partings welded together

I’ve been gone for two months, an unprecedented blogging hiatus. Things are changing here at carrots headquarters. That means that we’ve been running by the seats of our pants. The cats are restless. The carpet needs vacuuming. And I’ve been staring into the pantry, unwilling to brave the grocery store, trying to devise dinners out of instant rice, peanut butter, and microwave popcorn.

In the words of Bill (or Ted?), strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

First, I got a job. That deserves an exclamation point, and perhaps italics. I got a job! After four years of sending out dozens of hopeful application letters, producing what my advisor claimed was a hysterical number of sample syllabi, composing pages-long lists of small talk topics for campus visits — “So, I hear that cicadas migrate through this part of the country each spring! How do you deal with stray exoskeletons?” — and coming in second place more times than is healthy for a vulnerable, freshly-minted PhD, I suddenly found myself deciding between two wonderful offers from two wonderful schools. I felt so very lucky and so very overwhelmed. I know that uttering even a syllable of discontent about that situation in this market merits excommunication from academia, but I was baffled to find myself facing a  choice. I don’t think I’ve ever logged so many hours on the phone with family and advisors, or burned through so many pencils scrawling pros and cons lists, or asked the same questions of myself and Danny so many times.

I talked and reflected until words started becoming nonsensical — Seussian or Learian or Carollian — and then I made two terrifying phone calls. And so. In the fall, I’ll begin a position as Assistant Professor of English in New England — a huge change, but a choice I feel great about.

Phew. I am leaving Houston, people. LEAVING HOUSTON. For a JOB. Whoa. I better start eating some serious Tex-Mex, and fast.

After my two offers but before my two phone calls, however, Danny’s dad, Bert, died very suddenly. Anyone who has met Bert knows what a huge life force he was, and it is still impossible to imagine him gone. I drove Danny to the airport, our conversation wavering a little drunkenly between job one and his family, job two and his last visit with his dad, job one again but maybe job two and how is his brother dealing with this? Total excitement and total confusion and total grief.

Things are finally starting to settle down, though there is still this strange vibration throughout the apartment. Sometimes it’s difficult to disarticulate the joy and excitement from the vestiges of confusion and the sadness that will certainly be sticking around for awhile. And they weave together, the warp and woof of this what’s happening next for us.

Bob emailed me an appropriate Dickensian quote: Joe Gargery in Great Expectations recognizing that “life is ever so many partings welded together.”

And then there’s Paulo Coelho: “Life has many ways of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or by having everything happen at once.”

Preach, Paulo.

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in which carrots turns to pro-craft-ination

Things are getting ugly over here at the carrots household, dear readers. The job market and the end of the semester are combining to create the Perfect Storm of Stress. Bill Paxton is around here somewhere, furrowing his brow in that neanderthal way, hiding in a ditch from the twisters, and watching cows whiz by.

I know I am not alone among my academic-job-hunting friends in feeling that right about now I need to take my mind off things. I’ve sent off my first round of applications, and now I’m waiting waiting waiting. I need a distraction. Some turn to world travel. Some turn to alcohol and gambling. I turn to crafting, apparently.

In a moment of recklessness — oh, the adventure! — I decided to try out these “paper bauble” Christmas ornaments. A friend had posted the pattern for them on Pinterest, and I was seduced by the simplicity of them. My brain is tapioca, after all — a little wobbly and of an unsettling consistency — and I therefore cannot handle complicated directions or sophisticated crafting equipment, like a hot glue gun or a sewing machine. The finished product is not-too-terrible! On to the photo-essay!

I began by braving Michael’s, where many parents of irresponsible middle school children were buying posterboard in some last-ditch attempt to put together a science project for Monday morning. I elbowed my way around the scrapbooking aisle for awhile, picking over the selection overpriced papers. I chose a few solids and a few patterns. That piece in the middle? I definitely thought it was a whimsical pattern of mittens. No. It’s oven mitts. Oh, well. People bake around Christmas, right?

The rest of my supplies: florist’s wire, thin red ribbon, and a small baggie full of these ingenious little pre-measured dots of glue. I love the OCD precision of these small dots of glue, and I am therefore considering finding future crafting projects that allow me to use them.

