The emotional fatigue of looking for work

October 19, 2017

I had no idea it was going to be this hard. When I jumped ship from Portland State University in 2015, I thought I could just spend some time being a writer and taking care of my daughter while my wife went back to work. I had a small publishing advance, a book optioned in Hollywood, and a nice nest egg I had built for a rainy day.

It needs to stop raining.

The hope was, with my credentials, I could just hop into another gig when the time was right and the opportunity was meaningful for the work I do. It hasn’t played out that way. I’ve had a couple of close calls, including a great job opportunity at CUNY in Manhattan that I probably priced myself out of. (NYC is  expensive! Especially for a family.) There was a job with the city of Portland as a “hate crime program specialist” that looked like I had written it for myself. I didn’t even get an interview even though I’m already doing this work in the community. A longtime city employee told me it’s often the case that the city already has the hire identified and the applicant search is just an empty, but required, formality. Great. Thanks for getting my hopes up.

With a mortgage and a kid in daycare (and two maxed-out credit cards), I’ve suddenly realized that I’m the downwardly mobile American I’ve been lecturing about since I started interviewing skinheads in the Reagan years. Matching my old salary would be fantastic. Meaningful work is vital. But at this point, I’m starting to wonder what UPS drivers make during the holidays. I’ve been picky, hoping to stay in Portland or, if we have to move, some exciting Mecca of culture. God bless, but I’m not applying for the open position at South Dakota State University. My work requires gangs of disaffected youth and stellar coffee shops.

I’m writing this because I’ve learned that a lot of my friends are going through the same thing. Finding the “perfect job,” writing a compelling cover letter, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know how many trips I’ve planned with my wife after I get back to full time work. The excitement for Cozy to be in her pre-school five days a week. An end to the sporadic income from consulting work. Benefits! A kitchen remodel! Work clothes! And then the “Thanks, but no thanks” email pops up in my inbox and bursts that bubble. Again. It’s an emotional roller coaster. And there’s typically one moment each day when I wonder what happened to my financially secure life and how the hell am I going to get out of this.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m plenty busy. Between conferences in Spokane and Birmingham this month, CBS is flying me to New York City for an on camera interview. After I take Cozy trick or treating I’m being flown to Michigan to give a keynote. It’s exciting but it’s not the steady income a parent needs to provide for his child. Plus, Andrea says when I get back to work full time, she’s just going to stay home and make Mexican food. So there’s that. At 53, I should be fully able to provide for my family, but a Gen X mid-career change in a Millennial world has obstacles I didn’t foresee. You start to see why some men going on shooting sprees.

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As someone who has written a lot about masculinity (and its connection to violence), the upwardly mobile ethos is woven into my self concept. Male depression is acutely connected to lost economic status. I flash to that image of Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness where he’s clutching his son in a train station bathroom where they are basically living. I think about that scene all the time. I know that won’t be Cozy and I, but I don’t know that either. I know I’ve got a great skill set to offer, but why am I not working full time?

 

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Middle-aged men are the fastest growing demographic for suicide. There was a 43% increase between 1997 and 2014 for men between 45 and 60. Much of it is related to economic stress. I had my bout with suicidal ideation in the late 1990s. But a two-year-long prescription to Zoloft and writing my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart (about suicide), got me back on track. Now, as a father, I can’t imagine doing that to my daughter. I hope Frances Bean Cobain curses her father, Kurt, once in a while for abandoning her that way. It doesn’t mean the thought doesn’t creep into my head occasionally, as the ultimate F.U. to the people that ripped away my career. But it’s better to be here and broke then not be here at all. Being an agnostic, I don’t rely on the belief that after I’m dead I can just sit on the cloud and watch all chumps cry, “We should have given him that job!”

I’m pretty lucky. My child is healthy. My marriage is strong. My roof isn’t leaking. And thanks to Obamacare, we (still) have health insurance. But it’s really hard sometimes. The uncertainty. The wondering what I can sell to pay a bill. The wear and tear on my wife as she shoulders the economic load and wonders when the old “full time and fulfilled” Randy will come back. It can double a soul over. I think all my fellow jobseekers probably have a certain Tom Petty song on a loop in their heads.

Well I know what’s right

I got just one life

In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around

But I’ll stand my ground

This blog is partially about men coming to terms with their vulnerability without resorting to the tired and destructive tropes of old school masculinity. So a message to those trying not to lose too much while they build something new – Hang in there. Everything is in the rearview mirror at some point. The sacrifice will be worth it.

