Thursday, March 27, 2008


Unemployment? Gee, I wonder what that means (kind of in the vein that my eldest brother, currently in mortal combat with his ex over custody and visitation with his 5-year-old son, wonders just what "child support" really means). I'll explain:

I just found out tonight that my father-in-law (the 60-year-old former engineer/business manager, earning well over $100k/year, recently retired via "voluntary layoff" -- with a full year's severance pay, and a pension, as well as comfortable retirement savings) is eligible for, and currently receiving 6 months "unemployment benefits". Um... what?

Now, let's say I were in his shoes. I'm eligible for money, why not take it? Granted. But then... just what is unemployment? I mean, I'm unemployed, right? But I get no benefits. I'm not eligible. It would seem that unemployed PhDs, seeking gainful employment are not considered the worthy unemployed. From what I gather, most contingent faculty who are not renewed in their underemployed status are not considered unemployed, and therefore are ineligible for any support.

The self-employed who lose their livelihood are likewise not considered eligible. I know this because I've been there. The argument is that unemployment is insurance paid for by employers (well, some employers, but clearly not most colleges and universities that hire adjunct faculty). But then, when I hear these statistics about 4.6% or 5% unemployment, I wonder. I mean, they're not really counting how many people are unemployed, but rather that percentage of them (I'd venture, a small percentage) who are actually receiving unemployment benefits.

Some personal background:

I had my first paper route when I was nine. At eleven, I worked after school at a BBQ restaurant hauling in firewood, chopping vegetables, and any other miscellaneous jobs they'd give me. At thirteen, I worked in the mess hall at the military academy I attended to support my partial scholarship. At 15, I was in college in New York, working part-time with odd jobs. At 17, I dropped out of college, and worked full-time (double-time really) as a political activist, pollster, and fundraiser, 6 or 7 days a week for four years. At 21, I worked full-time (sometimes double shifts) as a waiter, awaiting the fall when I'd return to college. Throughout college, I continued to work at least part-time, often two or more different jobs to make ends meet and pay the bills that weren't covered by student loans (or the generosity of my parents).

At 28, I received my Master's degree, and followed my fiancee to where she had a job, to pick up odd jobs, and work on the stage (for paltry wages), then taught privately, and eventually landed a gig teaching at a community college. At 32, I returned to college for my PhD, and for the first time in my life was supported by fellowships. I was in heaven to receive payment (albeit modest!) to do what I believed I was best suited for, pursuing the life of a scholar, preparing for a career as an academic.

At 37, I received a PhD. In my forty years of life, I have never been eligible for nor received unemployment, though I have at times been unemployed. I have been poor. I know what it means to have nothing in the bank (NOTHING), to have thousands in revolving debt, plus student loans, rent due, (or late fees accruing because it's already past due), and mere crumbs in the pantry.

What is unemployment?

Despite all this, I'll tell you something I've realized, which in part motivated my discarding of the insulting and abusive employment I once recently had at Lemon University. It is (at least in part) our own fault. The reason why academics can be offered so little in wages, so little in job security, so little in respect and dignity, why so few of us are employed for full-time wages and benefits is simply this: we take it. As long as some of us line up to accept what is offered, the longer the offers will remain what they are. So, I left. I won't be part of that system.

I'm not afraid of poverty, only losing my dignity and self-respect. And so I am unemployed. But damn, I'm going to pursue something I believe in, which promises even the potential to have a positive impact on the world. I will not lie down. I will not simply take it. I will do what I can. I will live in accord with my principles. I will bury my pride and indignation (because disgust, even justified, is not a useful motive for accomplishing anything good).

I am a homeowner now (at least 20%). I am a father and husband. I am a son, and brother, a son-in-law, and brother-in-law. I am an American (with the joy and sorrow that affords).

Today, a new chapter begins!

Home owned!

No longer packing. No longer flying. No longer toting (three boys, three car seats, three cats, luggage). Movers should arrive in about a week (hopefully less). Car and van are expected on Monday.

