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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My Little New York Patti Smith Dream

January 9, 2016

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I’m sitting in a bar on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. This is John Lennon’s block. John Lennon, the househusband and patron saint of this blog. I often come here on trips to New York, a solemn pilgrimage to consecrated pavement, blessed by his blood, thinking I will see him and his death will all have been a bad dream, conjured up by Rosemary’s devil-eyed baby. I walked the block, past the Dakota and thought about how many times he did the same. I’m sure it’s changed a bit since 1980. The Starbucks and the tour busses (“And to your left you’ll see the spot where Beatle John Lennon was murdered.”) weren’t there during the last days of the Carter years. And when it happened we thought our love affair with guns was finally done. On this Saturday the Dakota is draped in sheets and scaffolding. At first I thought it was a Yoko Ono performance piece as she still lives in the Victorian castle overlooking Central Park. Turns out the old house is just being cleaned.

But most of this short trip has been spent in Greenwich Village (although I did hike up to the East Village this morning for some perfect pirogues at Veselka Café that happily took their time melting on my tongue). As long as John has been in my life, Patti Smith has been there almost as long. At least since I read about her in rock magazines in my teenage bedroom in 1976 Stone Mountain, Georgia; the wild woman, chanting, “Go Rimbaud!”

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The dirty, nasty world of CBGB’s on the Bowery is where I wanted to be, not in my Ted Nugent-loving southern suburbia, draped in pink and blue Laura Ashley curtains. At age 14, I got the Easter album after hearing “Because the Night” on the radio and tried to dissect the poetry imbedded in what was then considered “punk rock.” High on rebellion. Words can carry you. Maybe I can do that, my pimply brain thought. Maybe I can write a line that will take on a life of its own.

After my piano-playing mother, Patti was my first exposure to the energy of the goddess artist. There was a raw feminist power to her, unrestrained by gendered expectations. Her hairy armpits were mocked on Saturday Night Live when Gilda Radner did her “Candy Slice” character. It was all wild abandon to boy trapped in the suffocating Bible Belt. I’d sit in front of my stereo speakers like Hendrix kneeling in front of his burning guitar. Give me more, I’d beg.

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The first time I saw her play live, I was in a state of ecstasy. It was at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland in 2001 and when she played “Gloria,” I ripped my shirt off thinking I was being ushered into a Roman orgy. There’s track from that show on her 2002 Land album. She’s reading from Ginsberg’s Howl and you can hear me screaming like a banshee. The only drug I was on was transcendence. And now my artist wife is deep under her spell. Our own Frida Kahlo with a rock band and a return to Portland on Andrea’s birthday.

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After seeing her last Wednesday night with Andrea, performing 1975’s Horses front to back (including the prose-rhapsody of  “Birdland.” Oh, how long I’ve waited for you!), I decided to take her new book, M Train, with me to New York, where I would be interviewing at a wonderful university. It’s a brilliant free floating tome about travels and not being able to write this particular book. It’s like her version of a Seinfeld episode. By the time I landed, I had the first hundred pages dancing barefoot in my head.

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As it turns out, the book unfolds around the world but mostly in Greenwich Village, near where I was staying in Chinatown. Much of it begins at Café ‘Ino on 21 Bedford Street, just past 6th Avenue. I must go there, I thought on the plane, and have black coffee and toast at her table! Of course, in rapidly transforming New York City, Café ‘Ino is gone gone. It closed in 2013 and now is a lovely Italian bistro called Cotenna, where I had a sumptuous penne al fungi and a glass of red wine and imagined her sitting by the window, scribbling in her notebook.

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The other Patti spot is Caffé Dante, around the corner on MacDougal. They didn’t open until noon and it was 11 am on Friday, so I walked up the block to Caffe Reggio, an old favorite of mine. I was traveling light, just my laptop bag with the Mac, M Train, a few pens, the latest issue of Beatlefan and the new Village Voice with a caricature of Donald Trump as a fascist demagogue on the cover.

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I found a seat surrounded by fellow literary travelers all enclosed in the café’s red womb-like walls, waiting to birth some brilliant thought or first line. A young guy next to me was reading Kerouac, an older fellow (who I’m sure I’ve seen there before) was reading Lacan: A True Genius and kept putting the book down with a “Holy psychoanalysis!” look on his face. I had my copy of M Train and a cappuccino, keeping one eye out the window in case Ms. Smith walked by. But my singular mission was to spend some time in her world through the pages of her book.

