Our classmates put in a great deal of hard work assembling the book, and they didn't intend to leave anybody's material in this state. I need to make sure that a sour note isn't the only statement of mine that people end up reading. Luckily, technology allows a quick fix. In case anyone found the printed version puzzling or worse, here's the whole statement. Thanks for your patience with this. -- The Irrev. Dr. Bill
We all know the drill. We do, at least, if we read class notes (anybody's class notes; it needn't be our own; the genre is as tightly formatted and ritualistic as Bunraku puppetry or 19th-century haute-bourgeois tableware settings). We are to report that our educations not only have prepared us for spectacularly successful lives, but have delivered. We and our almae matres are to have blended our strengths (individual energies and ambitions, institutional resources and networks) and made good on the mutual promise.
We are to have a thriving law practice/small discreet investment firm/clinical professorship in major teaching hospital/tenured chair/entrepreneurial or at least upper-managerial position with a profitable yet socially responsible corporation (maybe something high-tech, green, or both). We are to be financially comfortable and comfortable around finance. We are to be clubbable. We are to describe all of the above in cheerful, casual, self-effacing terms, tossed off with the requisite references to the sports fields and/or gravity taps of our youth and the life companion we've chosen (MHC `83, perhaps, or Princeton `77), who patiently trades duty with us in ferrying our 2.4 children plus Chesapeake retriever through the leafy exurbs in a large but not garish vehicle. We are to confirm the wisdom of our parents' investment in our undergrad years, and of the late Ed Wall's mighty handshake conferring that memorable Amherst welcome on each of us.
If it hasn't quite turned out that way, if from some angles our postcollegiate trajectory might look a bit... well, directionless, if not alarmingly akin to a downright downward spiral... well, it's best that we not write back, isn't it? Class notes and reunion books aren't for the dissidents, the eight-balls, the outliers on the bell curve - all right, let's just go ahead and use the crude and indiscreet but inescapable term. This genre is not for the fuckups.
OK, comrades, here goes: I'm writing anyway. Writing is just what I do, even when the stuff I crank out doesn't quite land where it's aimed. I may or may not ultimately be one of our class's renowned scribes; we have many good writers, even some celebrated ones. But so far, as far as I can tell, I'm among (and will try to write on behalf of) those who have made their own luck with a capital F.
I'm a writer, editor, and musician, self-employed. As for whether my personal narrative is the kind that belongs here, I'd probably be the last to know. Viewed one way, it's almost impressive (literary PhD! Articles and presentations and editorships, oh my! Works collected in anthologies! Bylines appearing alongside... well, people with really famous bylines!). Viewed from a different angle, though, we just might be talking Train Wreck here: abandoned primary career, unfinished projects galore, no offspring, no real estate, no car, bupkis in the bank, a name nobody on the planet is printing in boldface (except the class notes, which are forgiving enough to print everybody's name in boldface). Not even the all-too-familiar train-wreck narrative, the one that leads through dingy alleys and rehab. Never did that, even if it would have provided a lot of material. Something here's just inexplicably off.
(Ed of the Mighty Grip, wherever you are, if "fuckup" is in fact the operative term here, it isn't you who fucked up. Far from it. You did great; you were always a mensch. The upfucking has been mine.)
There are those who'd say rock `n' roll trashed my life, or to put it more accurately, trashed the life I was supposed to have. After Amherst I spent a couple of years in Boston straddling the ostensible high road (entry-level editorial work at the New England Journal of Medicine) and the low (lots of new-wave nighthawkery, not just as fan but as practitioner: bass, vocals, and some early songwriting as a member of Pete Weidman's Pepitones). The Peps splintered, as most bands do. I headed for grad school (Rutgers: the least prestigious one I got into, but the one I could actually afford thanks to a fellowship) and sprinted through the English program for a while; I also revived my musical work, discovering that lit departments are hotbeds of moonlighting rockers. Another band formed, mutated, played out occasionally, and had a blast. I got a lot better at writing songs as well as interpretations of postmodern fiction and marginal comments on marginal undergrad papers. For a while in my 20s, while still on the hyperachiever track, I had the youthful hubris and the weird sleep habits to think I might end up with a kind of Buckaroo Banzai career superimposition, the multitasking existence of a gonzo polymath, the next Walter Benjamin by day and the next Elvis Costello by night. I aimed for three visible signifiers of hotshot status by the age of 30: a novel completed, an album out, and a tenure-track position in a lit department.
Absurd, I know. I'm afraid all three of those milestones are still unpassed: two in front of me somewhere, one consigned to the permanently counterfactual. A couple of years into diss work, teaching undergrads and pumping out the odd publication or MLA talk, I recognized that I liked teaching reasonably well but didn't love it, and that the only way to do it honorably, let alone justify a plunge into the humanities job market, growing ever grimmer through the late `80s and `90s, was to love it so passionately and powerfully that you could imagine doing nothing else. I just didn't. I could actually see myself doing all kinds of Somethings Else. I came; I saw; I bailed.