We signed over a large bank check to the mortgage broker today, received a much smaller refund check from them for the difference, and a stack of papers including a warrant deed for our own nice little property in the midst of a wet snow flurry. A welcome greeting. We're still with the inlaws... but I think we're finally HOME... for a time at least.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Packing interminable

With three boys, and a conscience as a father, it is rather difficult to get much done packing-wise. We put on some coffee, and expect to keep working until our limbs give out. The moving van and crew arrive tomorrow around 8:00 am. They're sending one packer to help finish up. It just seems that there is ever more to do. And the cleaning...

The car shippers still have not found a driver for our vehicles (though we said last Thursday was the earliest they could be picked up), meaning they'll likely remain here after we've gone, and we'll need to leave the keys with a neighbor, who'll serve as contact person for the shippers (should they ever deign to arrange a pickup).

The mortgage broker called today to ask that I send him over our February bank and brokerage statements. I had sent him the January statements a few weeks back, since February's were not yet available. Now!? They sure cut things close! I keep worrying something will fall through, and we'll be left homeless, with our household and vehicles in limbo.

Little things, right? But what are the big things?

It's easier to wipe the slate clean than to find the passion and inspiration to fill it once again. It takes far less time and energy to collapse a house of cards than to have built it in the first place; and proves perhaps even harder to regain the motivation to start anew.

But then, we've stripped ourselves bare, staring at the icy waters that taunt and provoke us to dive in. Is it better to stand naked on shore than to jump? Little choice this late in the game, eh? We'll shiver either way; might as well enjoy the plunge.

Now back to packing.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A good day

We promised the boys, iff we were able to get everything packed up today and tomorrow (save whatever we leave for the movers), we'd be able to spend most of Monday and Tuesday simply having fun. Despite a few frustrations (understandable when you're expecting a three-year-old and a five-year-old to entertain themselves), they were rather helpful and creative. They even helped us pack a few boxes. We got a lot done today. I'd even venture that it was our most productive packing day for the past couple weeks.

We'll walk to the ice cream parlor (does anyone else use that term?) for dessert, then a bath for the boys when we return. There's still a lot to pack, but I think we're on top of things now. Frankly, I'm more worried about the cleaning up. But then, it's only money. They required a rather hefty security deposit upon renting (two months' rent), which amounts to close to a month's worth of living expenses on our new budget. So, it'd be nice to get the lion's share of it back. But, there are things out of our control.

The property managers switched a few months after we started renting. The house is owned by an old (and somewhat senile) woman, whose children have been bickering, and accusing each other of embezzlement and neglect and such. We rented from the son and daughter-in-law (who were marvelously supportive), then the daughter and son-in-law took over the reins with a rather different philosophy on maintenance (she actually asked the electrician--who had been called last summer, when the temperature was above 109F, because the power would go out everytime the air conditioner kicked in, largely because more than half of the house was on a single circuit--does it have to be repaired?... I mean, it's been like that for forty years!)

She came by last week (with her rental agent!) to do a "walk through". Um... it won't be clean yet. Yeah, yeah, I understand. She sent us an email: the carpet was new when you moved in. Um, yeah... but now it's not... it's been lived on for two years. In any case, I see her working herself up for retaining as much of our deposit as she can muster.

But.... but, it's only money. I am so ready for this chapter to be done. Keep it all and I'll be a bit miffed. But I vow not to raise my blood pressure fretting over it. We do what we can. We're having the carpet professionally cleaned, and we're scrubbing and patching, and painting what we can.

Meantime, there are bigger fish to fry, and a whole wonderful new chapter of our lives to start writing. I set a big goal today: before half of our savings are depleted (figuring we've got two years of living expenses), I will get my first investor or first contract for the business.

Today, the weather here has been in the 80s, touching 90 I believe. They forecast a low of 50s tonight. Meanwhile fresh snow falls on the large corner lot of our new home (with a corner lot's sidewalk to clear). The weather gods are not being kind to us... or perhaps they're just testing our resolve. Any recommendations for a good snow shovel (or snow blower)?

