WHAT AM I DOING

Dear Three-Year-Old Daughter:

WHAT AM I DOING? WHAT AM I DOING? WHAT AM I DOING?

If our household could copyright a phrase, we’d all be squillionaires by now. For most of the day—and, about once or twice a week, half of the night—the general chaos is punctuated by this, the constant refrain of you, now an unbelievable three years old:

WHAT AM I DOING?
WHAT AM I DOING?
WHAT AM I DOING?

Except in your three-year-old accent it sounds more like this:

WHA’M I DOING?
WHA’M I DOING?
WHA’M I DOING?

You are heavily invested in the narration of your activities. Often you answer the question yourself, in the correct first person, for example: I’M KIRCHING THE ELEMENTS! This is when you walk over to your illustrated Theodore Gray periodic table, smack one of your favorites, usually Helium or Xenon, and go KIRCH! You do this when you are FEELING ALL MIXED UP, to FEEL BETTER. Like seriously, you will be mid-wail about something drastically important (Calla, your confoundingly small effing fairy, for your new fairy garden that has improbably sprouted actual plants, who comes with her own suspension wire, is briefly missing—or, worse, her even smaller plastic squirrel friend is), and you’ll go I’M GONNA GO KIRCH AN ELEMENT TO FEEL BETTER, and then you’ll bound over to the wall where your poster is and go I’M KIRCHING HELIUM NOW I FEEL BETTER.

It’s a complicated question, WHAT AM I DOING. It’s certainly one I’ve been wrestling with since at least when you were born, or, more accurately, about nine months beforehand, when I lay immobile with nausea and fatigue face-down on the couch and your father asked me: Is this just how you’re going to be from now on? (Answer: Yes, but now I’m immobile from exhaustion, thanks to being kept up on a patented Fluffy Trouble Walkabout from 2 to 5 a.m.)

I didn’t know what I was doing (or had done) when I became With Child, and I certainly haven’t known what I’m doing for as much as a single solitary millisecond of my time as a parent.

I am a person who plans trips months in advance, down to the actual pairs of underwear I plan to pack—not five pairs of underwear, but these five pairs of underwear—and for the past three years, I have been making it up as I go along. This is, to say the absolute very least, not my natural state of affairs. I think the one word of warning I actually could have used and heeded in the run-up to parenthood would have been: You will never, ever, ever have it figured out. The second something comes into focus—oh, she woke up at 2 a.m. because she didn’t eat enough dinner, we need to feed her more at night—another thing drifts into the nebula, and suddenly there you are at 2:35 partying it up even though at bedtime I stuffed you like a fois gras goose.

So what ARE you doing? Here’s a random sampling.

WHAT AM I DOING? I’M PAINTING MY FACE!

Oh you are, are you? After many weeks of very anguished nights in the bathtub attempting to loose the day’s mixed-media artistic endeavors from your visage (the only thing you loathe more than washing your hair is washing your face), I had the genius idea to purchase you some actual face paints. Pro: they do come off your face a bit more easily than felt-tip markers and watercolors. Con: not so much for all the furniture.

WHAT AM I DOING? I’M HAVING A BIRTHDAY PARTY!

For the first time since we moved almost a year ago, we had People Over to the loft in the form of ten screaming kids four and under and sixteen very good-humored adults, who braved our expansive lack of seating (we had to put all the chairs and stools upstairs in your father’s Boring Closet until you stopped seeing fit to climb on them) and my “homemade” (mix-made) “Jupiter cake” (loosely interpreted) and about seven too many pizzas. Everyone adult who came in got greeted by you running up to him or her and going I’M HAVING A BIRTHDAY PARTY!!!! You then ignored the other kids and spent half the time upstairs playing with the helium balloon one of your ignored friends was kind enough to bring you.

WHAT AM I DOING? I’M WEARING MY HELMET ON MY SCOOTER!

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Your (second) cousin Abby was kind enough to send you her Micro scooter after she grew out of it, and you have taken to that thing like a MOTHERfucker. You love it so much (although you’re still not keen on braking, meaning that you spend a good amount of time RUNNING INTO STUFF, which is a little nerve-racking). Until now you’ve always been resolutely anti-anything-on-your-head, but I had the disputed (by your doubting father) but genius idea to get you THE most ridiculous helmet in the world, complete with cat face, incongruous leopard print, pink and purple peace signs, rainbows, sparkles, hearts AND stars. And you fucking love it. You understood right away that helmie=scootie; no helmie=no scootie, and you’ve been great about it.

WHAT AM I DOING? I’M DOING MY SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS!

You’re a modern feminist child, and as such you understand that nothing is off-limits as far as aspiration is concerned. You can love Disney princesses (right now you’re obsessed with Cinderella despite never having read, heard or seen the story in any way) and the planets; your fairy garden and your new lab coat and chemistry set. You are, as you say, AN ARTISTE AND A SCIENTIST AND A SUPERHERO BALLERINA FIREFIGHTER HERE TO SAVE THE DAY, the later being a direct quote from a Daniel Tiger episode you like.

WHAT AM I DOING? I’M A THE LIBRARY WITH PAPA!

This semester, your father has a different schedule and he’s home on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so instead of your beloved babysitter Regan (who now just comes on Saturdays for what I call my weekly three-hour Re-cation AND I FUCKING NEED IT), your equally beloved albeit in a different way dad takes you out while I do my coaching calls. Lately because it’s been so hellishly frigid, he’s been taking you to the library, where apparently you have become so obsessed with one of the computer games—a sort of rudimentary Photoshop program—that you just sit and do that for two straight hours at a time, albeit asking WHAT AM I DOING? the entire time.

WHAT AM I DOING? I’M LEARNING ALL THE CHESS PIECES!

Pretty soon we’ll be able to take you to New York so you can hustle the old guys in Washington Square Park.

WHAT AM I DOING? I’M WITH SLIPPY!

Yep, Slippy’s still in the picture.

WHAT AM I DOING? I’VE GOT MY ATOMS DRESS!

WHAT AM I DOING? I’M A PURPLE OWL.

As for me, I will never know what I am doing. And for now, I don’t know what I’m doing with these monthly updates. It’s my instinct to stop, because at three you really are an autonomous person and you deserve a say in how you’re portrayed in public. We’ll see.

As a person with four degrees (I’m not bragging, it’s just a fact), who has literally spent most of her adulthood in the official process of Figuring It Out, the fact that I will never know what I’m doing in the largest and most important job of my life has perhaps been the most difficult aspect of parenting.

This is sometimes why, esoterically, I wish I could give you a younger sibling, for the simple purpose of having a do-over when I sort of know what’s going on.

That’s not going to happen. For lots of reasons, none of which are the internet’s business. So, as you said many months ago, it’s ME AND ME AND YOU. Your papa, you, and me. That is our family. With at least that one thing, I know what I’m doing.

You are and will always be my one and only shining-sun, center-of-the-universe, probably-overly-doted-on-but-anyone-who-doesn’t-like-it-can-eat-a-bag-of-fucks child. I am, as they say, one and done. We are complete. You are enough kid to fill a family. I have precisely enough room in my heart for the veritable Nietzschean abyss of death-level fee-fees I have for you, and about you, and for motherhood, and about motherhood, at any given moment, plus a few spare seconds for the three or four jobs I somehow manage to do in the fifteen hours a week I get to work. But that’s what I’m doing. But what are you doing?

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

Mama

 

 

 

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2 Years, 11 Months: ARE WE IN ARIZONA OR ARE WE NOT IN ARIZONA?

My riotous small person:

It is two days after I meant to write this letter. (I couldn’t, because of…reasons. Stay tuned.) Right this second, you are curled up next to your father on the couch, about fifteen feet away from me, as I finish this letter in fits and starts.

You two are in the midst of a very involved discussion about, among other things, what does and doesn’t go in your nose.

NOTHING GOES IN YOUR NOSE! you say.
That’s right, says Papa. Putting stuff in your nose is a Nope.
YOU CAN PUT STUFF IN YOUR HAIR?
You can, but then we have to wash your hair.*
WHEN I PUT LIPSTICK IN MY EYE I WASH MY EYE!
That would really hurt and be hard to get out.
MY HAIR DOESN’T HAVE LIPSTICK IN IT.
That’s why you’re not getting it washed.

*It has currently been 11 days since I have washed your hair. Your sensory issues surrounding your head have continued apace, and we have compensated by a) keeping your hair in a very short bowl style, and b) allowing it to be dirty most of the time. We wash it often enough for you not to get any sort of gnarly scalp infection, but seldom enough that when we do, we are always surprised to learn that you are, indeed, a dark blonde rather than a light brown.

One of my favorite developments this month—of all time, really—is that during particular times of the day, usually first thing in the morning or about 7 at night if you’ve taken a nap, you crawl into your father’s lap on the couch and you basically have class time. You draw shapes—your current favorite is a parallelogram; you learn about angles, acute and obtuse and right; you work on geography (right now you and your father are drawing arrows “at” and “away”—and read your “big books” and you type letters on the computer and you basically just sit there like a fascinated little sponge. I like to joke that your brain is a little computer. When you hear a word or expression for the first time—”obviously inept,” for example—you’ll ask how to spell it, and once someone spells it for you, it’s like your little mind-computer files it away. I mean, of course I MOSTLY love your discussions with Papa because you two are bonding so wonderfully and you are having so much fun. But ALSO I don’t NOT love them because it gives me a little break. Because December means travel and travel means disruption and illness and being cleaved onto like my big butt is a boat and you are a 40-pound barnacle.

You’ve become oddly resourceful for a person who still regularly tries to eat quarters. When one of your beloved stuffies gets wet, you fight back tears and carry him over to the dryer. When you cough, you run across the room to get your sippy cup and chug water. When your hands get mucky from paints, you find a wipe and wipe them. You’ve only been to Montessori school for like an hour, kid, but clearly it’s worked.*

(*We adore your current preschool, and so do you, but starting next year you are going to go to a wonderful Montessori school we’ve found, which will help you learn to do some really important stuff such as peel and chop a carrot with a real peeler and knife, which we watched a kid that couldn’t have been older than 3 do on our visit to “observe” the Montessori kids doing their “work.” I’m not sure if a kid can get kicked out of Montessori school for being too plucky, but I suppose we’ll see when the time comes.)

A few months back, your grandmother got you a book called NEWTONIAN PHYSICS FOR BABIES, and then your father got you a book for adults about the periodic table that has really cool photos, and since then you’ve been obsessed with science. Before we left for our holiday trip (more on that in a min), I stopped by my beloved Left Bank Books, which has the best-curated kids’ section in the world, and found you this incredible kids’ book called ATOMS, and you’ve been in love with it ever since. JFC, I don’t know many adults who can remember what a covalent bond is, but admittedly your conception of it has a lot to do with sharing vs. taking Slippy the stuffed cat, so I’m not sure you’d pull an “A” in Mrs. Anderson’s 11th-grade Chem class just yet, but I still think Mrs. Anderson would be very impressed.

Yes, one of the things you learned about in your book is that ELECTRONS ARE FOR SHARING AND TAKING, and when we were in Arizona (spoiler alert) we consulted your Babcia, a trained chemist and retired chemistry teacher, about how static electricity works, because today’s overly-cautious litigation-proof plastic American playground slides are, ironically, electrocution factories. Anyone with a kid today recognizes this particular lewk:


And you’ve given the sensation of being shocked at the bottom of a slide your own word, which is something you do now and then. KIRCH! you call it. KIRCH! KIRCH! One night awhile ago when you didn’t feel like falling asleep, you stuck your face into my face with your I-want-attention smile and just kept saying DON’T KIRCH! DON’T KIRCH! DON’T KIRCH! Eventually you got bored and it turned into DON’T WURCH! DON’T WURCH! HOW DO YOU SPELL DON’T WURCH!!!!! Then by the next day you’d made up your own song: WHOOPS A WURCH! DO NOT KIRCH!

