Rejected!

I wasn’t a total idiot, I guess.  I knew when I started working on the PhD that the job market in jarvisliterature had changed radically. Colleges and Universities just weren’t hiring as they had in the 60s and early 70s.  I am no economist so I can’t say why this happened.  But maybe it had to do partly with the baby-boomers.  I was one of those and, while perhaps the percentage of persons with PhDs in lit. had not gone up, the raw numbers had gone up because the baby-boomers were a huge generation.

So supply exceeded demand and demand too had lessened.  I don’t know why that was either, but I think it had to do with two things: the Arab Oil Crisis, and in California the tax payer revolt.  I think the Arab Oil Crisis shook the economy to the core.  We were vulnerable and spending accordingly became more conservative.  And in California and eventually the rest of the country the tax payer revolt, as it was called, undermined the funding base for public colleges and universities.

At the time though, I figured I would give it a shot and maybe I would be the exception to the rule.  You never know.  I guess everybody who plays a long shot thinks he or she will be the exception to the rule.  I wasn’t alone at least in thinking I was special.  At one convention I remember this guy, who had written a book already, and who was, at the time of the convention, on a Fulbright Scholarship teaching in Yugoslavia, I think, when it was still Yugoslavia.  In any case, he had applied to numerous places because his book had just come out and, though he had not received a single letter for an interview, he flew half way around the world from Yugoslavia to San Francisco just in case a letter had been sent and he had missed it because he was living half way around the world. But he didn’t have a single interview.

I learned the hard way that they call it a rule because it is a rule and the word “exception” indicates something pretty rare.  I didn’t turn out to be one in any case.  And while I had some inkling that larger things like the economy were not under my personal control, I tended to feel that my inability to be an exception was, well, my fault.  Work hard, keep your nose clean and you would move up.  But it wasn’t happening.  I concluded that I had to be in some way deeply flawed. 

In light of my previous nervous breakdown and advanced state of neurosis, this was really easy for me to think.  I had done something wrong or I had failed to do something right. Or maybe I had just plain been cursed from birth. So I did what I could and read and wrote articles because I thought that if I could get a few things published maybe that would make somebody somewhere pay attention to me.  So for maybe five years that’s all I did in my “spare” time, read and write, write and read.  Then I would send off what I had written and it would be rejected.

Doing this I managed to increased my rejection rate astronomically.  Not only was a being rejected for job interviews, the articles I was writing so I could be rejected for job interviews were also being rejected.

London Fog

The job market scene was pretty strange.  I was unfamiliar with it. For one thing you had to have clothes.  All the other jobs I had got, except for the one at the department store, had required only that a person show up not naked.   But the interviews for jobs at the big convention required that a person dress up.  Well, actually I suppose you could have turned up wearing jeans and a t-shirt but you would not have made a favorable impression.

Fortunately Aunt Susan, as part of her attempt to recognize my accomplishments and make my mother feel like a piker, had bought me some clothes.  She had bought me a suit, but it was a real 70’s thing and not right for the interviews.  But she had got me shoes and a shirt or two and a belt, and I went and bought a jacket and some slacks so I looked OK.   But OK was it.  I didn’t and don’t know anything about clothes but I could tell that some of those people at those conventions were really, really dressed up.  They looked sharp and the clothes weren’t cheap. For some reason, the conventions in NY were the worst; people had these wonderful looking overcoats for the colder weather.

Not that how I dressed made much difference since mostly I stayed holed up in my room for the duration coming out only for an interview or to walk around whatever city I was in.  And for that I wore the usual.  I hadn’t traveled at all, except from the south to California and that was when I was ten years old.  I had been on a jet plane before for some reason, so that was not completely new.

The first convention I went to was in NY.  To save money I took the red eye.  That was one huge plane with hardly anybody on it.  I didn’t sleep a wink and arrived before dawn at Kennedy.  I didn’t know how to work the subway so I got on a tram that deposited me at the Port Authority.  It was freaking dark.  And the only people around were bums, so I started looking and found a spot where taxis were hanging out,  and got in one and told the driver where I wanted to go, and acted like I knew what I was doing though that was the first time I had been in a taxi.

