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)


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.