You and your father also like to talk about geography, specifically what street you live on, and what state you live in. You know all the streets of our neighborhood: DUNCAN AND EUCLID AND NEWSTEAD! He tells you all about streets when you go down the block to the cool sculptures at the startup incubator (yes, our neighborhood has a startup incubator; actually it has three), so that you can BE GIANTS and very rarely deign to wear your coat zipped up.

You especially enjoy asking WHAT STREET ARE WE ON? while your father strolls you down Duncan for an entire mile to get to the Science Center. We’re still on Duncan! he says to you for the fiftieth time, before you go HAM on the Discovery Room and then stop by the measuring tape to do a quick mug shot, you three-foot assassin you.

To my delight—SUCK IT, CHRISTMAS—all on your own this year, with literally no encouragement aside from some curiously-placed baby Judaica books in our neighborhood’s Little Free Library, you decided you were obsessed with Hanukkah, so we did the whole 9 this year. Your dad even taught you how to light the Menorah and we let you do this unassisted a few nights (with us right behind you, obviously), and you didn’t burn yourself or set anyone on fire. Montessori, I’m telling you. Anyway, you were as obsessed with the dreidel (you LOVE to play dreidel) as you were unimpressed with the blessing, which you would protest loudly every time we did it. Finally one morning you turned to me and said YOU HATE THE BLESSING! I have a theory that you only HATE THE BLESSING because it stood in the way of you getting to light candles with fire, and not because you are anti-Semitic.

Of course, we also celebrated Christmas this year—in Arizona, where you were incredibly blessed with a confluence of all three grandparents at once:

…and said confluence blessed your parents with two dates on one day! We went for a hike in the desert AND we went out to dinner which ended up being protein bars from a grocery store and then gelato, but hey, that was OUR choice. Yes, that’s you sitting at a table and having a conversation with three adults.

In Arizona, you got to spend some precious time with your 88-year-old great-grandmother, as well as your great-aunt and your great-uncle Richie, who delighted you to no end when he used the handle of his cane to yank away Slippy. No less than 10 times a day, to this day, you say WHAT DID UNCLE RICHIE TAKE? WHAT DID UNCLE RICHIE TAKE SLIPPY WITH? You also got to see your aunt Lisa and uncle Ken (technically they are your father’s cousins, but they are an aunt and uncle to you), and for reasons I still do not understand, you decided Ken was “a weirdo,” so for the four days we stayed at their home, covering it with your festering sick germs (SPOILER ALERT), you tromped around going UNCLE KEN IS A WEIRDO! UNCLE KEN IS A WEIRDO!

This month, your verbal flourish of choice is to ask a series of rhetorical either-or questions about easily discernible facts. AM I WALKING OR NOT WALKING? ARE WE GOING TO ARIZONA OR NOT GOING TO ARIZONA? IS THIS A HUMIDIFIER OR NOT A HUMIDIFIER? AM I ON AN ESCALATOR OR NOT ON AN ESCALATOR? IS MY MOTHER SEVERELY REGRETTING THE DECISION NOT TO BRING THE STROLLER ON THIS TRIP OR NOT SEVERELY REGRETTING THE DECISION NOT TO BRING THE STROLLER ON THIS TRIP?

ARE WE SEATED ON THE AIRPLANE OR NOT SEATED ON THE AIRPLANE?

IS THIS A REAL TRAIN OR NOT A REAL TRAIN?

BTW, you have spent the last ten minutes running around the apartment singing “Jingle Bells,” both the OG version and the “Batman Smells” version, which is also how you’ve spent the better part of the last month that has not been spent asking rhetorical either/or questions or singing the Dreidel song.

In Arizona, you were treated to literally four Christmases, with one set of presents in the hotel room the day your grandparents arrived, another set on Christmas eve, another on Christmas morning and yet more on the 26th. You got more Christmas presents as a not-yet-three-year-old than I got for every Christmas I was alive. And my parents—sorry, SANTA—were not stingy. Oh, Santa. There were two older kids at Christmas this year who believe in Santa and it was the first time I’ve ever had to keep up that particular charade and it was FUCKING EXHAUSTING. I don’t know if we’re going to do this whole rigamarole when you get old enough to GAF about your presents. The rest of the family is pro-Santa and thinks I’m going to ruin the magic of your childhood. Jury’s still out.

Your Christmas present to me was to pass on the brutal cold you picked up somewhere in transit, and on the 28th I was flying with that cold (and you, and minus-one stroller) and yesterday I was shuffling around the house in my slippers and robe actually crying because I felt so sick. (This is also something you did in the throes of it, coughing your poor self awake for the fiftieth time in a row, and whimpering WANNA FEEL BETTER!!!!)

This, little one, as unbelievable as it is, is your last month as a toddler—as anything that could be considered a baby. You’re going to be three. You’re closer to being toilet-trained every day (you have some days that are 100% “dry,” as the Germans would say, and some days that are…not).

On at least twenty occasions per day, you ask me: ARE YOU A BABY? It’s one of the last instances in which your pronouns are switched; about 75-80 percent of the time now, you use the correct ones. When you ask me ARE YOU A BABY? I always answer the same way: You’re not a baby anymore, but you’re MY baby.

Of course, you do still nurse, some days almost as much as you did as a baby, and with every passing month I turn more into One Of Those Moms that I used to regard with disgust and horror, though in my defense, I do keep all extended nursing-related activities to the borders of our own home, hotel room, or house where we are staying.