The hotel was the Hilton, and of course, when I got there, my room was not available; I was a bit startled since I was not completely familiar with check in and check out times.  I didn’t know what I was going to do, till a clerk said helpfully they could store my stuff till my room opened up around 11.  So there I was at around 7 in the morning, dead on my fucking feet, with five hours till I could lie down.

So I went out walking and looking for a place to eat and I found a deli with lots of small tables and people sitting around reading the paper and eating bagels and drinking coffee, so I went in got a paper, a bagel, a coffee and sat down.  I liked the place.  It was well lit and warm. I folded up my overcoat and put it over the back of a chair.  I hadn’t noticed that other people were hanging their overcoats on racks by the door.  When in Rome do exactly what the Romans do because when I went to leave I saw somebody had stepped on the tail of overcoat and left a long black mark on the London Fog my aunt had bought for me.

God, this must have been 1982. 

The Job List

So seven or eight years during the 80’s and some too in the 90’s, I went out on the market lookingsupplydemand for a job in lit.  The process started in October.  That’s when the biggest professional organization for people in lit, the Modern Language Association, put out the job list.  Every college looking to hire somebody from Harvard to Podunk U would send in a little description of the kind of position they had open and it would go into that list.  The list wasn’t free by the way; you had to pay money for the wretched thing.

The first edition of it would come out in October, another in November, one in December, and one would come out in June.  The first two usually had pretty much the same job listings.  A few new ones would appear in November, but mostly the November list had fewer openings because many of the colleges that had listed in October by that time would have closed their searches.  So the October one was the really important one.

I would get it in the mail and I wouldn’t be able to look at it for several days.  I had to steel myself and then I would go through it looking for jobs for which I might be qualified.  I would circle the ones I thought I might be qualified for and then I would go through the list again and write letters of application to the places I had circled.  This was onerous work.

Then you sent the letters off and sat there and waited.  Sometimes I never heard from some of the colleges at all.  Mostly I got rejection letters.  Rejection after rejection after rejection.  But sometimes I would get a letter saying that the college would like to interview me at the big MLA convention held each year in the week right after Christmas.  These conventions were held in cities all over the USA in Chicago, or NY, or San Francisco or Washington D.C. and a couple of times in other places. 

I had to pay for the plane tickets and the room where I would stay at the convention.  So if I got an interview I had to decide whether it would be worth it to spend all that money to go to the convention.  Usually, I was so desperate, especially when I first started looking, I would go even in the college I was interviewing for was at the end of the known universe.

Then I would go to the convention and be interviewed—a couple of times I had three interviews at one convention—the week after Christmas, and then I would sit and wait to see if I would be called to the campus for an interview there since most colleges would invite at least three candidates for on campus interviews.  Sometimes I had to wait clear into March before I heard that I had been rejected by all of the places that had interviewed me.

Maybe a half dozen times over the years, I was invited to an on campus interview, and then I would wait to hear if I got the job.  Twice I was not notified until June.  So over a decade the guts of my year were eaten up emotionally by the waiting and anxiety attendant upon the job search.

As I have previously said I had no idea what I was getting into when I became an English major.

Rags to Riches

I had thought that, taken together, these entries might constitute a “success story” in the Great raggeddickAmerican tradition of rags to riches.  Not, certainly, an epic or grand one, like Marilyn Monroe coming from nowhere to stardom and then suicide;  more minimalist, surely, but nowhere to somewhere, at least.  But that’s hard for me to maintain when I consider my point of departure not a "nowhere" but a very distinct and particular somewhere in time and space.

But that place because it is in time is no longer what it was: the very rural south after WWII.  The last time I visited I had a hard time recognizing the place; changes are occurring at an accelerated rate.  Not far from where we lived now sits a monstrous Wal-Mart distribution center.

