What Can I Do?

Yesterday was a dark day. It’s been a bad week for news. Social media was full of horrors from Ferguson and stories about depression. (Never mind Gaza, Ukraine, and Iraq.) I continue to fight a terrible head cold and have been worn down physically. It was also one of the days that I waited for a phone call about a job that never came. Some big things, some small things, all pulling in one direction: down.

I’m not going to lie. I felt the way Erica Moen describes in the middle part of this comic. Or like George Bailey on the bridge wishing he’d never been born. It’s not the darkest place I’ve gone to (and I’m better today), but I kept coming back to one question:

What can I do?

What can I do to make a world where my black friends and neighbors do not have to worry about their sons getting shot by the men and women who are supposed to be protecting the community?

What can I do to make a world where our response to a crisis isn’t “how can this be happening in America?” but “how can this be happening to human beings?”

What can I do beside shake my fist at the sky as I sink into the morass?

I clung to this question, because it was the only way I could see out of the dark place I’d gotten to.

Look, I’m just a guy. I’m a privileged guy, too, even when I’m hurting. The last time I worried about the cops was when they were taking my picture during post-9/11 protests. I have an intact, supportive family and a lot more education than most people. I live in a house that is only partly owned by the bank. That didn’t stop me from tearing up when I saw the photo of the Ferguson protest at Howard University, or read Rembert Browne’s Grantland piece this morning.  Humans should not be doing these things to each other.

This is what I’ve got: my words and my vocation. Words dragged me briefly to the forefront of those protests 13 years ago. I can write. I can speak out. I can struggle to make the feelings I’m wrestling with intelligible, along with the situations that provoke them. Words matter. Words make people think and make people feel. I will do what I can to write meaningfully, whether that’s stories that help people step out of the dreary for a few hours or essays that make people think or terrible over-referential humor that makes people shake their heads.

The other one is more important. I get to be a teacher. I see sixth graders already leery of anybody in a uniform. I listen to high schoolers talk earnestly about which county has worse police. I see students buying into what society has told them about themselves. I see students fighting that. And I get to be a part of what they learn. I can make a difference. I can help them find their voices. I can listen. If I do that job well, if I listen and teach and believe in the students…I can help them hope.

Hope. We usually oppose it to despair, but it’s a hell of a good opposite for depression, too. When those veils come down, nothing good matters. You can know you’re loved. You can know people would hurt if you’re gone. You can even know, in some puny intellectual way, that things are likely to get better eventually. On the darkest days, though, you can’t believe it. Tomorrow doesn’t matter because today stretches forever, and today is awful.

That is why I clung to “what can I do?” If there’s any answer —no matter how small—to that question beyond “end it all,” then there is hope. There is hope. Hope alone won’t do the work, won’t make the changes. Hope won’t armor you against the evils of the world. But if you have hope, you can get out of bed. You can do.  Hope keeps the door to the future open. Even if it’s just open a crack, that crack breaks the darkness with a little light.

What can you do? Keep the door open. Keep hoping and asking yourself what you can do. Then go out and do it.

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Reading for a Different Kind of Job

I finally have a library card again. Among the things I learned in this last move: I have too many books. Even just my fantasy fiction collection (diminished somewhat from the boxes I left at my parents’) fills up a whole wide shelving unit. I don’t regret having those books; the ones I’ve kept are the ones that have some combination of quality, re-readable-ness, and sentimental value. I just no longer feel the need to own the books I read.

And I need to be reading more. Graduate school turns reading into a job. There were semesters in which I was responsible for reading 500+ pages of scholarship every week. Reading stops being fun. I grew up reading for pleasure, and still do occasionally. As a writer, though, it has to be more often than occasionally, and it’s seldom just for pleasure. I’ve written about this before, but it’s something I’m reminding myself of now that my family is settling into the new house and we are shifting gears for the impending start of the school year. Reading good books makes me want to write ones like them. Reading bad books makes me want to get more good books out into the world. Win-win.

