August 9, 2017 (Wednesday)

by Yule Heibel on August 8, 2018

Yesterday I thought quite a bit about desire and aspiration. It’s so interesting that aspiration is linked to enthusiasm insofar as both have “breath” and infusion at their root. As long as you live – and breathe! – you should have aspiration, be inspired, feel enthusiastic. If you don’t, are you actually living? Is it just a half-life of shallow breaths? When I was a child, a young person, my enthusiasms arrayed themselves as desire to know, to acquire knowledge, to explore unknown fields. True, I wasn’t the best student, I didn’t always want to know what was in the (boring) curriculum. But I loved being able to think across disciplines (not that I called them that, not then); and making connections as well as synthesizing different ideas or facts into a new Gestalt were (still are!) my strengths. I liked to build things, to create new things that weren’t there before. I should have studied design (as I wanted, but couldn’t afford) – somehow I still feel there’s a key to a discipline somewhere which I never got a hold of, which eluded me.

But anyway, the point is I aspired to large goals – or, maybe systems, not just goals. Not “goal,” as in, “I want to be ___.” But “system,” as in, “I want to crack codes and keep cracking them again and again.” The problem with this approach, if you’re going at it solo, is that you’re too clever by half and find yourself moving from subject or problem to subject or problem. And you can fail at developing the kind of expertise and status you’ll need to fail successfully. My personal Waterloo probably came when, having finished the PhD, I also started a family and found myself incapable of exercising the kind of mobility and flexibility needed to pursue a career in my field. Long-distance marriage, with me in the Diaspora for two years on a contract, and W. in Boston? Forget about it. Even without children, that would have been the end of the marriage. Plus, I too was unwilling to go to the Diaspora. Boston was bad enough. It’s odd – the subconscious knows the future – that I never forgot this remark made by I-forget-who a long time ago. It was a comment that was random, but set off alarm bells – which I chose to ignore. Two-fold: one, about the scarcity of academic jobs; two, about my own desire not to be marooned in some hellhole, to be in a first-class city instead.

The remark came from a young woman; I can’t recall her name or the exact context, but it was at UBC in the early 1980s, before I went to Harvard. We were taking the same class, perhaps studied together. Her father was a professor somewhere in some discipline, which, ignoramus that I am, impressed me (hey, my parents never got an Abitur, much less a college degree, and my father was a contractor). But her father, a professor (gosh! golly!) ended up with tenure in some ridiculous, isolated location I found most unappealing. Me, I was thinking that if you were a professor, you should be somewhere stimulating and interesting; yet he was marooned. But the girl said, “Oh, he took the tenure, didn’t care where it was. In this job market, you’re lucky to get tenure anywhere.” This, in the early 1980s, on the heels of the equally disastrous 1970s, an era of common unemployment. How come I never forgot those words? Because my subconscious was signaling: Beware! Tenure will not be on your (glamorous) (and incidentally totally imaginary) terms. And also: Beware! You might end up in Nowheresville if you do get it. Remember, you’re the girl who wanted to live in New York City or San Francisco!

So I knew, I knew. But I ignored it and soldiered on – to an MA, to Harvard, to a PhD. Straight into unemployment, or rather the gig (adjunct professor) economy (the biggest immoral scam to hit PhDs yet).

Anyway, I got sidetracked. What I wanted to write about were the clarifications I experienced when I thought about aspiration, and how, since having children and moving to B., mine have been alternately buried and/or utterly mismatched to the “aspirations” of my fellow travelers in this neck of the woods. Folks here “aspire” to get a house, a boat, a new car, send their kids to private school and Harvard. But their aspirations don’t match mine, and I’m marooned in this dull materiality. And it’s my fault I can’t breathe through the enveloping fug.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: