California Cuisine

I felt after the on campus interview how I felt after the interview at the convention.  OK, I guess.  I alice waterswould feel bad if I didn’t get the job.  That would be for sure.  But I wouldn’t feel as if it had been a complete waste of time.  Because I felt I had made however briefly one of those human connection sort of things.

The talk was alright, I guess.  Though I don’t remember anything I talked about but quite a few faculty persons were there and some graduate students.  Not exactly a monstrous crowd.  But that was fine with me.

And then a couple of them said they were going to take me out to dinner.  I would have preferred, given my dazed state of mind, to go back to the rustic motel, eat something in the wainscoted dining room, and then hit the hay.  But they were nice people and wanted to show me around a bit and took me to the Saint Louis Golden Arch down by the river, and through a few neighborhoods and we talked about the price of homes.  At that time you could get a place that was not a complete dump for around 75 K and a damn mansion for 120K.

We end up at a restaurant that called itself a bistro or something like that.  They had wanted to do me the courtesy of taking me somewhere that served “California” food, whatever the hell that was.  At this place California food seemed to be a good wine selection, dishes with lots of lettuce in them, fish, and relatively small portions.  I would have preferred a pork chop, but when in Rome do as the Roman’s do so I ate California food right their in Saint Louis.

I don’t know what they thought of the food but they sure did like the wine, and after a bit we started to talk more openly.  One of them was a big shambling guy, with thinning hair, a big face and an ernest manner.  I think he may have been Irish.  Also present was a female faculty person who was definitely Irish I remember.  Somehow it popped up that the female faculty person was formerly a nun.  I was pretty impressed by that.  A Catholic institution hiring somebody who was formerly a nun seemed pretty open minded to me.  Though what do I know, and as the evening wore on I heard about the gay faculty member and the lesbian faculty member who was not the lover of the ex-nun.  She was straight but hadn’t married.

Damn, I felt right at home.  These people were a bunch of nuts.  And earlier in the day, I had taken a walk and had a smoke with the big, shambling guy, and I was talking along something about education, and he said out of the blue, “Man, you really are an idealist.”  “Yes, I guess so,” I said a bit sheepishly but not embarrassed or humiliated because the way he said the word “idealist” suggested he didn’t think being one was entirely a bad thing.


I got to Saint Louis late and went to the motel.  It was a funny sort of place with character–I guess you would call it–with a dark varnished wood that ran midway from the wall down to the floor.  What’s that called?  “Wainscoting?”  I figured they were giving me a taste of old Saint Louis or stlouisarchmaybe they had some deal with the place.  But it this was no holiday inn.  I got up and had breakfast in a room that also was made dark by this rustic wood wainscoting.  I always forget how dark it is where it’s cold because they have these little windows to keep out the cold, and in California you have these huge energy inefficient windows to let light in.

Then I went and stood where I was supposed to stand under the sign right outside the motel.  Dirty ice was still on the ground, maybe the remnants of snow, and my toes were a little chilly.

The day went as planned.  I don’t remember anything about the President except in my job journeys I have noted that Chancellors and Presidents have these huge offices, with huge desks, and usually for some reason or other an American flag stands by one side of the desk and on the other side a state flag if it’s a state school.

 The plant was a hoot.  The buildings were brick and had ornate decorations featuring Saints and Martyrs. The school was Jesuit, and I don’t remember Jesuit nuns. Maybe an order of nuns had lived there too because the offices for the folks in the English Department had been formerly nuns’ quarters.  These had brick walls and high ceilings, were long and narrow with one window sort of high up on the wall.  I thought these were great rooms, and the folks, from what I saw, had fixed them up and made them their own mostly buy sticking bookshelves wherever possible.

So far though I had not seen a single person dressed up like a nun or a priest.  But then at lunch one showed up dressed in that dark flowing robe thing.  But at lunch he was pretty lively and with his black slicked back hair he could have been some Mafia guy hiding out in a monestary.

