Status Quo

I must come to grips with the reality of not being cute.  Actually, it’s worse than that.  My students don’t care if I am cute or not because I am clearly old.  As an old person, I fall entirely outside of the cuteness spectrum.  A cute old person is just an embarrassment.

fishSo here I am trying to get out of my office to go teach a class, and I am bummed.  Because I am not cute and my student evaluations were not absolutely sterling.  They weren’t awful either.  I am not going to be fired because of these evaluations; they are not going to raise some huge question mark and cause my colleagues to discuss them ad nauseum behind my back (while I am recluse) to determine whether I have completely lost it or gone over the edge.

No, that’s not the problem.  It’s more the being old problem.  I hit my peak. I crested student evaluation wise maybe ten years ago.  The drop from that personal best has not been a precipitate plunge, but a slow stagger.  A drop here, a little rise above that, a drop back below the previous drop.  Gradual and slow but potentially a slippery slope.  I used to be an ace, an all-star with a high SES (strident evaluation scores); now I don’t make the all-stars.  I am more just reliable.  He will give it his all; you can count on that.  But that’s it.

For the last ten years, I have been trying not so much to go up, as to hang onto the side of the cliff by my fingernails.  I am fighting to keep back the flood.  I am maneuvering an excellent retreat but it’s still a retreat.  Whoever said après moi, le deluge had to have been standing on pretty high ground.  Because nobody knows when le deluge might hit and if you have not maintained the high ground you could easily be up that proverbial creek.  I maintain the high ground, but I am like Sisyphus trying to keep the rock from rolling back down the hill while trying to get traction on the slippery slope.

I get to the plant, I go to my mailbox, I get my evaluations, I make the mistake of looking at them, and all these nasty memories and self doubts come flooding back, and I have 15 minutes till class.  I am not all pumped up and ready to go.  I am deflated, tired, and slightly flatulent from having eaten my lunch too quickly.  Three minutes away from my office are classrooms that I like to teach in.  They are old rooms and have big windows.  But instead, for whatever unknown reason, my rooms are located in a new building a good 5-8 minutes away depending on how my right knee is doing.

I have arthritis and a torn meniscus in my right knee.  I made it better by resting it.  But that required that I did not exercise with the result that I have gained ten ugly pounds thereby putting even greater pressure on my weakened knee.  That’s how it goes these days.  One step forward and one back.  I have to reconcile myself to the condition.  When I ask one older guy I know—in his seventies—how he is doing, he says, “status quo.”  At a certain age, if you can say status quo, that means things are going pretty damn well because any change in the status quo is going to be backwards.

Right now my knee is status quo.  So 15 minutes gives me plenty of time to urinate before I hit the road over to class.

Big Thoughts



I really don’t have the faintest idea what I am talking about.  But maybe I am thinking that had I taken that job or the one in Kansas that was offered me at one time, I wouldn’t be the intensely miserable person I am today, eaten alive daily by anxiety and wiped out by depression.  If good things happen to a person, doesn’t a person feel good?  Not that bad things have happened to me, but not good enough to make me go around feeling good or happy or light hearted.  I don’t feel good, I am not happy, and boy I am not light hearted.

So the idea of fate is just a way to reconcile yourself with wherever you are with the desperate idea that wherever you went or whatever you did you would be stuck with yourself and given that the self you are stuck with, in my case, is a miserable self I would have been miserable pretty much anywhere. Maybe this is a stoic sort of rationalization for my current state of being.  But honestly I don’t think it is.

Had I become a Professor of Literature—who knows—I might have been happier getting to tell students great stories and emote about them and had I been able to do this in a small private school where I got to know the students and they got to know me I might have been much beloved as they say and when I died, lots of people attended my funeral and said all sorts of nice things about me.

And even with all that—who knows—I probably still would have been miserable eaten alive every day with anxiety and flattened out with depression.  Some people say people don’t have selves anymore.  We are like onions; keep peeling away the levels and finally you hit zero.  I don’t buy it.  We do have selves.  It’s there wherever you go, and is buried way down there in the unconscious mind and is the foundation of who you are at the present moment.  It’s the thing you are given to build upon or live with or not.

