Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Poor Man's Christmas

     Christmas was coming and my father was between positions again. It was the late seventies and well after his temporary gig driving the van delivering flowers in downtown Philly. It must have been between computer-programming jobs, possibly Textronix in Blue Bell and Arthur's Travel in Center City, the job that would launch him to California and alter the trajectory of his life.
     But in the winter of 1978 or ’79, my Dad had nothing. He was broke. I remember him hinting at this, but I don’t have a great sense of feeling any danger because of it. As best I knew, he could cover his child support and his rent on a decent two-bedroom apartment in a generic development in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. His child-support payments were low, but he wrote the check each month. It was over at my mom’s, living in a one-floor three bedroom and eating chicken five times a week that I felt closer to poverty. My dad lived in houses, whether he rented or owned, and he would spring for vacations and steaks in restaurants when the dough was coming in. But my Mom had her steady job, her teaching, and maybe I just thought I’d go live with her permanently if Dad couldn’t afford to have us visit.
     Despite his lack of work, he cobbled up enough cash to take us to a tree farm to pick out a Christmas tree. It was one of those places where you go exploring in the farm’s woods, find one you like, and then cut it down yourself. My father may have thought this would be cheaper than getting a cut and clipped tree from some corner lot in South or West Philly. That year, trees were expensive; a gift of "stagflation" or for some other reason, I’m not sure.
     But we’re at the farm, walking through the snow and slush, and I know Dad is feeling the pinch looking at the prices because he mutters about how much they are. We wind our way through dozens of trees, and then return to where the tree guy waits.

     “Say, do you have any cheaper trees? Any discounts?” My father figures it can’t hurt to ask.

     The guy takes us to the cheapest ones he has, but even those prices aren’t meeting the family budget.

     And then he gets his big idea. “See, I’m kind of short this season. Could you cut us off the top of a tree?”

     The man seems to understand now, and he does it. For ten bucks we get the top two feet of a Christmas tree. 
     We take it back to my father’s Lansdale home, a stale beige unit surrounded by similar clones. And Dad puts a sheet over a small table, and sets up our stump in the Christmas tree stand. It fits easily, and looks quite nice perched on the table.

     Soon there were small wrapped gifts on the table, too, and in the morning, I’d open mine and find two mass-market novels, both by Madeleine L’Engle, and one was A Wrinkle in Time. I cannot recall the other title but remember the dyed mint green sides of the pages, something we rarely see these days. Although I’m not certain I ever finished either paperback, I remember enjoying the gift giving and the holiday. Whatever I understood as his poverty then only felt like a temporary bump in the road. It was much different from his bottoming out in the early nineties and then the mostly minimum wage work, when he had it, for much of that decade. That downturn seemed like such a permanent place for my father that I was surprised, maybe shocked, when he found lucrative tech work again toward the end of the millennium, just a few years before his passing.


Note: “A Poor Man's Christmas” is an excerpt from rough draft of The Book of Jay, Alex Kudera's memoir with journal selections from his father, the poet Jay Roberts. Other sections appear online at When Falls the Coliseum (here and here) and Atticus Books (here and here and here). It’s a work in progress that will consist of intertwining memories of each writer’s father. Kudera’s debut work, Fight for Your Long Day, was the first novel published by Atticus Books, and it won the 2011 Independent Publishers Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. Atticus went on to win four more IPPY Gold Medals in 2012 but remained humble and suffered in silence like any other small press.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Rob Balla

Here's a six-minute Chronicle video featuring Rob Balla's take on the adjunct situation. He's raising a family of four without health benefits, driving a ten-year-old car, and teaching up to eight classes a semester. Sound familiar?

Here and here are some fresh frontpage stories from the major pubs about the adversities his, and our, students can face. You put the whole thing together, and it's not too difficult to recognize the viability of the case that much of contemporary college isn't about education as opportunity and lifting young folks above their socio-economic origins. And here's another one that suggests more STEM majors aren't the answer either. The current president of Penn State seems to be doing okay, though, and I can't help but note that his $85,000 raise is just a bit more than what NPR reported it would cost to implement the NRA's plan for the federal government to bring an armed guard to every school, and just over twice the 40K that Balla says he earns in a good year (presumably one that included seven or eight classes each semester).

In slightly related news, it came to my attention that someone loaded the first five minutes of Fight for Your Long Day onto youtube. That's part of the first chapter already audible at Iambik, but it appears they retrieved it from this itunes store.

But what, you ask, have we been watching and listening to this holiday season?

Charlie Brown holiday specials of course.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

calling out well

I'm one of those weird ones who shows up; I can't remember calling out sick in sixteen years of teaching, and the only unplanned absence I can recall is one involving a delayed flight from another country.

