What did you do on #elevennine?

Every generation has days where they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. John F. Kennedy’s assassination was one for my parents. The earliest one I remember is the Challenger explosion; also Princess Diana’s death, maybe. 9/11 is, of course, one of those days as well, and still very much in recent memory.

11/9 is, I think, going to be another one. It already has been a day of note in past years; 9 November 1938 was Kristallnacht, and 9 November 1989 was the fall of the Berlin Wall. It remains to be seen just what kind of a marker 9 November 2016 will be remembered as; one way or the other, though — as I tell other historians — we are seeing periodization in action. This is close of one chapter and the beginning of the other; 11/9 is a day we will see as a dividing line of some kind.

So where was I and what did I do on 11/9?

We had been up watching the returns since the first polls closed Tuesday night. We watched his speech, and at 3:30 in the morning turned in. I got up to go chant Orthros and Divine Liturgy for St. Nektarios of Aegina, praising God and his saints with my voice as best I could, and then I went to go teach the undergraduates taking my Ancient Greek History survey course.

I walked in and saw a lot of low, low faces. Some of them were gathered around a laptop. “She’s speaking right now,” one of them said.

“Right,” I said. “I’ll put it up on the projector screen.”

We watched her concede.

I had a lesson planned for the day. I thought to myself, screw it.

“Okay, folks, obviously today is going to be a little different –”

“The next four years are going to be a little different,” one of my students said.

“Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you what.” I pulled up an article from “Patriotic Folks dot Com”, one of the alt-right sites to which some of my ultra-conservative Facebook connections are always posting links, and put it up on the projector screen. “You know why I’m always harping on questions like audience, genre, agenda, view of the past, and so on? Because of pieces like this.” I show them the article, which seemed to assert that some famous Hollywood actor had posted a picture of himself holding up a pro-Trump sign, and then aggregated tweets from both right and left showing their reactions. Of course, the headline presented it as “Liberal Twitter melting down”. Of course the picture is fake, and the article even acknowledges that it’s fake, at the very end. The only point of the piece is to point out how the image punks the “other side”, while naturally ignoring that “their” side got punk’d, too.

“I make you think about those questions precisely because we all get bombarded with this stuff every day, and unlike the tabloids when I was a kid, where you could distinguish based on format and location in the store, everything looks equally authoritative when shared as a Facebook link. You have to evaluate based on content, not format, and if you can’t do that, we’re all going to be in trouble. My generation has not been well-educated about this, neither has the generation before mine. You have to figure it out. The point isn’t really whether Thucydides is ‘more reliable’ as a ‘scientific historian’ than Herodotus; the point is, that’s an exercise that will help you evaluate garbage like this. If a historian five hundred years from now sees this website and can’t answer those kinds of questions, then this is going to be useless as a source; but if you can think about it and answer those questions, then it can tell you a lot.”

A Mexican woman told me, We’re not rapists and criminals. And nobody gets “sent” here in the first place.

An African American woman told me, I grew up in Boston. I had heard about racism and xenophobia as issues, but I had never really seen the extent to which they were things real people actually did.

“See, for eleven years, I lived twenty minutes south of the birthplace of the KKK, right on the edge of what is, for all intents and purposes, rural and culturally Southern. That’s an experience that means I’m surprised by this outcome, but not blindsided. I’ve seen this face to face.”

Then I showed them the video from Monday night of Pres. Obama in New Hampshire telling the story of the woman in Greenwood, South Carolina, one of twenty people at one of his early 2008 campaign meetings, who got the room excited for him by saying “All fired up! Ready to go!” This was the woman, he said, who made him realize that “…one voice can change a room… And if it can change a room, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation. And if it can change a nation, it can change the world.”

Be the voice that changes the room, I told them.

Then I went to a rehearsal and sang beautiful music as best as I could.

That is how I spent 11/9. What did you do?

And then, today, on 11/10, the real question — what are you and I going to do? Because there’s a lot to be done.

So, that happened.

If we complain loudly enough to the management, can we take 2016 back for a refund? Or exchange it for a model that isn’t broken? The one and only saving grace of this year is that it started with the birth of my daughter, Katherine Claire Barrett. She is amazing and beautiful, as is the rest of my family. My wife is strong, graceful, beautiful, and brilliant; my son is strong, full of life, and curious; my newborn daughter is a person of wonder. Thank God for my wife and children. I, on the other hand, am a goddamned wreck.

I have spent most of 2016 being exhausted. Exhausted because of a new baby, exhausted because of a job in which, when push comes to shove, “Oh sure, take whatever time you need when the baby is born” works out to being “You understand you’re back the day after the birth, right?”, exhausted because of trying to figure out how to pretend to rich people  — who live in an area of New England where they know full well they’re rich and expect to be treated as such — that I’m sufficiently one of them and that I understand their interests well enough that they want to give money to my employer, exhausted because it’s a job that wears me out before I ever even get a chance to think about doing anything I want to do, including spending time with my family, exhausted because stress causes shingles, exhausted because, well, how about that, my sleep study shows 81 incidents per hour with blood oxygen saturation levels at something like 71%, exhausted because my body knows that my thirties are mere weeks from being over, exhausted because I’ve put on something like 40 pounds since Katherine was born, exhausted because having two kids where you have no family and a majority of friends who are in an impenetrable bubble that you are no longer in yourself is isolating, exhausted because we’re broke, exhausted because in all of this I’ve also been looking for and applying to jobs, and exhausted because whoever said “it’s easiest to find a job when you have a job” was out of their friggin’ mind.

Latest development: I got a job offer over the summer, despite an initial gut reaction that it was a bad idea and that I was being talked into something I already knew I didn’t want to do, I had been convinced would be a fantastic step forward and would be an initial step in a direction that would allow me to make a difference in some areas where I really hoped to make a difference. That turned out to be a big mistake, and I am now unemployed. (Well, underemployed. I have a chanting position, and I’m also adjuncting, but these don’t exactly pay the bills.)

Gah. <Very, very, very bad word>.  Seriously, 2016. Give me something to hold on to here, please.

So, Theodore is an energetic kid. He is always on, and he is always turned up to 11. What’s starting to go along with that is that his little will is developing into something to be reckoned with, too.

I see memes on social media all the time like “an uncoachable kid becomes an unemployable adult”, which says to me that our society only values you to the extent that you can make yourself a cog in the wheel. Such memes make me worry about Theodore a lot. I worry about the issues a strong-willed kid might develop in our world. I worry about the difficulties he might create for himself in terms of finding a place where he can thrive and grow, and really, where he can be himself.