I’m pulling some inspiration on this from my former teammate Mike Dariano. Mike is one of those few people whom I feel closer to in the social media age than I did when we were actually going to the same school. This isn’t because we actually share stuff; it’s because we’ve ended up with strangely parallel lives. We’ve both put in time as adjuncts and years of being stay-at-home dads. We both write. We both try and use wiles to keep up with younger legs on the ultimate field. Mike, though, is scads more organized than I am, and works much more consciously toward improving himself and his work. He’s blogged about his projects in reading more, buying less, using Evernote, and half a dozen other things. (I’m particularly enjoying his recent stuff about incorporating Stoic principles into modern life.) Mike also has a new e-book out on building reading into your life.

Which brings me back to the library. I had a library card in Minneapolis. I got it the first week we were back in the Cities from Ohio, largely because I needed a card to use the internet at the library (a necessity until I could get internet at the apartment). When the kids were old enough, we used the library card all the time to check out children’s books. It was rare for me to check out anything for myself. Part of that was the grad school reading=work thing I mention above. Part of it was the fact that getting a toddler and an infant through the library did not leave much leeway for the lone grownup to explore the stacks. These days, my kids are old enough to look contentedly at the books they’ve picked out while dad finds a few to check out for himself. (My seven-year old is a voracious and frighteningly fast reader.)

On Thursday, the three of us went to the library here in Round Rock. The kids got five books each. I got two for myself. The first was Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, which I’ve wanted to read for ages and have never gotten around to. The second is a book I randomly grabbed from the fantasy/sci-fi section. It has a gryphon on the cover and something to do with elemental magic. That’s as much as I can recall without having it in front of me. The grab-bag is sort of the point. Every trip to the library, my plan is to make one careful selection of something generally deemed worthwhile. There are swathes of the fantasy “canon” that I haven’t touched, and some literary fiction I want to get my hands on. The other selection will be something arbitrary. I expect there will be good books and bad book and many that fall into the range my mother calls “airplane books:” good enough to read when you’re stuck in a metal tube hurling through the sky. Mostly, I need to get more novel words (ha!) through my brain to keep my own figurative fields from going fallow.

My vague plan is that posts about these books will gradually replace my writings on #postac. I’ve said before that I’ never intended that Walking Ledges become a #postac blog. I still am one, but I’m not sure I will have new things to say about it every week. I’ll still keep my annotated postac page, and I’ll continue to write about my transition from teaching nominal adults to teaching people who aren’t yet old enough for a driver’s license. For now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got some books to read.

Skinny Books and Fat Books

A while back, I mentioned that my family was in the process of house-shopping. We closed on a home at the end of June. Between cleaning up after the previous owners’ rat infestation and compensating for some–ahem–puzzling choices by the contractors who redid the interior, we’ve started to pack up our apartment. That means packing books.

We have…lots of books. Before we moved from Minneapolis to Austin, I went through and removed many academic books I didn’t care about from the household library. (I also finally recycled 8 years’ worth of seminar notes.) Even after that liberation from the Academy’s lingering tyranny, we still had seventeen or eighteen boxes of books to move—north of 250 kilograms. Over the last year, most of the family’s acquisitions have been kids books, so at least we haven’t added much to our tonnage.

Packing up books is like playing Tetris without the underlying grid, but at least working at a college bookstore got me plenty of practice. After buyback, part of my job was to list and pack up hundreds and hundreds of textbooks for shipping back to the wholesalers. (The store’s book room was upstairs, too, which made things extra fun even with a good handcart.) Textbooks don’t come in standard sizes. Their sizes certainly aren’t related to standard box sizes, either. Filling boxes to their limits (but not beyond) is tricky, especially since you have to pack the books straight so their bindings aren’t damaged.

Being in the humanities and fine arts, I have not accumulated many textbooks. Instead, my collection is heavy on monographs and anthologies. They’re bound just as idiosyncratically as the big hardcover textbooks. Thin or thick, wide or tall, they’ve all got to go somewhere. I’ve discovered that the little Dover editions of philosophy are great for filling gaps. I’ve also still got a few scores around—I have no intention of giving up the Beethoven string quartets I scribbled so much analysis into. The scores are large enough they usually have to go at the bottom of a box, messing up everything that goes on top of them.