For your second birthday, we made the transition to only nurse at home; in honor of your third, we’re going to transition to only nursing to go to sleep (hey, maybe that will make you more likely to go to sleep! probably just more likely to fake it out). All the hoo-hoo literature I read about extended breastfeeding says that kids “naturally wean themselves” between 3 and 4, so I am PRETTY MUCH COUNTING ON THIS TO HAPPEN and if it doesn’t I may die. Just this morning, I needed to get our butts to the store (my first journey outside in 48 hours), and I said we needed to stop nursing for that second; you misunderstood me and thought I meant you had to stop nursing forever and your little heart broke.

I understand that you’re not ready yet. I understand this and I respect it, and I keep it in the confines of my own home (mostly), and I give absolutely zero fucks what anyone might have to say about it.

But still. You’re really, truly not a baby anymore. There is so much you can do for yourself. There is so much you can talk about, learn about, explore, conquer, laugh about, and love.

You’re not a baby anymore. But you’re my baby.

Always.

Love,

Mama

Two Years, 10 Months: And Now, a Word from Our Sponsor

SchumEditor’s Note: This month, the “28th Letter,” as we call them, comes to you courtesy of the other parent who lives around here, my husband Waldemar

Dear Squirt,

It’s Papa, and I’ll be guest blogging this month’s newsletter. Your mother is not at a loss for words. It’s just that you and I have been getting on great, and I wanted to write it down somewhere safe where nobody would see [Sick burn —Ed].

Now, it’s not as though we haven’t gotten along until now. But more often than I would prefer, our time together has you casting me skeptical glances as I ineptly mind you for a few hours while your mother catches her breath. Well, this month our outings and home play have been consistently great. I’ll say, “Hey Squirt, I have a question for you. Do you want to go to the park?” And you will enthusiastically answer with a reference to your preferred destination, using a code only your parents, or possibly the parents of another Central West End toddler, would understand. “The big red hill!” or “Let’s go be giants!” or “Swings!” or “Let’s go do the testers!” And off we go, with you delightedly playing the whole time. Your favorite game involves untying my shoes, unzipping my jacket, and removing my hood or hat, repeated ad nauseum. Each time I’ll react with feigned frustration at the ways you’ve left me undone. And you find it hilarious. Every time.

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The way home is part of the adventure now, too. You used to just watch your videos on the stroller ride. These days you prefer to sit up and chat while watching the world go by. Your take on everything you see toddler-fantastic. The other day, we passed someone raking leaves, and you asked if he was cleaning them up to put them back on the trees!

(Swinging with Grandpa over Thanksgiving)

Once we get home, the fun continues. Recently, your preferred method of getting someone to read to you was to throw a book at the lucky reader to be. Fortunately, this was short lived. Nevertheless, you are charmingly insistent at getting what you want. The other day, you woke us around 4 AM (not a frequent occurrence these days, but still not ideal). Eventually, with the hope of more sleep dashed, I went to work in the downstairs bedroom. An hour or two later, you made your way downstairs and approached the side of the bed in which I was working. I caught a glimpse of you out of the corner of my eye, standing expectantly with a book in hand. I kept hammering away at my keyboard, so you came around the other side of the bed, crawled up and under the covers, took my arm, wrapped it around you, declared it “cozy,” and the reading began. Speaking of getting cozy, one remarkable evening you spent a good ten minutes just lying in bed next to me, gazing at the ceiling, doing nothing much at all. This is remarkable, first because you are always doing something, but also because you’ve almost never been content to be physically close to me without having something going on. When I held you as a baby, I’d have to be reading, showing you some shapes, dancing, singing, etc. Now that you are older, physical contact also involves roughhousing or this peculiar game where we “cuddle” but actually involves you squirming around in some corner of a couch, arranging your stuffed animals, with my body close to yours but not really touching. But that evening, you were content to just be.

(You are the tutu blur on the upper left.)

Now it hasn’t all been easy-going good times. You were so excited by your grandparent’s visit that you stopped sleeping from 1-4 AM… for four consecutive nights. Witness you enthusiastically requesting a snuggle sandwich at 3 AM, with your parents blearily obliging. After all, who could resist snuggling you? Eventually you settled back into a sane sleep routine. In fact, you napped right through Thanksgiving dinner, which, let’s face it, was the only way your mother would get to eat. You object stridently when your mother eats.

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(“Let’s let her go till I eat my stuffing!”)

It’s as though your boundary between self and (m)other is not quite formed, and you interpret her eating as a violation of your desire not to eat (same goes for showering). On another occasion, I woke one morning from a striking dream, and wanted to tell your mother about it. You don’t object to conversation between your mother and me when it directly involves you as in, “I’m going to the bathroom but if she needs me she can come in” or, “Look what she did with the makeup. I guess we’ll just have to paint over it” or, “How are you going to get that out of her hair?” But for some reason, you found the telling of my dream objectionable (can’t necessarily blame you). So as I related the dream, you yelled loudly about fruit salad in syncopation with my every word, stopping just when I finally finished.

(A rare low-energy day, felled with a slight cold.)

On one of our weekend rambles, we wound up at the local beer hall where you found a helium filled balloon. The balloon came home with us. Our ceilings are tall, making for a fun game in which you let the balloon go up, and I pull it down with a measuring tape contraption. After playing this game on repeat for a few minutes, I tired and let you know that if you let the balloon up again, the “consequence” would be that I would not get it down. You let the balloon up again. I did not get it down. The tantrum that followed was predictable, but this was the line I would draw, I thought. Your mother gamely went along, though she later confessed she would have given in right away. I tried to comfort you, to let you know it was nothing personal. You would have none of it. The tantrum dragged on and on. Eventually, still distressed, you decided you would get the balloon down yourself. You grabbed the longest long object you could find, a wrapping paper tube, and desperately reached for the wayward balloon. The sight of all three feet and change of you, eyes still blurred with tears, reaching and straining for the balloon against the backdrop of our fifteen foot ceilings, was too much. I got the balloon down. Later, I confessed to your mother that sometimes you scare me. You want with such limitless intensity. I love this about you but what will the world make of it?