But that’s the catch-22, right? If he’s too much himself, then he’ll never find someplace where he can be himself?

My parents raised me to be my own person. To think for myself, to have my own taste, to make my own choices, to forge my own path, to stand up for myself, and not to put up with bullies, with nonsense, with petty tyrants. Not that there would never be consequences for being my own person, but that being my own person was first and foremost what I had to do to be able to look myself in the mirror.

It’s certainly never been an easy path for me. In elementary school it meant getting teased mercilessly for being a bookish kid who used words like “educational”, carried a briefcase to class, and wore a trenchcoat and deerstalker hat, with the bullying ranging from verbal abuse to getting sprayed in the face with glass cleaner. It freaked my parents out that they couldn’t keep up with what I was reading.

Being raised with the conviction that I should be my own person, however, meant somehow that I instinctively made a lot of The Right Choices. I got out of high school without having gotten anybody pregnant, without having tried drugs, without drinking, without having left Christianity (even though Evangelical Protestantism was already feeling like an awkward fit), and with what seemed to be reasonable prospects for college.

I followed my dreams, making big bets on them. I pursued being an opera singer seriously for a good 13 years; it took me getting beaten into the ground and having my 30s loom only months in the distance for me to say, at long last, “This isn’t going to happen.”

Orthodox Christianity had transformed my interests by this point anyway, and I shifted gears to church music and history. Here, my willingness to stake claims, put myself on the line, and persist paid off; I published early, and I distinguished myself.

You maybe know the rest up to here from other things I’ve written. When I came down with shingles and the sleeping problems became impossible to ignore (Flesh of My Flesh’s description of my snoring over the years had gone from “gentle little snorkles” to “you sound like you’re dreaming you’re a lion hunting antelope” to “OH MY GOD WAKE UP YOU’RE NOT BREATHING”), my doctor said, “I don’t care what you have to do; figure out how to reduce your stress or it’s going to kill you and you’re not going to ever have a chance to enjoy that new daughter of yours.” I hoped that the new job, being closer to home and theoretically more in my wheelhouse, would mean a reduction in stress, and that life would gradually even back out to normality.

And now — without going into clinical detail — I find myself now without a fulltime job, with no immediate prospects, two children with an eating habit, and the reality that thirteen years of near-continuous school have pretty much cleaned us out, and how. Let’s say that the hoped-for reduction in stress not only did not happen, but the situation started to veer out of control toward negative circumstances by the second week, and by Tuesday of last week it was already more than I could take.

There’s a lot more I could say. I’ll simply refer you to my description of how my parents raised me.

But here is the tension: my principles, my temperament, my choice to be the person my parents raised me to be now has the consequence of endangering my ability to take care of my family. I can not only look at myself in the mirror for the first time in a long time, but I can also look my wife and my kids in the eyes for the first time in a long time; the cost, however, is that now we have nothing. Expensive luxuries, principles — but it was plain that it wasn’t going to get any better, and I could not endure another day of how it was.

I do not know what I am going to do from here. I am nearly 40 and have years of school plus a spotty history of entry-level jobs; the things I have been most specifically trained to do are things it is unlikely I am going to be able to make a living at any time soon. I have things that I am very good at but that in and of themselves are difficult to turn into a living; they have to be applied to something else, and the areas where I can apply them do not really represent high earning potential. Also being nearly 40, my threshold for nonsense is much lower than it would have been at, say, age 24. I could be a great worker and a great collaborator and a great ideas person and a fantastic writer, speaker, teacher, thinker, or leader, but you’re just not going to look at my resume and see a great employee.

Being myself seems to have indeed carried the consequence that I have never found the place where I can be myself.

And then I look at Theodore.

Who dresses up in a homemade Batman costume, just as I did.

Who asks lots of questions about words, just as I did.

Who got bumped up a grade, just as I did.

Who is mostly friends with older kids, just as I was.

I worry. What is the future going to hold for my beautiful, energetic, strong-willed son? Is the world going to be just as unrelenting in trying to crush his spirit as it has been to me?

And then I get mad as hell, and I think to myself, Then I better teach him to be himself all the more, so he can live with himself when it comes.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do, but there is no other choice, for him or for any of my children.

I have been in a place like this once before. I’m forcing myself to remember some advice I got the last time I was anyplace like here, although now it’s worse, I’m older, and the stakes are higher.

This last week, I have had occasion to think about my time at The Archives of Traditional Music this week with the news of the passing of somebody I worked with there, Clara Henderson. She was a dear soul.  I remember as well the brief time I knew George List.

I was extremely circumspect about how I talked about this on the blog at the time, and I’m still not going to go into detail about it here, but I had come to the Archives rather bruised and bloodied from my previous place of employment. In addition — and this certainly was thoroughly discussed on the blog — I was despondent over the possibility of ever getting into grad school. Thankfully, ATM served something of a hyperbaric chamber for my battered psyche, and even if it took a few months before I no longer instinctively wanted to burst into tears every time somebody looked at me sideways, I was able to start pondering, now that I was out of the worst of my negative circumstances, what it might look like to start working towards something positive.

That’s when I met George.

George was emeritus faculty and one of the previous directors of the Archives. He ninety-seven, and had retired some 30 years previous. I had spoken with him on the phone a number of times; he was still working, and he still had an office that was maintained by the Archives, but since he had lost his sight many years ago, he was largely bound to a retirement facility, and had a series of short-term student assistants who helped him with his ongoing projects. Unfortunately, his final assistant failed to work out in a rather spectacular fashion, leaving George in the lurch.

So it was that one summer day in 2008 George called me at my desk. “Can you help me?” he asked, with a note of desperation in his voice. “I’ve just published a new book, I need to inscribe several copies to send to people, and I’m not going to be able to do that on my own.”

Well, I wasn’t unwilling, but it would require me to go out to his retirement home during the day, and it was thus a question of whether or not I could actually do so on university time. I put the question to Alan, the Archives director. He looked thoughtful and said, “This place wouldn’t exist without George, and we really try to show him what kindnesses we can. Yes, go ahead and help him; he’ll probably try to reimburse you for gas — don’t let him, we’ll take care of that.”

The next morning I drove out to George’s retirement facility, and did what he needed. The book was a self-published collection of poetry, short stories, and essays he had written over the years, and even the cover was his own work, a painting he had produced in 1933. He was sending it out to old friends and colleagues from various chapters of his life. Some of the names I recognized as people I had had to communicate with on behalf of the Archives. I saw from the publisher’s imprint that it was a local self-publishing outfit, so I knew he had paid for this himself, it must have been very important to him to actually produce it as a book, and all the moreso to send it to this collection of individuals. Each name was a story, and he told me some of them as we went. He also told me that he had been a widower for “seven long years” as he put it, and that he had even outlived his son.