I spent far too much time cutting out circles of paper this evening. But check out the fun campsite paper I found! This paper also has nothing at all to do with Christmas, but I enjoy the small lanterns. Each ornament requires twelve of these circles, which you fold in half, stack, and bind with florist’s wire. Gluing the edges of the circles together in an alternating pattern creates the honeycomb pattern of the finished ornament:

Not too bad for my first try. Here’s the same ornament from above:

Toby is in her teenage angst phase, and therefore she is Too Cool for Crafting. But she enjoyed the completed project.

I imagine that these would be more interesting ornaments if created out of something more meaningful than overpriced paper from Michael’s. Piecing together an extra wedding invitation and program could make for an interesting substitute for a bow on an anniversary gift, maybe. And they don’t take long. I made two in about an hour:

I appreciate the immediate gratification of a senseless crafting project. If only I could stick together the edges of my CV and job letter with small dots of glue and — voila! — at the end of the process find a small, perfect, tenure-track job on a string.

writing on the wall

Nursery rhymes and playground songs are full of superstitions and hare-brained predictions. Don’t step on a crack, or you’ll break your mother’s back. Monday’s child is fair of face. Tuesday’s child is full of grace. One for sorrow, two for joy. Three for a girl, four for a boy. Who knew that counting magpies could determine so much?

In my training-wheels days, deciphering my fate through the patterns in the larger world made a lot of sense. I had no qualms attributing larger shifts in my universe to worn pavement, the arbitrary logic of the calendar, the arithmetic of flocks of birds. Fed fat with children’s verse and stories rife with clues and omens, wishes-come-true and dire portents, I began to formulate my own system of superstitions. An even number of stairs was auspicious. A note or flower pressed inside a library book obviously translated into good fortune. A phone ringing three times — not two, not four — promised bad news.

I still try to snatch the phone off its cradle before that third ring, and I’ll be sure to sprint to the receiver each time it rings during job market season. I’ll imagine a search committee chair on the other end of the line, counting each ring. It rings once, I have an interview. Twice, perhaps a job. Three times? The chair has obviously changed her mind and is calling to tell me about that typo on the first page of my CV. “Did you really mean to say you were from Horston, Texas? Ridiculous! We’re shredding your application right now. Do you hear the ominous whir of the shredder? Do you hear it!?!

Intellectually, I know these small details have little to do with success or failure. Stumbling on a crack on the sidewalk can’t fracture a spine, and counting magpies won’t bring happiness or heartbreak. But somewhere in my lizard brain I both enjoy and fear the simple equations of superstitions. I appreciate their immediacy: the sense of urgency they lend to trivial situations and their assumption that something as simple as bird-against-sky is legible. Read the world and know what’s next.

And nothing puts me in a superstitious frame of mind quite like a fortune cookie. Sure, I’ve disparaged them in the past, but I do so with a sideways glance at the swirling cosmos and a hidden sense of respect for whatever a small slip of paper may reveal to me. It was with ambivalence, then, that I cracked open two cookies last week. I was alone in my hotel room at an academic conference, a little greasy-fingered with take-out veggie lo mein and a little heavy-hearted with the feelings of inadequacy conferences tend to inspire in an anxious person like myself.

Fortune cookie #1 told me that I should bide my time for success is near. Not bad! Fortune cookie #2 revealed that I should be prepared to accept a wondrous opportunity in the days ahead. That word wondrous rung a little false, perhaps. Wondrous? Really? Should I expect a stray twenty dollar bill on the pavement, or are we talking leprechauns and winged monkeys? And how to I prepare to accept a winged monkey, anyway? A litterbox and a stash of bananas?

Before I tossed the fortunes in the garbage, I turned them over for my mini language lesson. Fortune cookie #1: “Market, shì chang.” Fortune cookie #2: “March, san yuè.”

Propitious, I’d say, for a job market that begins to resolve itself into new hires in the spring months.* I’ll be keeping these two tacked to my bulletin board.

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* I have no idea if the cookie intends March the month or march the verb. I also don’t want to know. I am interpreting my cookie as I see fit.

in which carrots laughs instead of cries

The MLA Job List posted this past week, a cruel two days early. (For the uninitiated: the Modern Language Association posts a large share of the available academic jobs in literature and languages each September, a long-anticipated event that crashes servers and kicks off the academic hiring cycle.) Perusing the Job List in its first days is heartening and traumatic in turn, and in the effort to maintain my sense of humor during these dark days, I present to my few loyal readers Carrots’ Inner Monologue While Viewing the 2011-2012 MLA Job List:

Here we go! This is my year! I am an academic rock star! I am a running carrot!