And the place where I was going, well, for a very long time I really had no idea where that was.  I just moved along as I could doing my best to stand on my feet.  And when things settled down a little and I aimed to get the PhD and got it, things did not turn out as expected.  Back in the late 60s a person could have walked in with a PhD from anywhere tech and got some fairly decent offers for a job in lit. But by the time I got mine the market for PhDs in literature had collapsed.  With that the place you had been graduated from became all the more important, and I had graduated from a university that at that time was probably not ranked in the top 50% of graduate schools in literature.

Also the time had come for institutions of higher education to hire women.  I think this was the right thing to do, but being male the trend didn’t help me any.  I went out on the market, wrote letters of application, went to conferences, was interviewed, was called to campuses, was interviewed and nothing over the next ten years turned up.  By that point, the very concept of a PhD in literature had changed substantially. 

I wanted a job at a small liberal arts college.  I would have been an excellent teacher at one of those places, involved and concerned.  I might having students for four year stretches have developed significant relationships with some few of them and reaped the rewards eventually of that in respect and honored memory.  I would have read too and written on literature, and I would have enjoyed that.  And I would have reached the holy grail of tenure.

So maybe this isn’t at all a rags to riches tale.  My nowhere is somewhere and my somewhere vanished before my eyes.  So that in the years since receiving the PhD I have gone on pretty much as I did before, moving along and trying to stay on my feet. 
 

Continue reading Rags to Riches

Till Then

I started entries here a month or so before my father died (and I knew he was dying) and not long after I turned sixty.  It felt like the thing to do.  I have long externalized stuff by writing about it and that sometimes gives me at least a momentary hold on what I am feeling.  But I don’t know crossroadsabout all this looking back.  William Blake said, drive your plow through the bones of the dead.  That I think means “screw the past” and/or “forget.”  I like that idea really and am a firm believer in the powers of positive forgetting.  Thank god, we do forget.

 But I have long worried about the death of my parents and how that might affect me.  I remember at college a Professor of Philosophy, much beloved, who, a month after his mother died, committed suicide.  Psychological dependence is a powerful thing, and while I cannot say that I have positive feelings about either of my parents, I do think that powerful negative feelings may also indicate signs of dependence or at least attachment.  Working these feelings through may be important.

Also over the years, I have tried to tell, now and then, stories about my growing up, and while my auditors generally laughed, at one point somebody would always say, “You should write a book!”  In light of my paranoia, I did not feel people were saying, “You have great material there,” but “Would you please shut up, go away, and write a book.”  I can understand how stories of homicidal rage might perturb people, and I have a strong anal streak too that some find offensive.  I guess not everybody liked hearing that my father had become so constipated that he had taken to digging out the shit with a spoon.

Well, what can I say?  It happened.

While I did want to do justice to the darker material, I wanted also to be humorous about it.  But I am not sure I have always managed to achieve comic effects, and some people might find funny some things that I don’t.  So that part is confusing, especially since one of my readers says that I appear in these entries too frequently angry, rage full, mentally and perhaps criminally unstable.  In addition, this reader continued, you are not the person in these pages.  You are in fact caring, compassionate, very intelligent and don’t use fuck every other word.  

Well, that’s true too. But when I wrote these entries I didn’t try to filter them through my more compassionate side.  I wrote from the emotion that the particular memory evoked, and these emotions were not always compassionate or caring.  Sometimes, they were homicidal.  I can’t do anything about that.   Though I should say that I have never murdered anyone and am in fact opposed to murder on general grounds.

I write these remarks because I feel that I may be reaching the end of what I wanted to remember about my mother, my father, and my family.  But who knows, something may turn up in the memory banks or I may go in another direction.

Regrets

Down to the last feeble days of his life, I feared the sound of my father’s voice raised in anger.  Hell, here I was an old man myself, a few months from sixty, and he could still scare me even chestalienthough a stiff breeze could have knocked him over.  He outwitted me by getting that old.  It would not have been seemly for me to have gone up to that dried up old man and knocked him flat to the ground and kicked him repeatedly as I had so deeply desired to do in my youth.  But fear breeds anger and even when he was dried up, I could still feel that heated impulse to do him grievous bodily harm down there poking at the inside of my chest like that monster in Alien.

