Saturday, June 15, 2019

Puppies and strangers

We got a puppy last weekend, and her name is Frederica. (We call her Freddy.) And yes, she is named after Nietzsche--I always said I would get a dog and name it after Nietzsche, because he thought women were dogs and so naming a dog in his honor seemed fitting.

Anyway, Freddy is an adorable black lab puppy. My parents got her a bright pink harness (yes dogs wear walking harnesses now, it's a thing), so even though she has a boy's name everyone knows she's a girl. We get stopped on the street all the time by people who want to meet Freddy; I don't know what it's like to have a baby but I'm pretty sure puppies draw a bigger crowd. I've talked to more strangers this week than I have in the past 6 months.

Today, Josh and I were walking with Freddy down a suburban street, and a young  African-American woman passed by. She said: "Hey! What an adorable black bitch!" When Josh and I hesitated (because she is a bitch, but how does one reply to that?), the woman laughed. "I mean me!" she said. "I would never call your dog a bitch. She's a cute puppy, though."

Getting a dog was worth it, if only for this one interaction. I'm still laughing.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

it's simpler, in fact, not to want to be free

"But to try and find out what Americans mean is almost impossible because there are so many things they do not want to face. And not only the Negro thing which is simply the most obvious and perhaps the simplest example, but on the level of private life which is after all where we have to get to in order to write about anything and also the level we have to get to in order to live, it seems to me that the myth, the illusion, that this is a free country, for example, is disastrous. Let me point out to you that freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn't got to have an enormous military machine in order to be unfree when it's simpler to be asleep, when it's simpler to be apathetic, when it's simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important."

—James Baldwin, Notes for a Hypothetical Novel

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Julia 1, Julia 2, Julia 3...

As I've mentioned before, I get a lot of misdirected email, most of it written in German, for other women with my name. When these emails appear to be from real people, I will write back and let them know they have the wrong address. Sometimes they reply to say thank you, sometimes I never hear from them again.

Today, I got an amazing response from someone at a German think tank who had sent me (thinking I was a different me) a report on food trends. (I didn't know food trends were reported on by think tanks, but the word snackification appears in the otherwise very German table of contents, which made me inexplicably pleased). I told her that she had the wrong email address and she replied: "Okay. Thank you for letting me know. Would you give me the right one?"

I briefly enjoyed the idea that there could be some kind of contact directory accessible to all people with the same name, where we all know how to reach each other should there be any confusion. It would be so wonderful: all Joe Smiths in the world would know about all the other Joe Smiths! You could ask any one of them to help you find the one you're looking for! I imagined asking this misguided person exactly which Julia she was trying to contact, thumbing through the directory—in my imagination this directory is one of those old rolodexes you can actually thumb through—and ah ha! There's Julia #4591, in Frankfurt, the one who indulges in occassional snackification.

Alas, I was forced to concede that while we share the same name, that other Julia remain as unknown to me as any other person I've never met. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

quit lit, quit it

As you are probably aware, Dear Reader, there is a scintillating sub-genre of academic writing devoted solely to the experience of leaving the academy: colloquially called "quit lit." For the most part these essays are either written by tenure-track faculty members decrying the inability of those in charge (academic associations, administrators) to create more faculty positions or by tenuously-employed adjuncts lamenting the inability of those in charge (tenured professors, administrators) to create more faculty positions. There is a lot of grieving and shame and heartbreak. The academy is crumbling! The humanities are dying! It's all someone's fault! There is no trace of humor or self-depreciation anywhere to be found.

These articles are hilariously misguided, but I read them anyway, mostly for the sheer joy of muttering emphatically to myself while doing so. Basically, my take is that anyone who thinks it's the responsibility of academic associations or administrators or faculty who were tenured pre-1990 to somehow create jobs in the worst humanities labor market in the history of forever is straight up craaazy.

Crazy not because they want to be professors, but for a much more pedestrian reason: they are not acknowledging reality. I am no expert, but even I know the truth! And the truth is that nothing will change for the better in the humanities job market until two things happen simultaneously: 1) more undergrads start studying the humanities, and 2) the labor market of PhDs willing to teaching those students for little or no pay disappears. That's it, guys! That's the whole show. Students need to want to study medieval English poetry and you and 499 of your closest grad school buds cannot agree to teach them for $1000 a class and no health insurance. But neither of these things is remotely happening right now, and no amount of faculty awareness or administrative layoffs will make it true. (Even if you succeeded in cutting administrative positions (which everyone seems to think is a great idea that will solve every problem in higher education, despite the fact that faculty don't even want to run a meeting, much less a department) the leftover cash will just go to that fancy new data science institute anyway, so think again.)

However! There is one article, Pilgrim at Tinder Creek, which is not only the best but perhaps the only good example of quit lit. It's a meditation on the similarities between the academic job market and Tinder, and when I read it I was really mad, but only at myself because I wish I had written it. (Alas, I've never been on the academic job market or on Tinder, so there was no way I could have, but...envy is always irrational, right?) It's funny and self-deprecating and sad and makes no claims about solving any kind of crisis.

The author, Andrew Kay, has written a follow-up which does not disappoint: a couple years out from his adventures on the job market, he travels to the latest MLA meeting and, fortified by booze, surveils the current state of his former profession. He meets with his dissertation advisor for what amounts to a therapy session, randomly chats people up at the hotel bar, and de-briefs with his grad school friends via video chat. It's worth reading.