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The Need to Work

June 22, 2017

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It was a blessing in disguise. My paternity leave from Portland State University was involuntarily extended thanks to a bizarre collaboration between a clinically psychotic felon and a couple of administrators with a clear agenda. That time away from full-time work has allowed be to help my daughter transition from a baby into a little person. It’s also allowed me to publish a book, teach on a tropical island, write this weekly blog, start a podcast, and “man” the homefront while my wife advances in the work world. And I got to be home with Cozy from the first gurgle to her saying things like “Let’s check it out,” and “I ran like a cheetah.” It’s been a beautiful experience filled with art, adventure, and great love.

And now it’s time for it to end.

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The truth is I’ve been looking for work ever since I jumped off the gangplank at PSU. But I had a nice cushion made up of a settlement, savings, some publishing money, and a perfect collection of rare Avengers and Hulk comic books that now (sadly) belong to someone else. A $50,000 loan from my retirement was going to get us through to my next gig. Now, suddenly, I can see the bottom of the well. The money is about gone. Invest the last bucket in Powerball tickets?

Two years ago I thought I could just make a local lateral transition. There was a visiting professorship at Reed College (they wanted a quantitative methods teacher and I’m a qualitative schmoe) and a tenure-track gig at the University of Portland (they could have me but only with my tenure). I was sad but not shocked when those didn’t pan out. (They must not have known how awesome I was.) So I branched out and got an interview at CUNY in Manhattan and then a second interview with the provost. (I must have asked for too much money for that one.) What seemed like it would be a relatively smooth “mid-career” move looked increasingly more and more difficult. On top of the fact that universities are replacing tenure-line professorships with the academic slave-labor known as “adjuncts” and “on-line education,” the person that was applying was me, and, according the rumor mill, I have baggage.

What started off as a few disheartening roadblocks became dozens of rejections. Some positions I was a stretch to qualify for. (I would have made an awesome dean at Eastern Oregon University.) Some positions I was definitely an over-qualified candidate. (After my great interview, nobody could tell me why I didn’t get the job teaching Intro Sociology at Green River Community College.) Some jobs would have pushed me out of my comfort zone. (Oh, how I wanted to be the new executive director of Caldera Arts.) And some jobs were tailor-made for my experience and skills. (Whoever ends up being the new Diversity Program Specialist for the Portland Police, I challenge you to an equity duel.)

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Why am I not getting these jobs? You’d think people would want an award-winning professor, published in his field, with a long record of community service, who is likely quoted in your copy of the New York Times or making points on CNN while you’re on the treadmill. Are all the other candidates that much better? Or is something else going on?

I left PSU under a cloud of suspicion. It’s no secret that there were a few higher-ups that had it in for me. They were fueled by the rumor and innuendo that I was some type of campus playboy. A old bogus post on an internet gossip site that had a picture of me with my girlfriend of almost three years and the assertion that she “slept with me for an A” gave them additional ammo. There was never anything of the sort ever in my academic career. No human can say they got any special treatment in any of my classes for anything. But when gossip rules, you can’t win. (Hillary Clinton, I feel your pain.)

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Then a “former racist skinhead” named Steven Stroud decided he was going to try everything he could think of to attack me for some perceived slight that existed in his psychotic mind. He began writing numerous letters from his prison cell to the university, accusing me of everything under the sun. Out of pure luck, he finally hit on one thing these powerful few could use.

My crime: My wife was a former student.

That’s all it took. Forget that Andrea and I were consenting adults. Forget that she was the one who first asked me me out (after the class had ended). That was it. I had signed an agreement five years earlier that I would never date a PSU student after a stalker went all Basic Instinct on me and it was a quick way to resolve the matter. Now the torches were relit. They even traveled out to Eastern Oregon to visit this guy in prison to see if there were any more salacious details he could add to their “case.” They were giddy.

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I have zero regrets about my relationship with Andrea. We are incredibly happy and more in love every day. And that love produced our beautiful daughter. Cozy is the sun my little planet was destined to revolve around. She will change history. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. My only regret is that I quickly settled my lawsuit against the university. I had the moral high ground and could have won, especially if I took the story to my colleagues, students, and the general public. But we had a new baby and I was scared I would burn up our nest egg on lawyer fees while they used tuition and taxpayer dollars to fund their highly skilled legal team. I settled and thought I could just leave my academic home of twenty years and move on.