As a youth, in my teens and in my twenties, I had also desired to knock him down and to beat him to a living pulp.  But prohibitions against raising your hand to your father are deeply interwoven in the fabric of the superego, and to top it off I was fairly certain that had I attacked with vigor, he would have felt little or no compunction, about knocking the crap out of me.  He was, throughout most of my adult life, bigger than I.  I was skin and bones and while he was too mostly all those years of laying brick and blocked had developed his shoulders and arms.

Being a male or developing male hood—or whatever you might call it—is a treacherous thing and has much more to do with the male’s relation to the father than to the mother.  He was a first born son and so was I.  We would inevitably have knocked heads, I think, even in the best of conditions.  But I burn somehow when in my mind’s eye I see, as if I am peeping through a keyhole, the old man with one of my infant brothers.  The old man holds him up on his fingers and encourages him to walk and when he does the old man reaches out and pulls down the diapers around the infants ankles and he falls, not far, because infants don’t have far to fall.

I can’t quite describe the ripping inside I still feel, as if muscle were being pealed from bone, when I think of that little spectacle.  My father laughing, the baby falling, and feeling myself torn between laughing and wanting to scream, what the hell are you doing, especially, when he would do it again and again.  And below that, just below, to feel fear at what might happen if I did scream just that: what the fuck do you think you are doing?  So the whole thing just gets wrapped up inside in an explosive ball.

When I mentioned to a kindly friend that my father was on the verge of death she said be sure not to leave things unsaid.  Have you said what you have wanted to say, have you asked the questions you wanted to ask, because if you don’t it feels terrible if later there were things you wanted to say and wanted to ask?  I assured her that I had asked all the questions I wanted to ask. I did not say that the only thing I had not done that I was sure I would regret upon his death was that I had not beaten the living crap out of him while I still had the opportunity.

Some day I hope not to feel that and I will be all the better for it.

Car Keys

 The old lady didn’t want any of her boys to get married.  This is pretty strange if you stop to think abandonedcarabout it.  Especially since, as I believe I have documented, she pretty much hated men down to her and their very core.  But living in the semi-delusional world that she regularly inhabited, I don’t think she was able to distinguish us, her sons, as men, from her father, as a man.  He, as I have said, was a pretty wretched guy who abandoned my my mother and her family.

My spot analysis then: we are dealing with abandonment issues.  For her boys to get married would mean they had abandoned her, and that meant moreover, at another level, that she had lost control over them.  It’s all symbolic sex/gender stuff and runs, in my estimation, deep down into the old unconscious.  That’s how she kept the old man around, not by her inherent attactive or lovable qualities, whatever those might have been, but by stark manipulation.  And, of course, being able to manipulate a man in that way pretty her much put her in the driver’s seat of her odd universe.

When I let it be known that I was planning to get married—this is some time in the early 80’s and I was almost 39 years old—the old lady and the old man decided to pay me a pre-marriage visit.  I tried my best to dissuade them, but one of my brothers too live in the area and so they pretended that they mostly wanted to visit him. 

I was then treated to the spectacle of my mother sitting at the kitchen table in the wretched apartment I and my wife-to-be were living at the time and going on for a good twenty minutes about how awful marriage was; how if she had it all over to do again, she would not do it; how it only lead to heart ache and misery; how you never knew what you were getting into; and how she had been led into it only by her innocence and the fact that my father had deceived her into thinking that he was a gentleman. 

And all this was delivered with vehemance with my father—the man she had been married to since 1943–sitting right at her elbow.  Whatever effects her description of marriage as a regular shop of horror might have upon him apparently did not concern her.  He for his part sat perfectly still and absolutely mute.  He uttered not a word.  And after a while—thank the Lord–they left.

I walked them out to the street and as I turned to return to the house, I saw the old lady fumbling to open the passanger door and the old man rearing back to throw his keys and key chain with considerable force directly at her head.  He missed however and the keys went over to the other side of the street.  She, without a word, retrieved them, unlocked her door and off they went—into whatever hell it was they lived in.