I don’t hear people talking about this stuff on TV.  Maybe I should write a book or something.

People should talk about this stuff.  It’s important.

What are we here for?  To be like the lilies of the field and neither reap or sew.  Or are we to be industrious and work for our fellow persons?  Is the goal to achieve happiness and to maximize that happiness for others too?  Or is happiness the goal of weak kneed.  Perhaps the goal of life is suffering and to suffer.  At one time, life was called the veil of soul making because—contrary to the idea of natural rights—one is not born with a soul.  One has to work for it.

Certainly my goal is not to buy a Lexus.

Snowed In

Yes.  Horrible.  Back when they censored books, they would say that the book had no redeeming social value.  This seemed to mean that if you wrote something with a bunch of sex scenes in it and all sorts of “dirty” words, and it had some redeeming social value, it might be published.  I don’t beerbellythink my time on the job market had any redeeming social value.

I got to see a few places I might not otherwise have seen, I suppose.  For example, I saw River Falls, Wisconsin.  They flew me in for an interview, so what the heck.  I was desperate.  The school was 40 minutes from Minneapolis-Saint Paul.  I think that was its redeeming social value.  Along the way, the chair who came to pick me up talked about how this last winter it had just snowed, and snowed, and snowed, and driving to work, he had gone off the road and neck deep into a snow pit just.  And when he didn’t show up for work when he usually showed up (this was before cell phones), they came out looking for him and retrieved him from the gully by the road.

That’s the kind of people they were there.  They looked out for each other because, if they didn’t, they could freeze to death.  The college-an ag school-consisted of a fair number of brick and concrete bunker like buildings with tiny windows designed to withstand the rigors of winter.

As we were walking towards the building that housed the English department, a young woman walked down the steps of the adjoining building, and she was so damn pale I thought she was sick and almost said so before I realized that’s what a person looks like—a naturally fair person—when they hadn’t been in the sun for six months.  A person who has not seen the sun for six months looks like they are coming out of a long stay in the hospital.

They parked my ass in a tiny mail room so I could meet faculty as they came and went.  And one after another, the faculty persons proved to be guys with great Paul Bunyonesque guts, huge beards, and clothes that made them appear to have just returned from shooting elk or fishing for beaver or something like that.  One guy walked in with no beard, wearing slacks, and not fat and I asked who he was, and they said, oh he was leaving.

Later in the day, the Department crazy who wore a suit jacket, had a huge gut, and smoked like a fiend drove me around a bit in River Falls proper.  The Boy Scout troops had their own damn buildings.  And note I said troop(s) because there was more than one Boy Scout troop building.  I didn’t know Boy Scout troops could have their own buildings; my troop had met in the cafeteria of the local elementary school.  And then, church, after church, after church, all some sort of Protestant.

I got a pretty good idea of what people were up to in River Falls.  They stayed indoors six months of the year and ate and ate and ate, and went to church and Boy Scout meetings, and made sure nobody froze to death in the snow.  Altogether a real family values place.


I’d have to say the Saint Louis experience pretty much ripped it for me job hunting wise.  I’d been on the market at least eight years by then.  Every fall during that time, I read the job list and wrote chimneythe letters of application.  I went to a bunch of different cities to be interviewed by people I didn’t know at the time and don’t remember now.

My specialization, Romantics, had nearly disappeared from the job listings.  Now theory was being emphasized, and minority literature, and somewhere I had failed to hear that the Renaissance, as I had known it, was called now “pre-modern.”  Women were being hired, rightfully so, and I was getting old, well over forty by then.  That didn’t help me at all.  The society is obsessed with youth and youthfulness.  I wasn’t anymore, and because of the teaching experience I had acquired I would have to be paid more than people just fresh out of graduate school and less, sometimes well less, than thirty years old.