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Your insistence on getting what you want has been matched by your insistence on growing at breakneck speed. This month you had a period where you would not stop eating until the faint outline of vestigial neck folds, harking back to your fat baby phase, began to emerge. But then, in a matter of days, you shot up, and returned to your still stout, but leaner physique. You now adorn that powerful body with tutus daily, which is pretty great. You have continued apace with your opposite talk. We will say something like “You are getting so big,” and you will respond “You are getting little,” or we will say “You are cute,” and you will say “You are not cute.” You also have revived “You don’t have to” as your all purpose reply to just about anything we suggest, even when it involves things you definitely want to do. Is this all some demonstration of the Hegelian dialectic? Your faith in a higher synthesis? Is this how you grow?

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One contributor to your growth, at least intellectually and emotionally, has surely been preschool. This month we had our parent-teacher conference and we were delighted to learn that your are thriving, though we knew it already. Your teacher loves you. Really. She teared up (in a good way) explaining how she feels about you. Though, for me, the proof was in the long list of ways you make her life difficult that she related with patience and good humor.

(Like this, maybe?)

These behaviors are familiar to us: your dislike of getting wet coupled with your enthusiasm for water play, how upset you get about a runny nose (“A wetter wipe”, “A drier wipe”), taking off your shoes and diaper spontaneously, your eagerness to dump anything, anytime, anywhere (poor Ms. Becky and her container of googly-eyes), and how your teachers have learned to apportion you materials (e.g. sand, glue) in extra small quantities, which are guaranteed to get dumped out forthwith. In short, you are clearly one-hundred percent yourself at preschool. They know you and they love you.

(Overcome with magic at the Butterfly House with Grandma over Thanksgiving.)

Our semi-regular nightly ritual involves songtime, with me on the guitar, and you and your mother holding down percussion. You carefully ponder your song requests, though you generally come up with the same playlist: This Land is My Land, Taba Naba, Fruit Salad, Big Red Car and Sixteen Tons (which you call “Da Crazy One”). On some nights, we end with the goodnight song while you head up to bed (Good Night Ladies with “Ladies” replaced by things and people in the room). That’s how we ended songtime the other night. To coax you into bed, your Mama announced that she and her boobs were going upstairs. You gave a look of sad, gentle resignation, knowing that your day was nearly over. You ran after your mother (you no longer walk from place to place), but then turned around and ran back to me as I played one last chorus. You stared excitedly into my eyes until the song was over, then turned and ran away.

[No YOU’RE crying. —Ed.]

More Job Market Advice From Michael Bérubé, Which I Asked For

By VERY POPULAR DEMAND, here’s the second part of my Q&A with Michael Bérubé. “Enjoy!”

Again, this has (unbelievably) been edited for length.

The current academic labor model makes people do some bananas stuff. For example, you and I got into a minor disagreement a few years ago about the MLA’s recommendations for updates to doctoral study. Irate emails and Facebook statuses were exchanged, some grad students got involved, and I was jacked up on hormones and morning sickness from being nine weeks pregnant (but, because of my history with pregnancy loss, didn’t want to tell anyone about said pregnancy), and the whole thing ended up being somewhat bizarrely adjudicated on various Wikis, I guess? I only found out about this recently, and it came as a bit of a surprise to me that apparently, according to these folks, you went on some sort of cyber-mission against me? With sockpuppets and such? And there I was, shaking your hand at Penn State and having a perfectly good conversation.

Ah, the great cyber-mission of 2014! Which consisted of a blog post (yours) and an FB comment (mine) in which we parodied each other. There was snark and there was shade, and then we met and shook hands (it was great to meet you). But apparently some people wanted it to be much more than that. To this day I don’t understand why. 

I remember very well what we were arguing about, and it’s totally relevant to this conversation. The MLA had released a task force report on graduate education. You posted a scathing critique of it. I was genuinely surprised about one aspect of that critique (only one!), and wrote you an email. The topic: nonacademic careers for humanities Ph.D.s, or “alt-ac” employment. The very subject of the Penn State symposium.

Now, I had 99 problems with that MLA report, but its endorsement of alt-ac careers wasn’t one. (Weirdly, some people thought I was involved with writing that report– probably the people who thought I was still president of the MLA in 2014.) I thought you were coming to Penn State to talk about your work at Slate, and I was seriously gobsmacked that you were arguing that there is no reason to pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities unless you want an academic job.

It’s just so many years, and so much hard work, and I think that most people who enter into that world really, truly love it and want to devote their lives to it. Telling them they should be happy to take an entry-level editorial assistant position somewhere when they’re 35—that they should get a doctorate so that they can apply for those entry-level positions against a bunch of 22-year-olds—just kind of breaks my heart. But now I’m old and wizened and maternal, and I see that there are FINE PEOPLE ON BOTH SIDES here (ha ha sob).

Oh god, fine people on both sides. Yes, well. Sometimes there are. But I would never tell people who really want academic jobs that they should be “happy” doing editorial assistant work. For me, it all depends on what the actual people actually want.

And on that note, in looking over our correspondence, the really objectionable thing I see is my telling you, in response to your question about why anyone would get a Ph.D. if they didn’t want to be a professor, that it helps to imagine subjectivities other than your own. That sounds much more scoldy than I meant it to be, so I can see why you would take exception to it. Actually, I meant it as a general principle, one that applies to me as well: for example, I believed axiomatically that all adjuncts wanted tenure-track jobs until some of them (a minority, I imagine, but still real actually existing people) told me otherwise.

