Saturday, August 16, 2003

Outclassed in Academia

Via the Invisible Adjunct, the tale of Chris Cumo, "Blue Collar Ph.D." The story Chris tells reveals a good deal more than just another additional, often overlooked injustice in the world of academia (that is, an unrealistic and ultimately weak appreciation of how distant elite academic life is from most of the rest of the wage-earning world); it also gives a good glimpse into the emotional boil which lurks so often under the surface whenever topics like "class" or "region" or "race" are either elided or too quickly ideologically categorized. Chris is from a lower-class background, and has worked what are generally considered lower-class jobs (primarily landscaping) most of his life. But he's also managed to earn a Ph.D. in the history of science. Obviously, with the job market the way it is (and probably will remain, until the--I increasingly believe--inevitable complete meltdown of higher education in this country, whether in five or ten or twenty years), his Ph.D. was no guarantee of a job. But could it at least be a ticket to the middle-class, to a job and lifestyle that didn't smell of sweat and grass? Apparently again, the answer is no. And so Chris finds himself socialized into a world that claims to be a meritocracy, a simple contest of knowledge work, but of course it isn't, except within the relatively rarefied, already middle-class world of suburban schools, private tutors, after-school activities, proper social skills, scholarship trips, etc., etc. As Chris writes, echoing the recent article by David Brooks, "academics are like everyone else. They're comfortable among their own kind: people who had the opportunity to attend good schools and elite universities. These are the people hired by search committees. How can someone from the lower class, the place no American wants to inhabit, compete? Someone who attended a series of urban public schools? When does someone who toils away his existence cutting grass have the time, energy, or opportunity to network with the scions of the middle class?"

Chris might object to my aligning his argument with Brooks's (which is, as Yedidiah put it over at IvyJews, "a political essay dressed in sociological garb"), but I can't help but see the larger context of his piece as overlapping the exact same vague elite worry over socio-economic and/or lifestyle "diversity" which Brooks has spent so much of his career describing. It's not really that dissimilar to the rant I posted last May about living in the "provinces." Yes, Kant is the same everywhere (or, at least, in the majority of Ph.D.-granting institutions everywhere), and so is literary criticism, and the history of science, and all the rest of elite liberal arts knowledge. But what can the lower-class person who obtains that knowledge do with it? Or the person from Arkansas? There is, of course, the liberal assumption that such knowledge can and should be planted and be made useful anywhere--but practically, in terms how life is lived and money is spent, isn't it an unspoken assumption that the lower-class person who obtains such knowledge ought to somehow not be lower class anymore? That such knowledge ought to somehow take you out of the provincial, non-metropolitan environments where it is, well, shall we say, out of place? I doubt anyone would actually say that, in so many words. But witness Chris trying to convince hiring committees that he's one of them, when outside his knowledge base his very looks betray him. (Priceless bit from Chris's essay: "My first day in graduate school I met another new grad student. 'Man you're dark,' he said as though he had never seen a white guy with brown skin." Maybe he hadn't, Chris.) I've seen the same thing happen with Southern accents--or simply a look at my tag. ("Arkansas State Universiy?") What's most frustrating about all this is that Brooks's essay exposes Chris and I just as much as anyone else. After all, if we were truly, authentically, a part of what we've become, we wouldn't be bothered by the dividedness between our aspirations and our environments; indeed, we'd probably hardly notice it at all. But academia makes elites of us all. When I'm sensible, and thinking about what really matters in my life, I recognize that I'm lucky; between hard work and pure luck, I've been blessed enough to have a, perhaps, fairly reasonable opportunity to work out (like so many others have to work out) some sort of connection between my (in this case elite) aspirations and my (quite definitely) less-than elite environment. But Chris, unfortunately, and unjustly, is confronted with the task of making a connection that will probably always be far more tenuous, and difficult, than my own.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

"They Called Me Mr. Glass!"

It's always fun to watch two comics geeks go at it. (And it should be "geeks," John, not "nerds" as you originally put it; nerds are genuine, pitiable social misfits, whereas geeks are simply people who, for whatever reason, come to obsess over something in such a way as to be otherwise unattentive or out of it, socially speaking: i.e., computer geek, film geek, band geek, math geek, debate geek, role-playing game geek, whatever. Many geeks are also nerds, but not all nerds are geeks.) You see so much deep passion pored into contentious political and moral debates on such a regular basis that you tend to lose an appreciation, after a while, of the fact that whether you agree or disagree with any given position, the person articulating it is a human being who has genuinely thrown themselves into something and struggled with it, like an artist or soldier, and that such an act is (often, if not always) and an admirable thing. So passionate debates over geeky ephemera (in this case, the movie "Daredevil") are a good release; an opportunity to be reminded at how surprisingly deep human convictions run.