I was astonished to hear the English Department where I worked hired a person in my area, Romanticism and another area too, straight out of graduate school. And she had published utterly zip, nada, nothing.  But she had been graduated from a top ranked school. I guess her dissertation looked good and she was a she, and not a hairy old white man like me.

So the whole field as a specialization had transformed right before my eyes.  And I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how the market worked, what reasoning, if any, went into hiring somebody and not somebody else.  All I knew as that it didn’t work for me.

I think I can sum up this experience pretty readily by saying it was horrible.  Yea, well, that’s the right word.  Horrible!  I was perpetually anxious and completely at the mercy of the mail person.  Also being repeatedly rejected, over and over again, is not good for one’s self concept.  It felt like one of those cartoons where a cartoon person is being driven straight into the ground by repeated blows to the head with a giant mallet.  Huge chunks of my energy were sucked from me as if I had ingested a giant tape worm and couldn’t throw it up.

I had never liked the Holidays and Christmas any way and then, what with waiting to hear if I had an interview or not, they had become a nightmare.  One year I had bought my plane tickets because you had to buy them early to afford them, and I remember how miserable I felt when suddenly, it was mid December, and I had not received a letter for any interviews and I had to go right then to return my tickets if I wanted to get my money back.  I was utterly torn up.

What if a letter came the next day?  But who the hell was I kidding?  I wasn’t going to get any letter.  But, wait!, one year I had received an invitation via phone right before Christmas, so it was possible.  But who the hell was I kidding.  I wasn’t going to get an interview.  But what if a really good school called with a terrific position?  Could I afford to say no?  But could I afford the tickets to say yes.  Or what if some nowhere school called, that required 12 classes of composition a year, and paid zip.  But was tenure track and in a place where my wife and I could afford a house.

After I turned in those tickets to get my money back, I cried, and I do that once every five years or so (except during the period when I decided I should try to cry more often).


After years of waiting for rejection letters to get an interview, and rejection letters after getting an interview, and rejection letters after having had the on campus interview, as well as rejection letters postmanfor articles and proposals, I had come, in those days before email, to have mixed feelings about the postal person.  And these mixed feelings reverberated in a very unpleasant ways with those three years of waiting for the post man to come and tell me I had been drafted or not.

I began to dislike the mail person even though I didn’t know him or her.  Or maybe I didn’t like feeling chained to my awareness of the postal person, when he or she was supposed to come, or my suddenly very acute hearing that alerted me to the distinctive squeak of the postal person’s postal vehicle.  It was kind of like having somebody come up behind you and go boo.  I would be cruising along in the late afternoon usually and bang I would be aware of the damn postal person.  They say you don’t want to be a bearer of bad tidings.  I think I understand why, because if I had been king and the postal person had brought me another rejection letter I would have made him pay for it.

The on campus interview had been in early February, and I found myself listening for the postal person through the rest of February, through all of March, and into April.  I knew by then, no dice.  When and if the rejection letter ever came, I did not plan to open it.  Then the phone rang and, to my surprise, the Chairman of the English Department at St Louis was on the other end of the line.

He was a nice guy, awful busy it seemed, more my age but a little younger, and he had called he said because they had taken an unconscionably length of time he felt to notify me of their decision.  He apologized because part of the problem had been him.  He had cancer he said and was under going chemo and some paperwork for the Dean had been late because of his treatments.  So here was a guy undergoing chemo calling me to apologize for being late with a rejection letter because I had no doubt where this was going. I could tell the Chair was tired and pissed off.  Probably he had wanted me for the job.  Finally, he said, he probably shouldn’t say it but he wanted me to know the vote had been real close.  In fact, I had lost out on the deal by one vote.

Later on, I sort of wished he hadn’t told me that.  But here was a guy with cancer, on chemo, calling to apologize to me for not having sent out their rejection letter more promptly.  He really hadn’t had to do that.  So in the end, I thanked him and expressed my appreciation and hoped that all went well with his treatments.

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)