I also have literature and fantasy novels. They tend to be slightly more uniform in size—and much, much lighter—but vary in thickness. Because they’re light, they’re usually easy to pack. (It’s also nice to stumble on a light box of books while moving.) The variation in thickness, though…it got me thinking about what I like to read and how that has changed over the years.

The skinniest books in my collection are early printings of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books. Many of those are themselves collections of short stories that appeared in pulp magazines. Most don’t even hit 200 pages. Steve Brust’s Taltos books are the next category up, getting to about 250 pages—still pretty thin in the paperback printings. At the other end of the spectrum (discounting omnibuses) are Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books. These are epics. Though published in hardcover as a trilogy, the third book had to be split into two parts for paperback (and they’re still over 800 pages). Throw in the odd trade paperback and some hardcovers, and the fantasy collection is nearly as motley in size as the academic one.

It has been a long time since I found myself immersed in an epic. I’ve read most (but not all) of George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. It didn’t exactly grow on me.  The best books I’ve read lately have been short: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of the most beautiful gems of a book I’ve ever read, and it’s 181 pages in hardcover, including the afterword. Most of the “epics” I have left on my bookshelf are ones that I read in high school or the early part of college.

I have come to prize economy and the power of not laying everything out for the reader. (Gene Wolfe is an absolute master of this.) It’s an aesthetic principle, I know, a choice rather than some law of the universe. It’s still important to me. I think that my preference owes something to the work I’ve done in poetry and composition since I was “in to” fantasy epics. Those prize density of meaning rather than scope of narrative. They are about the right notes and the right details rather than raw volume. Some of that has certainly carried over to my fiction tastes and “serious” writing—if not my blogging, where my verbal sprawl can run amok.

There’s also the question of finding time to read. Getting reading into my day is much like getting books into boxes: my time is irregularly chunked by varying demands. Family responsibilities are like those big scores and omnibuses. They devour large quantities of time and have to go in first. It’s hard to sneak epics in around the edges or in the gaps. The skinny books, the little gems…they fit in the cracks. Perhaps after the summer, when the school calendar is again regulating my days and my kids’ days, I’ll find my way back to epics. Or perhaps I’ll just squeeze in more skinny books.

Cook, Love, Write

The other day, my wife asked me why I cook fancy meals even when I’m really busy. I’m not sure that what I cook counts as fancy most of the time, but July certainly counts as busy—moving into a new house, taking subject certification exams, finishing up the alternative certification course proper, and trying to find a job for the next school year. That doesn’t count writing or my (modest) CampNaNoWriMo project for the month. I do cook dinner three or four nights each week, and often “re-condition” leftovers on one or two of the others. (Reconditioning usually involves adding more garlic and either a different leftover or frozen vegetables.)

It takes time. It makes dirty dishes, which take more of my time later. I could totally get away with using the slow cooker of beans I make every week to do most of the meals, supplemented with pots of rice and pasta or another pot of something stewish. My kids would be happy eating only rice, noodles, and fruit. The only person in the household who is really interested in having different things for dinner most nights is…me. So why do I do it?

Mostly, my dad is to blame. He cooked dinner every night he wasn’t busy cooking at the family restaurant. It used to baffle me how he could spend 60 or 80 hours a week cooking and running a restaurant and still want to be in the kitchen when he was home. I understand it better now: my dad really, really liked to cook. He also liked to cook new dishes, things that weren’t on the restaurant menu and never would be. The kitchen was home and laboratory and studio for him.

Cooking was also important to him—and now to me—because it’s an offering to the family. You’ve probably seen articles (and listicles) about “love languages.” Cooking was one of my dad’s. He liked food, but he loved to cook for his family and friends. That’s how he showed he cared, especially when other things were going poorly. Putting something tasty on the table and getting us all to sit down to eat it together was easier for him than hugs and words.