Who knows what he felt?  Who knows what she felt?  I don’t know and in some ways I am glad I don’t.  Although in some ways, sadly, I do.

Pigeons

Sometimes I wondered if something might be wrong with the old man, aside that is from his being a curser, a farter, and a petty tyrant.  Something, I mean, instead, wrong that might explain these “behaviors” as mere epiphenomenon of the phenomenon itself, what ever that might be.  Many scannerstheories as to the source of his sudden explosions or spasms of rage were bruited about over the years.  That he had a “bad temper” did really not get at a cause and didn’t either really do justice to the phenomenon.

A kind of genetic cause was hinted at.  Over the years, I became familiar in larger family circles with the phrase “Tingle Tantrums.”  At one family reunion, one of the non-Tingles put up a sign, I have heard, saying “No Tingle Tantrums.” These tantrums or fits were then generally recognized, acknowledged, and were in part to be excused as something to which those who had any admixture of Tingle blood might be prone.  When struck by a tantrum a Tingle would spit, sputter, stutter, curse till he turned red, throw things, and generally exhibit signs of a person about to blow his top.

More locally, at different times, the old lady thought the old man had high blood pressure, low blood pressure, a thyroid problem, a digestive disorder, diabetes and hyperglycemia.  

I have no idea myself.  But I found most curious his attitude towards the pigeons that one of my younger brothers had decided to keep.  I don’t know how many there were, maybe a half dozen, and they lived in a pretty large cage that hung, appended to a rafter, over the deck that was the roof of the hole where I stayed.  I did not like these pigeons much, though I generally like animals, because they looked ill at ease so cooped up and they were quite dirty with their droppings and all.

At any case, when the sun came up, the pigeons would wake up.  Many birds it seems sleep at night just as humans do.  They would tuck their heads under their wings and stand on one leg the night through (though people do not do this).  Come dawn, they woke and began to converse with each other in friendly morning greetings. Pigeons do make a noise, but nothing like your cackling chickens.

Their sounds never woke me, but on more than one occasion I heard the kitchen sliding screen door squeak open, my father’s footsteps pounding on my roof, and then I would hear the old man yelling at the pigeons, “Shut up.” I would lie there then wide awake very aware now that the pigeons were talking up a storm.  I grew tense fearing another eruption.  And indeed, at least, on one occasion it came; the old man returned, bellowing in fury at the pigeons to shut up and this time shook and rattled their cage. 

Now, I know I am dense in some ways, but even I had the sense to see that screaming at pigeons to shut up and rattling their cage was bound to have the opposite effect of shutting the birds up.  True, for an instant of a moment, dead silence reigned but then the pidgeons would launch into a panic striken discourse. And then I would hear from inside the house, the old man screaming in a fearsome way for the fucking birds to shut up.

How could one become so irritated at the sounds of birds that one would forsake all reason and logic in one’s attempt to get them to shut up?

I don’t know what was wrong.  But I know it frightened me.

Shoe Laces

Amazing.  I was going through a box of junk, old letters and such, and found an article, dated 1963, reporting the winners of the essay contest in my local area.  It reads in part:  “William ranks fifth in his class.  He is looking forward to a career in teaching though the field of his major hasn’t kidshoebeen decided.”  I am William—god, I hate that.  Mostly I just forget that’s my first name.  But what’s amazing is the career in teaching part.  That must have been the old lady talking because I don’t remember having thought about teaching as a career, except maybe as something I had a pretty good chance at doing.

 But that’s how it turned out.  Teaching has been my primary source of income since 1973.  That’s about 33 years of teaching, I guess.  At one point, I thought, when I got my PhD, I would be a professor instead. That doesn’t involve much teaching.  But that didn’t work out and I became a teacher of writing at a University.  That’s what I have done most of my adult life.