But be that as it may, I mainly wanted to compliment John Holbo on his taste. He writes that "the superhero movie that really lives up to Burke's maxim (and I think he would agree) is M. Knight Shyamalan's Unbreakable. Lots of folks didn't like it, apparently. Well, they're wrong. It takes the impossible conventions and stiff artificialities of the genre and makes them supple and organic and serene." I couldn't agree more. Unbreakable was an almost flawless film, maybe the best released in the United States all that year. After the final fifteen seconds, with Elijah Price's triumphant shout and the blurb about Mr. Price being imprisoned in an "institution for the criminally insane," I lept to my feet, astounded at what Shyamalan had done: put me into a comic book without telling me, and without letting me find out until just that moment. Brilliant. Too bad there will probably never be a sequel.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Me and You and Kids One and Two

The summer really began for us on June 30, when we flew to Spokane, WA, where I grew up and where my parents and my older sister and her family still live. My parents, both about 60 years old, now live in a beautiful, relatively isolated log cabin (it's up on top of a high hill, overlooking the Spokane Valley, with clear views well into Idaho), and we'd never really visited there during the summer months. So off we went for three weeks. Eastern Washington is dry country, and never more so during the high summer and into the fall. My father managed to buy, somehow, an old firetruck, which he fills with water once a day at a fire hydrant at the base of the hill, and uses to haul several hundred gallons of water up to fill up the cabin's well. It was a delight to spend time with them, to see my parents at home as they ease into retirement, and to give them a chance to get to know better a couple of grandchildren that they rarely see. While there I revisited many old haunts, and renewed my appreciation for Spokane and the whole "Inland Empire" region (so called because the interior of Washington and Oregon was among the last settled in the continental U.S.; though much more agriculturally productive--thanks in part to many dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers--than the high desert basin of Nevada and Utah which borders the Columbia Plateau on the south, it was similarly bypassed by settlers on the way the Pacific coast, and to this day remains, except for outposts like Spokane, the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, WA), Boise, ID, and Pendleton, OR, quite empty). It was a good place to live, a land of wheat fields and apple orchards and open ranges. I feel comfortable there, and hope I can often return.

While there, we borrowed a car and made two excursions, in opposite directions: to the Idaho Panhandle, where my grandfather (now passed on) built a small cabin over thirty years ago, and out to Pacific coast, to visit Seattle and Portland and three siblings of mine who live there. The old family cabin is located along the Moyie river, only about seven miles from the Canadian border. Many of the towns you drive through to get there (like Bonners Ferry) are tiny; they even lack a McDonalds, as our kids pointed out as we drove through. The Rocky Mountains of northern Idaho make for numerous hidden lakes and streams and valleys; the family cabin is built in one. We went up there with assorted cousins for the Fourth of July, and had a grand time setting off fireworks purchased from a local American Indian reservation. We stayed for three days, and it was good to be reminded, if only slightly, of what life is like in the evergreen woods. Our second excursion took us across the state, through the Cascade Mountains and down the Washington coast. It had been years since Melissa and I had visited Seattle, and the kids had never been there. We didn't stay long, but our visit was long enough to go down to the harbor, take a boat tour out into Puget Sound, and check out the sight and smells and tastes of one of America's busiest ports. Then it was back on to the freeway, encountering the worst traffic I've seen since we moved from Washington D.C., and south to the Willamette Valley and the beautiful chaparral country around Portland. I'd never been there before, and found it to be a gorgeous environment; more northern California than Pacific Northwest: warm and breezy, perfect for growing berries and grapes and roses (Portland's International Rose Gardens were a highlight of the visit). Of couse, most importantly we were able to visit my brothers and their wives and kids, and see them on "their own turf" as opposed to meeting them at family reunions. They're all younger than me (my only older brother lives in Utah), so there's a certain disconnect there....but I was also impressed at how grounded they were, how much they'd grown up into there corners of the world. They took us out the the Oregon coast, where we spent the day fighting the wind and the surf and having a grand time.

We returned to Spokane and flew home soon afterward, but the summer wasn't over yet. Melissa's younger brother Wayne was married in D.C. at the end of July, and at the beginning of August there was a reception for him at the Madsen family home in Ypsilanti, MI. We drove up, making the drive there (and a week later, back again) in a single day, something that I think we won't ever do again. I like visiting Michigan; it's always nice to escape the heat of Southern summers without necessarily having to trade it for the "dry heat" of the West. We spent a week there, doing our bit at the reception and helping to pack up all the newlyweds' belongings into a 14ft. truck in preparation for their move to Utah, where both of them will attend BYU. Melissa and I also took two days to drive all the way up to the forest and hay country of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and visit Mackinac Island and the Soo Locks--huge, marvelous locks which lower or raise the water level as needed for American and Canadian cargo ships traveling along the St. Mary's River from Lake Superior to Lake Huron (the river makes a rapid plunge of about 20 feet over a short distance as it flows from the Superior side to the Huron; until the locks where built, serious shipping between the two lakes was hampered by the need to unload everything and carry it overland). The name "Soo" comes from the Canadian city directly opposite where we stopped to watch the ships: Sault (pronounced "soo") St. Marie. The influence of French Catholic-Quebecois culture has almost entirely disappeared from Michigan (the same as it has from the Mississippi River region, despite their early presence throughout as explorers), except for the names, and even those have now mostly adopted English pronounciations: Detroit, St. Louis, Marquette (though Mackinac is still "mak-in-aw"). Still, some towns in the area do a good job trying to acknowledge it; the little town of St. Ignace (where we stayed and from which we caught a ferry to Mackinac: there are no bridges to the island, and no cars are allowed on it; only bikes and horses) was founded by and the final resting place of Father Marquette, one of the very earliest French explorers of the Michigan/Wisconsin area and the upper Midwest, and has a nice little commemorative park and monument to his life. We stopped by before we grabbed a couple of pasties ("pass-tees": traditional Upper Peninsula meat pies) for dinner before heading back to Grandma Madsen who was watching our children. And then, after a day to recuperate, back to Arkansas, back at last to the old routine.

Lot of driving, lot of visiting, lot of scenery this summer. Perhaps the most interesting realization Melissa and I came to as we did all this traveling is that....we like it. I mean, we've always liked being able to visit family and see new parts of the country, but we found ourselves talking about buying a big RV or mobile home someday, about hitting the road regularly every summer, and seeing some more of this nation, and all the amazing and wonderful places people have found to be, in the midst of diverse (yet interrelated) histories and geographies and weather patterns and ethnic genealogies. There's still so much we'd like to see in the South; we've yet to visit New England and the far northeast reaches of Canada; the Grand Canyon and much of the American Southwest is still foreign to us. We both grew up, we realized, in families that did your classic cram-the-kids-in-the-car road trips; rather than blowing the family fortune on big trips to big destinations, we both remembered--and felt comfortable continuing--to see America a little bit at a time, from one interstate and one Best Western and one national park and one roadside marker to the next. I can remember long drives, trading back and forth with my dad and brothers, as we wandered from our Washington home across the United States in the spring and summer. We drove to New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles; we lumbered along (all eleven of us after the last child was born) in a massive gas guzzling RV across all the country in between, and saw America not only (if I may say so) well, but also on the cheap. Tourists? Yep, that was us. Not the best thing in the world to be, perhaps, but better than staying home and watching all the Lucky People talk about the best bed and breakfasts and cycling tours along the French Riveria on the Travel Channel. So were aren't, and probably never will be, part of the cosmopolitan jet-set; probably that which we will take home with us from every place we visit will be more connected to city parks and tacky festivals and roadside cafes than fine restaurants and the art scene. I don't see that as any reason to avoid the road, and maybe the greatest blessing it gives us: the ability to have a feel for where other people stand, and thus more sympathy for them, and (I suspect) a greater ability to express where oneself stands as well.