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Now over two years later it feels like I have been blacklisted; that the rumor-mongers are still waging their campaign against me. I need to work. The loan has to be repaid, the mortgage is due, and my daughter deserves the life I waited 50 years to give her. (I was one of those people who said, for decades, “I can’t have children, I’m not financially stable enough!”) She is so excited to exist in this world, I should be able to give her some security (although I will be eternally grateful to WIC for making sure my child at least had $8 worth of fruits and vegetables each month). This kid already deserves more than I will be able to give her.

So here’s the deal: I’m a passionate worker with a PhD. from Emory University and a long employment record. My last full time salary was $82,000 for a 9-month contract. I will work for less than that, but it’s gotta cover the bills. And I need benefits. Republicans  have made it clear they want to kill the Affordable Care Act which, at the moment, provides health care to my family. We’d like to stay in Portland but for a decent job we’ll move to Arkansas and just annoy the locals by playing Bikini Kill and drawing Hitler mustaches on Trump posters.

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I was an awesome professor. There’s plenty of people who will tell you that my classes at Portland State changed lives. I’d like a job that makes the world a better place. If you can convince me that selling vacuum cleaners can do that, I’ll listen. But it’s time for me to get back to work. My family is depending on me.

Please share this with anyone who might be able to help. References and my mother’s secret cheesecake recipe available on request. Email: blazakr@gmail.com

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Men Who Just Don’t Get It: Sexual harassment and my falafel with Bill O’Reilly

April 20, 2017

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You’ve gotta think it was pretty bad for TV personality Bill O’Reilly to get kicked out the misogynistic cesspool over there at Fox News. Papa Bear was booted from the right-wing network this week after reports surfaced that Fox had payed out more that $13 million in settlements to women over sexual harassment allegations. The grab-ass environment created by serial predator and Fox CEO Roger Ailes sounded like something from the first season of Mad Men. Meanwhile Fox News stalwarts Sean Hannity and Donald Trump have gone out of their way to defend these two men and attack their accusers. Is this 2017? Oh, right, making America “great again” takes us back before the time of pesky sexual harassment laws. Before those humorless feminists brought an end to the office party fun-fest.

Fox News is not unique. I don’t doubt that there are similar versions of this dynamic in almost every workplace, including CNN and MSNBC. The difference at Fox is that the powerful men doing this were pretty much the most powerful men in the room. Most workplaces have at least one dumb-ass guy who doesn’t know how to interact with women as fully functioning humans deserving of the same professional respect the old boys club gives each other. Like a character on The Office, his offensiveness is a product of living inside a boys club bubble.

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On the most basic level it’s inappropriate comments that female employees get on a regular basis. “Sit up straight, honey.” “Don’t let that donut spoil your diet.” “You should smile more.” “Your husband is a lucky man.” On the surface, it might seem pretty harmless. But the sheer volume is a reminder of the subordination women are supposed to endure and a reinforcement of the sexist trope that women are supposed to be seen and not heard. And if she says anything to interrupt the comments, she’s a bitch. “I was just being friendly.” “It was just a joke.” “Don’t get uptight.” Just go back to work, asshole.

The comments can be a set-up for the next level. If she’ll let a dirty joke slide and not “freak out” over a possibly inappropriate non-work related text, maybe it’s time for the quid pro quo. The offer she can’t refuse. “If you do this for me, I can open doors for you.” Or the converse, “If you don’t do this for me, you’re out on your sweet ass.” That’s where O’Reilly got busted. He’s a star and, according to President Trump, “when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” One too many women said “no” to Old Bill, and without Ailes there to protect him, he’s now out on his blotchy keister.

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I’ve heard so many versions of this story from women, including my own mother who filed a complaint with the EEOC in the 1980s in a pretty egregious case. She was brave to say “no more,” but lost the case because the other victims were afraid to come out of the dark. Those women wanted to keep their jobs and my mother lost hers. But in this day of texts and emails and instant messages, there’s a lot more evidence to file successful claims. These days it’s more likely there will be a settlement or maybe the harasser will be removed. (Although both Ailes and O’Reilly leave with millions of dollars in severance.)

I know I have been guilty of making inappropriate comments, thinking I was just being funny. As a feminist sociologist, I’m on guard, but I’ve made my share of mistakes. The difference is, if a female colleague, student, or even Facebook friend were to say, “Hey, I don’t think that’s appropriate,” I would immediate stop and evaluate what I said or did. That’s because I respect women and don’t want them to think I’m a douchebag. I know my male privilege could dictate that I just blow it off. “Maybe it’s that time of the month.” But I’ve learned (often from mistakes) that if you don’t have women as your allies, you’re alone in Guyland. That might have been cool when you were a teenage “bro,” but it’s no place for an adult male.