This is an important thing to realize. Not everyone wants to be on the tenure track. Some people just want a fair wage and a bit of worker stability. Plenty of folks, myself included, would also be happy with a permanently-renewable teaching-only position. Some of the folks who’ve entered into “dialogue” with me (i.e. scolded me in public) over the years have said, “It’s UNFEASIBLE to to convert ALL ADJUNCT POSITIONS to tenure track, so stop asking!” I’m not asking.

Neither am I—anymore. I learned this after I got barraged with emails during my MLA presidential year from NTT faculty who assured me they wanted no part of the tenure review process, and that they deliberately chose their NTT jobs in order to have some control over where they lived (and whether they could live with their partners). They didn’t want tenure; they wanted multi-year contracts, good working conditions, professional-level salaries, and the respect of their tenured peers. Likewise, I was initially skeptical of alt-ac initiatives until I spoke at length to the real actual people who have benefited from them. But rereading that letter today, it sounds snippy, and for that I apologize.

I literally don’t remember this even a little bit. I can tell you the precise location of every stuffed animal in my house right now, though. 

I remember it because it was what led to our snarky parodies of each other (and somebody’s perception that I was your sworn enemy), and I began to worry that I had made the Penn State alt-ac symposium more contentious even before it happened. But here’s what I meant. (I said some of this at the symposium, as you know, and you did a great job of covering it, and my remarks, in your Slate writeup.)

The first alt-ac anything dates from 1998, when then-MLA president Elaine Showalter suggested that graduate students could seek nonacademic jobs, and invited a screenwriter to the MLA convention to meet with anyone who was interested. I thought this was bullshit. Everyone thought this was bullshit. Everyone was right. It felt like the profession was saying, “so sorry there are no jobs–here, think about working for Hollywood.”

But then, the next year, a funny thing happened. One of my doctoral students at Illinois got a job at a Big Ten university on her first year on the market. It seemed like a great job, and I knew her dissertation was publishable almost as is. It looked like she was embarking on a very promising career. The only problem was that she hated her life. She hated her job. After a year, she wrote to me and said she couldn’t stand academe. I said OK, I get that, but maybe give it another year or two to make sure? At least? She said no. She quit her tenure-track position and took a job in a public high school, where she teaches to this day.

Well, her dissertation committee was outraged. She was harming the department’s placement rate! She was harming their placement rateI wrote back and said I couldn’t care less. What I cared about was whether this brilliant person was happy. It’s her life. It’s her call.

That was a watershed moment for me. And over the following ten or twelve years, I met so many people like that student—people who wanted to complete the Ph.D. but who had decided that academe was just too stultifying or hostile an environment for them. They wanted to keep pursuing their intellectual interests, but they didn’t want faculty positions.

And from them I learned two things. One: they know that “alt-ac” can be a gestural way of saying hey, humanities Ph.D.s are employable outside academe without doing anything about the deteriorating conditions of academic employment. (This is true.) Two: they are also anywhere from dismayed to full-on furious that anyone in academe would dismiss their jobs as unworthy of humanities Ph.D.s. They are way beyond “no more Plan B”– they say, listen, this was my Plan A. Every time someone dismisses their career path, as if they have given up or sold out, they think of it as the worst kind of academic hothouse elitism. And they are not wrong. They say, too, that strident anti-alt-ac arguments effectively encourage people to take shitty academic jobs and stay in them. (I am not sure this is entirely true, but I do not discount it.)

In 2013 I came up with a half-formed idea for predoctoral workshops. Thankfully, the Chicago Humanities Festival stepped up and made it fully formed. Three weeks, midsummer, a stipend of $5000, (really nice) lodging provided. Right now it’s available only to students in the fifteen-institution Humanities Without Walls consortium, but we are hoping that it could be a model for similar programs nationally. (And no increase in time to degree!) You can read the participants’ accounts of the workshop on the HWW blog. As one of the students said in a 2016 symposium, “it’s like two years worth of networking in three weeks.”

And that takes us to where we are now. You have done the alt-ac bit for four years, and I hope your trajectory winds up mirroring that of the Penn State Ph.D. I mentioned at the outset: alt-ac, then ac. You’re not anomalous, and I suspect that this trajectory will become increasingly common.

Is there any way a candidate can do something cool in his/her initial dossier that will distinguish him/her from everyone else? Asking for a friend.

Well, they could write a couple of books in different genres, and they could compile a series of essays for a national online magazine with a readership in the millions. That’s pretty distinctive. But if your friend has already done all that, then I guess my advice is moot.

Any other advice for an apostate looking to re-attempt to join the club?

Since this is the last question, let’s skip right to the happy ending: you have a job offer. You plan to accept. Now what?

Ha ha ha ha ha wait, you’re serious.

You already have an extensive publishing record. How much of it, if any, will be “counted” toward tenure? There are no generally accepted rules about this—it is totally ad hoc, department by department. You will need to get a statement in writing, so that if there are changes in administration and a new head or dean comes along, the goalposts don’t get moved on you. This is absolutely crucial; it is the source of so much anxiety and aggravation among tenure-track faculty who come into a new position (either from a previous academic job or after a few years in the wilderness) with a bunch of publications already on the cv. So before you formally accept the job, make sure you know precisely what the expectations for tenure will be, and whether any of your work to date will count.

And I wish you the very best in all this. Good luck!

Thanks, I’ll need it!

Michael Bérubé Tells Me What To Do (A Solicited Q&A)

Hey Schumanians. I hope you’ll forgive the utterly delinquent blogging these past few months. There are several reasons for this. The first is that we no longer live in 2004, and nobody cares about blogs (RIP ME). The second is that I have very little time, and what time I do have must conform to the following priorities:

  1. paid work
  2. administrative bullshit I can’t put off any longer
  3. hawking my book, which makes a great holiday gift!
  4. catching up on my TV (IMPORTANT)
  5. catching up with my husband (FINE, ALSO IMPORTANT, and yes, he knows he’s behind TV)
  6. sighing dolefully to myself
  7. the job market
  8. literally everything else
  9. unpaid work

I hope you understand!

