I spent half the week or more working on a piece of biting satire that made the case that I appeared to be the only human being on Earth who understood what Seth MacFarlane was doing at the Oscars. (Working title: The Tit Offensive)
Look, when you hire a guy who makes fun of the handicapped, once wrote an entire network skit dedicated to sideboobs and “Dogs Humping” and then made a feature film about a Teddy Bear that gets stoned, you know what you’re going to get at the Oscars.
And that damned sure ain’t going to be Moliere.
If nothing else, I argued, people needed to pay better attention to the cutaway shots of the actresses appearing to be “offended” during “We Saw Your Boobs.” Charlize Theron was wearing a different dress and so was Naomi Watts. And if Theron was really insulted and blindsided by all this, how the hell did she change dresses so fast and hop up on stage for an impromptu dance with Channing Tatum?
After spending a good amount of time trying to find the clip of David Hyde Pierce flopping his nut sack around while dancing with Jenna Elfman, I finished the post and was ready for what attention whores like me (and most of the Academy) love: attention.
It wasn’t anything in that post that changed my mind on running it, nor was it a change of heart. Instead, it was a moment of self-reflection brought on by my work-muse.
A few months ago, our department was mired in the kind of academic navel-gazing, in-fighting, shit-box stuff that makes people really hate to go to work. As someone far smarter than I noted, the reason the fights in academia are so bitter is because the stakes are so low. After a few threats were levied against me, I noticed that my health and quality of life had taken a turn for the worse. I talked to my doctor who told me that it was likely to get worse unless I got out of there.
I applied for a job several states away. Better colleagues. Better pay. Better hours. The only real downside at that point was that it would be life on the road again when it came to family matters. At least that was the only downside I could see at the time…
The week after I completed my Skype interview with this new school (by the way, worst invention ever for interviews. Had to wear headphones. Looked like Princess Leia the whole damned time…) I went down to the newsroom for our production night. I didn’t quite know how or when would be a good time to tell them I was probably out the door.
I watched them work on stuff, shouting out orders to one another, joking about something or other and so forth. One of the women farted. The room got quiet for a moment. Everyone started laughing.
Someone found a Gummy Frog that someone else had impaled on a pencil. We started kidding the news editor about her fear of frogs. Someone said something that had a double entendre to it. “Quick! Write that one the quote board!” someone else yelled from across the room.
It would have been surreal to most people. To me, it felt like that soft, fuzzy sweater I wear when I’m sick and cold: perfectly comforting.
A week later, I found out I was bounced out of the pool for the job. I half-jokingly told a friend that someone on the committee must have found my Twitter feed.
My wife told me it was probably for the best. The new position didn’t come with a student newspaper. I kind of agreed, but it was still a bit disheartening.
I felt like a guy in a bad dating situation who was blindsided when the girl called it quits before I could. It was like, “If anyone’s ending this relationship, it’s me, not you.” I might not have taken the job if it were offered, but I don’t want someone else telling me I’m not good enough.
I sent a few emails to colleagues I’d grown up with in Ph.D.-land. These were the folks who went from the program to the same kind of school I was at now and then moved on to the “good jobs” of higher prestige and higher positions. They were the associate deans and the leaders at the “name” schools who had once looked at me and said, “Wow, how the hell do publish so much?” They made more money. They were cited as experts.
I was fighting with a mentally imbalanced idiot and trying to convince my university to spend money on an award-winning student newspaper. I was becoming the tragic tale of wasted youth.
The doc friends, of course, saw it differently. I was working hard, I was doing fine, I probably didn’t want their lives. I wasn’t a waste.
Intuitively, it was hard to see it, so I just let it drop. I had way too much shit going on to worry about it. I had committed to a convention on the West Coast for student journalism and I needed to prepare like hell.
The day I was getting ready to leave, we caught about 11 inches of snow. I was driving Sparky down the freeway at 35 mph for almost three hours to make it to Milwaukee in a blizzard. The planes were delayed and I eventually got out of there.
I made my connection in LAX and landed in Oakland, which at least meant I wasn’t going to be late. As I walked up to the baggage carousel, there was a guy who looked like a football free safety standing there in a suit and tie holding a piece of paper with my name on it.
“Are you here for me?” I asked in that incredulous, no-shit? kind of way.
“Yes, sir. Compliments of the convention,” the driver said.
“Holy shit! Can I keep the sign?” I asked.
He laughed and handed it over. I tucked it into my bag carefully and we rode into San Francisco.
Over the last two days, I’ve spoken until my voice fell out, critiqued newspapers on the fly and laughed with former students who have become friends. I helped the convention people stuff convention bags and hugged people I only see once a year. After the first night, I stopped having the incessant nightmares about trying to sell our house or being tossed out of my department. Last night, I went to bed at 9 and slept for 9 hours, the first time that happened in a long time.
For some people, student media is a job. For me, it’s a reward.
Somewhere, sometime, a long, long time ago, it got a hold of me and it never really let go. It’s the counterbalance and the salvation. It took my soul and promised to care for it. It is the small flicker of light in the darkest of rooms.
I remember reading or seeing a quote about Gordie Howe a long time ago. I think it was Dave Diles, a famous Detroit sportscaster, who explained that even after Gordie retired from the NHL as an active player at age 52, he still couldn’t let go. When the Whalers sent him out to scout minor league teams, he’d drive to the events with all of his hockey stuff in the trunk of the car, just in case they invited him onto the ice.
“For most of us,” Diles noted. “We think at some point, ‘Maybe I should do something else or be something else.’ That wasn’t him. Gordie never wanted to be anything other than a hockey player.”
There are probably more important things I could be doing with my time and whatever talent I have managed to marshal. I could be breaking ground in scholarship or crunching numbers with Nate Silver or moving to some place where I could be an expert from a “name” place.
Or, maybe I am a tragic tale of a life misspent. Had I worked more in doing X or climbing ladder Y at an earlier age, I’d be where those in this field felt I should be. Instead, I cast my lot and landed here and this is where I’ll be forever. I mean, really, at what point do you stop being “full of promise” and just start becoming whatever you actually are?
I guess I’ll never really know the answer. What I do know is that I spent yesterday afternoon with a kid who had his ears gauged out to about a half inch, a tattoo around his neck and a stud through is lip, gushing about how fucking incredible his art work was and begging him to do a sketch of me at some point. I talked to a returning student who was probably three years older than I am who was still finding herself and her footing as a journalist, convincing her that she has more than enough time to turn her paper around. I drank and ate my fill for free and could have doubled it, given the number of people here who said, “Dude I owe you a drink for…” whatever it was.
So, I’m sorry Seth. You’re on your own.
Gratitude and soul-saving warmth are rare these days.
And they deserve to be celebrated.