Friday, March 21, 2008

A bit poorer and whole lot richer

Today 3/4 of our cash savings vanished from our account in one fell swoop. Yesterday, I requested a bank check be sent to me to cover our closing costs. It should arrive here at our soon-to-be-departed rental on Monday. The movers come on Tuesday to pack up our belongings. Wednesday we fly, one-way, toward our new home. We close on Thursday at 11:00. The movers should arrive the following Monday or Tuesday.

The mortgage broker says he's got everything lined up to complete the paperwork today (the deadline for our contingency). I wish it had been done weeks ago, but certain things are beyond our control. Current utilities have been set to turn off next week. I've set up our utilities to turn on in our names in the new house. I've cleared out my office, and carted everything home. I sent the movers our credit authorization today.

There's still a bunch of things to pack in boxes, though we're entering the phase of pack it in, we'll sort it out later. Tonight we'll try to pack up our suitcases, and whatever else we need for the next week, then pile everything else into boxes. We'll pay the movers to box up the computers and electronics. Friends have agreed to adopt my three mango, and four avocado trees, all grown from pit a couple years ago, currently thriving in oversize pots on the patio.

All that remains is to book a hotel room and rental car for the day or two before we catch a plane. That, and cleaning, touch up paint, minor repairs. Today was the Painter's final day of kindergarten here. I visited for the last hour, and took pictures. They'll miss him, and he'll miss his friends.

And they forecast 10" of snow to fall tonight... Are we ready for this? I think so!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Another goodbye

As if to mark this week for what it is, I've received three rejection letters from institutions where I had applied for faculty posts earlier in the season. One came in the form of a personal email from someone I had spent some time with on the phone, and whose conversation had in fact decided me in favor of an application which I was leaning against submitting.

Redacted to preserve anonymity, he wrote:
Dear Articulate,

No public announcement yet, but I am writing to say that we have made an offer in our [Field 1] search and it has been accepted. I know these things sometimes linger without conclusion for the candidates until someone mentions that so-and-so got the job. I didn't want that to happen in this case.

In the end, we hired [name], a 2007 [Top-ranked Private University] PhD. Her central work on [research focus] fit the main focus of our search very well, but her secondary specialities in [secondary areas] proved irresistible to the committee because of [reasons].

So, thanks for applying and all the best for the future.

It took me a week, and a couple thrown-away drafts to reply:
Dear Rick,

I thank you for your thoughtfulness in thinking of me. To be honest, I made the decision a couple of months ago to walk away from academia. Four years after completing my dissertation, and ~150 faculty applications later, I'd had enough. I am bitterly disappointed and discouraged by the utter lack of societal support for education, and by what I perceive as a pervasive spinelessness among the academic community, especially in the humanities, to stand up and say "enough is enough." It simply isn't right that there are so few positions, that pay and benefits are so pathetic, and that so many inestimably worthy PhDs are left to wallow in unemployment for so long. I spent last semester in "adjunct servitude" teaching what was called part-time--I had 78 students in two courses-- for a measly $7700 with no benefits, and nothing more than a term-to-term contract. I encouraged them to split the courses in two for subsequent terms and hire me full-time with benefits, which they refused to do. So I resigned at the end of the term rather than renew under those conditions. And I've ceased applying for faculty positions.

I've decided to live off of savings for the next couple years, and work to build my own research firm, working on [the crux of my research]. Who knows if it will succeed. But frankly, anything is better than working for a private university (commanding $30,000 year in tuition) to make no more on an hourly basis than I did as a waiter twenty years ago (with no more job security or benefits than I had then). The hardest thing for me is leaving behind the classroom, which I love, and my students. I am a good teacher. Of that I have no doubt. My student evaluations confirm this. What a pity to society that there are thousands like me, far more than those hired to faculty positions, pushed out of a career we've spent our lives preparing for.

Enough is enough!

All my best to you Rick, as well, and best wishes for [new hire's] present and future success.

I've come to believe that some things simply need to be said. I just wonder if anyone is listening.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lemon Rind

Recent correspondence with my friend Sara Chaisano at Lemon University [tenured a couple years ago], saying "goodbye, we're moving on". We've been trying to plan a get together so she can meet the Composer before we head on. Unfortunately, it looks unlikely with our schedules.

