This particular student is going through a rough time in her personal life. She emailed me about it and I replied with a short sympathetic sentence, adjusted a minor deadline, but firmly reasserted a bigger one. After the next class she stayed after to thank me, all love and big, trusting eyes. I took two minutes to say something briskly supportive, make sure she was getting help elsewhere, and then suggest that keeping on top of her work during this rough patch might actually provide her with some useful structure and something to take pride in. Then I went home.

Today she again stayed after class, to thank me for the last time and to tell me that talking with me had made her whole weekend better. And she said some other things, about how much it meant to have someone so understanding, about how her mom kinda got it and kinda didn't, and maybe a few other sentences I'm now forgetting. Mostly I remember the semi-hypnotic power of that utterly open, vulnerable face.

This kind of student freaks me out. I'm torn between feeling genuinely glad that my passing kindness helped (and making a mental note to strive for patience and generosity with all future students, because You Never Know)--and feeling radically uncomfortable, almost repelled by the naked neediness. This student does not appear to be in crisis (it's not this kind of personal drama), so my concern is less about the specifics of her current troubles than about how easily such a person gets hurt, and how unwise it is for her to invest that much emotional energy in me, or in anyone.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Selling ourselves

The job market is overwhelmingly about selling oneself, as the yearly dust-ups over such issues as appropriate job-candidate dress and comportment reveal. (And for the record, I think the advice to "just be yourself! if they don't like the real you you're better off not working there!" is only slightly more stupid than the insistence that, if you don't wear a tie/heels and an anonymous, conservative suit, then you'll never in a million years get a job anywhere ever.) But this year, as my department is in the midst of its blitz of candidate visits, I've been thinking harder about what it means for an institution to try to sell itself to a candidate.

My first few years on the job, I was excited when we had job candidates to campus and I made an effort to meet all of them, but I was mostly interested in checking them out. I wanted a good colleague, teacher, and scholar (and possibly a friend), and though I understood myself to be performing a service for or fulfilling an obligation to my department, I didn't really think of myself as representing the department in any meaningful way: we needed bodies in the room at the candidate's talk and at dinner, and it was good for some of those bodies to belong to friendly junior faculty, but no one needed for me, specifically, to be there. I went mostly because it was fun to meet the candidates, to have a vote, and to get a fancy meal on the department's dime.

Now I'm older and busier and everything feels like work. I don't particularly want the fancy meal; I'd rather be at home in my pyjamas. I don't really need to meet the candidates; we have a talented roster, I trust my colleagues, and anyone we hire I'll wind up meeting soon enough. But I'm also on the verge of tenure, I expect to be here for a while, and somewhere along the line I decided that what I did, personally, kinda did matter. Though I still identify strongly with the job candidate, I get that she won't particularly identify with me: she'll see me as her senior (usually), and as a reflection of my department's character and personality (definitely).

So I'm rousing myself at 7.30 a.m. and driving to campus every day we have a candidate visiting, making time for each one's job talk and teaching demo and either lunch or dinner. I'm donning a suit (to communicate respect for the candidate and the general professionalism of the department), I'm asking encouraging questions, and I'm doing my damnedest, through my interactions with my colleagues, to show as well as tell our candidates that we're a happy and collegial place where friendships extend outside of the office. I want our candidates to see how intellectually engaged we are, and how interested in other people's work. I want for our students to perform well, and for Cha-Cha City to sound and look appealing, and for the campus, ideally, not to be covered in a sheet of ice.

And in fact I'm not sure why having the department come off well matters so very much to me. The job market is terrible, our list is deep, and though we don't always get our our first-choice candidate we've never had a search fail and have always wound up with someone wonderful.

But I guess I wish to extend the sort of kindness to our candidates that the department extended to me on my visit--and, more selfishly, I wish for the people whom we don't hire or who don't accept our offers (and perhaps, by extension, their colleagues and friends and advisors) to have a warm impression of our department. There's nothing bad about good press.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Feeling the rhythm

Every semester, in my Shakespeare class, I begin with two weeks on metrics. Partly this is a way of doing something productive on the first day of class, but it's also a way of establishing, early on, that our course is going to involve attention to sound and language, not just plot and character. I think that I teach it well and most of my students respond gamely, but there are always a handful whose response is hostile puzzlement. They seem equally displeased by the restrictions of metrics and by the fact that there isn't always a single right answer: they sigh, loudly, when we're scanning a poem in class and I acknowledge that a particular foot could be either a spondee or an iamb--or just possibly a trochee, depending on how the neighboring foot is accented.

I sympathize, of course, and I tell them that my ambition isn't for them to become expert scanners, but just to understand that meter can affect meaning and to be familiar with some basic terms. But I also tell them that if they do it enough, or simply read Shakespeare aloud enough, they'll come to feel the rhythm instinctively, even recognizing when a word must have been pronounced differently in Shakespeare's day because the logic of the meter demands it. Iambic pentameter isn't something Shakespeare imposed on his plays; in a culture of sonnet-writing and theatre-going, it was just the back-beat of daily life.

Still, it takes a while to fully inhabit any rhythm. This semester RU has shortened all its class periods in order to add another period to the day and to free up more classroom space: we've gone from 60 minutes to 50, from 90 to 75, and from 195 to 165. Such changes are tough. I went from 75 minutes at INRU to 80 minutes at Big Urban, and then the next year to to 90 minutes at RU, and both those changes were disorienting. Even five extra minutes threw my rhythm off, and ten felt impossible; I was always running out of things to do, or dragging on a discussion past its natural life in order to fill time.

Over the years, though, I've come to love the 90-minute period, especially in my Shakespeare classes: we can do real and detailed scene work, have a free-wheeling general discussion or two, and even fit in a quiz or talk about administrative matters. I was totally in control of those 90 minutes, and losing fifteen of them feels like a disaster. It's not about content, it's about rhythm. I don't feel a 75-minute period in my gut the way I do a 90-minute period, and so I'm slow to cut off one discussion to move along to the next.

I'm off my game and I hate it. These new periods feel clunky and awkward and totally unnatural. But I suppose that I'll grow into them eventually--and that my brain and body will come to respond as they do to da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum.