Growing out of excess

I’m not sure about the etiquette of blogging but I assume that writing a poem to my lover after six months of not writing is something of a blog faux pas; so apologies for that (and more on that another time).

But my topic of today is ‘excess’.

I’ve moved to Scotland to study a masters (which is amazing! Although I’m terrible at getting my work finished before the very last minute – but again, another time) and all of my friends and classmates are considerable younger than me (the average age is around 25), which is fine except that they all want to go out clubbing every single weekend and prior to going out they like to congregate at someone’s house and play drinking games.

The problem for me is that (potentially due to my age) I cannot go out clubbing and study the next day. In fact, I cannot either stay out past 1am or drink too much and work the next day. Which probably makes me seem very ‘square’, which got me thinking about my past, and the irony of my years of excess which have somehow been erased from my current persona.

When I was eleven we moved from a very nice part of Sydney, where the children were all well behaved, to a fairly rough part of Melbourne. My last year of primary school was memorable for the political over-throw we achieved when we ousted the bitchy, popular girl. Prior to the change she liked to mime that she had the guys wrapped around her little finger and nicknamed the various groups in our school as KKs (kool kids), MMs (middle miners; us) and SSs (super sluts, more aptly labelled nerds).

By the time I was 15 we were spending our weekends at my best friend’s house because her mum, who was recently divorced, didn’t care what we did. What we did essentially amounted to going to parties or the park and drinking until we threw up. One time my sister and I shotted an entire bottle of bourbon (a friend’s birthday present) between us, just to prove we could.

By the age of 19 I was using heroine on a weekly basis, smoking ‘brekkie bongs’ and using meth on a not irregular basis. So I’m not unused to excess!

By 22 I had stopped using hard drugs, although I still drank to excess, smoked weed and took party drugs (or ‘herbals’ for the duration of my time in New Zealand). At 30 I finally had my drinking under sufficient control and was in a supportive enough situation to sign up for six months of horrendous hep C treatment necessary as a result my past digressions.

So my point is I guess that I’ve grown up. I don’t look back on my past and think ‘oh how cool I was’, I look back and feel pity for a little girl from a good family who got transplanted into a harsh environment where she didn’t fit in or belong (but who really belongs there?); who felt it was utterly necessary to ‘keep up with the boys’ – both in order to fit in and to prove that girls are as good as boys. I like hanging out with younger people, even when they think I’m soft for having overcome being several orders of magnitude harder than they will ever be.

I also think my past is important because it demonstrates that no one is truly at such a low that they can’t drag themselves out of their past. That is my past and I am intelligent, beautiful and successful. I’ve become confident with age and now that I don’t have anything to prove the pressure for excess is less acute.

Life is a journey, as long as you are learning don’t be too hard on yourself.

Come with me

Lover, will you walk with me, in this land of make believe?
Tall structures tower overhead, city buildings of a collective dream.

Will you run away with me, to a place more real?
Where our hearts echo with the thunder of the storm;
And life accosts us with the earthy smell of red dust, splattered in the rain.

Lover, will this be our world? Our reality?
Won’t you come, come away with me.

Academia’s indentured servants

I came across this article, which argues, far more eloquently than I did, the point I was trying to make with my blog ‘the land of opportunity':

Academia’s indentured servants


Outspoken academics are rare: most tenured faculty have stayed silent about the adjunct crisis, notes Kendzior.

Last Modified: 11 Apr 2013 11:19

“To work outside of academia, even temporarily, signals you are not “serious” or “dedicated” to scholarship,” writes author [AP]

On April 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that 76 percent of American university faculty are adjunct professors – an all-time high. Unlike tenured faculty, whose annual salaries can top $160,000, adjunct professors make an average of $2,700 per course and receive no health care or other benefits.

Most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some are on welfare or homeless. Others depend on charity drives held by their peers. Adjuncts are generally not allowed to have offices or participate in faculty meetings. When they ask for a living wage or benefits, they can be fired. Their contingent status allows them no recourse.

No one forces a scholar to work as an adjunct. So why do some of America’s brightest PhDs – many of whom are authors of books and articles on labour, power, or injustice – accept such terrible conditions?

“Path dependence and sunk costs must be powerful forces,” speculates political scientist Steve Saidemen in a post titled “The Adjunct Mystery“. In other words, job candidates have invested so much time and money into their professional training that they cannot fathom abandoning their goal – even if this means living, as Saidemen says, like “second-class citizens”. (He later downgraded this to “third-class citizens”.)

With roughly 40 percent of academic positions eliminated since the 2008 crash, most adjuncts will not find a tenure-track job. Their path dependence and sunk costs will likely lead to greater path dependence and sunk costs – and the costs of the academic job market are prohibitive. Many job candidates must shell out thousands of dollars for a chance to interview at their discipline’s annual meeting, usually held in one of the most expensive cities in the world. In some fields, candidates must pay to even see the job listings.

Given the need for personal wealth as a means to entry, one would assume that adjuncts would be even more outraged about their plight. After all, their paltry salaries and lack of departmental funding make their job hunt a far greater sacrifice than for those with means. But this is not the case. While efforts at labour organisation are emerging, the adjunct rate continues to soar – from 68 percent in 2008, the year of the economic crash, to 76 percent just five years later. 

Contingency has become permanent, a rite of passage to nowhere.

A two-fold crisis

The adjunct plight is indicative of a two-fold crisis in education and in the American economy. On one hand, we have the degradation of education in general and higher education in particular. It is no surprise that when 76 percent of professors are viewed as so disposable and indistinguishable that they are listed in course catalogues as “Professor Staff”, administrators view computers which grade essaysas a viable replacement. Those who promote inhumane treatment tend to not favour the human.

On the other hand, we have a pervasive self-degradation among low-earning academics – a sweeping sense of shame that strikes adjunct workers before adjunct workers can strike. In a tirade for Slatesubtitled “Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor”, Rebecca Schuman writes:

“By the time you finish – if you even do – your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you.”

Self-degradation sustains the adjunct economy, and we see echoes of it in journalism, policy and other fields in which unpaid or underpaid labour is increasingly the norm. It is easy to make people work for less than they are worth when they are conditioned to feel worthless.

Thomas A Benton wrote in 2004, before tackling the title question, “Is Graduate School a Cult?”:

“Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realise that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified PhD’s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy.”

Benton’s answer is yes, and he offers a list of behaviour controls used by cults – “no critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate”, “access to non-cult sources of information minimised or discouraged” – that mirror the practices of graduate school. The author lived as he wrote: it was later revealed that “Thomas A Benton” was a pseudonym used by academic William Pannapacker when he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education – a publication said to employ more pseudonyms than any other American newspaper. The life of the mind is born of fear.

Some may wonder why adjuncts do not get a well-paying non-academic job while they search for a tenure-track position. The answer lies in the cult-like practices Pannapacker describes. To work outside of academia, even temporarily, signals you are not “serious” or “dedicated” to scholarship. It does not matter if you are simply too poor to stay: in academia, perseverance is redefined as the ability to suffer silently or to survive on family wealth. As a result, scholars adjunct in order to retain an institutional affiliation, while the institution offers them no respect in return.

Dispensable automatons

Is academia a cult? That is debatable, but it is certainly a caste system. Outspoken academics like Pannapacker are rare: most tenured faculty have stayed silent about the adjunct crisis. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it,” wrote Upton Sinclair, the American author famous for his essays on labour exploitation. Somewhere in America, a tenured professor may be teaching his work, as a nearby adjunct holds office hours out of her car. 

“It is easy to make people work for less than they are worth when they are conditioned to feel worthless.”

On Twitter, I wondered why so many professors who study injustice ignore the plight of their peers. “They don’t consider us their peers,” the adjuncts wrote back. Academia likes to think of itself as a meritocracy – which it is not – and those who have tenured jobs like to think they deserved them. They probably do – but with hundreds of applications per available position, an awful lot of deserving candidates have defaulted to the adjunct track.

The plight of the adjunct shows how personal success is not an excuse to excuse systemic failure. Success is meaningless when the system that sustained it – the higher education system – is no longer sustainable. When it falls, everyone falls. Success is not a pathway out of social responsibility.

Last week, a corporation proudly announced that it had created a digital textbook that monitors whether students had done the reading. This followed the announcement of the software that grades essays, which followed months of hype over MOOCs – massive online open courses – replacing classroom interaction. Professors who can gauge student engagement through class discussion are unneeded. Professors who can offer thoughtful feedback on student writing are unneeded. Professors who interact with students, who care about students, are unneeded.

We should not be surprised that it has come to this when 76 percent of faculty are treated as dispensable automatons. The contempt for adjuncts reflects a general contempt for learning. The promotion of information has replaced the pursuit of knowledge. But it is not enough to have information – we need insight and understanding, and above all, we need people who can communicate it to others. 

People who have the ability to do this are not dispensable. They should not see themselves this way, and they should not be treated this way. Fight for what you are worth, adjuncts. Success is solidarity.

Sarah Kendzior is a writer and analyst who studies digital media and politics. She has a PhD in anthropology from Washington University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

To define love

(From a few days ago when I was, as you might have guessed, staying with my best friend.)

I had a strange conversation with my best friend last night. He told me that when he is with his girlfriend he finds the conversation witty and engaging but she doesn’t make him happy but when he speaks to me I almost always make him happy. He says that’s what he means with loving her with his head, that it makes logical sense for them to be together…

I’m not sure that that is how I would define love.

Until now, I thought he truly loved her, when he told me he loved the two of us I thought that meant he loved her and he was trying to let me down gently. It was the first time he had used the word love and he was using it in a sentence which involved her name, explaining that he loved her with his head and me with his heart. Explaining that she was his girlfriend and had been for some time, that he wanted to be with her. Not that he didn’t want to be with me, he loved us both but he chose her… And now I’m wondering whether he loves me and not her, or neither of us, but his approach to love is too intellectual?

So let’s unpack that. What would it mean if he loved me? What would it mean if he decided he couldn’t be with her? And why am I being delusional and even exploring these ideas when I know that to do so is like walking blind folded into a minefield? Why do I knowingly hurt myself by reopening old wounds?

Things were so settled before he came to visit a month or so ago. I felt calm and happy with things the way they were. There is serenity in the known, even when it doesn’t fit your ideal state. Since he spoke to me about not being able to sleep in the nights leading up to his visit I’ve had to take out my box of feelings – the ones that I had so carefully packed away and locked away with all the pain and hurt that I so studiously avoid…

So back to the question at hand; If he turned around to me and told me he loved me and wanted to be with me, how would I feel? Elated? Excited?

To some extent the question is impossible to answer;

“We can never know what we want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come. Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone? There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

I avoid it. Why toy with your heart like a cat with a mouse when it will only to pain and disappointment? But that aside, I don’t think it would make me happy. I feel worried that things would change, that things would be spoilt, that we’ve already given it a chance and things didn’t work out.

Yes, things were good when we were together, but I can’t go through the pushing and pulling that is his way. And I’m scared of being left for someone else. He wanted space and I tried to give it to him in the hope that with space and time he would come to realise he loved me but with space and time he came to realise he loved someone else. And honestly, I’m okay with that. I’m a romantic, I would never stop someone from finding and being with ‘the one’. How could I? How could I be with someone knowing that they were only mine because they couldn’t give me up?

I want to be loved – truly loved – for everything I am and everything I’m not. And I do have that from him now, why throw it away for confusion? Isn’t normal for him to doubt his love for someone who he has only been able to love through holiday romances and whom he has been separated from for most of their time together?

But suppose he doesn’t love her, suppose he comes back to me, do I not want that because I don’t want him? I can’t tell… When I gave him space to allow him to leave and come back was there a time limit on that? Has the time elapsed… opportunity passed… onward and upward! I don’t know… And will he hate me if I don’t love him back? Or if I do? How will I ever know what I truly feel?

I always wanted my best friend to be my lover, then I had it, then I lost it. When we watched Moonrise Kingdom together, he told me about his childhood fantasy of running away with a girl and I forgot mine – fantasies of running through the fields together, playing by the stream, being together with my best friend… To be completely comfortable with someone so close that nothing matters, that you can completely be yourself. And then to be lovers, to know that they love you completely, just the way you are.

How many years of being truly in love do you need to feel satisfied? Wouldn’t ten years be truly wonderful? Of course you would want more – we always want more – but wouldn’t that be enough? In that case, does it really matter if I’m alone? Surely it is okay for me to concentrate on having a brain that truly functions for now and leave love to take me by surprise when I least expect it.

So my best friend, once my lover, you’re my bittersweet friend, do you know that? You love me and take care of me and I love you and long for you. And that is all that we can have, and I wouldn’t give it up, but sometimes it hurts.

The land of opportunity

Does it matter if you don’t like your best friend’s girlfriend? – I should clarify, I’m talking about the love of the life of my best friend who was also briefly my lover – That probably makes it sound like I’m being jealous, and maybe I am, but the truth is we didn’t click when she was just a friend. The two of us were perfectly friendly to each other but I always felt that we were both pretending to be friends to make my best friend happy.

I do want him to be happy though. If he loves her, which he does, which I knew immediately when he told me about her, then I want for them to find a way to be together, I want for them to be happy and I want for us all to be friends. But I want all of that for him, because I love him and want him to be happy. Her happiness is merely collateral, an incidental side effect. It is neither here nor there to me.

They have big decisions ahead though; she is about to start residency in a hospital in the States. Coming from a country where ‘work life balance’ is more than a catch cry the conditions of an American education and an American career sound like a form of institutionalised debt bondage. After accruing $100,000 to $200,000 in student debt for the sake of an education, a would-be doctor has no other choice (if they want to ever practice in the American system) than to apply to a four year residency program, which in the case at hand amounts to eighty hour weeks (5.15am to 7pm, six days a week), 49 weeks of the year for the next four years.

And once you have accrued such a substantial debt – in a society that normalises the amassing of debt much as German culture drives the accumulation of savings – what choice are you left with but to put your nose to the grind stone? And yet, as voyeur of a culture that is so admired and so greatly emulated one can’t help but feel compassion for a nation that enslaves itself to the labour market. The land of opportunities sells dreams like Christmas baubles. The house with the white picked fence, the family – two children and a dog. What Milan Kundera terms ‘the American kitsch’. The idealised wrappings of a life filled with long work hours, two weeks of holidays a year, the debt of an education, a house, a car, and all the consumerism necessary to block out the distant call of destiny and adventure; like the roar of the ocean trapped in a dried out sea shell.

Even if you become a doctor for all the right reasons, the system is so coercive, the threat of medical ostracism for taking a step off the proscribed path so great, the accumulated debt so convincing that hesitation can only last an instant. You must believe that this is what you want, you must convince yourself that you desire it with all your heart. Because if you don’t, what are you left with but a stifling, suffocating realisation that you have become enslaved to a system that will roll over you without hesitation. It’s sink or swim and like a giant wave you can ride it, even pretend to master it – if only momentarily – or you’ll find yourself tumbling in the turmoil of it’s centre, only to be spat out and dumped when it is done with you.

All of that is to say that my best friend will need to make a decision soon, he will need to choose between the love of his life and a freedom we take for granted. Australia also pulls you in, she tempts you with her promises of eternal satisfaction through a life of normalcy; Australian kitsch – it takes self-possession, confidence and a pinch of self-denial to walk away from the daily grind. But walk away I will… will he?

Psychoanalysis of the self

In astrology they discovered a comet with an erratic orbit which they called Chiron; Chiron the wounded healer. Each of us has a Chiron, an achilles heal, a deep wound that may never be healed. It is this wound that we strive our whole lives to heal and in doing so we learn the art of healing and therefore, while we may not ever fully heal ourselves we may learn to heal others.

If I am right, my Chiron is in Taurus, meaning a wound of neglect. For me this means I am prone to feelings of loneliness, I can be loved by others but I find it hard to understand my substance when I strip away accomplishments, abilities, achievements… what is left? It has taken me a long time to believe I have an inner self that has worth unto itself when you strip away the accoutrements that create my outer shell. 

When I was very young, my mother took my twin sister and I to preschool for the first time. Upon arrival my sister spotted a little boy, who in my memory was maybe Lebanese or African, she ran over and instantly struck up a friendship which held her in good stead for the next two years. In fact, I think she also met her primary school best friend whilst still in preschool. I, on the other hand, proceeded to cry. The good ladies of the preschool, having seen it all before, informed my mother that it was normal for children to cry when left for the first time and that as soon she was out of sight I would perk up and go and play with the other children. On this advice my mother left me. Several hours later, on her return, she found me huddled in a corner still hiccuping away through my tears, bright red spots on my forehead (a makeshift birthmark I have when I cry to make up for the lack of any real birthmark).

As a result of that incident my sister went to preschool for a full year longer than I did. I was allowed to stay home providing I would sit quietly with my mother so she could have some time to herself to read and relax, which of course I could having always been a daydreamer.

I don’t suppose there’s any moral to that story except that it serves to illustrate the self-indulgent depths of despair that I can sometimes allow myself to fall so completely into.

Today is a slightly overcast day, which lends itself to a sort of melancholy introspection. I wouldn’t say I’m sad, just slightly distant. And my thoughts are with that part of myself that can be so lonely, so alone, even when surrounded by those who love me. The part that questions how anyone could truly love someone like me, someone who isn’t perfect despite my best efforts, someone vague and forgetful and not critical or analytical enough. As I said, it has taken a long time for me to start to believe that the things you care about are what create a self.

Added to these underlying causes I am currently reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being and To Define True Madness, both of which add to a desire to self-analyse. Which brings me to the motivation for this post. My sister thinks I should see a psychologist, not in a bad way but because this loneliness resurfaces throughout my life and maybe by talking to someone I can heal it. I’m not sure whether or not that is the case. Some people swear by psychologists, for me it’s seems like an expensive and time consuming venture, to unravel your soul with a stranger on a couch. So I wonder, what does a psychologist truly do? If they are only there to listen than isn’t this forum as good as any a place to start? What questions would I have to ask myself to understand the depths of my soul and heal them?

The past will set you free…

So I just had a wonderful conversation with my grandfather about his life and the various stages since he was seventeen years old and first met my grandmother (who is a year older than him) until now, and the motivations for first coming here to Australia (to see Australia before having children, shortly before their discovering my grandmother was pregnant – which put a stop to my grandmother ever really seeing Australia).

Their return to the Netherlands to take an position originally offered to my great grandfather who died of a heart condition in Indonesia shortly before my grandparents’ marriage, through the years on the farm, the decision of where to move based on my aunt and her then husband’s need to find work as teachers.

My aunt’s first husband’s motorbike accident as he headed to my grandparents’ for christmas – after they had separated, against my aunt’s, in retrospect, better judgement. The errand to buy a fan belt… all of which added up to the unlucky timing which resulted in a truck coming round a corner as a car pulled out and his collecting the car in his knee. The doctor who had ‘seen so much worse in Nam’ who tried to ‘save’ his leg. The gangrene and the eight months worth of multiple surgeries, the same doctor telling him he could get out of his hospital if he took my grandfather’s advice and sought a second opinion… which wouldn’t have changed the final outcome (a full leg amputation) but would have saved him seven months of pain. (Someone else came in unconscious with similar, they amputated and five weeks later he left the hospital).

Ladidadadadday, the time on the farm during the thirty year drought, the Keating years when interest rates rose above 20%, the attempt to hide the hardship in providing my grandmother the occasional trip back to the Netherlands – due to her naivety and his noble desire not to take from her enjoyment by letting her understand the reality of the situation…

My grandparents met when oma started at my grandfather’s school (after spending a year in Australia with an uncle recuperating after her time in a Japanese concentration camp…) She was introduced and everyone was told to be particularly nice because she’d come back from Indonesia and he was instantly interested. He won her over by giving her a branch of chestnuts (I think) when she was unwell. She responded ‘what is this, a branch?’ but the teacher said ‘put it in some water and wait’, which she did and they blossomed (or whatever they do) beautifully.

Meanwhile, my head is taken by my thoughts, caught up in my recent best friend’s visit and our discussion of our time together in ‘Nam’… how I have blocked out some of the good and bad to protect myself, how I only allowed myself to start to fall in love with him for a week or so until he told me he didn’t want a relationship, how after that I held myself back, not allowing myself to love him… how maybe I regret that and maybe us talking about this opens old wounds and maybe in the long-term scheme of things pain is bitter sweet and I’d prefer to feel it along with the joy but I’m not one hundred per cent on this and maybe I’ll discover I am wrong…

More thoughts on my best friend and our previous ‘relationship’ (given that he uses that term, which I had not). I feel like I only allowed myself to start falling in love with him for a couple of weeks, then he said he didn’t want a relationship and I held myself back in the hope of giving him space to work through whatever he brought from his previous relationship and in the hope that he would come back to me, which as it happened did not happen… I realise I have blocked out these memories because they still hurt, they are still raw, maybe because I have feelings for him, even now it is not something I like to say; why? I think because in saying so I risk opening myself up to more hurt without any hope of anything coming of it, because after all, he is currently in love with the one he loves. Strangely enough, she is the one he loves with his head, whereas I was the one he loved with his heart… (Another time I’ll explain that better…) I would have always thought it would prefer to be loved by someone’s heart… unfortunately I guess he’s an intellect, so that comfort still leaves me alone…