She had asked whether I had received my student evaluations for last term. I replied:
I wonder if you have any stats for the course over time, so I might compare my rankings to standards. Not that I suspect it will much matter, having decided to walk away from a potential academic career. Never know, I might change my mind. But I'm so disappointed and discouraged by what seems like pervasive exploitation of PhDs, both as adjuncts, and as underpaid and overworked tenure-track faculty, that I have lost interest in pursuing the career I spent the past decade preparing for.
Her response:
I hear you about the underpaid overworked part time AND full time tenure track faculty! And it gets only marginally better after tenure, unless you're in a law school or business school where you can make gobs of money. We have the bad end of the stick any way you look at it. Sigh.

I wish you much luck with your new lives!
And so, I'm reminded why I've made this choice, and I'm reinforced in my belief that walking away is the right one.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Packing nostalgia

I am 40 years old. I have lost count of how many places I have called home in my two score years. What I can tell you is that I have only once lived in the same place for more than four years (that was during elementary school, first grade through the beginning of sixth grade). Mostly, two years is a chapter.

Somehow, I have managed to accumulate and retain a great deal of stuff. Every move presents a chance to reminisce, and to purge. There is something freeing about tossing items I've long held on to, but which offer me little more than added weight and bulk. But how do you know? Sometimes I remember sadly a package of items I once tossed only to regret the loss of memory that tossing has meant.

Life, like a river, flows.

Monday, March 10, 2008


These days are a bit of a blur. Much to do. Many little things occupy my time.

I still worry about the world. I hope for peace in the Middle East. I wonder at how similar these "suicide bombers" may really be to the American-style school shooters. How different really is a 25-year old murderer in Jerusalem from a 26-year old murderer in Dekalb? I hope for peaceful retransition to democracy in Pakistan. I hope for a peaceful resolution to the infantile yet dangerous posturing of Iran on nuclear enrichment. I wonder if this country of mine will have the wherewithal to reject the war-mongering of a John McCain presidency. (I can't help but laugh darkly at the incongruence of Dick Cheney talking up peace and concern over high-priced oil in the Middle East). I wonder whether (should a Democrat take the White House) there will be strength and foresight to rise above the populism of today's campaigning to deal with serious issues with seriousness, rather than short-sighted popularity-raising.

And... I remain a little apprehensive about the next few years for my family as well. I've taken care to move much of our non-retirement savings and investments into more stable holdings, which have so far proven somewhat immune to the wild swings of the market (though our retirement holdings have not). For now I still believe we've got a good two years of living expenses covered. I worry that something will still go wrong with the purchase, that the loan (though the loan officer assures me everything is kosher--the appraisal is scheduled for tomorrow) will somehow slip away, and we'll be left without a house to move to. Irrational fears perhaps... but it ain't over 'til it's over.

There's really little to fear perhaps. We're incredibly lucky, I realize, that we can even consider this move. There are many no less worthy than us who couldn't imagine two months without income, much less two years, even if our calculated risk takes us to a region with a cost of living 15-20% below the U.S. average. We've been smart with our money, I'll venture... but very lucky nonetheless. I want nothing more at the moment than to prove worthy of this time. It's not without risk. But then how much are two years of life worth? The risk I'm willing to take.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A dandelion day

Just a fine day, earlier in the week, for blowing dandelion seedheads, as my two older boys were eager to remind me.


Another ritual of cleansing: Going through one of our filing cabinets, I came across a folder of faculty job rejection letters from several years ago (starting with one of the earliest in December 2003 while I was on a Fulbright grant in Central Europe). I stopped keeping them after the first couple seasons of applications. This is but a tiny selection of letters I've received since the fall of 2003. I had been told there were three prime years for faculty applications (the year before you finish, the dissertation year, and the year after). Well, I can say with confidence... that bit of advice served me about as well as a wad of gum on the underside of my shoe on a hot August afternoon.

