Monday, September 3, 2012
The Edge of 37: Things Have Changed
Tomorrow I turn 37 years old. This age is not traditionally considered a turning point, but I now really feel as if I am no longer an aging young man, but a young middle-aged man. I am also becoming more aware of just how much I have changed since entering my thirties.
That realization came home last weekend, when I had the joy and good fortune to visit some friends from my grad school days who live in eastern PA. I'd had a wonderful day, but on the drive home I had a nagging feeling of sadness that could not be explained by the mere fact that I miss my old friends dearly. No, it was apparent to me that in the six years since I graduated with my PhD from Big Ten University I have become a different person.
Certainly my home life is a lot happier than it used to be, but I am coming to realize that my travails in the world of low-level academia have made me a much more cynical, paranoid, and self-conscious person. I used to be a very trusting guy, quick to make friends and to open up to them. Since moving the New Jersey, I haven't made any real friends at all, mostly because I am keeping the people I know at work (who I genuinely like a great deal) at arm's length on purpose. Down in Texas I was lucky to meet some truly wonderful people that I miss intensely, but also some unscrupulous back-stabbers who abused my confidence and tore me down behind my back. That experience has made it very difficult for me to confide in anyone except my wife and long-time friends. (And anonymously with you, my dear readers.)
As much as I love my current workplace, I have entered this school year with a great deal of fear. This is because whenever something is going well, I automatically expect it to turn to shit. I thought I was doing well in grad school, but then had to take three tries to find a tenure-track job, which turned out to be a living hell. I had a book contract, and then my publisher dropped me with a written punch to the scrotum. My "visiting" gig out of grad school was really a form of peonage.
There's been a kind of hardening of certain callouses on my soul. When I was a grad student, I had modest ambitions, and thought that I would have a shot at attaining them. I did not seek to be an academic superstar or to work at a research institution. I saw myself living in a quiet but interesting college town, working as a historian at a teaching-oriented university where I would have enough time to work on my second book, which would be a many years-long magnum opus in the making good enough to be assigned reading for graduate students in seminars on German history. Back then I believed in scholarship for the sake of scholarship, but the pressures of the job market soon changed that attitude. I pushed to publish as much as I could as fast as I could, including an article that I think is pretty meaningless as a scholarly contribution, I am embarrassed to say. I also taught a couple of courses mostly for how they would look on my CV, not based on my level of interest or expertise. (A lot of good it did me.) Thirty-year old me would be disgusted at such naked careerism, and I think thirty-year old me would be justified in that assessment. Thirty-seven year old me thinks that thirty-year old me was a sucker blind to the dirty realities of how the world really works. He's right, too.
Despite being a less pleasant and idealistic person, I have a lot to be happy about. I could never have imagined seven years ago that I would be working in the Big Apple, married to the love of my life and father to two adorable baby girls. I can only hope that I shed some of my middle-aged bitterness before it calcifies in old age, and that I can shake the disease of perpetual dissatisfaction that seems to infect the academic profession.