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Dead Machine

December 29, 2008

“Man can’t divide his impulses and expect to have power down every corridor.” -Bukowski

Today I am playing the wild haired man wearing a robe. I have been awake and writing most of the morning, drinking coffee and taking only a small break to try this rum cake some dear friends gave us for Christmas.  The cake is fantastic; the rum flavor is so powerful I was worried I might start of my day with more than the usual coffee-buzz. I haven’t showered. My hair is standing on end and my beard is slanting lightly to the left from when I slept on my side. I haven’t put on clothes. I’m still walking around wearing the t-shirt and boxers I slept in.  I’m pondering the idea of going out later to get a cup of coffee and people watch and write some more, or maybe even trying out the new light rail system that just started running.  I have nowhere to be and no one to answer to – yet.  This is one of those glories of being on vacation; and it is that very thought which brings a little sadness to my relatively peaceable mood.

Just so everybody (including myself) understands clearly: I am grateful I have a job. I watch enough of the news to know that there are plenty of people who are far worse off.  I’ve noticed the growing number of homeless people shuffling the streets – more than the usual increase that happens during the winter here.  I’ve heard the rumblings on campus and I know there’s a very good possibility my contract  could not be renewed next year. On a certain level, this is a frightening prospect ; the part of me who tries to be a good husband and a stand-up guy worries about the prospect of unemployment and the consequences it may hold. 

However,  when it comes to my job, I have to confess – part of me thinks I might be better off it disappeared.

I have been struggling for the last few years with the slow death of my own idealism. When I got into teaching, I was smart enough to know that I wasn’t going to change the world. However, there were certain constants that I had some faith in: that the schedule would allow me to write, that I would be part of an academic community that fostered ideas and encouraged involvement, and that I would be able to have a part in the larger conversations that make up the discourse of my profession.  I knew there would be politics – departmental politics are as inevitable as death.  But I believed that if I focused on my classes and on my students that I could survive.  Most of my colleagues who suffer this same ideological deterioration blame the students. They don’t care. They don’t try. They expect us to tell them the answers. When it comes to student behavior and expectations, I place the blame on a public school system that has bound the hands of well-meaning teachers with state mandated standardized test scores tied to school ratings and merit pay.  I expect that part of my job is to begin the deprogramming of my students–  so that they can then begin to reprogram themselves without interference from me.  The fact is, however, that this focus has done nothing but make me a very small cog in a very large and rusty machine.  And a cog – particularly a small one – is easy to replace. Or ignore.

Granted, my work record before I got into education was spotted at best. I was a lousy employee. I have nothing that might resemble a work ethic – though I am in awe of those who do.  The variety of jobs I’ve had taught me one thing: there is no such thing as a more prestigious position when you’re a cog –blue collar, white collar, what have you. It’s all the same. When you’re a cog in a dead machine, it doesn’t matter what your job title is, whether it’s janitor or accounts clerk or instructor. You’re still some mediocre-minded ( with mediocre talents to match) administrator’s bitch.

At this point, I see only two real options. I can play the game and make myself a bigger cog; or, I can forego  the game altogether.  Truthfully, the only games I like are football, baseball, and the occasional card game, and I’ve never been even moderately good at any of those.  In games, I am better at being a spectator—and at my best, I am a passable Monday morning quarterback.

This leaves me with not playing the game at all.  Even as I type the phrase, a smile crosses my face.  I think of one of my old literary heroes, Bartleby. “I prefer not to.” Indeed. There have been many who have read this character as a victim of the times. I disagree. Bartleby is a hero in the sense that Quixote is a hero – even if that status was unintended by the respective authors.  Bartleby saw his choices: compromise or not. It’s true that he dies in the end – but everybody does at some point.

This brings me to one of those beliefs I have long held onto that has not been subject to decay: artists are always at odds with the world. People who know me also know my antagonistic view of the world; I can’t remember how many times my wife (who has more patience for me and my tirades than most anybody) has said to me “Mick, the world isn’t out to get you!”  My usual response to this is “No? How do you know?” Then she shakes her head and goes back to whatever it was that she was doing when I interrupted her with one of my passionate but unfocused lectures.  Jobs (or careers for those of you who have deluded yourselves into believing you had a choice in the matter) and bills and obligations are always there to drown out the creative imagination. There’s always some shit that’s more important to do. There’s always something that actually pays. There’s always something that will make the parents proud or silence the gossip of in-laws and extended families.  There’s always something that will sound more respectable to strangers. A dear friend and mentor of mine, George Eklund, once referred to this in a conversation with me as The Great Experiment – trying to find a way to balance art and the obligations of life so that neither suffers extensively.

I am fortunate to be married to an artist – though she will certainly deny this moniker and will undoubtedly give me a hard time about it. But she is.  I know it’s probably part of my duty as a husband to be supportive;  however, I have seen enough art to know the real deal from the shit – and there is no way she would ever accept anything but an honest opinion from me. She is an artist because she struggles to match her need to create with her obligations to work, to family, and yes, to me.  In this she is the consummate artist simply because the struggle itself is evidence. Those who are not artists do not struggle in the same way – and I’m not talking about the whole starving artist archetype.  It’s easier to give in to distractions – albeit well-intended ones – than it is to create. And she and I learned to be honest enough to say to one another “I’m working” and not take it personally when some solitude is required .

This isn’t to say, though, that I think The Great Experiment ever meets with any success.  I have come to the conclusion that the only difference between calling all the bullshit an experiment and calling it a compromise is that “experiment” sounds more hopeful.  And along with playing games, the other thing I have never been good at (those of you who know me will attest) is compromise. It is contrary to my nature and it grinds against every inclination I have.  Some would probably call this immaturity. They are entitled to their opinion of me.   I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but I know that if it’s a choice between my job and writing, it isn’t really a choice. Yeah, the schedule is good. Yeah, I mostly get left alone. And yeah, I still, for the most part, enjoy interacting with my students.  But a writer isn’t of use unless he’s actually writing. Anything else is a compromise that kills not only the creative imagination, but it destroys art itself from the inside out. Look at a bad painting or an obvious poem or any movie starring Matthew McConaughey. You’ll see what I mean.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2009 9:46 am

    I can’t really add anything to this. I know exactly what you mean and I struggle with it almost every day. And yet, I’m not sure I would do well if I wrote full-time and my writing was responsible for paying my bills. I don’t want to fall into the trap of writing something just because I know it will sell well. If that makes sense.

  2. ohioexpatriate permalink
    January 2, 2009 9:16 am

    Jen,

    that makes perfect sense. It’s part of the struggle, I think… being honest. This, like art, is something that’s not really encouraged.

  3. January 3, 2009 7:44 am

    That’s true.

    I see a really big divide between what people tell their kids and what their kids find out once they grow up and realize it’s just not that easy for most people.

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