As I was getting ready to leave, George said to me, “So, you’ll come back tomorrow so we can mail these off?” I said yes. Then something happened that I will never forget.

Suddenly he said to me, “Richard, I want you to know that I have reinvented myself many times over the course of my life, and had to do it on multiple occasions even before I turned forty. I turned out just fine.”

He said nothing else. I stared at him for a moment. Why did you say that to me? my head wanted to yell at him. How on God’s green earth did you know to say that to me? But I let it be.

I helped George for a few days; he passed soon after. To this day I have no earthly idea why he told me what he did. It was nonetheless something I very much needed to hear at that particular moment in my life, and it has continued to be a tape I need to play back for myself with some frequency.

Memory eternal, George. I think of you often, and with fondness.

So here I am. I’ve lost every last one of my professional and vocational bets. I’m feeling about as useless as I ever have. I have to reinvent myself, and I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I’m exploring a number of options. I’m sure I’ll figure it out, but the coming weeks, if not months, until I do are going to be… rough, let’s say.

I will say that some people have asked if they can do anything. Please pray for me; pray for my wife and kids; if you are aware of opportunities in your own social/professional networks for a 39 year old Boston-based individual with a BMus in vocal performance, who is ABD in History, and has a variety of work experiences and a broad-based skill set, please pass them on (LinkedIn profile here); you can make a tax-deductible gift to The Saint John of Damascus Society (since some of the options I’m exploring would be done under the aegis of SJDS, which would require SJDS to have a much-expanded budget).

So it goes. Onward and… well, onward, I guess. But I can’t say that this bit from The Fisher King doesn’t hurt to watch right now.

Review Essay: The Oecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church

maxresdefaultA couple of years ago, I contributed this piece to the sadly-now-defunct Red Egg Review. It seems quite relevant now, so I repost it in full here.

I find it curious that, amidst a series of heavier news reports of import to Orthodox Christians being covered in American media, such as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and the civil war in Syria, the recent synaxis of the Orthodox primates at the Ecumenical Patriarchate made the Huffington Post via a Reuters story (although somebody at the HuffPo concocted an ill-informed headline on the piece, announcing that the synaxis had planned a new “ecumenical council” for 2016, and I’m not the only one who noticed this).  As can be typical, the writers of the piece seemed to stumble a bit when it came to explaining the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch; +Bartholomew is “the spiritual leader” of the Orthodox, the “senior-most Orthodox leader” who has a “prestige” position but a “tiny” church, with “no authority over other churches” and “none of the resources the large Russian church enjoys”.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is often a lightning rod for confusion and criticism by Anglophones, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. Not only is the American media not certain in what box to put him, but online chatter about the Patriarchate among American Orthodox converts is often sharply negative. He is critiqued for his support of environmental concerns and framing of them as a matter of Christian stewardship, for his willingness to interact with the Pope, for what the critics portray as a penchant for consolidating his own power, for a willingness to embrace political expediency in Turkey rather than bravely face martyrdom (as was at the heart of some critical reviews of his book, such as those by Rod Dreher and Charlotte Allen), and for a lack of concern for American issues besides shoring up support for the position of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Fr. Peter Gillquist’s allegation of the EP’s (+Demetrios in those days) poor treatment of the delegation from the Evangelical Orthodox Church is a story that is not easily forgotten, and it is trotted out with some regularity. Others offer the hypothesis that the Patriarchate seeks to establish itself as the “Orthodox papacy” specifically so that, when (so this line of thinking goes) +Bartholomew enters into reunion with Rome, it will be no conceptual difficulty to hand that authority over to the Roman Pope. Uncompromising reassertions of the primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate by Metropolitan Elpidophoros (Lambrianides) of Bursa have not helped the matter (at the same time, neither have similarly aggressive-sounding words from Moscow).

There are parallels here to the situation in 1970s. Greece had just emerged from its military dictatorship in 1974, the same year as the coup in Cyprus and subsequent Turkish invasion Lebanon’s civil war started in 1975; Soviet Russia was at its height – and the Orthodox world was preparing for a council. Preparatory meetings had been held since 1961, at Rhodes and at Chambesy, and in 1972, the same year that Patriarch Athenagoras passed away and a year after the Theological School in Halki was closed, a collection of the introductory reports of the Preparatory Commission were published under the title Towards the Great Council, the introduction to which contains the rather charming and confident statement that “[t]he Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church is planned to be held in all probability some time during 1974[.]”

The same year, Metropolitan Maximos of Sardes of blessed memory published a work of historical theology titled The Œcumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church: A Study in the History and Canons of the Church, published by the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies (Thessaloniki). The work begins in the Apostolic era, tracing the historical development of the office of the bishop through the Council of Nicea in 325, at which point +Maximos looks specifically at the episcopate as it developed in Constantinople. He spends quite a bit of time on the Council of Chalcedon, and then studies the way the role of the Patriarchate, as articulated at Chalcedon, was realized from the end of late antiquity up until the twentieth century. The book appears to have been conceived of in the context of an impending Great Council; +Maximos specifically has as his framing device the (then) recent memory of the first Conference at Rhodes in 1961, at which he was a delegate:

The conference was held primarily to demonstrate the unity which has held the Orthodox Church together in faith and service throughout the centuries, despite what at times has been considered as its injurious decentralization and the independence of the individual churches…  No doubt as a result of [such] misunderstandings, some curious articles have been published… about antagonism between the Oecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Church, and about the victory of one over the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one scored a victory at Rhodes. Rhodes saw but one victory; the triumph of Orthodoxy (p. 15).

Space only permits a brief summary of +Maximos’ 327 pages’ worth of observations and conclusions; in a nutshell, the Church is a divinely-instituted, mystical (as in sacramental) Body; at the same time, it is a historical reality, with visible power and authority being given to the Apostles. The episcopate is a charismatic office that is derived from Apostolic origin but is not, essentially, apostolic in character; in other words, the Apostles had a fundamentally missionary role, whereas the episcopate has a fundamentally liturgical and pastoral role. Ultimately it is Christ who is the divine founder of the Church; it is the bishop who is the earthly – that is to say, historical – head; this power is properly considered to be within, rather than over, the Church, and the bishop is the personification of the organic unity of the Church.