My dad used to listen, on these long drives, to cassette tapes with all sorts of soft rock and country pop (the slick, MOR and "urban cowboy" music of the 1970s and early 1980s) on them. Now, when I'm behind the wheel, I surf the stations, looking for something by Ronnie Milsap, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, the Eagles, Jim Croce, Linda Rondstadt, the Carpenters, James Taylor, B.J. Thomas and all the rest. Good music? Well, not the best music--it's mostly derivative, a knock-off and mainstreaming of something else. I think it can be defended though. More importantly, it's good driving music--or at least, good driving music for me right now, a 35-year-old taking his kids and wife out on the road to see the country. The title of this post is a reference to the early 70s tune by Lobo, "Me and You and a Dog Name Boo." I know: terrible title. And the lyrics don't really fit my life. But still: it's a song about the simple pleasures of seeing this country as it is lived in: the "bright red Georgia clay," the "wheat fields of St. Paul," motoring "stately into big L.A.," with the lights "settling down into your brain." Broadly interpreted, I too live "travellin' and livin' off the land"; and despite being married and the father of two great kids, I think I too--so long as I'm willing to take my limitations and make the best of them--am "a free man." (C'mon, sing along, ok?)

I remember to this day
The bright red Georgia clay
How it stuck to the tires
After the summer rain.
Will power made that old car go
A woman's mind told me that it's so
Oh, how I wish we were back
On the road again.

Me and you and a dog named Boo
Travellin' and livin' off the land.
Me and you and a dog named Boo
How I love bein' a free man.

Now I can still recall
The wheat-fields of Saint Paul
And the mornin' we got caught
Robbin' from an old hen,
Old MacDonald, he made us work
But then he paid us for what it was worth
Another tank of gas and back
On the road again.

Me and you and a dog named Boo
Travellin' and livin' off the land.
Me and you and a dog named Boo
How I love bein' a free man.

Now I'll never forget that day
We motored stately into big L. A.
The lights of the city kept
Settlin' down in my brain,
Though it's only been a month or so
That old car's buggin' us to go
You gotta get away and get back
On the road again.

Me and you and a dog named Boo
Travellin' and livin' off the land.
Me and you and a dog named Boo
How I love bein' a free man.

10 Years On

On August 13, 1993, ten years ago today, Melissa Madsen and I were married in the Salt Lake City Temple. It was a Friday, so despite being at the very height of the marriage season in Utah, and despite getting married in arguably the single busiest Mormon temple on the planet, we had the place pretty much entirely to ourselves. I believe only five weddings were performed there that entire day. Don't ever say American Mormons aren't as suspicious as anyone else.

It was bright, windy and warm day (hot, really, but the breeze took the bite off). Not everything went perfectly according to plan, but most things did. It was a good beginning to our life together. I'm not sure how well I understood it at the time, and I'm not sure how well I understand it now, but I think that perhaps the most important reason it was a good beginning was the fact that we were both ready to begin. We were in love, yes; we had our families behind us, true; we had some good plans and goals and some sense of how to achieve them, absolutely. But I think, most crucially, we were settled on what we were doing. Forget about this single life stuff. A pox on the dating scene. To hell with being at loose ends. Real life--and real joy, and real wisdom--begins, as Telford Work so aptly put it on his blog last month, with getting "permalinked." We wanted to be committed, stuck together, sealed, put on the path and pushed out the door. And we were. Ten years on, I can't even imagine what might otherwise have been, or what may have been missed or what perhaps could have been better. Fortunately (thank you God), I find I'm really not even interested in wondering.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Neither Tan nor Rested, but Almost Ready

What a summer. We spent time in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, and Michigan, plus traveled up to the Canadian border at both British Columbia and Ontario...counting the states we drove through (however briefly), our family managed to visit a fifth of the whole U.S. And yes, towards the end, it was too much. We put over 800 miles on the car yesterday, just because it was really time to get home.

Posting should resume next week, and hopefully in a more substantive manner than in the past. The summer has been rewarding; I've a pocketful of new ideas, new perspectives, and new habits to spread around my daily routine, and some may result is some good reading. Next Wednesday is Melissa's and my tenth anniversary, and seeing as how part of the travelling this summer was undertaken for the catching a brother-in-law and his new wife before they headed off into the future, reflections on marriage and going the distance (spatially and temporally) have loomed large in my thoughts over the last couple of months. That'll probably come through in my soon-to-be-written posts as well.

I think about eight people have continued to look in on this blog over the summer, just to see if I've posted anything. Or maybe that was just me randomly searching the web from different computers. Oh well--whether monologue or dialogue, this blog is (almost) back.