Although I try to be, I'm not invariably punctual, and I remember early mornings in my adjunct days, with courses on two campuses and then evening tutoring ahead of me, when I'd arrive past civilization's ten-minute mark for occasional 8:00 a.m. and 8:40 a.m. sections, but I also remember teaching full days after the worst of a stomach virus came and went in the middle of the night along with other days when mere papergrading or insomnia was what limited my sleeping the night before.

One winter day in January or so of 2005, in freezing temperatures on my walk to a first 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. section from my 21st and Race "junior" one-bedroom, my anxiety and fatigue combined with anticipation of a full day of teaching and then evening tutoring to a more significant degree than usual. After making good progress for the first three-quarters of my walk to work, at the busy intersection of 30th and Market, I began to have the sensation that I could barely step forward, that I better find a newspaper box or sturdy pole and lean against it. The feeling was intense enough that I had to stop at the 30th Street Station U.S. Post Office, so I could warm up and try to overcome a dizziness and disorientation that would not abate. I was only the equivalent of a few city blocks from my classroom, but I felt desperate enough then to hail a taxi for the remaining distance.

I think that winter was when I first recognized that I better do anything in my power to reduce my teaching and tutoring load although I think the fact that I "escaped" that situation for my current one is due more to varying degrees of good and bad luck than anything else. I don't feel that it was necessarily any extra personal resolve that lifted me into the "lecturing" class, but I've tried to make the most of the current predicament (which really just means more lit and less comp, and some time for walking, reading, parenting, and writing). Alas, at other times, I miss my adjunct days in Philly, being in the city I belong to, and having one stimulating day after another full of unusual people in public spaces. I've noticed this before, though, that I have nostalgia for times in my life that were not necessarily or invariably the best of times for me.

Since driving down south, nothing so significant or severe has interfered with my ability to get to a classroom and teach once there, but for a fifty-minute class a few years ago, I taught with my daughter standing with me at the front of the room, because, as best I can recall, some kind of emergency had shut down the daycare, and that happened quickly in the middle of the day, and there didn't appear to be any other option. Around two years old, she stood and was quiet the whole time. It seemed like that class went okay.

But this post from The Professor Is In, is about more than the occasional miss or unusual circumstance. She is reminding us that's it's okay to quit academia outright, that it doesn't work out for everyone and even the seemingly successful among us are not necessarily the happiest of campers.

Leaving adjunct work seems to fit Migrant Intellectual well, and I hope he and his family can continue to make his new ventures work. He is writing and making music and raising children; maybe this is the variegated and full life we all deserve, and I only hope he can sustain it. I'm so thankful for his including me in his "Dodging a Seventy-Five Cent Toll" blog that I wanted to honor the spirit of the post and share with you some of the feeling from that winter almost eight years ago when I had six classes and tutoring and was a little unsure if I'd be able to survive it all, despite the fact that such a workload had become my routine for the five previous teaching seasons. Somehow, I made it through the doubt and jelly legs and by spring quarter had pretty much shaken it off. Now I'm just grateful that I'm no longer teaching six classes while also tutoring so many evenings each week.

The post also reminded me of my father's thoughts about taking days off. He'd say that more people should be calling out well, not sick, as in realizing it's those of us who can't stay away that have the more significant illness.

In his Great Drives cameo, where he's introduced by Maria Conchita Alonso as the poet Jay Roberts, he notes that "staying in those offices all day" could be what drives folks crazy. In the video, alongside Florida's northern section of the old coastal highway A1A, he appears happy and at peace, and a viewer would never know he was living paycheck to paycheck and working 30 hours a week in a convenience store of a gas station to support himself at this stage of life. But he was writing poetry and walking on the beach and appreciating what he saw as provided for him by a higher power above. At the same time, his lack of health coverage then was a contributing factor to what brought him to an early ending, so I apologize if it sounds like I'm romanticizing the impoverished cashier-poet's life.

But nonetheless, J. Roberts of sunny Ponte Vedra had a strong sense that there was some other world out there that too many of us were missing in our chase after steady bucks and plastic toys and shiny electronics and American lifestyles and all that is most famously Faulknerly of the glands, and not the heart. I suppose Jay Jay Bob, aka Joseph Robert Kudera, thought much like Dr. Robert Baum, whose words I'll once more quote in closing:

Once we heal, we can create the conditions for abundance not austerity.
Once we listen to each other, we can think like educators, not legislators.
From abundance, we will meet our student-centered missions.
From community, we will grow as life-learners.
From renewal, we will solve this problem and look back saying, I wish we’d arrived here sooner.
This feels right.
This applies the best of what we do.
This is the best of who we are.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

thank you, teacher

I wanted to share this excerpt from Migrant Intellectual with all of my teaching friends:

First, thank you.
Thank you for your work.
Thank you for staying in the game.
You are so important; your work is so important; your voice is so important.
You are a blessing to your students, to your friends and family, to yourself.
In the language of my mentor Avital Ronell, you are a dear one, my friend.