As Christianity spread, and the need for bishops to decide things in synod developed, a system of precedence emerged out of necessity, with preference being given to the “mother church” of a given synod. As new communities started emerging in the periphery rather than the metropolitan centers, this practice of customary precedence came to represent concrete administrative power, but these prerogatives were accompanied with a “reciprocity” of obligation. As the 34th Apostolic Canon prescribed, the bishops in a given synod are not to do anything without their head, but neither is the head to act without his bishops, “because harmony and love must prevail amongst the bishops as an example to the clergy and people and for ‘the glory of God, through the Lord, by the Holy Ghost’” (322).

Within this system emerged metropolitans, then patriarchs of autocephalous churches, then the patriarchates of Rome and New Rome. This is a historical development that still must be seen as an organic necessity:

[O]nly in this organization can the Church continue to exist in the midst of human societies… Thus even the highest institutions of its historical development, such as the emergence of the office of patriarch in the oecumenical Church, must be seen as vitally necessary phenomena, deriving in ecclesiastical life by a gradual and continuous process from the ecclesiastical idea of order, organization, and perfection in administration, under the same conditions as those under which the whole administration of the oecumenical Church has evolved; phenomena fully in accord with the internal presuppositions of ecclesiastical order as these were recognized by the Church itself and were developed in its legislation… Thus even if all the bishops are equal by divine institution, enjoying to the same degree the gift of the episcopal grace and share the same unbroken Apostolic succession, they are not all equal-in-honor in the canonical system of the ecclesiastical administration… Some bishops emerge as senior to the others…Enjoying special privileges, they take the initiative in general ecclesiastical issues. (324-25)

In this context, the Patriarch of Constantinople has a precedence of honor that is related to his administrative function. This is not, +Maximos insists, a supremacy in all aspects of ecclesiastical life (the way he would define “neo-Papism”), but an authority in the context of the dual principles of “conciliarity and collegiality” and “non-intervention in the internal affairs of other churches” (326).

History does interfere, however. The Ottoman takeover of the former Empire is well-covered territory; more recently, +Maximos examines the problem of the rise of nationalism in the Balkans and Europe, where the boundaries of local churches were now being drawn according to self-consciously secular and political criteria – division by tribe; that is to say, racism. It was in this context that the Patriarchate condemned ethnophyletism in 1872: “We renounce, censure, and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds, and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which ‘support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it, and lead it to divine godliness’.” (300-309)

+Maximos also spends some time on the question of the diaspora (a loaded word for some in 2014 that presumably was assumed merely to be descriptive in the 1970s). He acknowledges the problem that the emphasis on national origins has posed in Europe, Canada, Australia, and North America: “This makes Orthodoxy appear divided and at odds with itself… with disastrous consequences when it comes to projecting its unity to the outside world” (309). +Maximos here suggests that the diaspora represents three problems to be solved: what the local principle in the organization of the Church means as an issue of dogma, the canonical jurisdiction of Constantinople over Orthodox Christians outside of the boundaries of established churches (per Chalcedon 28, which +Maximos deals with at great length in his fourth chapter), and the “so-called psychological question of ecclesiastical unity” (311). An article of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s, dating from 1954 – sixteen years before Moscow’s granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America – is brought to bear in support of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s role in establishing unity in the diaspora. Apparently Schmemann was for the EP before he was against it.

The legacy of +Maximos’ book, particularly in Anglophone literature, is curious. The English translation was published in 1976. The Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies had commissioned Gamon McLellan, an Anglican who had been a student of +Kallistos Ware’s (now Metropolitan of Diokleia) and who was working with a team of paleographers at the Institute at the time of the commission. In preparation for writing this piece, I was fortunate enough to speak with Mr. McLellan by Skype, and I am indebted to him for his comments and his help in providing useful historical context for his work. He had a great deal of personal access to +Maximos, and they discussed his translation extensively. Mr. McLellan’s work was also reviewed by a team of senior theologians at the Patriarchal Institute. As much care as was put into the publication of the translation, however, it is unclear what the reception to the work was amongst English readers. WorldCat lists only forty-one libraries worldwide with a copy of Mr. McLellan’s translation in circulation, and the Patriarchal Institute in Thessaloniki has let the English edition go out of print. Indeed, while a second edition of the book was published in Greece in 1989, three years after +Maximos’ repose, no English translation has been published of that, and the Greek edition has proven impossible to acquire via Western interlibrary loan systems. On the whole, +Maximos does not appear to have been cited very much in English, save for a very small handful of scholarly works and a couple of essays on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website. And yet, a note of inquiry to +Elpidophoros of Bursa regarding the current appraisal of +Maximos’ study by the Patriarchate yields the following response: “…it does not merely reflect the thinking of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it describes the Ecumenical Patriarchate as it is. After saying that I do not see any space for any Patriarch to change something about that.”

The book is, to be sure, a dense read. +Maximos’ command of historical sources is exhaustive. At the same time, Mr. McLellan’s translation renders the recounting of canons and Councils into English that is as readable as it could be, and it is rewarding and informative reading. While it is a different world today in terms of Anglophone scholarship than it was in 1976 – the translation of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamum’s ecclesiological studies into English has been monumental all by itself (and +Maximos relies on him greatly in the early chapters) – surely a refreshed translation of the 1989 second edition, along with perhaps a scholarly afterword bringing the study up to date, would be a worthwhile project for a publisher like Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

A thought that emerges in my reading of this work is the applicability of the Byzantine love of paradox;[1] certainly, +Maximos is careful to acknowledge the paradoxical nature of the picture he paints. “Power and service are indeed mutually contradictory,” he writes, “power usually destroying any idea of service… However, when the Oecumenical throne exercises the power given it by the canons and by history, the aspect which predominates is that of offering service in the entire Orthodox economy, thus imitating and carrying on the unique example of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (327). Mutual contradiction – that is to say, paradox – does not represent an impossibility; it represents the chance for Christ to make Himself known (and one need only attend a Salutations service during Great Lent to hear the manifold ways this is expressed regarding the Mother of God in the Akathistos hymn).

+Maximos’ presentation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on its own terms serves as a useful corrective to the all-too-convenient picture that can be presented of a weak, ethnocentric, would-be Pope, and for that even if for no other reason, it is a work that deserves more of a hearing amongst Anglophone Orthodox than it seems to have received. Seen in the light of the picture +Maximos paints, +Bartholomew is an Ecumenical Patriarch who is trying to serve the oecumene – that is, the civilized world – not take it over and hand it to Rome in a neatly-wrapped package. Even if the reader, after giving him a fair hearing, still disagrees with +Maximos’ conclusions, it will be an exercise that, by the end, will make the reader more informed about Orthodox ecclesiological theology and the historical nature of Orthodox ecclesiastical structure, and will also be greatly illuminating in terms of where the Patriarchate and Patriarch are locating themselves in the scheme of Christian history.