By the time the talk came around at 130 or 2 I was too dead tired to care that much.  I was light headed from exhaustion because I don’t know if I had slept 20 minutes the night night, tossing and turning, over and over, and lying on the floor to try some deep breathing, and working myself more and more into a sweat about how I would be so tired I would screw up the interview if I didn’t manage to get some sleep.

So as usual under these circumstances, there I was practically a zombie and so far I had not screwed up any as far as I could tell.  But then who knew?  I was running on auto-pilot.


The interview was at the University of Saint Louis.  I didn’t know a thing about Saint Louis except that it had built a huge arch near the river for some reason and that’s where the Saint Louis cardinalCardinals played.  I had kept track of the Cardinals at one time because they had a good team.  That was during the time they had Bob Gibson one of the greatest and meanest pitchers of all time.  Watching him throw was a glory.

I liked their name too.  Cardinals.  Not enough teams are named after birds, except maybe the eagle which is a cliché.  And as a kid in the south, I had enjoyed it when the cardinals arrived in the spring all bright red and perky looking.  So I had good associations with the word, “cardinal.”  Maybe because of the cardinals I thought of Saint Louis as being in the south; though when you look at the map, maybe it’s in the Midwest.  I couldn’t tell you.

I was going to a place that I didn’t know anything about and where I didn’t know a living soul to get a job and leave the place I had been for 15 years or so.  But the job was tenure track.  That meant if I did some publishing that probably I would get tenure and finally get that holy grail of lifetime freedom from the fear of unemployment.  And the housing had to be cheaper than where my wife and I were living, pouring 900 a month into rent, and with absolutely no prospect of ever owning a home, not when they wanted 20% down.

So in spite of the fact that the very idea of the on campus interview tied me into knots and cast me into a near hysterical fear of peeing or befouling myself in a public situation, I felt I just had to do it even thought one glaring problem with the whole gig was sticking out like a sore thumb.  The University of Saint Louis is a catholic institution, and I am not.  Catholic I mean.

I had to face it. They odds were they would hire a fellow catholic, and I couldn’t blame them for that.  Birds of a feather flock together.  I thought for half a second about pretending to be catholic, and took about half a second to dismiss the idea because I didn’t know enough about being catholic to pretend to be one, and pretending to be one wasn’t honest anyway.  And knowing me, if I did pretend, my honesty would break through I would end up declaring that, while I had pretended to be a catholic, I was, in fact formerly a Presbyterian, and at present an atheist.

And maybe they knew I wasn’t a catholic anyway.  I couldn’t remember the interview that well, but I couldn’t remember any discussion of religion.  I don’t think that legally people are allowed to ask about your religion.  I don’t think, in all my interviews, that I was ever asked anything about religion.  I wonder if there’s a way to get around the prohibition against asking about religion.  Maybe you could ask, “Do you believe in God?”

That would be one hell of an interview question.

On Campus


What do you know but in early February I get a letter from the smokers saying they wanted to invite me for that precious on campus interview.  That was big time in the job search because it meant SPEAKINGyou had made a cut that meant you were one of three.  So I called the department, got a secretary, and arranged a time a couple weeks down the line for the interview.  Thank goodness, usually—but not all of the time—the campus would pay for your plane fare.  These guys were paying and they paid for the motel too.

I was to fly in, go to the motel via taxi, sleep, and then I was told the spot where I was supposed to stand where somebody would pick me up and take me to the campus.  Then I would spend the whole damn day being interviewed.  The itinerary read something like.  brief meeting with President of University (largely ceremonial); extended interview with Dean (a very important part of the whole process); interview with chair of the department; lunch in the cafeteria with assorted faculty (meaning whoever was around); and then the goddamn talk.

 I hated the goddamn talk part.  When I first started interviewing, people actually read a paper, something they had written, to a tired assed bunch of faculty who seemed to loathe your very presence.  But later on, they started asking for talks rather than paper readings.  I would worked myself into a lather over these talks, like the fate of the whole interview depended on it, which maybe it did, since the people you talked to would be the people who voted, though there would be a lot of corridor lobbying before the vote by interested parties, if there were any.  And for a position like the head of composition there might not be any.

The talk part had gotten worse since I had started having anxiety attacks when I had to speak publically.  This was part of my psychotherapy.  Before I started that, I had not particularly liked public speaking but I hadn’t had any anxiety attacks.  But if psychotherapy works, it does so by making you worse for a long time before you start getting better.  If you sit around thinking and talking about your emotions that has a way of bringing them right up to the surface.

The first time I had a public speaking anxiety attack (as opposed to an every day, walking around, run-of-the-mill, for no obvious reason anxiety attack, which I also had though less predictably) was when I gave a “talk” at one of those damn conventions.  I hated those damn talks and those damn conventions, but you did them to get brownie points to make sure, in my case, that I got hired again and to “net-work” which I didn’t do.  So I was giving this talk when I began to sweat profusely.  My shirt was visibly saturated hung on me from the weight on the sweat.  I had to stop before I was done because I thought my head was going to explode.

So I had to worry not just about the talk and what it should be about but also about whether I would have an anxiety attack, and sweat all over the place, and crumble up like a wet rag or maybe just pee myself.

(to be continued)



I don’t remember what city this interview was in, but it was the very late 80’s, maybe early 90s, and buttsI was up somewhere in this huge hotel hanging out in the corridor.  Through the door you could usually hear them interviewing the person ahead of you; I didn’t like that so I would walk far enough away that I couldn’t hear.  Now that was a funny moment—when the person who had just been interviewed walked out and the soon to be interviewed walked in.  Most of the time the former and the latter wouldn’t even look at each other in spite of their shared misery or maybe because of it.

So I walked into this one and a couple of guys are sitting behind the hotel table, and what do my eyes behold but an ashtray.  No, two ashtrays, and one was overflowing with butts.  I couldn’t believe it.  In all my interviews before and after, no ashtray and no butts.  I relaxed all over just at the sight of an ashtray with butts.  So few people smoked at these conventions that usually I stuck them out of sight in my bag or something rather than carry them in my pocket where people might notice.  But these two guys were flagrant smokers or they wouldn’t have left the ashtray and the butts out like that.

We introduced ourselves and I waited a decorous interval so I wouldn’t seem overly excited and asked would they mind if I smoked since there was an ashtray right out there in the open with butts in it.  They said, no, they wouldn’t mind.  So I lit up and they lit up and there we were puffing away.  Damn that was one relaxed interview.  We even had some laughs.  Usually I would try to make some little joke to get myself relaxed, but most of the time those people seemed impervious to laughter.  But not these guys.  They yucked away.

 I left the interview as usual not knowing if I had done a good job or not.  But I felt good after.  I had a good time and when I left and said it had been a pleasure to meet them, I meant it.  That made it alright for some reason.  Even if I never heard from them again, it was OK.

 By this time I had given up looking for jobs in literature.  I had switched over to writing since that’s what I was doing and I had published a couple of articles in the area.  So if the little job blurb said, Romantics or Romanticism, I just ignored it, even thought that’s what I had written my dissertation about.  Instead I looked at the listings for “teachers in composition/rhetoric.”  Usually it said PhD in Literature or Rhetoric required.  That was because at that time they hadn’t yet started churning out ill-educated people in Rhetoric, so to get anybody for they job they had to say PhD in Literature too though you had to have a demonstrated interest in writing and plenty of experience at doing it.

The smokers had advertised a position for someone to head their little composition program.  Mostly in their case that meant working with the Teaching Assistants and making sure they had some idea what the heck they were doing and other administrative chores with plenty of writing classes thrown in for good measure.  After that interview, I thought well maybe I had a shot.

(to be continued)


Damn!  I am aggravated.  I don’t need aggravation.  It wears me out.  And I am aggravated by one of those things—I should  by now have developed a tougher hide—that makes me aggravated to be aggravated about.