[Opens spreadsheet pre-formatted for job info, created in a moment of OCD pre-job market mania. Checks fonts for consistency as a means to delay searching the list and feels a fleeting sense of control in this senseless universe. Briefly considers re-color-coding the entire thing to incorporate warmer, gentler tones. Finally commits to the first search of the list.]

Hmmmm. That’s not a very long list.

[Scrolls through entries.]

African American lit. Medievalist. Medievalist. Medievalist. African American Lit.

Sigh.

ROMANTICIST! That’s kind of close to what I do!

[Makes a quick list of Romanticist authors taught or written about in past ten years. It is a respectable list.]

I could totally be a Romanticist. Especially for a job in [insert desirable urban area].

[Actually reads the posting, which requests a candidate studied in the sexual preferences of lemmings in 18th-century France.]

Well, maybe I’m not that kind of Romanticist. Lemmings only appear briefly in that one seminar paper I wrote that one time in my first semester of graduate school. And really, the whole lemming thing was only a metaphor.

[Continues scrolling through list. Shoulders have tensed and migrated toward ears.]

Creative writing. Creative writing. Medievalistmedievalistmedievalist.

WHY ARE THERE SO MANY JOBS FOR MEDIEVALISTS!?!

[Briefly considers whether she could sell herself as a medievalist. Realizes she knows nothing about this specialty. No. Not even close.]

Aha! Nineteenth-century British! Desirable school! Urban area! Light teaching load!

[Bubble of inevitable hope rises in chest. A portrait of this job formulates immediately in mind’s eye — complete with ivy, upper-level courses with engaging and witty students, conference funding, and office lined with books and dignity — only to dissipate immediately.]

Stupid desirable job in an urban area with a light teaching load. You belong to someone else, don’t you? WHY DO YOU MOCK ME!?!?

[Adds job to spreadsheet anyway. Continues to scroll through list.]

“X University seeks a tenure-track assistant professor in English of the extra-long nineteenth century, with preferred interests in Al Gore studies and ability to advise graduate students.”

Well, I could make a case that I know Gore. I use the Internet, after all. And I’ve seen his movie. Where is X University, anyway?

[Maps X University on Google Maps. It appears as a small pinpoint in a vast, empty space, somewhere in the Middle of the Country.]

Hmmmmmmmm.

[Zoom out. Zoom out. Zoom out. Zoom out. Zoom out.]

AHA! Civilization! Am I willing to live in TownI’veneverheardof to teach Al Gore studies?

[Enters job into spreadsheet. Includes a note documenting estimated miles to nearest grocery store. Continues to scroll through list.]

Twentieth-century American lit. Feminist theory. Rhet Comp. Rhet Comp. Rhet Comp. Rhet Comp. Generalist position.

[Briefly wonders who exactly is qualified for a generalist position. Considers how her dissertation committee would have reacted if she submitted a prospectus on general literature in general terms, history of the English language through twenty-first century, in all nations. Continues to scroll through list.]

Woohoo! Children’s literature, tenure-track, assistant professor! Place I wouldn’t mind living!

[Enters job in spreadsheet. Happily imagines scoring an interview. Anticipates spending most of the interview convincing the committee that yes, she can teach children’s literature. True, she knows a lot about Victorian literature. No, she is not a rogue Victorianist sent to infiltrate your department with her crazy nineteenth-century antics. Yes, she promises. Continues to search job list.]

“Prestigious University will be accepting three desperate, newly-minted PhDs for three-week postdocs, minimal pay. You will only have to teach one class, but you will be competing with 500 applicants with degrees in every field that has ever existed, including Desirable Degrees in Fields That Are Relevant Due to Current Events. (Read: your boring, dead-white-man field is irrelevant.) Please submit cover letter, CV, official undergraduate and graduate transcripts, six letters of recommendation in sealed envelopes, an 11-and-a-half page writing sample, teaching philosophy, research statement, three syllabi, and a hot fudge sundae with a puppy on top to this address within two weeks. You can also submit your documents through this website, which will crash just as you complete your application. If you submit your application late, you are a useless human being with credentials from an inferior institution. Equal opportunity employer.”