[1] See, for example, Anthony Kaldellis’ exploration of this theme with respect to the Mother of God: ‘“A Union of Opposites”: The Moral Logic and Corporeal Presence of the Theotokos on the Field of Battle,’ in C. Gastgeber et al., eds., Pour l’amour de Byzance: Hommage à Paolo Odorico (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2013) 131-144.

 

Hey! Kids! Byzantine music books!

There’s a story here to be told another time, but this is another venture I’m helping out with. Interested in buying Byzantine music books in North America without the retail import and shipping premiums? Talk to us. Visit http://www.byzantinemusicbooks.com, and e-mail me at richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus SPACE org.

byz chant books flyer

A new Thing

Hi.

I’ve kinda sucked as a blogger the last year.

Life has been complicated. I will explain in detail later, but for now what I’ll say is that the Barretts have stayed in Boston, the Barretts have broadened our brood with a baby girl, and the rest… well, it’s still up for negotiation. I’ve been writing, and I’ve continued to contribute pieces elsewhere, but a lot of other things I’ve wanted to work on, like this blog, have rather sat collecting dust since May of last year.

I’m trying to pull my mojo back together. I’m still planning on finishing my dissertation. I’m also still planning on doing the Boston series (I’ve even written a large chunk of a draft of the first segment, it’s just that — to repeat myself — life has been complicated).

I will be honest and say that I’m very intentionally looking for ways to make some amount of money from the blogging effort; I’ve historically found this very challenging (I’ve always teetered between laughing hysterically and sobbing at the moment in Julie and Julia where Julie’s friends tell her, “Oh, you know, you can just put a PayPal button on your site and everybody will start sending you money”), but I’d like to crack it if I can.

(As an aside, I’ll mention a very weird conversation I had a couple of months ago with somebody who does make a living as a blogger. We were put in touch by a mutual friend who thought that he might be able to be of some help to me; we kind of sat there in awkward silence for a few minutes until he said, essentially, I really hope you aren’t waiting for me to talk, because I’m not interested in telling you anything helpful. We don’t stay in business by telling everybody else how it’s done, sorry.)

Anyway, as part of this undertaking of mojo reconstitution, I have started a Patreon, and I think I may have also coined I appear to have appropriated the term “jotcasting”.

Ideally, this will feed into the ongoing effort here. Please, if you can, support the Patreon; I’ve structured it as a monthly subscription starting at $1, and for that $1, you get daily posts of jokes, weekly rough drafts of essays, and monthly random other things. Some of that stuff may get polished and repurposed here and elsewhere; some of it may become still other stuff entirely. In any event, I’m shooting for it to be interesting if nothing else, and hopefully interesting enough for you to be willing to ante up a dollar a month for it.

Okay. More soon, promise.

Boston and “the real Paris”

(There are two types of people in this world: those who have seen Killing Zoe and thus understand the title of this post, and those who have not. It’s entirely okay if you’re in the latter category; Killing Zoe, truly a lesser effort for all involved, isn’t really worth the bother of seeing just so you can get the joke. To explain quickly: there’s a running gag in the film about Eric Stolz being in Paris and having people telling him they’re going to show him “the real Paris”. In the main, this does not work out well for him. That’s about the extent of it.)

I’ve written a bit about the experience of seeing some of the world’s major cities for the first time in my late 20s and 30s. I’ve also talked about the struggle that I have with a sense of rootlessness. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, we moved to the eastern part of Washington state when I was four years old, then moved to the Seattle metro area after another four years, and my parents moved back to Alaska after I graduated high school. This effectively meant that our paths diverged somewhat, and then my parents’ respective paths diverged from each other a few years after that. I stayed in Washington state, living in Bellingham for four years while I made an unsuccessful initial attempt at school, then moving back to Seattle when I got a job in the software industry. I stayed in Seattle for about five years, and then we moved two thirds of the way across the country, heading to Indiana for school, and we thought we’d be there for three years tops. Eleven years later, we finished the cross-country move, and now we’re in Boston. My mom and stepdad are still in Alaska; my wife’s family is mostly still in Washington state (save for a brother in Chicago) — as much as we love New England and are seriously thinking that putting down roots there would suit us very well, a major concentration of the Barrett family is not happening there any time soon, save for that which we generate for ourselves. And, you know, we may wind up doing just that.

On the other hand, let’s be honest about something. Being in Boston has been terrific, but as somebody who is by training something of an urban historian, I’m acutely aware that our experience so far has been strictly on honeymoon terms. We’ve been in a bubble to say the least — a seminary campus in a nice part of town where we haven’t had to pay rent. Yes, it looks like Boston is someplace where there is a market for the Barretts and the skill sets we bring to the table. Fine, it’s been great to live someplace, finally, where it’s at least possible for public transportation to minimize the amount of driving we have to do. It’s been wonderful to have a density of Orthodox churches in the area and to have the luxury of figuring out what’s a good fit, and for it to be normative for me to be paid relatively well as a cantor. It was awesome to go to a Red Sox game at Fenway stadium and to have it be a night when they won. I love that a decent Cuban sandwich is a hop, skip, and a jump away. Yes, it’s been genuinely soothing to our souls, after eleven years in a landlocked state, to live in a city where we can go out on a harbor cruise. Tasty Burger.

At the same time, these all amount to floating from one self-selected tourist experience to another, and a hot dog at Fenway followed by a ride on the T to the Museum of Fine Arts does not an informed denizen make. We haven’t really been through the ups and downs of everyday life, not by a long shot. Although, the end of the academic year has brought a little bit of that; it has meant that our time as residents in the seminary community is rapidly coming to an end. Holy Cross is truly a wonderful place to feel like one belongs, and when you don’t anymore, it feels like the sun has suddenly gone behind a cloud. Relationships will have to be re-cultivated and community will have to be re-defined. That’s okay; we won’t be stumbling-distance from our friends on campus, but we’ll still be in nacho distance, let’s say, and things will be fine. Previous friendships will be strengthened, and we’ll actually start to get to know a neighborhood in Boston, not just an enclave.