Looking back I think maybe it was in the cards.  The title of my PhD thesis was:  “Romantic Thought: Education and Alienation.”  Seems as if I had been thinking about education all along—and alienation too, as part of that.  For a long time I thought about writing a book for which I have only the title, “Growing Up Educated” which is supposed to be an allusion to another book called, “Growing Up Absurd.”  I guess that’s because I decided somewhere along the line that education as it is currently practiced is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

But I was lucky, I suppose, in a way.  Because I turned out to be pretty good at the teaching racket.  I have always taken it really seriously.  I think about it a lot; and I feel almost that I have been given a sort of public trust, and I should try to live up to that trust and do the best job that I can.  But I have wondered why I have stuck it out so long.  The reason could be pretty simple: fear of unemployment.  I shouldn’t minimize that reason because I don’t think I have ever fully grasped how much those early poverty years filled me with a deep fear of there being no limit to how far a person could fall.

But I don’t think fear makes a person good at teaching.  And I think I am pretty good and I have thought a good deal about why that might be.  I am not sure I have reached the bottom of it.  But one day I visited an elementary school class in creative movement that my wife teaches and afterwards the kids were all putting their shoes back on.  But one kid was left there.  He was retarded, as people used to say, or developmentally disabled, as they say now, and I could see that the idea of tying his shoes was wearing him out.

So I went over, knelt down, tied his shoes, and when I was done, instinctively, tapped the side of his shoe to indicate I was done and he got up and left wordlessly.  I sat there realizing that I had tapped a lot of shoes in my day.  One brother is seven years younger than I, another 14, and I do believe I had tied and tapped their shoes a good deal in the years before Velcro.  In some complex or confused way, my being a teacher and being good at it and still receiving some satisfaction from doing it is related to tying my brothers’ shoe laces. 

Ruralisms

I have generally attributed my obsession with language to my mother.  Actually I should say my rustyredobsession with the English language, since I don’t know or really give a hoot about any of the others, except Latin maybe and it doesn’t count. She was the one who consistently harassed my ass to make sure I spoke grammatically not out of any respect for the language but to insure I did not sound like a hick or pick up too thick a southern accent.

But I must say also that the old man exhibited some degree of linguistic liveliness one might say.  He told off-color jokes that we were not allowed to hear but which usually hinged on some ridiculous pun.  I know he liked, “Woman who fly upside down have big crack up.”  And while farting is sort of a universal language and not essentially English, his prowess in that area certainly contributed to my particularly low sense of humor.

More importantly though he used expressions such as “son of a gun.”  This was used to express surprise and even consternation.  He also said things like, “I did not cotton to it.”  He once said, “I haven’t seen you since you since Hector was a pup.”  Here we can perhaps see a classical reference in the mention of Hector.  Or: “Mad as a wet hen.” These were mostly all southern ruralisms passed down no doubt from generation to generation.  Though one of his favorites—It’s as cold as a witch’s tit in a brass brassiere—had to be of more recent origins since the brassiere only appeared in the early 20th century.

I have already mentioned, “Kiss my rusty red bunny” and “bleed my whistle.”  These euphemisms were designed I do believe to be if anything more repellant that the actual “low” expressions, those being “Kiss my ass” and “take a piss.”

I have also mentioned swearing at which he was prodigious, the most classic being “goddamnmotherfuckingsonofabitch,” said as one word.  Also he would say in moments of frustration, “If I had a shot gun I would blow my fucking head off.”  At which I generally had to stifle my urge to say, “And boy do I wish the fuck you had one!”

 Perhaps most irritating was his tendency to turn the language into a code.  For example, one would be sitting at the dinner table and he would say, “PPMB.”  This was confusing until somebody muttered, “Pass him the butter,” since PPMB stood for Please, pass me the butter, one of the rules of his code being to leave out the articles, “a”,”an,” and “the.”

Mostly, I found this practice so ridiculous I could not be bothered to figure them out except for WFDS which through dint of sheer repetition I came to understand as What’s For Desert Squirt.  Sometimes he would come out with a whopper such as, “FDCQRTS,” which nobody could figure out, and since he would never explain them, as far as I know some of his deepest thoughts were never understood.