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.


Brian I said...

Great post and title. How old will Stevie Nicks have to be before she starts pining about being on the edge of 37?

I wonder if some of this has more to do with being out of school for several years, rather than age. Even though I am not quite 33 yet, I am now more than four years out of grad school--in my second non-permanent teaching gig--and feeling some of the same things you describe.

Moving is part of it, too. I find that I have to leave some things behind each time--friends, memories, souvenirs--and it gets harder to hold onto the old stuff every time I move to a new place.

chauncey devega said...

Damn our introspective Virgo ways. Keep your head up; do celebrate your many successes--especially with family.

Go to Virgil's and get some bbq for me. Enjoy the cornbread and fall off the porch iced tea.