And his article reminded me again why I liked his first essay so much: he's not angry. He's just sort of occasionally sad and feels like he's lost an intellectual home. He muses rhetorically at one point about maybe trying to find a reading group of retirees with whom he could discuss extremely difficult poetry and eat rice krispies treats. The aptness of this joking aside is greater than the sum total of combined insights in the rest of these essays: this is precisely what most people really miss when they leave academia, a community of people to talk about obscure books and eat snacks with. I too want to conjure up a reading group with whom I will discuss esoteric philosophy and eat donuts. Admitting this feels kind of small and sad, though, so no one says it.

Instead quit lit authors try to diagnose "the crisis" and rail against the injustices of the labor market, and in doing so they just throw up fancy jazz hands up around what remains: due to forces outside their control, they can't find a way to get paid to read and think about the things they want to read and think about. To me this is not an injustice, but rather a small, sad truth. It's not necessarily less important for being small and sad, but it is ultimately more personal than structural. The problems of the humanities and higher education are not a conspiracy: they are simply unfortunate. But if we raise up every disappointment to the level of injustice, and every personal defeat is treated like a systemic crisis, then no one will ever get to just feel sad about the whole thing, start esoteric book clubs, and move on with their lives. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Midwest College Town, USA

Some thoughts about my first couple weeks living in Midwest College Town, USA:

  • There are hills here. Not steep ones, but still: hills! This sounds totally insane, but the one thing I was dreading about moving back to the midwest was the total flatness of the place. Something about it just really bummed me out when I lived in Chicago. But it turns out that my understanding of the midwest was paltry, because some parts of it are not as flat as a pancake. 
  • Real winter is kind of great. I always knew that DC was the south (and it is, no question) but living there for so long I forgot what it's like to live in a place where snow isn't considered a natural disaster. You can check back with me about this in April when it's still snowing, but for now I'm enjoying my first actual winter in a long time. 
  • There appears to be no crime here. I am kind of stunned by this. I mean, people leave strollers and shovels and furniture out on their front porch and assume no one will steal it! And no one does! In the parking lot at the grocery store the other day, someone left their car running with a dog inside and just walked away. And as far as I know no one got in the car and drove away with it (and the dog). Josh still insists on triple locking every door, but I'm fairly certain we could just leave the doors open and be totally fine. 
  • There are so many grocery stores here, it almost feels like overkill. Within a ten minute drive of our house we have a Kroger, an enormous Meijer, Whole Foods, Target, and three nice independent grocery stores. I had a great grocery set up in DC, but this kind of choice boggles my mind. I honestly don't understand why a smaller town would have more grocery options than a big city? It seems counterintuitive. 
  • My life as an unemployed person looks very similar to my life as a graduate student. Granted, living in a college town means it's hard not to feel like everyone is at school, but it's undeniable that my default lifestyle is very grad school-ish. Right now, for instance, I have a whole stack of books to read (what else is unemployment for? when else will I have time to read Paradise Lost?) and a nice comfy spot in the graduate student library. I'm carrying my backpack around campus and buying terrible student coffee,'s pretty great. The best part: none of these undergrads are at all interested in asking me questions about their paper on Rousseau. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

no place like home

When I moved to DC in late August of 2009, I was not very excited to be back. (I lived in DC during high school and had never planned to return.) I drove down from New York in a rented truck with my soon-to-be-ex-roommate. She dropped me off at my apartment and helped me unload my paltry amount of stuff, and when she left I walked a couple blocks to the nearest Safeway, where I proceeded to wander through the aisles, crying. I was sad about leaving my roommate (she was moving to London) and my whole family (who were back in New York). But I think I was most sad about leaving New York itself—I loved New York like it was a person I couldn't live without.

I still love New York like it's a person I can't live without. (I tend towards melodrama occasionally.) When people find out I'm originally from there, the most common question they ask me is whether New York is better than DC. This is a dumb question, and the honest answer is no—there is objectively no better or worse, the two places are very different. The question people don't ask me, but should, is whether I personally like New York better than DC. The honest answer to that question is, unfortunately, yes. I admit that it doesn't make much sense: New York is an extremely difficult place to live. Loving New York is like loving an interesting but tragically high-maintenance person—the rewards may outweigh the hassle occassionally, but you need a lot of patience. Most people shouldn't sign up for that life.

Despite my tragic love for the place, I don't regret leaving New York. I like DC a lot, and it's been very good to me for the last 9.5ish years. I've made a lot of good friends, eaten a lot of good meals, and read a lot of good books. I met Josh here (still a mark in the "plus" column, in case you were wondering). I wouldn't trade my years in DC for anything. It would be very easy to stay here forever.

I realized a couple years ago that most people who have lived in a place for this long do decide to stay indefinitely. Friends who moved here when I did either left years ago or bought houses and put down roots. I could never quite picture putting down roots here—I'm sure I could have, but I realize now that I would have had to actually decide to do it. And it never happened. It's like I've been dating DC for 9.5 years and we're breaking up because I could never quite bring myself to propose.

Moving here for grad school turned out to be the right decision. I had no idea if it would turn out okay at the time—hence the crying in Safeway—but in retrospect, it really did. And now I'm leaving DC for a new town, for similarly worthwhile reasons, and I don't know if it will turn out okay this time, either. I may cry in another supermarket at some point, but I've come to realize there are worse things that can happen to a person. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

things I've learned while preparing to move, cont'd

I found the combination lock I used in high school today and, incredibly, I still remember the combination. I found the lock, thought to myself, "oh, this must be the one I used in high school" and then the numbers just popped into my brain. But last week, I forgot how old I was. The brain is a mysterious thing. And I wish I had thought to memorize something more useful when I was 17, because apparently I would still be able to remember it now.