I like words. I love writing. Despite that, I’ve never written very much for the people I love. My wife is awesome, but I’ve only written her a handful of things in the 13 years we’ve been together (unless you count the many, many e-mails that went back and forth while we were living in different states). I’ve spent many more hours cooking for her than writing for her. I might even cook too much for her. There are things she likes to eat that she also likes to cook, and I don’t always give her the chance to cook them.

When I write, I like subtlety, allusion, and implication. That’s part of the reason why it’s not always easy for me to write for (or to) the ones I love. I can’t just come out and say it, you know? Big displays of real emotion are tough. Fictional characters can channel my real emotions without it being so…blatant. The extra layer protects my raw feelings. Even here on the blog, I hide behind quasi-anonymity. Some things are easier to say in front of strangers (even if many of my friends and family do read this blog).

I would love to claim as much control over my cooking as I exercise over my language. I can’t. My “secret techniques” are mostly garlic, fresh ingredients, and knowing how to avoid overcooking things. I know my way around a spice rack and a grocery store (thanks to my dad), but not enough to have precise targets in mind when I cook. As in horseshoes and hand grenades, close usually counts. I cook edible dishes that taste good more often than not. They’re mostly healthy, and when they’re not I make sure they’re especially tasty.

Most of all, though, I cook things for the people I care about. I want us to sit down and eat together. I want us to enjoy each other’s company as much as I want us to enjoy what we’re eating. That’s even more true when we have guests. I might not be able to say “I love you, I am glad you are part of my life and at this table with me.” I might have a hard time writing my wife the poems she deserves (but I haven’t forgotten the sestina I promised you!). But I can fill a table with food, and the kids can set the places, and we can all sit and eat together. That’s why I do it: because there are some things that are easier to say with food than words.

The Real World

May has been a month of decisions and steps forward. I’ve taken the initial steps toward becoming a certified teacher. I’ve started working on a (big) other writing project and associated website that I hope to launch in mid-June. My spouse and I have also started working on buying a house. This last feels improbably significant. Home ownership is part of the American Dream, sure, but it’s also one of the markers for a middle-class American’s transition to the “real world.” That “real world” is held over students as a vague bludgeon, deployed mostly when they’re not conforming to expectations (or blissfully unaware of what those expectations are). Figure things out before you get to the real world, we say, or you’re doomed to fail.

That notion of making it in the “real world”—of having a house and a car and a job that doesn’t flip with the academic calendar—is a stupidly privileged one. (See much of what Sarah Kendzior has written in the last year for examples.) It’s part and parcel of the things they sell you when you go to graduate school, though (never mind high school or undergrad). As we imagine(d) them, professors had salaries in the middle-to-high five figures, owned their homes, and still had all the prestige that goes with socially-sanctioned intellectual accomplishment. We don’t think of the job as coming with welfare. That’s the real world, too, and often a step above those suffering more systemic poverty.

I feel incredibly lucky to be looking at buying a house less than a year after my spouse and I moved to Texas without having jobs lined up. That’s possible partially because we’ve worked hard, but mostly because we’ve gotten incredible amounts of support from family. Some of the support has been financial. Most of it has come in a form more precious than money: time. Without the time my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law have given to watch the kids, I couldn’t have taken the substitute teaching jobs I’ve had, especially the long ones that have led me toward a career in secondary teaching. Those long jobs have, in turn, helped us scrape together the money for a down payment. (If you’re reading this, thank you so, so much.)

I’ve written before about the hazards of “supposed to” and “should,” about getting hung up on expectations and prestige. This point that I’m at now is where I “should” have been years ago. (It used to really bother me that my younger brother was a homeowner with a pair of masters’ degrees before I’d even finished my doctoral coursework.) It feels good to finally be here, but it’s also scary. To avoid choosing a future path is to ensure that you don’t choose the wrong future path. The more you worry about risk, the easier it is to write off the opportunity cost of sitting on your hands.