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On September 26, 2005, I made my first (and now last) appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. I was brought on as a hate crime expert to discuss death threats that had been made against New York Yankee Derek Jeter for dating a white woman. This was when Bill was being sued by former producer Andrea Mackris for sexual harassment. She recorded him saying all kinds of a wack-a-doo things while using a vibrator on himself, including this gem:

So anyway I’d be rubbing your big boobs and getting your nipples really hard, kinda kissing your neck from behind… and then I would take the other hand with the falafel thing and I’d put it on your pussy but you’d have to do it really light, just kind of a tease business….

(No wonder Donald Trump loves this guy.) Now let me say this – consenting adults are allowed do and say all kinds of freaky-deaky things. If Bill O’Reilly wants to propose rubbing Mediterranean food on a female partner’s vagina while he’s got a Magic Wand up his butt, that’s their business. I don’t judge. (And I think he meant loofah, not falafel). But Mackris contends it was unwanted. ““Tyrannical and menacing” is how the suit describes the contact by O’Reilly, who was (of course) married at the time.

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O’Reilly didn’t propose any such shenanigans with me. (Although during the over-the-phone pre-interview I mentioned that I was just finishing my falafel and was almost disinvited from the no spin-zone.) But he did make the interview all about him. I tried to talk about lingering racist anger at inter-racial couples and he went off about how gets death threats all the time and it’s just the price of fame. (Al Franken later told me that this was a complete lie and there are no documented death threats against Bill.) The interview ended with O’Reilly saying, “OK Professor, you get the last word.” And then he cut me off mid-sentence to blather more about his persecution.

Bill O’Reilly is a 67-year-old narcissist who will probably never get it. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong and the current President of the United States of America doesn’t think he did anything wrong. But there are a lot of young guys who look up to these old men as role models. Their victims will suffer without the millions of dollars Fox News paid out in hush money. And now the low-level dickwads who are telling their female co-workers to “Sit up and smile more,” have some pretty powerful icons on their side.

But times are changing. The old guard is dying and a new band of brothers is going to defend their sisters. The banishment of Bill O’Reilly should encourage all victims of sexual harassment to speak out. No one is allowed to get away with this. Not the guy who works in the pizza shop, or the law firm, or even a guy who has his own TV show. And certainly not the guy who lives in the White House. So bros, grow up. If a woman tells you, “I don’t think that’s appropriate. Please stop.” – don’t blame it on her period. Check yourself.

To report a case of sexual harassment, please visit the EEOC website: 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

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My Unintended Gap Year: The humility of looking for work

Sept. 1, 2016

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I had my dream job. For twenty years I was an award winning sociology professor at Portland State University. My research on hate groups made me an internationally recognized expert on the subject and I did countless media appearances, from The O’Reilly Factor to Al Jazeera. I published and presented and diligently worked my way up the ranks: the young Assistant Professor, the tenured Associate Professor, and finally the stately Full Professor. Most importantly, I would walk out of every single class and feel privileged that I got to impact so many lives on crucial issues like race, gender, and power dynamics. Occasionally, I felt it was like a huge mistake that a punk like me ended up with such a wonderful career.

Then this career that meant something to the world was taken away from me because I fell in love.

In what seemed like a David Mamet play, a small group of powerful administrators teamed up with a racist skinhead incarcerated in an Oregon prison to purge me from campus. I was an officer in the faculty union and we had recently voted to go on strike so there were already battle lines drawn. My crime? My wife was taking an online Women’s Studies class at PSU. After numerous accusations generated by the inmate, all of which fell flat, they asked me, “Are you sleeping with any students at this university?” I responded, “Yes, I sleep with one every night. My wife.” Our child was in her carrier set next to me when I said it. And that was that. They had their technical violation.

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Andrea had been a student in one of my huge Intro Sociology classes and I never really even spoke to her during the class. After the class was over I ran into her at Dante’s bar and she bought me a shot of tequila and asked if I’d like to go out sometime. I told her I didn’t date students. She bought me another shot of tequila and I said maybe we could be friends. It wasn’t long after that that we fell madly in love, became travel companions, got married and had a beautiful daughter. Not once in this drama did I ever regret choosing to be with Andrea. She is the partner I’ve waited for all my life. Any regret is reserved for the trust I placed in university administrators to recognize that love is a gift to be celebrated, not punished.