But I am walking from the parking lot to the the computer room to run some stuff off for my classes that start in a couple of days, and I bump into this guy I have known for years.  Most all of our socializing has been of the parking lot walk and talk variety with few varaitions.  But he’s ok and I like him to the extent that I know him.  So I ask him how many years has he been coming out to the university to get ready for the first day of classes—because clearly that’s what he is doing too—and he says 36.  And you, he asks.  26, I say.

And then he goes on to talk about how much better he has had it than me, what with his being a tenured faculty person who gets to teach literature and pretty much whatever literature he wants, and he wonders how I have stood teaching one thing—writing and being told on top of that what kind of writing to teach—for 26 years.

And the guy does have it better.  He’s about five years older than I  and wasn’t apparently bothered by the draft and finished his PhD in 1968.  Those were the glory days.  Even thought he graduated from nowhere U, his advisor wrote letters for him to three places.  And all three wanted him.  Back then you were a shoe in.  And he got tenure and teaches four classes a year while I teach 8, and gets sabbaticals which I don’t and never will get, and makes at least twice as much as I do, probably 20 thousand more than that.

So I go run off the stuff I was going to run off, and driving home realize that I am aggravated by my talk with this guy.  And it’s hard too because I know he was trying in his own way to show some sympathy for my “plight.”  So why am I aggravated?  It’s the tenure thing I guess.  He got it and I didn’t and as far as I can see he is and was no more qualified to get it than I was or am.

He got it and I didn’t because of timing.  That’s all and the fact that it is makes the whole thing seem accidental and contingent.  What’s that old song, “Born to late for you to notice me…”  .  And then there’s the fact of tenure itself—that it exists and functions as a sort of invisible wall or divide between those of us who have it those who don’t.  He can just sort of assume that I have had it hard because I have been a teacher of writing and he gets to teach literature and he loves doing that, of course.

And assumes I would love it too and must feel terrible that I don’t.  When if the facts be known, I don’t know how people who teach literature these days can justify their existences.  They really aren’t doing diddly—though I am honest enough to admit that I might have preferred the diddly that they are doing to  the diddly I am doing. It’s a more prestigious form of diddly.

So I am aggravated and as usual not about one simple thing but about a whole complex of aggravation.


In any case, I was so upset by all the people being fired, and feeling myself as if I were one of them and not rehired, as was in fact the case, led me to perceive that my grasp of reality was off a witchdoctorbit.  I had of course known that for a very long time, given my seven years in the hole, and the results of the MMPP saying I was a danger to myself and others, and getting out of the draft because I was nuts.  But with my new self-terminating one year contract, I would be making something like 18,000 dollars in the upcoming year (this was 1981 maybe) so I could afford to seek the assistance of a professional.

So not only was I the first person in my family to get a PhD, I was also the first to seek the help of a psychotherapist.  The two things are not unrelated.  Working class people do not seek the assistance of psychotherapists, though they will take meds if they have a doctor who prescribes them, but a shrink—that’s a different matter.  As one working class friend put it, he could never go to a shrink because doing so was just too self-involved and self-indulgent.  That’s how I felt about it too.

And going to a shrink seemed as if you were sort of officially declaring that you were a nut.  If you didn’t go to a shrink, you could think that, while you were nuts, you were not really nuts, just sort of psychologically off your feed, or maybe a bit moody, you know, or perhaps given to the “blues.”  Hell, lots of people feel like crap till the day they die.  That doesn’t mean they are nuts.

But this shrink thing didn’t make any sense unless you accepted, at least provisionally, that you were nuts.  Why else would you go to see a shrink and pay that shrink money to talk with you unless you were nuts.  I took the whole thing too seriously I guess.  I hadn’t been raised middle class, and didn’t know that for some middle class people going to a shrink was more of a lifestyle choice like buying a BMW or something.  I didn’t know that some people—way up there on the social and financial scale—were not ashamed or embarrassed to go to a shrink but actually competed with each other as to who had the most famous or expensive shrink.