Too unfocused to decide on risks, I haven’t so much been sitting on my hands as flailing around with them, trying to shake off the bitter residue of my last years in academe. I’m sure I could have gotten to this point of making consequential decisions faster—especially if I’d read the right articles and talked to the right people sooner. I exited academia without an exit strategy…which is about as sensible as getting involved in a land war in Asia or going against a Sicilian when death is on the line. (Fourteen months of unrest has built up my immunity to iocaine powder.)

Honestly, I’ve been in the real world for years—married for over a decade, two kids, too many degrees. Graduate school is itself a job, whether it’s a dead end or not. Buying a house and changing careers are not transitions unique to postac. Six months ago, though, they seemed impossible. There was only the tunnel, no light. For the first time in a long, long while, I feel like my base emotional state is improving. When I’m happy, it’s not as brittle as it has been. I’m tempted to throw lots of qualifiers at this: Texas weather, the impending return to days as primary childcare provider, all the work that’s got to be done in the next three months…but that’s just part of the risk of choosing. I hope I remain appropriately wary of and grateful for the happiness that comes my way.

That’s part of the real world, too.

Gradations and Graduations

It’s May, the month of yes you may:

Hedonism fits the season, but it’s also a month full of potential anxiety triggers for postacs: a friend’s tidy new Yale diploma (written in Latin, because Yale), a conference roommate’s new tenure-track job, lots of Facebook pictures of people in wizard robes and octagonal hats. (The square ones don’t pack the same emotional punch.) Graduation season: a time for postacs to wonder what graduating actually got you (if you finished) or what it might have gotten you (if you jumped off the ship before it finished sinking).

My own relationship with graduation has always been ambivalent. I (sort of) dropped out of high school so I could got school overseas, but my first year in Wales ended early enough for me to attend my class’s high school graduation. I spent part of it sitting with another non-graduating ex-classmate. Mostly, I remember the blue plastic bleachers and watching the 83 graduates while mentally claiming all the awards I would have won if I’d stayed. Afterward, I went to the all-night party at the bowling alley and won some door prizes. I’d said my goodbyes the previous year—my junior yearbook was full of the clever and “clever” ways 16 year-olds say goodbye. It was, at best, a footnote to a transition I’d already made.

When I graduated from Macalester, it felt like a big deal. It remains the only graduation I’ve ever walked in. I got to wear the special gold summa cum laude tassels. I doubtless undercut the effect by wearing my beat-up Indiana Jones hat and the really hideous goatee I sported all senior year. It was May in Minnesota, an absolutely gorgeous time of year that you appreciate all the more for the winter you escaped only a few weeks earlier. The pipe band played us in. Garrison Keillor (who lives down the street from the school) gave the best graduation speech I’ve ever heard. (It boiled down to “ask your parents for money and go do something stupid while you still have a chance.”) I had a girlfriend (whom I’d eventually marry) and a summer of playing ultimate and studying early music ahead of me. It was a good day.

The reasons it was a good day had very little to do with the transition the occasion was supposed to mark. The weather was nice. My family was in town. I got to hear an entertaining speech. It wasn’t, though, like I was done being a student. I knew I was headed to Ohio to go write music. (I thought was going to Ohio to write music. That’s not exactly what ended up happening.) Plus, ceremonies are stupid and boring and it’s only the people who really matter.

Those are some of the reasons I didn’t walk for my master’s nor go to get hooded for my doctorate. Nobody from my tiny cohort graduated at the same time. The ceremonies were large and impersonal. The bigger reason was that my graduate degrees just…trailed…off. Both my thesis and my dissertation were completed at odd points of the calendar year, months before the ceremonies they earned me. Paying to rent or buy regalia seemed ridiculous. By the registration deadline for my doctoral commencement, I’d already decided to leave the Academy.

At the time, I just didn’t care. A year later, I wonder if I should have. I wonder whether a ceremony would have helped clean up the break with being in school. Dissertations trail off and overlap with employment and leave jagged edges. Maybe an afternoon in wizard clothes could have sanded those down. Maybe I should have had that big party I was promised “when I finished.” Those are the things I wonder when I see my friends’ pictures and announcements.

