Etude: What I Remember of My Future

(I may expand this post, but it’s been rattling around in my drafts for a few months and it’s begun to get in the way of new growth.)

My dad, a professor of Anthropology, told me that he made less money than a garbageman. We were standing in front of the house on a sunny day in the early 1980s, and a garbage truck had just passed with a garbageman hanging off the back. Municipal sanitation worker. He looked happy and having more money sounded good. There were well thumbed copies of Popular Photography magazine all over the house that opened themselves to camera reviews. Dad shot Pentax, but longed for Nikon. So while we were not poor or even struggling, I knew there were things we couldn’t afford. So I told my dad that’s what I’d do, I’d be a garbageman. That was likely the first time my dad got across one of his main messages to me: Son, don’t grow up to be an academic.

It would be years before he would become more explicit about this. But he didn’t need to. He grumbled about grading papers and blue book exams. He lambasted weak students like the one who identified Rome twice on a map quiz, but not in Italy even once. And there were endless tirades about colleagues and the machinations and manipulations of the Chancellor. I don’t mean to give anyone the impression that my dad hated his job. He loved the life and teaching. Since his death, many of his former students have told me how much they learned from him. And—without exception—how much he expected from them. Most of all he loved being in the field. He was most himself speaking Italian in Italy to Italians—he was almost an extrovert. But people don’t come home from a long day and profess their love for their job. They unload their frustrations. They share their anger. They say out loud what they would have liked to have said to their boss. And that’s what I grew up hearing at the dinner table.

By the time I was in high school, “Son, don’t be an academic,” was almost a catchphrase. And being a dutiful son, I didn’t. As a young person, becoming a professor would have felt like failure to me. Success was being someone like Philip Glass or Robert Rauschenberg, (I kept my role models to myself back then). I remember mowing the lawn, nursing fantasies of how my career as an avant-garde composer would unfold. Being an academic was the easy path. Of course, now that I understand how difficult it is to get a doctorate and a tenure-track faculty position, I understand how perverse and privileged that sounds. But white, male faculty brat privilege & self-regard is practically unlimited and takes a lifetime to recover from. By the time I graduated from college I had a much stronger sense of what not to do than what I should. And what graduate school program would suit me best was my biggest hang-up until the day, right after our first daughter was born, that Linda and I decided that it made sense for me to be an active partner in our family business.

I think that if not for my dad’s insistence that I stay out of the ivory tower, that I very well might have become a professor. Investigation and inquiry are really central to who I am and most of my interests fall squarely in the Arts and Humanities. I love reading, researching, writing, and educating people about things I’m passionate about. Plus, by the time I was through with my undergraduate degrees, it was pretty clear to me that I’d never make the cover of the New York Times‘ Arts and Leisure section. Becoming a small businessman was probably the most random thing that could have happened to me, but I loved it and have no regrets.

So why is this weighing on me? Having sold Kavarna, I’m back where I was thirteen years ago. Thinking about what graduate school program would suit me best. All I’m sure about is that the most important work is to mitigate the damage of climate change, so that’s what I’d like to do. And I’m open to suggestions.

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