The whole thing was pointless, yet emotionally devastating. I can’t speak to their true motives. I have my suspicions. They had discretion to weigh my contribution to the university against this supposed offense, so it’s hard for me to see their response as a rational action. Perhaps they saw my unconventionality as a liability. My only real regret in the matter is that I let the lawyers make all the decisions after that point. I should have fought harder against the rumor mongers and for my place at the school that I loved. But we had a new baby and I was afraid if I didn’t accept the settlement, I would have a hard time finding work in my field again.

So I walked away from my dream job.

I wanted to write and be a stay-at-home dad for a bit. I hoped I could land in something quickly, a visiting professorship, a publishing advance, an invitation to be on Dancing with the Stars. Turns out the market for full professors is pretty slim. Shrinking academic budgets have departments looking for cheap Assistant Professors just out of grad school. “I’ve already been through the tenure process,” I said to myself. “I’m not going through that hell again.” With my experience couldn’t I just hop over to Reed College or the University of Portland? I had guest lectured at both.

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In the meantime, the great health benefits I had at PSU ended and our baby needed health care. We went on to the Oregon Health Plan and signed up for WIC. These services for “poor people” I had lectured about since my grad school days at Emory were now a vital part of keeping my family going. I would take Cozy to the dental services with the other low income parents and thank the universe that Obamacare was actually a thing. But going to the bank to take out my unemployment funds or using the WIC vouchers to purchase milk and government cheese for my child was the first lesson in humility. “This is just temporary,” I would promise myself. My wife, who actually had a job would laugh. “You’re a white man with a PhD,” she’d say. “You’re gonna be fine.”

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I had plenty of irons in the fire. I was happy to have time to work on a new novel, partially inspired by what happened. Friends and fans of my last book fully funded a $10,000 Kickstarter project to back it. I developed a reality show about teachers that might have some legs. I sent off applications for jobs I seemed to be cut out for, including at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. I was flown out to interview for a professorship at a great university in NYC and then flown out again to meet with the Provost. When she asked me what salary I’d require, I answered with my last salary at PSU and hoped that would be enough to move my family to the very expensive Big Apple. They ended up giving the job to some kid straight out of Harvard who probably said he would work for half that,

All the money I had banked away over the years started to thin out. Andrea got a great job at a law firm but I had to start selling off my beloved comic book collection. My summer teaching position in Isla Mujeres meant we could live on pesos and stretch it out for a while. I had fashioned myself as a bohemian stay-at-home dad, writing, pouring wine while Andrea painted, and presenting on Portland’s civil rights history with the baby on my hip. As long as the mortgage was covered I got less and less interested in looking for a job that didn’t suit me. (Although, I worried I might end up working weekends at the Foot Locker.)

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I’ve had a great detour for the last year-and-a-half, away from regular work. I desperately miss my students and colleagues at PSU, but I’ve continued to teach classes at the University of Oregon and on Isla Mujeres. I’ve done dozens of important tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, worked as a grant evaluator at the National Institute of Justice in DC, and written a pretty damn good book that will be out in a month. But it’s time to get back to work. Cozy is 2 and Andrea has her eyes on law school.  I need to step back into the provider role.

The second stage of humility is the asking for help finding a job. My Pisces brain thought someone would just hand me a plum gig because I’m just so fabulous. I don’t think it works that way in the real world. It’s time to put myself out there and get my foot in a few doors. That might include swallowing my pride and taking a few steps back so I can compete with those kids right out of grad school. A friend messaged me, “Don’t be afraid to backtrack with teaching in Higher Ed. There is no need to be prideful. You had a great run in education and maybe you could have another great run.”

There are so many philosophies to job-seeking. Some think you should wait for the job you envision yourself in. I just want to be able to take care of my family and the world they live in. Also, I know Excel.

I’ve worked steadily since I was 15. I got a job putting up Christmas decorations at Northlake Mall. At 16, I was the youngest person hired at Turtles Records, a great local Atlanta music chain that is long gone. I’ve loved work all my life, making this “gap year” a strange experience. But raising a child is a full time job in itself and I think Cozy is a better person for hiring me.

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So here I am, passionate about seeing the human race evolve into a kinder species. Sometimes my sense of humor is questionable. I’m obsessed with music I haven’t heard yet. I’m completely devoted to my wife and child and making their dreams come true. I love to teach and write and sometimes forget where the comma goes. I have a lifetime of community involvement and thousands of former students that hopefully learned a thing or two about how the world works. I’m paper trained and I need a job.

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