So, I wanted to catch you all up on the results of the Great Job Market Poll of Aught-Seventeen. I did indeed apply for the job that won (which I’ll reveal at the end of the whole, sordid mess), plus several other ones, because once you’ve done all the work of making a dossier, it’s sort of tragic not to send it to as many people as you can. I’m chronicling my misadventures on Vitae in a new column called Ice Skating in Hell.

In addition, I am reaching out to some of the senior academics who are still talking to me, to ask them for advice.

One such senior academic is Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Penn State, and former president of the MLA (2012) and current member of the AAUP’s committee on academic freedom and tenure. Bérubé and I have had an interesting friendship of sorts these past five years, but he’s always been very interested in and supportive of my career (really), so I thought I’d ask him anything I could think of as I wait for the Wikis to come to life and crush my dreams once again. (All my applications but one are in, so there’s nothing to do but pretend I never did this in the first place.)

Because academics tend to blather on for days and so do I, this is going to run in two parts. Here’s Part I (Part II appears tomorrow), which has, if you can believe it, been edited for length.

SCHUMAN: They say the definition of losing your shit is to keep doing the same thing but expect a different result. Is returning to the market after a public four-year absence a very bad idea?

No. People do it all the time. Any responsible search committee member knows that the market is hell, and that every year, deeply talented people don’t get jobs. No responsible search committee member would hold it against a candidate that his or her doctorate was awarded four, six, however many years ago. (Of course, “responsible search committee members” are a subset of all search committee members, but in my experience it’s a very large subset.) The real question is, what has a candidate been doing in that time in the wilderness? If they have not been in the game at all, that would be a problem. Whereas you have been publishing Schadenfreude, A Love Story and your revised dissertation, Kafka and Wittgenstein. On paper, you’re a far stronger candidate in many ways than you were four years ago. No one looking at your dossier should have any doubt about your potential as a scholar or as a writer for more general audiences. And you have all the teaching experience you need.

Your mouth to the Search Committee Gods’ ears, man. All right, speaking of which. Let’s say you’re on a search committee, and an application from yours truly shows up in your massive pile of dossiers. What, uh, special concerns might you have about inviting me for a first-round interview?

A very good question. I’m so old I can remember the pseudonymous Ivan Tribble writing “Bloggers Need Not Apply” for the Chronicle in 2005, perhaps the last gasp of the “What’s All This About the Internet Then” contingent of the faculty. (“What is the purpose of broadcasting one’s unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world?” Real actual quote.) That sent a chill through the academic blogosphere. And I remember my response at the time being basically, headdesk (as one said on blogs). Academic blogs did more to reach the general public than any number of essays in the Partisan Review of yesteryear.

In some alternate reality where your application shows up in my Box folder, I think, wow, a national figure. A brilliant and sometimes incandescent writer.

PFFFFT. (Do go on.)

Well, you asked. One scholarly book out, one creative nonfiction book out. She’s back on the market after saying goodbye to academe–interesting. I’d be eager to interview you–and, to be totally honest, to say this face to face at some point: If you join our department, surely you won’t blog about confidential matters if you wind up on the short end of a departmental vote about something. And I don’t mean this specifically about you, either. Anyone with a lively textual record on the internet, so to speak–including me–would face a version of that question: What will wind up online?

I expect this question. I think that because I have an off-the-cuff prose style, people assume I have no filter, but I’m exceedingly professional. I know things—about academia, media, prominent figures, etc.—that I can and will never tell anyone about, because to a journalist (or a person who does journalism, like me) “off the record” is sacrosanct. Wittgenstein once said that the most significant part of the Tractatus was what he DIDN’T write in it. I often think the most important thing about my own online record is what I HAVEN’T blabbed about.

This isn’t to say I wouldn’t, for example, speak out against an administration that was circulating anti-union propaganda during a union drive. But I would never publicize anything that went on in a department meeting, for example, or any communications that had the expectation of privacy.

One of the main reasons I want to return to academia is that I am terrified about what the younger generation might be gaining (or losing) from the Trump presidency, and specifically the current national controversies about higher education and the so-called “campus culture wars.” I want to come back to campus so that I can help students with their critical thinking and their knowledge of the world, and work to be a force of good that impacts young people’s lives for the better. (How) has your own conception of your duty as an educator changed since Trump’s election?

I am spending most of my time listening to the most vulnerable people at Penn State–the students and faculty of color, the gender-nonconforming students, the international students. Following the formidable lead of our new head of African-American Studies, Cynthia Young, I am attending, and sometimes helping to plan, various public forums on white supremacy, immigration, climate change, populism, and academic freedom. We actually have a great cohort of faculty of color here–Cynthia Young, Kathryn Gines, Jeanine Staples, Courtney Morris, Paul Taylor, Eduardo Mendieta, Stephen Carpenter, AnneMarie Mingo, Ebony Coletu, Shirley Moody-Turner, Gabeba Baderoon, just to name some people I know and admire–all of whom are feeling the urgency of the moment. The public events and symposia we’ve held so far have been packed to the rafters, and this is not surprising. This is going on everywhere, though Penn State is in that class of major universities in rural areas that constitute a 100-mile radius of Trumpistan. As you well know, the white nationalists–and their enablers among our elected officials–have targeted American universities. All of us on every campus have to respond to that challenge as strongly as we can.

Just to jar my nerves more, let’s say that I get some first-round interviews. What can I do to fuck them up spectacularly?

