Monday, January 11, 2010

living in a Mad Max world

Gatherings of friends bring joy, yes, but they also bring insecurities, fears, tears, doubts, self-loathing...but at least these are things we're able to share rather than being forced to carry alone.

Flash back to those wonderfully awkward days of junior high school. It was still a few years before people started peppering me with the obligatory "what are you going to do when you graduate?"...questions that would come years later, but that was alright by me. I was young, but in my youthful arrogance, I had began to suspect even at that age that long term work-till-you-die plans would probably never come with any conviction. But while I lacked a real career path, I did already have an option which was more a calling, more an identity than a career, and even that contained a significant element of delusion and fantasy.

I wanted to be a musician.

I had already worked through a bout of being a violinist. The story is actually kind of amusing. My 5th grade teacher told my parents that I was probably mentally challenged (nice lady), and I should probably be tested. So I was shuffled to the guidance counselor's office for an IQ test. When the results came in, my teacher was quite upset to find out that I was not in fact mentally retarded. While I never got to see my scores, I do know that for my next year of school, I was enrolled in an academically gifted program.

The counselor told my parents that I needed more mental stimulation that school (in particular, my 5th grade teacher's craptastic class) could provide...hence the academically gifted program. He also recommended that I take up a musical instrument, and since my dad had a violin from the days he was forced to take up an instrument, the decision was made for me.

Several years on the instrument made me realize I wasn't a bad violin player. I had good technical skills, and I was particularly adept at sight-reading. I even won a superior ranking in some music competition. However, I had absolutely no feel for the music. While I was good at it, I felt no passion. The most heart-wrenching symphonies were merely challenges. I was only someone who played violin, never a violinist. The instrument never became part of who I was.

After a family move to Florida, my folks never found me another violin teacher, and the instrument kind of remained in the closet. However, much to my parent's chagrin, I started to really listen to hard rock and roll and heavy metal, and instead of violin, I now wanted to be a guitarist. For reasons I couldn't fathom at the time, my folks refused to buy me an instrument...so instead I saved up my lunch money for a Chicago-brand Les Paul copy. Of course, I sucked on it for a long period of time, but I loved it.

My folks were less than supportive of my new music obsession. While my Dad would occasionally pick me up a pack of strings, they refused to buy me anything else. When I saved up more lunch money and holiday gift money and wanted a real guitar, my folks made me sell my first guitar (I was told I did not need two). Whenever I left to play with friends, I would be reminded "this is only a hobby. You can't make a living at this." Eventually, I started working so I could buy more music stuff, but even then, I had to be careful. When I bought my honest-to-goodness real vintage Gibson Les Paul, I had to hide it from my mom for a while and lie about how much money I spent. But I didn't care...because I was a guitar player. The music was within me, a part of me. It was who I was.

There came a time where I realized that although I needed a job to buy musical equipment, that work kept me from actually playing. If I wanted the means to become a musician, I had to work at a job that kept me from playing music...and thus prevented me from becoming a musician.

There were many trials and tribulations, many stories of music, failed bands, and stoners passing around unsalted pretzels, but there is a larger point here beyond my doomed teenage music career. Suffice to say, after many failures on my part, I decided that being a musician probably wasn't, for various reasons, in my cards. I went back to school, got a couple of degrees, and eventually moved away to doctoral school.

Moving away from everyone I knew, from everything familiar, was the most significant thing I had ever done. I developed friends, and they became colleagues. We could talk about our lives, our interests, yes, but we could also talk about ideas, theories, concepts, important stuff. We could talk about the best way to reach our students. We could discuss the best ways to refine and present our ideas. We became academics in every sense of the word, because the learning, the thinking, the process of discovery began to pervade everything we did. "Academic," for us, was not our career...it became our identity.

And yet...

One day in particular of Ohio year one, I was sitting in my apartment, where, after hours fighting with some heavy critical theorist or something, I needed to clear my head. I turned on my 19" television to Star Trek: The Next Generation or something, picked up my acoustic, and began to run through some chords. Before long, I was working my way through some Son Volt, some Stones, some Neil Young.

I wasn't thinking about much except for maybe how my voice had, a few years after quitting smoking, become viable as an instrument. I could sing and play, and I actually sounded passable. This was also after I abandoned guitar picks for my acoustic, so I was able to provide much better rhythm and dynamics on the acoustic than ever before.

I finished the song I was playing, but before I could launch into anything else, there was a knock on my door. When I opened it, there was a young girl in the hallway--she must've been around twelve. She said "I just wanted to tell you I think you're good." She smiled at me, turned, and left my hallway. I think about this an awful lot. Years after giving up being a guitar player, I realized, I became a much better player than when I thought I was a guitarist, even if I now thought of myself as an academic.

Nowadays, I'm still playing guitar. I have several great instruments. I have a moderate DIY effects pedal board. Hell, I'm in a band, and we're in discussions for gigs. And this all happened after I gave up hope being a guitar player.

It's very easy to get caught up in expectations...your friends, your families, your superiors. It's even easier to get caught up in your own expectations...of success, of justice, of right and wrong, of "what we deserve." Expectations, however, are all poisonous and will do you in if you pay them heed. A promise of a big reward can in fact be a lie. Any hope of cosmic justice, if it's your main motivating factor, has the opportunity to do you in. The true test of character is how you operate after giving up all hope. If everything is crashing down, will you still fight?

Personally, I have a habit of mentally writing things off as hopeless just because all evidence tells me so. Take my status as an academic, for instance. Will I ever get to be a tenure-track faculty? It doesn't matter how hard I work, how much stuff I produce, how many classes I teach. Things are so bad in the academic job market these days, and my friends are so much better at this and more deserving than am I, that I just know I can't compete, that I will probably always be where I am. It would be illogical to think otherwise, and the sooner I just accept this (says the little voice in my head), the better off I will be.

I know I'm not the only one. There's always the danger that, when you ask academics how they are doing, they might in fact tell you (and most of my friends are academics). Me and my friends, we are in a career that is at its historical low point. The signs of the academic collapse have been chronicled so often, I certainly don't need to recount them here. And you can't go to a bar, go to a party, run into someone on the street without hearing it in someone's voice.

How do we handle it? How do you go on when, instead of having your back against the wall, you have that wall pulled down on top of you? How do you handle knowing that there is no order, no justice, no logic? That things very well might not work out after all? That your current effort do go beyond the call of duty, of reason, of logic probably will not pay off? When there is no hope left, when the world has, for all intensive purposes, ended...what do you do then? How do you survive when survival no longer makes sense? Should you even bother trying to fight? As some struggling musicians I like say, "would you keep on going if you couldn't make it through?"

I hope so. Personally, I don't know if I will ever be a successful academic, but then I have to remind myself: I became a much better guitar player after I gave up being a musician.

Hope is overrated. Work is much more important.

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