Graduation, like gradation (and grading, for that matter) is about steps. Literal ones across a stage. Metaphorical ones that provoke contorted analogies. The trick of graduation is that, if your really mean it, you have to keep taking steps. Some of my friends are now showing up on the professor side of the “professor and student” end of year photos. Others are in the more typical May photos of picnics and playgrounds and wildflowers. They’re all steps. Regardless of how we choose to present them to the internet, they matter more for the taking than their size.

Don’t sweat the wizard clothes.

Books and the Magic of the Unknown

Sometimes the real is magical. A few days before I moved away from Minneapolis, I was walking to the grocery store and stopped at the elementary school playground for a few minutes. A hawk landed on the playground equipment about 12 meters from the bench where  I sat. Then it moved to the top of the swing set, less than 5 meters away. It perched there, preened, and flew off after five minutes or so. This was inner city Minneapolis, a quarter mile from I-35. The moment was an unexpected treasure.

Sometimes it feels like magic is about to be real: the moments you think you’re about to step into Narnia, or fall down a rabbit hole. And sometimes, incredibly, it’s not just a bit of borrowed imaginary scenery. When I was 18, I went to Hay-on-Wye, a town near the Welsh border with England. Hay-on-Wye is the National Book Town of Wales, a small town of about 2,000 with a disproportionate number of used book stores. There might not be as many as there used to be, but at the time it seemed like half the shops in town sold used books. I went into several, but one sticks in my memory. The shopkeep, with all the earnest theatricality of a circus ringmaster, greeted me with “Welcome to Wonderland.” It felt like Wonderland. Looking back rationally, it was just a big, untidy used book shop. The feeling, though…I felt like I had taken that step into Narnia or Wonderland. I didn’t know what I’d find on the shelves, or how far back they went, or if I’d ever need to leave. It felt like a Neil Gaiman story before I’d ever read any of his stories.

Books have that magic, especially when many of them are collected in one place, waiting to be discovered. Going through grad school in the humanities means spending long hours in libraries. It means having an opinion on Dewey versus Library of Congress. It means stumbling into interesting sources (whether or not they’re relevant). It meant, for me, getting to do research at the New York Public Library on 42nd with the lions out front…even if that research involved sitting at a microfilm reader for hurried hours. Libraries were as close as grad school got me to my high school essay about being a wizard when I grew up.

The magic comes from the unknown. That’s a hell of a lot harder to replicate on-line, where you can search for exactly what you need and not find anything else. Access to the digital archive of the New York Times was a godsend for my dissertation. I was able to pull just what I needed and not have to spend time with microfilm. Despite the extra work involved, though, I had a lot more fun looking through the entire 1970s run of the Village Voice on microform. I learned pretty quickly that music reviews were in the mid-50s of each issue. The stuff I found on the way was interesting, though, including coverage of the May 1977 theatrical release of this little movie called Star Wars:

Print ad for the original release of Star Wars, stumbled upon while looking for material on avant-garde music.

Print ad for the original release of Star Wars, stumbled upon while looking for material on avant-garde music. (I think this one is actually from the NYT on a day I was looking at microfilm. Microfilm scanning still leaves a lot to be desired.)

None of the magic kept my eyes from turning an exhausted red by the ends of my Saturdays in the library basement, but the potential of something cool, dissertation-related or not, helped keep me going. When we make up stories, we’re engaging in that same kind of quest. I’ve heard Steven Brust, for example, aver in varied fashion that he writes “to see what happens next.” We read books to see what happens next, too. When writers suck us in, the next page’s unknown can be as magical as a hawk on an inner city playground. Books do that individually or aggregated into a library.

There’s always the chance for magic. Theatrical booksellers aside, that’s what was magical about Hay-on-Wye. It was undiscovered country. It was full of undiscovered countries. They lurked behind every cover.