[Enters postdoc on spreadsheetReflects upon which dog breed will suggest professionalism and panache. Dacshund, perhaps?]

Good luck, fellow job hunters! We will survive.

casting on and on

As some of my faithful facebook friends may know, I am now a knitter.  I, apparently, knit things.

So far, I’m mostly knitting mistakes.  I excel at beginning scarves.  Usually around row thirteen I realize that back on row six things went awry in some mysterious way.  I have dropped stitches and found extra stitches and created unexpected and inappropriate buttonholes.  I am particularly adept at creating a small outgrowth of yarn on the side of my work, errors that I creepily call Scarf Tumors.

I started making these mistakes a few weeks ago, when I took a beginner’s class with my lovely friend Heather at an adorable store called Knitting in the Loop.  (I chose this location solely because the pictures of yarn on their website made me want to create an afghan.)  During the lesson, I managed to mangle my skein of yarn into such a complicated knot that I probably could have taken it to sea and hoisted a few sails.  But I was happy to muddle incompetently through the two hours, partially because of Heather’s good-natured company, partially because it was windy and gloomy outside and warm and yarn-y inside, and partially because the store was frequented by many friendly knitters, all whose names were compounds that included “Mary.”

Mary Jane.  Mary Lou.  And, my favorite, Mary Charles.  I felt like I was back in the South.

I decided to learn to knit for a lot of reasons.  I need something to do when listening to my favorite podcasts.  Many of my friends have adorable babies or are expecting adorable babies, and these babies need hats!  And I am intoxicated by the yarn aisle at crafting stores and the language of knitters and their materials.  Who doesn’t want to cast on from a skein of chunky tweed?

But I’ve also realized that I need to cultivate some interests that aren’t set in the nineteenth century or shelved in the children’s literature section of the library.  It’s important to maintain a healthy enthusiasm for my scholarship, but at this particular moment in my life — when I’m gratefully but somewhat disconsolately teaching three sections of freshman comp, when my PhD remains curled in its cardboard tube in my closet, when I face six months until the next job list is posted — I need to focus some of this nervous energy elsewhere.

It may be months before I actually finish a scarf.  For now, I’m enjoying the yarn aisle and its chunky tweeds, and I’m making peace with slow and steady progress.  I may unravel four rows for every six I knit, but I’m persistent.

In my last post, I considered the merits and pitfalls of the blind and dogged persistence my chosen profession demands.*  I’m still uncertain about my own personal brand of this persistence — its origins and its limits, how long it can last.  I feel intuitively that my decision to begin this new hobby is connected to resolving that uncertainty.  Maybe knitting is a way to reconcile myself with multiple tries.  Literature, after all, is full of knitting women — those who weave fibers, wind wool, snip loose ends, presaging the fates of the hero.

And, once again, I cannot escape Heart of Darkness. Gah!

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* My wise friend Deb recently wrote of trying to get a job in an English department: “It may be easier to become a supermodel.  Or an astronaut.  Or a supermodel astronaut.”  I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her here.  It made me laugh at this whole ridiculous situation, which is a good thing to do.

the line

Prepare yourselves, dear readers, for some serious self-pity.  But I think it’s at least thoughtful self-pity.

So I didn’t get The Job.

I was planning on stating that fact — or perhaps ignoring it altogether — and moving on with my blogging life.  Discussing this particular rejection is painful.  And I have to spend a lot energy reminding myself about the reality of not getting The Job, as there is some part of me that is still whirring full-speed, barreling ahead with the unstoppable gravity of job market stress.  That part of me is unconvinced that all is lost.  In my more rational moments, I am comforting myself by believing that the candidate the committee hired is probably qualified in ways that are just impossible for me to overcome.  Tenure elsewhere already.  Two books published.  Ten years teaching experience.  I don’t know if this is true, and it probably isn’t.  It’s cold comfort, but it makes me feel less rejected and more justifiably overshadowed.

There are certainly valid reasons why I haven’t found a position, and very kind friends, family, and colleagues list them whenever I am ill-tempered and mopey.  The market is bad.  Departments have particular needs that I cannot know or understand.  The market is flooded with newly minted PhDs like myself.  But none of these reasons makes me feel any better when I’m putting on the brave face or the stiff upper lip or the positive attitude when I explain to everyone that no, I didn’t get the job.  Second choice again.

