Archive for May, 2015

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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