I also did some pretty scary scrambling in the making-a-living department. I did eventually finish my diss as a part-timer, squeezing it in alongside day jobs, but I've ping-ponged through quite a few Somethings Else: medical journalism, music journalism, magazine editing, website editing, academic research administration, new-media grantwriting, occasional bursts of literary and cultural scholarship mainly through force of habit, and (recurrently) original music. That last vocation never faded. Giving up playing and writing songs, a sane and responsible course of action in the eyes of a bygone partner or two, has always struck me as the equivalent of giving up breathing oxygen. If nothing else, this view seems to immunize me against long-range involvement with people whose main criterion for partner selection is earning potential. I haven't come across convincing evidence that this amounts to a grievous sacrifice.
Of the various ping-pong bounces, some of the best ones have been utter accidents. Not too long ago, something I'd written in a medical journal drew the attention of a prominent architect who wanted a biomedical writer to discuss one of his stranger new buildings through the nearly-as-strange metaphor of an alien autopsy; after sending him just such a piece under unlikely conditions (a long story), I ended up placing not only that article but a fistful of other contributions, the fruit of two short-notice overseas postings, in a controversial interdisciplinary boogazine published over this guy's extremely boldface name. So in mid-career (whatever career it's the middle of) I've more or less been drafted as an architecture writer. This strikes me as a fine thing to give myself a crash course in how to become, not to mention a pretty good thing to combine with "unheralded songwriter" and an even better one, no doubt, to combine with "heralded songwriter," should my output in the sonic department ever somehow get itself heralded. (Look for the debut album this year. Seriously. We're approaching ten final mixes as I write this.)
As for the novel, it's moving along much better in recent days, and thanks for asking.
Where I am professionally right now is thus a little tricky to define ("rhetorical engineer"? "pun sculptor"? "meme-splicer without portfolio"?). Where I am geographically is the East Village. I've been consuming things in this neighborhood (music, liquids, evenings, ideas) for a couple of decades now, since back in the immediate post-Amherst days when I'd come down from Boston to visit a girlfriend (no, I never heard where she ended up either), and the place feels like home in ways no leafy exurb ever could. I'm about to assume the editorship of a brand-new magazine intended to be of, by, and for the EV. By the time this page appears, this venture could be a howling success, a great unknown, or a flaming disaster; it's a complete roll of the dice at this point. It won't resemble the last publication I edited (21stC, Columbia U's research magazine in the later `90s) at all, but it may end up reaching a few more people.
Nonteaching PhDs may be the peacocks of the professional ecosystem, devoting huge resources to developing an elaborate feature that has no obvious use. If my next few years go toward building this little indie magazine, along with hauling my redoubtable quartet out of obscurity at last, there are many worse things to have done with one's time -- I know this full well, having done more than a few of them -- but there's no clear connection between what I do and what I spent many years getting ready to do. A humanities doctorate sharpens your eyesight in some ways, narrows it in others, and perhaps prepares you for more than it trains you for. In the marketplace (if we absolutely have to view our lives through a loaded and constricting metaphor like a marketplace) it's intangible enough to be weightless.
So at 46 I spend my days in a small book-, guitar-, and gadget-crammed apartment above a cheap restaurant in a cartoon bohemia, living not quite hand-to-mouth, but closer to it than anyone from Amherst is ever supposed to be. My PhD adorns a wall, but around the EV nobody really needs to see the lit-crit eyes in my long green feathery tail. (Argus Panoptes, hmm: didn't he sub on bass with the third or fourth Lounge Lizards lineup at a couple of Knitting Factory sessions?) By the standards some of our fellow alums would apply, terms like obscurity and precarious existence and even poverty look pretty appropriate. This is definitely not one of the lives we all expect to read about in the notes, redolent of renown or at least respectability. Sorry about that. Cue third track of Neil Young's Ragged Glory.
The strange thing is that after 25 years converting hyperachievement to underachievement, I'm not a bitter booze-sodden schmendrick at all. I'm actually happy as hell. I'm part of a terrific family, scattered across various cities, and a wide, expanding network of friends, here in NYC and elsewhere. Among other things, I spend as much time as possible around a fascinating woman who writes about art and technology, keeps a schedule every bit as weird as mine, has as little regard for amassing property as I do, and brings some refreshing Californian grace to this often manic Manhattan existence. Lisa and I both have strong enthusiasms, and we cherish them enough to avoid letting them ossify into obligations. The old line about two-writer couples inevitably driving each other crazy may be accurate in most cases, but that's one bullet we seem to dodge pretty easily.
One of many things I think Amherst taught me (perhaps inadvertently) is the impossibility, maybe even unadvisability, of defining a single right direction for a career. Another is the ultimate unwisdom of aggressively pursuing one's self-interest. I'd love for more of my projects to break out of obscurity, but I've grown somewhat Buddhist about personal ambition. I do very badly at getting established, making a name, working a room, building a rep, getting the breaks; I do better at creating things that would never have been created by other people. If nothing else, I've become the world's leading Bill Millard-style writer. I'll let you know when I figure out exactly what that means.