But today, during my run, I realized that what really bothers me about yet another failed cycle on the academic job market isn’t so much losing this particular position.  (Although, yowch — just typing it still hurts.)  It’s more the fear that I am becoming some sort of ridiculous perpetual job-seeker, embarrassing both those around me and myself.

Where, I wonder, is the line?  The line between resilience and ridiculous?  How will I know when I’ve ceased being hard-working and disciplined and determined and have become, instead, a joke?  It seems that there is some unspecified moment when I should give up to save a little dignity, but I have no idea when that moment is.  Have I passed it already?  Is this that moment?

No one really talks about this line, but I am convinced it exists.

Before I allowed myself to look at the MLA Job List last August, I told myself that This Is It.  This is the last year I’m doing this.  At the time, I was convinced that I would get a job this year, and that if I didn’t, I would be resignedly happy finding another path for myself.  Three tries, about 90 job applications — that’s the definition of the old college try.

But then I didn’t get The Job and faced the reality of that promise to myself — the idea that I had tried, and that it hadn’t worked out.  Existing in that space, where my chosen career was no longer an option, made me so much more miserable than the rejection alone.  The only way to feel better was to give myself permission to try again next year, a decision that makes me simultaneously a little happier and a lot more miserable.

So who knows.  Perhaps I am becoming that weirdo who can’t take the hint.  And there is certainly a part of me that is ashamed of this dogged persistence in a market that doesn’t seem to want me.  But, in the wise words of The Killers: when you can’t hang on — hang on.

in which carrots mentions the giant mirrored armadillo

It was an eventful week here at the Houston headquarters of Carrots and Co. It began with an epic moment for Danny, who sank his first hole in one at Wildcat. It ended with my campus visit, which I am deciding to dub successful. How successful it was according to the hiring committee will be revealed in time.

I will note, before their Final Decision is made, that the committee was kind and welcoming. Also, they like puns, which I respect. I will be thankful to them even if they don’t let me bring home the metaphorical puppy. Early in the visit, they told me that, when someone asked me that eternal campus visit inquiry — “So, do you have any questions?” — I should feel free to say no. This made me feel immediately at ease. I had many questions. I had spent many hours preparing questions. But I find it pretty much impossible to come up with enough questions to fill 48 hours. Eventually I’m going to give up and begin inquiring about celebrity relationships. “What do you think of this Taylor Swift, Jake Gyllenhaal debacle?”

From there, I’ll soon begin a line of questioning relating to reality television. And no one should mention Snooki during a campus visit. (Although, as mentioned in my last post, I have worked in a reference to Toddlers and Tiaras.)

However, when a job candidate is relieved of the burden of coming up with questions when she doesn’t have any, she faces a new burden: small talk. I’m pretty good with light chatter, especially in non-Texas situations. When I’m considered a visitor from the Lone Star State, I can break out a wealth of Houston anecdotes, including my Texodus from Hurricane Ike and my first encounter with the enormous mirrored armadillo on Kirby. Who doesn’t want to talk about an enormous mirrored armadillo?

But this weekend, small talk made me realize that boy, do I need a hobby. When someone asks “what do you do for fun?” I feel it is inappropriate or at the very least unflattering to answer honestly. I break out a bag of Doritos and screen my own Felicity marathon, even though I’ve seen each season about twenty times. I go to Target, buy some popcorn, and spend a lot of time in the office supplies aisle. I play Wii Tetris with Danny until I surrender, defeated by his superior spatial instincts.

Okay, so I have a few hobbies. I like to run. (Jog is probably a more accurate term.) And I like to write, but that isn’t so different from research in the context of a casual conversation. I know how to cross stitch and enjoy doing so when my eyes aren’t all bleary and weird from reading.

But I’m thinking I need to try something new. You know, in my copious free time. My new hobby must fit two key criteria: It can’t be expensive, and it has to be something that I can spend twenty minutes at a time upon without a lot of travel, set-up, or clean up. Danny has already made two completely ridiculous suggestions: golf and taxidermy. Neither fit my stated criteria. (That second one was a joke, but it did make me think of Victorian ladies re-articulating bird skeletons in their parlors.)

I’m thinking knitting. Soothing and practical. And I’m sure I can find somewhere to learn. But I ask you, carrots readers. What are your hobbies?