So not only was going to a shrink a lifestyle choice—to help you over life bumps or to help you maximize your potential and become self-actualized—it was a status symbol.  But these people most went to righteous Freudian guys where you went like three or four times a week and paid an arm and a leg to do it.  For me getting a shrink was not a lifestyle choice.  I was not concerned about self-actualizing my potentials but about falling off the face of the earth.  Also I couldn’t afford a status symbol shrink.  I needed a bargain basement Wal-Mart sort of shrink.

Being around more middle class people I had heard a few of them—fellow graduate students or visiting lecturers—mention having gone to a shrink for this or that.  They didn’t seem embarrassed by it but then they always went for something pretty specific—like, my mother just died, or I was having a lifestyle transition.  Me though I knew I looking for a bargain basement shrink because I was nuts.


One morning in May or early June I walked into the English Department mail room and there’s an official letter in my box that says, “We are happy….”  When they start off like that usually firedsomething good was in the letter, and there was because they were happy to offer me one of those self-terminating contracts for the upcoming year.  A couple of other Visiting Lecturers were in there checking their mail too, and one, a lady I liked, opened her letter and turned red and put her hands over her eyes and walked out, and another guy gave a grunt, sort of like he had been hit in the stomach, and walked out.

Turns out their letters had not started with “We are happy…,” but with whatever words people use as the lead into “You are fired…”  Over fifty percent of the Visiting Lecturers—and there were a good 30 of us by that time—had been fired.  And nobody knew why either because the Department with its four years and out rule were under no obligation to tell you why you were fired.  Hell, they had done more than they were legally required to do by just telling us we had been hired.  Or fired.

And for weeks nobody could look anybody in the eye because nobody knew who had been fired and who hadn’t and it was too damn awkward to ask, unless the person happened to be a friend.  Because whatever the reason might have been for the mass firing, everybody knew that somebody had sat in an office, made a list of the Visiting Lecturers, and then drew a line between the hired and the fired.  The hired being good enough to continue; the fired not being good enough for whatever unknown reasons.  So if you told somebody you were fired, you were just a loser, and if you told somebody you were hired, you probably were a kiss-ass suck up who had cultivated the right connections or fucked the boss.

I spent hours talking to the people who had not been hired.  I couldn’t leave the place. On the way out to the parking lot, I would walk by the office of a fired person and lean in and ask them how they were doing, and end up sitting there listening to them lament and both of us chewing things over to figure out what had happened for hours at a time.

 I began to realize that something was out of whack in my response to the situation.  I really didn’t feel good about getting rehired; I honestly didn’t feel any sort of secret glee or inward sense of superiority.  I felt terrible.  Maybe it was the survivor syndrome or something.  Like everybody on the airplane dies in the crash, but you and you go around saying, “Why me, Lord?”  And given my complete lack of self esteem or self worth that was a hard question to answer unless God was just an arbitrary jerk.  This event precipitated a form of life-crisis that led me to seek the aid of a psychotherapist.

 As it turns out though, the event was a non-event.  Everybody by the middle of the summer was rehired.  As it turned out, the money for funding us was slow coming down the bureaucratic pike.  Whoever the boss was knew the money was more than likely coming down the pike.  But we were Visiting Lecturers so nobody had to explain anything to us, and firing a bunch of us was a good way to remind everybody: your contract is self-terminating.

Visiting Lecturer

I was lucky while I looked for work elsewhere to have a full time job as a teacher of writing at a university.  I was not a true faculty member—one with tenure and the right to vote on issues of faculty governance—but something called a Visiting Lecturer.  In the academic manual this position cyclopswas described vaguely in a couple of lines.  Actually none of us Visiting Lecturers were Visiting, so what “visiting” really meant was temporary.

NThe university started using this position a great deal in the early 80s because they had become tenure “heavy.”  The problem with tenure, for the institution, is that a huge chunk of money is locked into one person for the entire working life of that person.  If you are tenure heavy you have too much money locked in too far into the future for too many people, so that the university is like a giant with shackles around its ankles.  It can’t move without falling all over itself.