The urban historian in me wants to know more, though, and I want to know more by way of people who have stories to tell, and who can refer me to other sources. I may be a Byzantinist, but Boston is here right now, and I’m right in the middle of it, so why not?

So, here’s the plan — I’m going to pick the brains of 10 people, 5 whom I know in advance, 5 whom I don’t know and will be selected from, and approached in, crowds in public places. To the extent possible, these 10 people will represent a diversity of views, stations, geographies, life experiences, etc. I will ask them about Boston, their experiences with the city, and so on. It will be a conversation that I write about, and then at the end, the key question will be — who should I talk to next? And then I will go and talk to that person, asking them as well for a reference to another person. It will go on like this until somehow it all terminates with one person, or I run out of people. Both are, I think, unlikely, so we’ll see if another logical stopping point presents itself. I will be curious to see a) what directions the social connections go in, and b) if they ever cross.

For the moment, I guess I should start with myself. Boston first appeared on my radar when a friend of mine from my first stab at undergrad went out to Boston University to study voice and opera with Phyllis Curtin. I talked to him once or twice about coming out to visit, but it never happened.

After starting to hang out in Orthodox circles, of course I started hearing about the seminary, as well as Holy Transfiguration Monastery. While I was in Greece, I heard rumors about the possibility of the Byzantine chant position at Holy Cross coming open; when I brought John Boyer out to Bloomington for the first time in 2010 he confirmed that that was the case, and he said he would probably be heading out that to Boston himself starting that fall. It came to my attention that my teacher from Greece, Ioannis Arvanitis, was a finalist for the chant position; suddenly I started wondering — wow, if he gets the job, could I find a way to spend a dissertation year there? I wanted to go out there for his campus interview, but I didn’t find out when it was happening until after it was already over, alas.

But, the idea of trying to get out that way had been planted, and when I saw that the Patristics professor of Holy Cross was presenting at the Byzantine Studies Association of North America conference in Chicago fall 2011, I made a point of getting up there so I could talk to him. I finally paid a visit in March 2012, where mostly I saw the school, followed by another trip that fall for the Byzantine Studies conference. On that visit, I got to do a bit more sightseeing, although mostly in a context of food — I went with John and his family to Union Oyster House on the Freedom Trail, which claims the distinction of being the country’s oldest restaurant, and this experience was also my introduction to raw oysters. John also took me to Tasty Burger next to Fenway Stadium, which set a standard, and ordered Sicilian-style pizza from Pino’s one night as well.

After our godchildren Lucas and Stacey and our friends Bryce and Elyse left for seminary fall 2013, the Barretts paid a visit to the Holy Hill as a family over MLKjr weekend. We got to stroll around Cambridge and Harvard Square a bit, had dinner at Grendel’s Den, had some lovely bagels in Brookline, ate an awesome breakfast at Martin’s Coffee Shop in Brookline Village, and once again patronized Tasty Burger (“What a nice little hamburger! No, that’s fine, you’re great just the way you are“). I was back a few weeks later for a grad student conference, but it was mostly an excuse to hang out with my friends there. This time, I got to go downtown a bit, spending a decent amount of time in Copley Square and at the Boston Public Library, and also eating some good sushi.

Since we’ve been in Boston, two of the major things that we’ve loved have been easy access to water and boats, and — to continue a theme — the food. We went on a harbor cruise in a tall ship almost as soon as we got to town; something about seeing the city skyline at sunset from the water brought a lot of peace, particularly after so many years of feeling like we were being slowly strangled to death in Indiana. In terms of food, I don’t mean lobster rolls and clam chowder (although the lobster rolls are pretty darn good); I mean, overall, we can find what we’re looking for in a regular grocery store, including good seafood. Specialty grocery stores are a few minutes away if we need one (as opposed to five hours away in Chicago). There have been some things that we’ve had a harder time getting — raw milk we have to go way out of our way for, unlike Bloomington; bulk sausage just doesn’t appear to be a thing here; Gehl’s Nacho Cheese Sauce is not marketed at retail in Boston — but in the main, the variety of what’s available is unbelievable. Same goes for restaurants; the North End alone is a treasure trove for Italian food.

Churches and public transportation have also been really nice. Yes, okay, the T isn’t perfect. It’s really useful regardless, and it has enabled us to avoid parking downtown. I’m able to get to my contract gig via the T pretty easily. Getting to and from the airport is mostly reasonable, depending on where you live. As for churches, I’ve gotten to chant for a lot of different parish communities in the area, and they’ve all been lovely and welcoming. One parish pulled Theodore in for their Christmas pageant at the last second, and whenever I’ve subbed there since, they still ask me about him. I’ve also had the opportunity to sing in my friend Spiro Antonopoulos’s choir a couple of times, and that’s been great — just to live someplace where there’s enough of a critical mass that there can be a Byzantine choir in the area is mind-boggling.

Yes, it is not cheap to live in Boston, and it was a bit of a punch to the gut to have to internalize a price range of $1600-2200/month for what we were looking for. On the other hand, the incomes and opportunities go a long way towards making up the difference, and Flesh of My Flesh made an excellent point — it’s an approach to living that sees the city itself as your backyard. That certainly has its benefits. It has its downsides as well, to be sure, but I’m willing to deal with those, and among other things, I’m really looking forward to taking Theodore to a Red Sox game some time this summer.

Okay, so, looking at my story, wow, is it boring. I can’t really get out of my own head telling it, and clearly I’ve missed a whole bunch of things that would actually make it interesting. I’m simultaneously myopic and over-general when it comes to what’s caught my eye; I couldn’t tell you where my favorite drink in Boston is, I couldn’t tell you what I think the city’s most pressing issues are, and I can’t really articulate clearly why this experience is significant to me. I don’t have a story with a beginning, middle, and end; I’ve got some bits and pieces of a premise, not much more. Some of this comes from having developed a pretty strong bunker mentality in Indiana, where, in absence of the things that we wanted on an external level, we came up with reasonable facsimiles at home. “Where’s your favorite restaurant?” “My house!” “What’s your favorite drink?” “A Manhattan I’ve made!” etc. I think I had a pretty good understanding of Bloomington’s issues by the end of our time there, but I have to acknowledge that a lot of what I think I know about Bloomington’s issues comes from theorizing around my own anger at and resentment of the place. Anyway, the point is, there’s still some of that going on, and it’s going to take some time before all of that breaks down and lets in new perspectives and experiences.

In the meantime, I’m going to be listening to some other people’s stories in the hopes that they can educate me about this city that we’re hoping will adopt us, and I’m going to try to tell them to you. I hope you’ll find those stories interesting, at least.

