Can you lead an authentic life in this mortgaged world?

October 20, 2016

There are plenty of books out there about living a “purpose driven” life. There also lots of rap songs about “keepin’ it real.” It’s basically the same thing. Are your actions in line with your values? Or maybe you’ve sold out to the Man, sold your soul to the Devil, or drank the Kool Aid. We want authenticity in our humans.

This presidential campaign has been full accusations that people are fake. Trump is not a true conservative. Clinton is not a real progressive. Ben Carson is not an actual brain surgeon. But all of us are vulnerable to this accusation. Our identities are works in process and constantly in flux. Nobody is a perfect anything. I’m a feminist but I own the soundtrack to Baywatch and it’s probably not for the music. Busted.

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We’re all hypocrites on some level; never quite living up to the vision of ourselves. Maybe not even close. We hate it when our favorite artist becomes huge and moves into a mansion in Beverly Hills, but we’d probably do the same damn thing. “I need more room for my rescue gerbils!”

I bring this up in this short blog post because it is an issue for anybody on the job market. Now that Cozy has turned two and The Dream Police is out, getting back to work is a priority. Since higher education has been eroded by the “new model” of declining tenure-line positions in favor of adjuncts and online classes, my next chapter will very likely be outside of academia. But what? I’ve been a college professor for over twenty years.

So that’s where the value check comes in. I’ve got two possible vectors outside of the classroom. The first is to do something rooted in my work around equity and social justice, or criminology. I applied for a couple of great Department of Justice gigs in DC, but the feds tend to hire from the inside. The other vector is that I get to write and get paid for it. Maybe The Dream Police or The Mission of the Sacred Heart (which is currently in the pipeline in Hollywood) will get picked up by a major publishing house. I’d love to get a paycheck to just sit in the coffee shop and write my weird stories.

I think I’d be really happy working in either world, but it’s not always that easy. Especially when you have a kid. And a mortgage.

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So you start thinking, “What else could I do?” I could totally be a letter carrier but it would be about a 50% pay cut from my last gig. I could run for office, but I’d have to vet myself, and that might get ugly. How far out of my comfort zone would I go? If I was offered a $100,000 a year position working for Monsanto, would I take it? (No) The Koch Brothers? (Um, depends.) Nike? (Oh, OK). I’m sure the CIA knows I’ve visited the “Careers” section of their website (not that I’d past the “Have you ever been a communist” background check. (But if I can, call me, girl!)).

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Before you judge me as a sell out, it’s like this – Yeah, I have down-for-the-program-and-up-the establishment values. But I’ve also got a precious daughter who is gonna need school supplies soon and I promised my wife I’d take her to Paris while she was still young enough to imagine living in an art studio in the Latin Quarter. So I might sell my soul a little bit. I think there are a lot of parents who have faced that reality and made the choice of the road most taken.

I’ve lived my dream. As a tenured professor I was fulfilled by my work every single day. I’m okay with bending the dream for my family. Maybe a socially progressive Portland agency needs a community outreach officer. Or maybe the CIA will hire me to neutralize the coming Trump militia. I could really be good at that.

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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A Year as a Penniless Writer

April 6, 2016

Last week my former colleagues were posting about the start of spring quarter and I have to admit that I got a sharp pang in my heart. It’s been officially a year since I left Portland State to focus on my writing and my family and not focus on endless battles with empowered psychopaths. There is nothing like the rush of the the first week of classes when everyone is sizing each other up. I would always front load my classes with bombast so students wouldn’t drop them for Badminton 101. They always seemed so restless after Spring Break.

A year ago we were furiously manning our Kickstarter campaign for my new book and I was here writing a blog about normative maleness and my daughter. We set a goal of $10,000 and raised over $11,000. The book is written and is with a copy-editor who will tell me I need to move some prepositions around and lay off the over-use of commas. I’m really proud of it. The Dream Police will make some waves when it is released. I like to tell people that it is about the sex lives of university administrators, but it’s about so much more. It is a twisted tale rooted in a twisted reality. Andrea had the idea of shooting some short promotional films for it, so I’m am currently looking for my cast. The book should be on people’s nightstands at the beginning of summer.

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In this year I’ve written over fifty pieces for this blog, some which have been published elsewhere, including in CounterPunch and The Gay & Lesbian Review. I’ve had a short story about Elvis published in an amazing collection and I’m working on a new piece about ant-like aliens that are using a guy’s butthole as a portal to take over the earth. (Hey, it’s my poetic license and I’m gonna use it. It’s a morality tale, okay?) The Mission of the Sacred Heart is still working its way through the Hollywood process and I’ve taken on the role as co-writer of the screenplay to help move it through “development hell.” I just keep writing and writing, waiting for something to land that will allow me to re-start Cozy’s college fund.

I certainly miss my regular paycheck and the benefits that came with it almost as much as I miss teaching and having a job that had such a direct impact on the community. The life of a writer is solitary and can be very lonely. Much of the time is spent inside my head. “What the hell should I do with this character? Maybe tie him to a weather balloon and set him free.” Sometimes I ask Cozy, but she just asks for a cracker or wants me to hand over my laptop because she knows Elmo lives somewhere inside it.

It’s a shock to the system to not have a captive audience three days a week, one that actually writes down what I say. Interviews on TV are not exactly the same. I can only hope that when an interview with me is on the 11 o’clock news, if people aren’t taking notes they are at least having sex. Make use of the time I have given you. But I’ve got a class at the University of Oregon coming up later this month, so I will encourage them to take notes (and not have sex) for my sake.

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I guess this is just a little diary to mark the moment. I can’t help but think of Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge (2001) as the penniless writer. In the great bohemian tradition the tale has a tragic ending, but the writer survives to turn the tragedy into a great story for future generations to gleam some insight from about love, life, and how to live it. That’s sort of what I’m doing. There’s plenty of joy in this house, with a long dreamed of wife who is as talented as she is beautiful and our perfectly perky baby, but there is also the long anguish of the unknown. Will all this writing pay off? Will the advance money last? Will Dad have to give his last Ritz Cracker to his crying child? Will the man be able to stop the alien ants from coming out of his butthole? Stay tuned and let’s find out together.

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