The Brittleness of Happiness

This post started with my incredulity at how hard I was taking an overheating car. I’ve never been nonchalant about malfunctioning automobiles—I was once so upset about a broken radiator that I couldn’t even get myself to call a tow truck. The overheating, this time, was not a disaster. I was close to home. I added more coolant. Since then, the problem seems to have gone away (or at least not manifested during my spouse’s commute). Like a hypochondriac hitting WebMD, though, I trolled the internet for probable causes and priced solutions and worried for the umpteenth time how many more months we’ll get out of a 14-year old Dodge Neon.

Those are practical worries: Austin’s nearly impossible without a car. My wife and I are budgeting for a down payment on a house; that doesn’t leave much room for new car payments. My incredulity, though, was about how much this threw me off. It was a problem, yes. A grown-up problem. I happen to have solved many grown-up problems in my time as a grown-up. I fixed my washing machine…and barely batted an eye a week later when a hose came loose and I had gallons of water to get off the floor. Why was I so upset about a car? Was my happiness that fragile?

Sort of. I wrote a few weeks back that “my own personal demons don’t stay riled up about grad school like they used to. I’m working on keeping my eyes forward.” When I’ve hit lows the last few months, they’ve been valleys, not abysses. It’s harder for the little things to wake up the whole mess of I’ve-wasted-my-life-and-my-future-is-useless than it used to be. None of that means my happiness is complete, or that I’m comfortable, or that I don’t still hear Paul Westerberg keening “Unsatisfied” in the back of my head on a weekly basis. I don’t always get enough sleep, which exacerbates problems.

My happiness is more brittle than I’d prefer. You know what? That’s a non-problem. If it slides back toward depression, that is a problem. Not now, though. Grad school encourages us to make peace with being miserable, a kind of paradoxical masochistic Schadenfreude. The loneliness of the adjunct makes it worse. That doesn’t mean quitting the academy is a free pass to rainbows and unicorns. Mental gymnastics to sell ourselves on our own happiness aren’t any more worthwhile just because we’ve left the system that encourages them.

In, out, or in-between, academia inspires a weird self-absorption. At its best, this enables useful introspection. At its worst, well…one can find himself turning the question of intake fan vs. clogged radiator into something existential. It’s just a car, dude, not a referendum on your success as a human being. Perspective has to come back in one way or another. Having nonacademic friends helps. Having kids helps (sometimes—my seven-year-old has turned bedtime literally into a brawl lately).

Sometimes, perspective comes when life smacks you upside the head with something real. After a few days off, I am back at the middle school where I spent six weeks. Yesterday, I was there as one of four extra subs called in as reinforcements after the unexpected death of one of the school’s math teachers. The teacher was 29, in his first year of teaching, and had many layers of connection with the school. He’d been a student there. His mother taught history there for decades. He’d been part of both sixth and eighth grade classrooms this year. Staff and students were wrecked. It was my job to help fill in the gaps as teachers and students helped each other get through the day, whether that meant covering a classroom or escorting students to the crisis center in the library. After most of two months, I know these students. I know many of the teachers (although I knew the deceased only in passing). It hurt to see them suffer, to see one of my class clowns come into the library barely able to finish a sentence.

I ended the school day standing next to the makeshift memorial set up in the courtyard. Students added notes and cards to the ones already piled on it. (They avoided covering up the neck ties.) Many of them took pictures with their phones. One student, trailing the end-of-day exodus, sketched a sincere but embarrassed bow as she dashed to catch her bus.

When the building was clear, I signed out, got in the car, and drove home. When I got there, I didn’t quite collapse, but it was close. I was empty, drained by the day. I cried some. I made my kids give me hugs and explained what had happened to my son. He immediately wanted to make a card for the teacher’s family. I thought about what I could do, what it meant to be a teacher…what death meant to a 13-year-old. I thought about happiness and about grief and ephemerality. I was reminded that death is one of those things even poetry fails to touch.

Later that night, I discovered the kids had knocked our iPad to the floor and stepped on it, cracking the screen. It didn’t worry me.