So to achieve a degree of fiscal flexibility, the U. started hiring temps on year to year contracts.  That’s what a Visiting Lecturer was.  A temp.  We were given what were officially called, in the letter telling us we had a job, “self-terminating” contracts.  Self-terminating.  Sort of like a contract that commits suicide at the end of a fiscal year.  In practice, this meant that at the end of a year you were to assume you had been terminated, unless you heard otherwise.

One was not to expect a letter indicating one had been terminated or certainly nothing to explain why one had been terminated.  Rather one was simply to assume one had been terminated at the moment one signed the contract.  If one did not receive a letter saying one had another self-terminating contract one was simply to disappear into the sunset.

Also the Visiting Lecturer was to understand that after he or she had received four such self-terminating contracts one was terminated.  The fourth contract was the terminal self-terminating contract. When one’s fourth contract had terminated, one was to pack up and disappear into the sunset because no further contracts would be forthcoming.

Why four years and not five or six years?  One might ask if one has one of those self-terminating contracts.  Legal things we figured.  Six years is about the point where most people who are on a tenure track get tenure or not.  That’s the typical “probationary” period.  So we figured that they picked four because it was not six.  Six would make the Visiting Lecturer position resemble a tenure track position, and that might be misinterpreted by, say, a Court of Law as implying the possibility to permanent employment.  So four was the rule not six, and this became known among Lecturers as four years and out.

Many of my colleagues from middle class backgrounds really didn’t understand this self-terminating contract in an elemental way.  They thought it was unjust.  I didn’t think it was just or unjust.  Just the way it was.  The boss is the boss and you are not.  It’s simple really.

Doing the Job

Like the old man said life is making the best of a bad job.  Except for one semester when I was getting my Masters, I had never taught more than one writing class a semester or a quarter.  But when I was working for my PhD theEnglish Department got word that I had pretty well finished my dissertation, so they gave me three classes to teach in my last quarter as Teaching Assistant.  Technically, this wasn’t supposed to be legal, but they figured I would be done with the teaching by the time the paper work caught up to me.

Teaching three classes of writing per quarter is a lot different than teaching one.  By the numbers one is teaching 66% more than one did before.  But that’s not how it works really.  The first class is 33%, the second is 33%, and the third is 50%.  That third one is the back breaker.  I had those classes all on the same day, and by the time I was done, I had nothing left.  I was drained.  Then you had to mark up and respond to 75 papers four times a quarter rather than 25 papers four times a quarter.

I felt pretty bad.  I just couldn’t do all the things I had done when I had taught one class.  I couldn’t see the students as frequently in my office, I couldn’t remember their names, I couldn’t spend the same amount of time responding to their papers.  I told the same jokes over and over in class repeating myself and not even knowing it.  I honestly did not think I was doing my job properly and was letting my students and myself down.

But I had to make a living; I had to make the best of a bad job.  That’s how and what it is.  Rarely does one do anything under the ideal conditions for doing it.  There’s always some major fly in the ointment, like some Moby Dick of a fly.  Some people lay brick on foundations that are crooked while their hands are freezing from the cold.  Some doctors are so emotionally overload with what they have to do they become pill popping addicts and operate on people while completely loaded.  You do what you have to do, I guess, is the motto to make the best of a bad job.

I have heard of places—though they are few and far between—where people teach two writing classes a quarter and have less than 20 people in a class.  That approaches ideal conditions (although I have no idea what other rotten conditions might be interfering with these ideal conditions).  I am a good teacher but I will never know just how good I might be or might have meatcuttingbeen had I been able to teach under ideal conditions.  Instead, what once felt like a short cut is now just the way I do things, what once felt like not being responsible is being responsible.

So you adjust to the bad job.  Screw it!  What’s the use?  You can’t go around flagellating yourself because the conditions of the job make it impossible for you to do the job right.  That means going around being constantly irritated, upset, and chafing at the limitations of what you do.  Instead, you forget that you are making the best of a bad job.  You are just doing the job.