We've made a big family decision to move across the country. It is both terrifying and exciting, with new opportunities and regret that those opportunities aren't here where we are. I thought for most of the past week about the idea that we're leaving something stable and secure and constant. And that is true. Where we live now is comfortable. Traffic is light. Things are generally not crowded. It does not feel like the rat race is ever present in our lives. And of course that's the downside too, which we've known all along. Maybe it's just a bit too easy, not challenging enough. There aren't enough opportunities. It's a bit of a backwater, “a nice place to live” nonetheless.
I've had in my head this notion that our time here has been stable and comfortable. But that's really not true. I've gone through a career change and a half, major health crises— the stuff of life. What has been easy and comfortable about it has been that it's relatively affordable. Things are relatively close. It feels understandable. There can be emptiness and solitude when needed, or people to engage with when called for. And I fear going back to crowded, because I remember a time when that caused me pain. I have largely lived through and worked through those issues. Or, maybe the voice says, have you really? Or did you just live somewhere for a while where it wasn't an issue?
We never thought we'd stay here more than five years. Ten would have been absurd. Fifteen or more? Completely unthinkable. This was never our forever home. And we still feel like outsiders, or rather, that we're never going to be truly at home here. There's some bit of distance, where we're interlopers on other people's land. I don't know why that is. It could jut be the regionalism of the country, and the way that neither of us grew up in this region. neither of us has roots or connections within a thousand miles. It's the place we've lived the longest and it is familiar and comfortable and easy now, but it's not really home as a place. And we wonder, why does it feel that way?
And then the thought of leaving brings terror. Will we look back and think that we didn't appreciate how good we had it. I'd like to think that we would take the best of the place and let it continue in our lives.
Life goes on. I worry that the body's aches and pains are, as in every hypochondriac's nightmares, not merely minor conditions of age but precursors of a turn for the worse. Now is no time to be running across the country. The unknown teases with its possibilities and terrors.
I feel like I've spent too much time thinking through the future. Wasted too much of my waking hours considering what others will think, what tomorrow will bring.
What is it about overcast days? Some mornings lie more heavily than others.
Everything in this Chronicle piece by William Pannapacker rings true, so true in fact that were it not for the fact that I know that he and I are not the same person I might wonder whether there has been an unparalleled rupture in the quantum reality of the universe.
Professors are, indeed, trapped, by cuffs both gilded and cutting. That's why I left and why I would advise any young Ph.D. or professor in a humanities field to retrain, get the hell out, and put their considerable energy, skill, and humanistic sensibility to work, without regret, in the world at large.
I have been exceptionally busy, but in raising my head above water I could not miss the announcement of the founding of a new college, the University of Austin, an attempt by a coterie of public figures self-described as being all over the political spectrum to fix the ills of modern higher education by decamping to new digs. I certainly share the overall sentiment that in many respects higher ed is broken and I fully support, in principle, the notion of trying something new, whether that's online alternatives, reinvesting and rethinking existing programs and institutions, or building from the ground up. I am mildly amused by the tone of aggrievement in the founders' expressed endorsement of anti-aggrievement; conversely, in Ferguson's piece I find the notion that higher ed is “liberal” somewhat lazy and misleading (more below).
In the end I suspect none of this business will work, but not for the reasons the founders might anticipate.
At the intersection of typewriters, technology, and humanism: Richard Polt, typecasting about Leon Botstein's comments here, highlights Botstein's great point about the importance of real time in-person interaction, as made so clear in the pandemic. But RP cuts out the best bit of Botstein's quote:
I’ll put this in a provocative way. Learning and teaching are probably, if you’ll excuse the comparison, similar to sex in their relationship to technology. Technology can improve things at the margins, but the basic transaction remains the same.
I've lived across the U.S., in big cities and tech centers; but recent years I've been off the beaten path, smaller towns, where the pace is a bit less rushed. When my wife and I get together with one branch of our family from the Northeast, a not particularly low-strung (if that's a word) set of folks, we seem downright chill, though anyone who knows us knows we are most certainly by no means chill, relaxed, or unanxious on the general human scale of such things. By comparison though, we've mellowed since we left that part of the world. There's something about living without so much of the hustle and bustle. I think I may be permanently altered from the anxious young man I once was, growing up in that more frenetic elsewhere.
I spent the better part of yesterday and today staring at greenery. Foliage, trees, just the stuff in the back yard. It's been a long time since I've just sat there with nothing much to do. It was delightful and refreshing, in large part because taking two days off from thinking about work of any sort was a luxury relative to the past 4 months.
Write.as is probably as good a place — maybe a best place — to mull over the question of how hard it is to find a relaxing place online. Too quickly relaxing turns to addicting, waiting for new messages and endless doom scrolling.
In looking through some of my started but not ever finished and posted stubs of written work this past year, I came across this bit from Scott Nesbitt and some related pieces that had jolted together in my mind months ago as something important. As I take a bit of a breather from a period of excessive work, with 7 day workweeks and too many 16 hour workdays, I suppose these resonate even more.
Don't jump on to the assembly line of productivity just for the sake of productivity. Don't believe that everything you do needs to be practical or useful or serious. Don't feel the need to get more done.
It seems that every academic or ex-academic I ever talk to or work with or still keep in touch with has the same scar. It's a I'm-never-good-enough kind of thing, or a no-one-respects-me sort of chip on the shoulder, or the lingering seduction of passive aggressive reactions. I suppose many fields have their distinctive scars, similar but different. Some people get over them or cope or maybe hide them more than others.
As a (now former) professional academic and (still now) amateurish writer of everything from code to web copy to short story and translation, I have spent far too much time trying out various text editors, writing tools, note taking apps, and systems. I suspect it is a fault of personality (no, scratch that, it is surely a fault of personality) that I can't let something be. I gain some comfort from rearranging the furniture in my office, from periodically refreshing some of the tools I use, and from seeing if some other set of writing workflow wears a bit more comfortably under the fingers. I suppose I'm always slightly uncomfortable in my own skin. I can't change that wholly. But I can try on some new clothes.
It came as something of a surprise when someone I knew called me a perfectionist. I had never connected that label with me; it just seemed normal to be hard on myself, particularly academically and particularly professionally. But it was a flash of truth, not so much to get caught up in the labels, but to recognize that I had, for as long as I could remember, been unrelenting with myself. It is the kind of perfectionism that is easy for others to miss, or for teachers to reward, because it masquerades as high achievement or over-achievement in the academic context. It isn't something I expect of others, and so it is directed inward, quietly consuming from the inside out.