The Smartest One in the Room

Transitioning out of academia is messy. I’ve spent a lot of time (and words here) grappling with some of the transitions: figuring out what kind of job you want, wrestling with how to get it, coping with the emotional fallout of quitting. These are food-on-the-plate issues. There are less immediate challenges, too. I was reminded of one of them when talking to middle school students about the jobs I’ve had. The students’ questions led me to tell them a bit about the summer I worked in a canned food distribution plant, where even my partial college education put up barriers between me and my coworkers. That challenge—being the “smartest one in the room”—is one that comes up again when you leave academia.

“Smart” is relative as all get-out, mind. It comes in many flavors. Not all of them present as the ability to articulate difficult concepts and wrestle with abstract problems. School smarts are just one kind of intelligence. Still, it’s the kind of intelligence academics spend years cultivating…and displaying As you progress from high school to undergraduate to graduate study, you’re surrounded by an ever-increasing proportion of high achievers, of “schmott guys:”

Schmott Guy Hat

Aren’t you glad your regalia isn’t this extreme? (Image copyright Phil and Kaja Foglio, http://girlgenius.net)

Sometimes I wonder how things would have played out if I hadn’t gone across the pond to United World College of the Atlantic. The place opened up my world in more ways than I could possibly discuss in one post. On today’s, point, though, I was suddenly and obviously not the smartest person in the room. Almost everybody at the school was the product of national application processes in their home countries. (At the time, the U.S. sent around 120 students into the UWC program—half of them to the domestic branch in New Mexico.) It wasn’t as though the process was based purely on academics, either; the program prizes community service and independent projects. They’re looking not just for good students, but for the right people to promote the program’s mission of international understanding.

It was a comeuppance for me, one I probably would have gotten when starting my postsecondary education. Getting it early, though, and in the kind of environment where nobody was a jerk about it, meant a lot. Occasional language barriers aside, I was suddenly in an environment where I could talk to anybody about nearly anything. Unless the conversation got especially esoteric everybody could keep up with me. That was novel. I grew up in rural Idaho and went to a tiny high school. I took it for granted that I was the smartest person in the room—often including teachers in the mix. (I was right only to the extent that 16-year-olds are always right.) At UWC-AC, learning I was not always the smartest person in the room was as exciting as it was frightening.

The excitement and the fright had largely worn off by the time I was working on my PhD. I’d gotten used to rarified air: UWC, SLAC, graduate school… If you stay in academia, you linger in that rarified air. Leaving academia means sliding out of it, back to where things are murkier in pretty much every way. Staying in often means continuing to grapple with impostor syndrome , especially those first few classes you get to run completely on your own.

If you get out? You might sidestep impostor syndrome, but you’ve still got to find ways to deal with the problem of being the smartest one in the room (or not). How do you balance your abilities and accomplishments with situational needs? What exactly does it mean to be “with a PhD” rather than “a PhD”? That shift means more than the way you market your degree. It also involves the way you identify to yourself and to others. If you’ve spent a decade or so of your life cultivating academic intelligence, how do you take that back into the world?

I’m a failed academic. Sort of. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons I am out of the professoriate. Some of them are systemic (precarious employment for minimal compensation sucks no matter how much you love your job). Some have to do with realizing that my priorities don’t match the ones the job requires (my non-academic life is pretty important to me). Some of the things the job requires, though, are just things I’m not that good at. When you become a postac, it’s easy to focus on all the things you couldn’t or didn’t do better.

None of that makes you less smart.

You might not go as far as sitting down to catalog your skills and accomplishments, but take a step back to remind yourself that you are smart enough. You’re probably also good enough, and it’s likely some people like you. (Reminding yourself of these things in front of a mirror in Stuart Smalley’s voice voice is optional.) It’s okay to be the smartest one in the room as long as you avoid being a jerk about it. That situation is going to be a lot more common in the “real world” than it is inside the Academy.

Own your strengths but remember to ask questions. Focus on solving problems rather than winning arguments. (That might be the biggest shift from the graduate seminar to the real world: trouncing people in arguments doesn’t count for much.) As in writing, show, don’t tell. Focus on using your skills—and yes, your smarts—to act rather than to act out your identity. That’s the practical difference between “a PhD” and “with a PhD:” doing smart things is much more important than being the smartest one in the room.