Oh, and who am I talking to next? You’ll see. All in good time.

…and just like that…

I’m not really going to go into all the detailed ins and outs of why, at least not at the moment, but academic year 2014/2015 is over, and I have neither a finished dissertation nor an academic post, nor, really, specific academic prospects of any kind moving forward. My hope is that I’ve got the dissertation done by next year; maybe I even get enough of it finished this summer that my committee is willing to set a defense date. We’ll see what happens next at that point.

A perusal of the archives of this blog will yield a narrative about me trying my hardest to get into academia by way of grad school, even against very long odds, getting in regardless, and doing very well. It is odd to think that the endgame of all of that might well involve something other than the academy, but I think it is the hard reality that even people with Ph.D.s in hand are having to face right now.

Does it seem like I’ve skipped some things? Well, maybe I have. Let’s see what gaps I can fill in.

I always knew that, when the time came to go on the job market, there sure as heck wasn’t going to be anybody who hired me for my looks. Nor was I going to be any kind of an obvious Wunderkind, for the same reasons that it was so hard for me to get into grad school. So, my best bet was going to be, present myself as a colleague who is already fully-functioning, but who just doesn’t have an academic post yet. To that end, I worked my tail off to get some good papers into some real conferences and publish a couple of peer-jockeyed articles, and to do other things that, hopefully, made me visible and useful, and made me look like somebody starting down a road of academic leadership in my field.

I got to Holy Cross last August having announced as clearly as I could my intentions to finish that academic year. I had an internal schedule of a chapter draft every 4-5 weeks, and in terms of production volume, between September and March, I think I accomplished that. In addition, buoyed by both my writing pace and my confidence that there was no way I wouldn’t be finished by May 2015, I applied for close to thirty academic jobs and probably twenty postdocs.

However, there were logistical breakdowns; I don’t really want to get into the details of that lest it come off as finger-pointing, but towards the end of October I started hearing people say things that were very troubling, like “Well, there’s no way you were ever going to finish this year anyway, which means you’re not going to get a job, so what exactly is your rush, anyway? You’re planning on coming back to Bloomington, right? I mean, what was really the point of you leaving a place where you had nothing to do except write for someplace that is littered with distractions, particularly when you’re just going to have to come back to finish?” And, I suppose, from one perspective, there are some valid points in those statements. All the same, on the other hand, on a very human level, we needed to get out of Bloomington because it was killing us. As it was, I got far more done in Boston this last year than I would have possibly gotten done in Bloomington for a variety of reasons.

All the same, by the time the American Historical Association conference rolled around at the new year, I had gotten absolutely no interview requests and a lot of letters that said, in a nutshell, “thanks but no thanks.” A tiny handful of one year positions got posted in January and February; they all yielded responses that gave some variation of, “Wow, we’ve never seen 150+ applications for a visiting one year position before. Sorry.”

By the end of February, the writing was on the wall, and I realized I needed to start weighing my other options. Simultaneously, the realization struck that we absolutely loved being in Boston, 108+ inches of snow and all. After eleven years in the landlocked part of the Midwest, to be in a city on the coast, with topography, activity, a high density of Orthodox churches, culture, history, public transportation, water, boats, and seafood, was a total breath of fresh air. Granted, we were shielded from little things like, say, the cost of living, by the provisions of my fellowship at Holy Cross, but the quality of life is a different ball of wax regardless.

So it was that, with the end of the academic year hurtling towards us like an asteroid, I started putting every iron in the fire I possibly could — journalism, arts and nonprofit administration, higher ed administration, and so on. I let people know at schools where I had some connections that, hey, I’m in need of something to do after May. I got to know the Western music faculty member at Holy Cross, and I started a more-or-less regular church singing job in his choir at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. I took a lot of performing and teaching gigs for the summer to make sure I would have something going on. A little bit of a wrench in the works was that, while we had been told initially by the Holy Cross people that if we needed some flexibility in our living situation over the summer, that could be worked out, nonetheless when we actually raised the issue, “flexibility” meant all of a two-week extension. So, we had to start hunting around for a place to live, too.

(At which point, after paying $775/month for a house with a yard for nine years, we discovered that $1700/month for an apartment is cheap in Boston. Wow, yeah, that was a mental adjustment. On the other hand, the difference in income makes up for that. Additional perspective was provided by seeing that our old $945/month condo in Seattle now rents for $1450/month, and by seeing that apartments in Chicago, supposedly the “cheap” big American city, go for rents that are comparable to Boston’s prices.)

And, something happened — I got contacted for interviews. I was asked if I was available for things. I did some second- and third-rounds. Entirely unlike academia, there seemed to be a market for me and my skill set in Boston, and a lot of the things I have done and continue to do for free putting together The Saint John of Damascus Society and running its activities have been able to catch the eyes of people in arts and cultural organizations here.

There are still some plates spinning in the air, to be sure, and I’m not going to say that we’ve got everything figured out at this point. We don’t. But things are gradually coming into focus; we’ve found a place to live, I’m doing some contract stuff for a couple of organizations while continuing to network, Megan had a phone interview today for German and English teaching that went well, and I’m a little less freaked out now than I was a couple of months ago.

(Oh, and I successfully passed the Byzantine chant certificate exam at Holy Cross earlier this month. I got to walk in the school’s commencement ceremony and everything. So, I’m not finishing the year entirely empty-handed. More on that experience another time.)

But whither the academy? As anybody who has ever read Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (an intentionally ridiculous title that is supposed to be a bad joke, but I’m not at all sure that everybody gets exactly what I’m making fun of) knows, I’ve put a huge amount of time, effort, struggle, emotional capital, and yes, money, into getting into, getting through, and getting out of graduate school, and I didn’t do so thinking that I wouldn’t parlay the Ph.D. into a career in the professoriate afterward.

At the same time, higher education in this country is in a very different place now than it was ten years ago when I finally admitted to myself, in a moment that felt like the scene in Unbreakable where Bruce Willis’ character finally acknowledges and embraces his powers, that I was better as an academic who liked to sing than as a singer who liked to read. A friend of mine who participated in a hiring committee for his department told me a couple of years ago, “Getting a job is insane. The way the process works, it’s a miracle that anybody has a job.” And, while I’m not quite prepared to tear into the academy and enumerate how all of its shortcomings represent a personal affront to me in the reality in which we find ourselves in 2015, I think the words of my colleague and cohort member Alex Kirven are compelling:

If there are any university administrators and politicians reading this, I want you to know that I think it is a splendid idea to model your labor practices on such workers’ paradises as McDonald’s. Keep up the good work. I’m sure America’s universities will continue to remain competitive!