As my year of writing winds down it’s time to put myself back on the market. Parenthood demands a stable income, but my mind is still floating in the ether. A winning Powerball ticket bought on St. Marks aside, I’d really like Cozette to know her father as more than the guy sitting on the couch writing while drinking endless cups of coffee. So on MacDougal I developed a fantasy about running into Patti before my interview with the provost. I’d grab a seat next her at Caffé Dante and mention our prior meeting at Powell’s Books in Portland when I showed her my Cobain homage in my book of poetry to her Dylan homage in her book of poetry.

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“So what are you doing here in New York?” She’d ask.

“Hoping to land a job. I was a criminologist at a university in Portland for twenty years…”

Her attention would zip up a few notches. As it turns out, Patti is obsessed with crime shows on TV.  I remember when I first heard her mention this, at a concert at the Crystal Ballroom, I thought, What? Patti Smith watches TV??? I thought she only read poems by doomed bohemians. I watch TV! I wonder what else we have in common. Does she buy wine based on what the label looks like? Because I totally do that!

I’d continue with the story of how I was forced into a position to choose between love or my job and I chose love without hesitation, resigning my tenured post to become a stay-at-home-dad.

“That’s horrible,” she’d say. “I’ve heard professors can be targets like that.”

“It turned out for the best. I’ve had time to write and be with my daughter. But I’m ready to go back to work. I’ve got a meeting with a university here at 2 o’clock. Do you think you could give me a special blessing? It would mean a lot to me and my family.”

“Well, I’m not Pope Francis,” she’d say, “but okay.”  Then she’d make the mark of the cross on my forehead like she had holy water on her fingers instead of coffee and I’d be Joan of Arc, ready for battle. And that’s how our long friendship would begin.

A friend on Facebook reminded me that Patti was performing in Los Angeles the next night so I wasn’t likely to see her strolling down MacDougal, eating a falafel from Mamoun’s. Still, I felt her there, standing on the corner of 6th Avenue and Houston, sending me on my way as I mis-sang the lyrics to “Kimberly.” Give me your starry eyes, baby.

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I don’t want to mention the name of the university for fear of jinxing my chances (or the greater fear that evil conspirators in Portland will catch wind and work their black magic on it), but the interview went really well and the university administrator, as providence would have it, was a Patti Smith fan. On top of that, the AirBNB where I stayed in Chinatown had an autographed copy of Horses outside my room. All the stars of the northeastern cross were aligned.

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After the interview and lunch where Café ‘Ino once was, I went to Caffé Dante for coffee and a dessert that I felt I’d earned. I needed some writing time and got a few scenes for the new book down, including one deep discussion between the two main characters about farting in airport men’s rooms. (I’m not pretending to be Fredrico Garcia Lorca here.) I tried my rusty Italian on the waiter and he told me in slightly less rusty English how expensive this city had become but that there are still small places for artists.

New York seems warm for early January. Yesterday people tossed their Christmas Trees on to the sidewalks to be sent God knows where, but Christmas decorations still hang above Columbus Avenue and in Little Italy, near “my” flat. This morning at Veselka a group of young Russian immigrants came in and sang Christmas carols. The Russian Orthodox calendar must be different than ours, I half remembered. Maybe this would be a magical place to raise a child, I thought. The carolers wore wonderful costumes including a Grim Reaper. Joyousness!

My fantasy of New York has always been the dirty boulevard of Lou Reed songs. Trash and Vaudeville. But now as the parent I have to reimagine that fantasy. It’s horribly expensive and the school situation seems impossible, people tell me. And what if I lost Cozy on the A Train or in the Museum of Modern Art? (Although there are worse fates for a child.) But then again, she could grow up in the absolute center of the world and sit in cafés on Saturdays in the Village, maybe bumping into Patti Smith. Or John Lennon.

Addendum: I finished M Train on the flight from Newark to Seattle. I was laughing and then crying and then I just wanted to write. Read this book, but be sure to find a good café in which to do it.

Afterword: Well, the job ended up going to some kid fresh out of Harvard. I guess I could have used the blessing from Mother Patti after all.