Ha! I am tempted to say “don’t wear bad shoes,” because I believe the first time I wrote to you, it was about the essay in which you said that search committees will reject you for your shoes, and I asked you whether you were actually trying to give interviewees heart attacks. (Serious aside: you know you were being hyperbolic, and I know you were being hyperbolic, but I have actually heard graduate students telling reporters that you need to have specific clothes for specific institutions– natural fibers for an interview with Virginia, for example. This makes my heart hurt. It is so not true, and it compounds interviewees’ anxieties immeasurably. Honestly, the only way you can fuck up an interview sartorially is to show up in overalls or a wet suit. Anything business-casual is fine. Committees are interested in your ideas and your presentation of them, not your sense of color coordination.)

I dunno, man. I think with women there is a massive minefield. Is she dressing too attractively? Not attractively enough? I don’t think the sartorial pressure comes from (straight cis) men, but from other women. Meanwhile, you’ll be happy to know that this year, my interview footwear of choice is Doc Martens.

Point taken—in this as in so many other ways, the social world is far more fraught for women. (And this is perhaps a good reason to move interviews to Skype or some other virtual platform.)

But then they won’t be able to see my Doc Martens.

Here’s what a committee really wants to know about its interviewees. We already like your work and find it interesting. That’s why we’re interviewing you. Now we want to know two things: can you talk about your work compellingly, extemporaneously? And more generally: will it be intellectually fun to have you as a colleague? What will you contribute to the department and the campus?

NO PRESSURE then.

Pressure, to be sure. (Oh, and if you can, video-record yourself in a mock interview. It’s amazing how revealing/helpful that can be.) [AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUGH —Ed.] But still, no responsible committee member will be trying to trip you up. We have only 45 minutes, max. We want to get as much information as possible about what you would be like as a scholar, a teacher, a colleague. That’s all we’re interested in.

Honestly, the major thing anyone can do to fuck up a job interview—aside from insulting the children of one of the search committee members, or failing to show up altogether—is to forget that the interview is a conversation.

I was told, by my dissertation co-directors and my placement advisor, to have three versions of my “elevator talk” ready: a one-minute version of my dissertation, a three-minute version, and a five-minute version. This turned out to be very bad advice (and I reported this back to everyone who gave it to me, so we would all know better from that point on). Nobody opened an interview with “tell me about your dissertation” (or “your current project,” for people well beyond the dissertation, like you). Instead, they pulled out various passages from things I’d written and asked me to say more about them.

Please share a story about you fucking up an interview to make me and my readers feel better.

Happy to oblige. I will never forget my first interview, because I fucked it up spectacularly. Syracuse. 9 in the morning. The first question, from Linda Shires: “in your work you talk about the ‘institution’ of literary criticism. Can you say more about what you mean by ‘institution’?”

Well, holy shit. I was Deer. In. Headlights. I must have babbled incoherently for about five full minutes, after which the rest of the interview was basically “how do we be polite to this guy before we usher him of here.” And then a wonderful thing happened. At the end of 45 awkward minutes, Steven Mailloux got up and offered to walk me to the elevator. Along the way, he told me the committee found my work interesting, but that, for the rest of my interviews that day and the next, I should remember that this is a conversation, and I should take a deep breath, and check myself whenever I’ve been talking for more than a full minute. Because in a conversation, a full minute is long. Two minutes is an eternity.

All right, here’s a big one: I can’t handle dragging my almost-3-year-old to New York in the dead of January. And because travel without my high-need parasite is not an option, I won’t be attending MLA this year. If you got a dossier from someone who wasn’t going to MLA (or you asked them for an interview but then found out they weren’t going), would that change your perception of their commitment to the field in any way? What are some ways that candidates who can’t go to their big annual conference can project commitment to the profession?

Would it change my perception of their commitment to the field? Absolutely not. Ab-so-*&%@ing-lute-ly not.

In fact, this question reminds me of how I first noticed your blog (as opposed to your essays in Slate): in the waning days of 2013, you took the lead in calling out UC-Riverside for bollixing up their search and contacting candidates for interviews at the last minute, blithely assuming that everyone would be attending the MLA. (You even took up a collection for people’s travel expenses!)

Jesus, I really did have a lot of time on my hands before I had a kid, didn’t I?

Didn’t we all? Anyway, the UC-Riverside thing sparked an intense debate on my FB page about the purpose of convention interviews, after I’d posted a short explanation of how and why the MLA originally agreed to coordinate a national system of interviews sometime around 1970. One camp passionately insisted on Skype interviews; the other camp insisted that moving to Skype would be yet another sign of financial retrenchment in the humanities. The first camp was thinking about this from candidates’ perspectives; the second was thinking of it from departments’ perspectives. A year or two later, I overheard this debate in person, and it too was heated.

Person A: You cannot do your interviews by Skype! It sends the message that your department or university is not willing to commit the resources to send a search committee to the convention. It tells candidates that you are a second-rate institution that has no financial support for its faculty. [Go fuck yourself, Person A! —Ed.]

Person B: You cannot ask job seekers to put up $1000-$1500 to attend a convention for interviews! It is immoral. Not every department covers its graduate students’ travel and lodging expenses, never mind the travel and lodging expenses of people who are no longer graduate students. The MLA’s travel assistance fund is a good thing, but it’s only a dent in the full cost of attending the convention, and in situations like the Riverside debacle, the application deadline for MLA travel funds had expired weeks earlier. We must move this system to Skype or Zoom or some other virtual medium. [YEAH! —Ed.]

Extra bonus points: guess which person came from a wealthy private university and which one came from a state flagship.

WAIT WAIT WAIT LET ME THINK.

I won’t give it away. So my own department at Penn State (English) does interviews in both modes– some at the convention, some by Skype. We make no distinction between these modes. (Neither does the MLA, as a matter of policy, but I think they should be more emphatic in saying so.) I have not been involved in departmental searches since 2010, when I became director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. (I stepped down this summer.) I created a postdoc program at the IAH, and we conducted all our interviews by Skype. Just for the record, here’s who we hired.

STAY TUNED FOR PART II OF THIS EXCITING INTERVIEW, coming TOMORROW!