So what does that mean for me? I’m not entirely certain yet. The fact is, I’ve got a kid with an eating habit; it’s a financial non-starter for us to move back to Indiana for the poverty wages of a graduate assistantship, and we can’t afford to stay in Boston and do nothing. I’ve had some people tell me that this approach to the problem represents a “distraction” from getting my work done, and that what I need to do is figure out how to put myself in a position where the dissertation is the only thing occupying my time. I am not certain that this advice is either helpful or realistic; from where I sit, we have to do what we have to do.

Nonetheless, I still intend to finish the dissertation, definitely. I’ve come too far not to do so. I can say, hopefully without arrogance, that the core competencies of the professoriate are things that I’m good at; I’m good at research, I’m a good teacher, I’m a good writer, and I’m also able to produce quickly. Do I have a teaching vocation? Sure, I’ll go ahead and say that I do. However, it does not follow that I have to work in the academy to exercise that vocation. I’m not opposed to entering the professoriate as a career if the opportunity is right, but I will say that I am at a stage in my life where I’m not at all convinced that it’s in my or my family’s best interests to sacrifice everything else for That Dream Tenure Track Job.

I hope that, as things settle into focus, I can return some energy to the dissertation this summer. With any luck I can set a defense date by the end of the summer, or maybe by early fall. And then, sure, I’ll do another round of applying for jobs — why not? But I don’t think I’m going to do so indiscriminately. Living in Boston is really, really attractive right now, and if I have something that I’m doing that I enjoy, that is paying the bills while living here, and that is allowing me to cultivate other opportunities, then I don’t think I’m interested in moving out to the middle of nowhere just so I can get on the Visiting Assistant Professor/Visiting Lecturer train and hope that I can be competitive for a tenure track position someplace else in the middle of nowhere in 4-5 years. I’m 38, folks, and I’ve got to start earning a real living, even if it means having to reinvent myself yet again. The Ph.D., at the end of the day, will be its own reward and that will be fine; there are also lots of transferable skills, but I’ve learned over the last several years how to find ways of making opportunities in my surrounding environment, and I will continue to do so.

I’m not going to lie — I’m angry about some things (and, if I’m honest, I’m angry about some things going all the way back to completion of coursework, but that’s not a story I can really go into detail about here, not yet anyway). I feel like the outcomes of this year could have been different, and that I did my part as much as I could. But, whatever, they went the way they went, and what I’ve got is what I’ve got. It’s all right — if we had stayed in Bloomington, we would be in the same situation, except that we’d still be in Bloomington, and we would have significantly reduced opportunity for the things that we’re able to do now. I would not trade this last year for anything, even if where we’re at on the other side of it doesn’t really look how we were intending it to look when we pulled up to the seminary in August of 2014.

There’s another feeling that I’ve been trying to process. It isn’t anger, exactly. It’s a kind of puzzlement, a temptation to despair. It’s maybe a feeling of being perennially at the tail-end of the life cycle of choices. Does anybody else know what I’m talking about? To put it one way, feeling like by the time you’ve heard of a career path that you might be good at, it’s no longer a sector that somebody like you has any chance at getting even an entry-level job in. That by the time you might be potentially in the market to buy a house or rent an apartment someplace, you can’t afford to live there anymore. I’m talking about seeming to have a social network that seems to route directly away from anybody who might be able to do anything to give you any kind of a connection to the things you’re trying to accomplish just to keep the lights on.

I’m talking about feeling like that even though, theoretically, you made all the right choices. You chose not to drink in high school. You just said no. You hit the books rather than that ass. You went to college because everybody told you, an education will give you so many choices. And yet, somehow, by the time you made them, it was already too late for those choices to do you a lot of good. By the time you realized that, you saw that the partiers at your high school were all making lots of money after coasting through college, and the temptation was to try to play catch-up.

In my case, I’ve made choices all my life that were intended to favor what I was always told was my potential. My academic potential. My intellectual potential. My technical potential. My musical potential. Even after I dropped out of college, I was able to be clever enough to worm my way into an interview for a technical company that, at the time, had the highest per capita number of millionaires working there anywhere in the world. “The stock has always gone up,” they told me when I was hired and were explaining why the stock option grants made the lower salaries worth it.

I was lucky enough not to be stupid enough to borrow against my options. But I was in that very first generation of permanent employee who saw the stock decline sharply and then stagnate, that generation of worker who came in with stars in their eyes and yet for whom it would never be anything beyond a semi-decent middle class job.

I went back to school after a few years, feeling like I could do better. I was told I had a voice that I could make a real operatic career out of. I made a bet that that was true — only to find out that, while maybe I was good, the paths that somebody like me could make a career out of didn’t really exist anymore. I needed to have figured it out maybe ten years before, maybe while I was even still in junior high.

But while I was learning that, I was also having some academic success that was catching the attention of certain people. Go to grad schoolthey told me. You’re a natural fit for it, and you’ll thrive there. So, eventually, as a first-generation college graduate with a Bachelor of Music degree, I found a way to do so, and I did well, I published well-received articles as a student, I gave some good papers, and I got an awesome fellowship to go someplace cool while I was writing my dissertation.

And now, in the process of finishing the dissertation — what do you know, in the last several years while I’ve been in grad school, it turns out that, while somebody like me may indeed be good at the requirements of the profession, it’s a profession that looks like vaporware now, by and large. It seems like there is no “academic career” anymore, not for most people, not unless you were already a rockstar like seven years ago.

So here I am, on the cusp of my forties, having made three successive bets on career tracks since my twenties, having made those bets way too late in the life cycle of those career tracks, and there’s a real temptation to feel like I don’t have much to show for it.

The tagline for this blog used to be, “The adventures of a wannabe academic who got a late start.” Since getting into grad school, it’s been “The adventures of an academic who got a late start.” Now what? Getting a late start seems to be reality for me, one way or the other — is there a way I can finally use that to my advantage? Maybe getting out of the academic game, if that’s indeed what I do, represents an opportunity for me to get ahead of the curve for once.

I don’t know. I’m struggling with what exactly to do with that. Whatever — in the main, I feel pretty good right now, and while we don’t have everything worked out quite yet, it’s clear to me we’re where we should be, and things will be clear. God’s in charge, and while everything is still on a need-to-know basis and we still don’t need to know, we’re doing okay, and it looks like things will probably work out pretty well. We’ll see.

Okay, more later.


Richard’s Twitter

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