These letters, along with reams of other documents and papers that we no longer need, will be duly shredded this afternoon, and given some useful function as packing material. I am so ready for this move. A new chapter is about to begin!


I mentioned in passing earlier in the week that we had donated more than fifty books to the library. Twice before this year we had already donated perhaps two hundred. We've gotten rid of many books over the past few years. In some ways this last set was like the proverbial last 20 pounds you seek to lose (or at least it was the first five of the last twenty).

Many of these books were ones I'd had for years, either which I had begun to read, then set aside, or which I intended to read but hadn't yet gotten to. Several were ones I might have expected to assign (or at least refer to) in courses I might have taught had I been hired for the interdisciplinary post I was seeking. But I wasn't offered the post, and I've applied for no further faculty positions since that interview. I've lost interest.

Purging those books from my shelves was a nod that a certain chapter in my life has ended. I am no longer a student, seeking to hold on to anything that might be useful to me down the road. Nor am I a prospective faculty member, wishing to retain on my shelves any book that might prove a boon for me or a student at some point.

I look at a field of long grass, with a scythe in hand, intent on forging a new path. Many of the tools I carried in the past will not serve me here. I need to let them go. Letting go those books was a start.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Little changes/big changes

The beard is gone. I had stopped shaving the day Composer was born. I can still grow a handsome beard in about three weeks or so, though just a hint of gray peppers the coloration. But Rocket seems to like the look of my beard more than its prickles. Besides, she says, she likes my clean-shaven face too. My hair has grown long again... or longish, not quite to my shoulders, but longer than it's been for a couple years. I've been wearing t-shirts, jeans, and sweatshirts a lot more lately, and fewer button downs and slacks. I've no one to impress at the moment, no classrooms or presentation halls to stand up in front of. I'm on no one's schedule (at least no one over the age of 5!), except my own.

Yesterday, I picked up a vanload of used boxes from the movers, free. I got the van serviced (30k mi) this morning. The car was given its 60k mi servicing a couple days ago. Yesterday, I took one of the cats to the vet because of an eye infection. Last week I and the boys visited the dentist. Lots of little details in preparation for the big change.

Lately, Rocket and I have worried over many things, some worthy of our concern, others not. Truth is, this is a measured decision that we have come to together. There are risks and benefits. Most importantly, we asked ourselves what it is we want from the next few years. This choice to move, to buy a house again, in an inexpensive area, near family, where we can build a community, where we can live off savings for a couple years if necessary, seems to be the best of many. Rocket wants a hiatus from her career; I want the chance to forge one that's more dignified and meaningful than adjunct servitude. Where we're going affords us that.

I'll gladly swap the weather report for the traffic report.

Monday, March 3, 2008


Silent of late, I know. Details. Preparing for the move.

I drove a van full of household items, furniture, electronics, clothes, etc. over to the Goodwill this morning, much of which we had been planning to donate for months.

I just loaded more than 50 books and 100 journals into the van to be driven to the library for donating later.

We've got our third and final bid from a mover coming over to assess this afternoon. The first scared us (at about $16,000!), but was clearly based on faulty judgment at 18,000 lbs of stuff. The second bid came in (about a third the price) with an assumption of 9500 lbs (and a guarantee that the final price won't be more than 10% higher than the estimate). The only reason we're holding out for a third is that it's a company where a family friend works, and he asked that they be allowed to bid.

We've got a bunch of little household tasks to attend to (fix a broken window, have the carpets cleaned, get the cars their overdue servicing), logistics (how are we moving the cats, when can the movers come, what about the car shippers, when should we fly, do we need a hotel room for a night or two, what about a rental car?).

Rocket went through a brief panic, wondering if she shouldn't go back to work, part-time, or temporarily... what are we going to do? Live off savings? What if it doesn't work out? But, in the end she decided it's alright to jump now. We'll have time to figure everything out.

In any case, we're back to heading out at the end of this month, leaving us precious little time to waste. So, I've been a bit distracted from everything (including blogging). This is a good choice for us. We'll be happy, we'll be more in control of our lives, we'll own a house again. I have confidence.