In these words, Dr. Baum is comforting an adjunct who reports from the teaching front on her own anxieties and second-hand clothing. It reminds me of how my father wandered back into the world of higher education in the mid-90s, having not taught a college class since the early 1970s but in need of an income years after losing what he had in the white collar world of computers and technology.

Anyway, in Florida, he was scheduled to teach calculus at a community college, and with some passion he planned his lessons and gave it go. But he walked in on the first day, saw twice as many students as he was told he'd be instructing, felt he was lied to, and resigned on the spot. His pay would have been $1,400 for one class over 15 weeks, and although he needed work, he wasn't willing to work for that sum. He is just one of many folks I know who couldn't or wouldn't teach for such paltry wages, or was apprehensive to terrified about teaching at all.

So, teachers, when you get there, enjoy your break. You deserve it.

As they say, you're making a difference.

Back to my father, a beautiful moment for me this fall was when I discovered a note in my facebook "other messages" that was from one of his math students from 1973 or so. The gentleman, just finishing up an engineering career, from another country and living in a state far from Philadelphia, wrote to ask if I was Joe Kudera's son, and then told me my father taught him in a math class at Temple University (yes, adjunct work), and that my father would see him in University City and offer to give him a lift to Temple's North Philly campus. It was good to hear that my father extending himself to this young man 40 years ago was a memory the older version cherished enough to seek out news of his driver-teacher.

This also reminded me of all the positive things you hear about adjuncts, all the different ways they are extending themselves to help within their communities, and it also reminded me of the positive side of my father. I'm sure this kind of memory is bouncing around my brain because I recently finished Townie, Andre Dubus III's look at his own present-absent, giving-taking, learning-teaching father.

Last night, when I should have been grading still, I was also editing a short piece, another excerpt from The Book of Jay, about my father's poverty of the late 1970s, between tech gigs, when he successfully negotiated with the Christmas tree guy and wound up with all he could afford, the top two feet of a tree, a serviceable amount for any giving season. Maybe I can finish this grading and get rough draft of that excerpt online before the end of Channukah.

Best wishes, Dr. Baum, as you navigate the waters of Fox News and more.



Tuesday, December 11, 2012

the migrant intellectual and the mainstream news

This migrant intellectual says Brett Baier of Fox News will be reporting on the adjunct issue, apparently in response to this wake-up call for mainstream media. The master-slave rhetoric ("plantation," "field workers," and "cotton pickers" for example) will be offensive to some, and there may be some sweeping generalizations in his blog, unless things such as invariable last-minute appointments apply specifically to the one community college he mentions, but his comments about the low pay are a common reality for any adjunct who attempts to show genuine dedication to grading the papers and planning the lessons, and the health insurance concern is urgent and also why the majority of us were hopeful enough that Obama's plan will work that we voted to reelect the guy.

So far, there have been news stories about two colleges, Community College of Alleghany County and Youngstown State, adjusting their maximum number of courses downward in order to pay teachers for their classes without paying benefits, and we're just in wait-and-see mode with the whole bit--fiscal cliff, healthcare reform, and so on.

Stay tuned for full Obamacare in 2014?

Stay tuned to Fox News?

Haha.

My hunch is that the mainstream press will always prefer sensational nonfiction, academic corruption and suicide, to living, breathing literature, but in the sad world we live in, I sometimes forget to feel grateful for what I have and instead feel like Fight for Your Long Day is getting lost in the shuffle and deserves more continued recognition.

I guess it will always be easier to steal, blog, or kill oneself than it is to write a book.

Good. It never hurts to add a dash of egomania and self-pity to the holiday season. Now if my literature stays in the public imagination in any way, there'll be a little public disgruntlement readers can turn to for evidence of a decline in spirits in the later years.

The Fox News link above reminds me of how I was told by Frank Reeve at Wesleyan that Mark Twain ignited his career by moving up to NYC and engaging in fistfights. I'm way too overworked, tired, nonviolent, and soft for that kind of thing, so I guess it's just time to grade more papers and take my mind off the rest of it.

I've come to realize that I enjoy teaching contemporary literature and business writing, even if I'm not always feeling so loved back for my efforts. And another quality small press asked to see the second novel, so there's a little room for optimism in the literary realm as well.







Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Donkey Tired, Donkey Gets Slapped With A Wet Fish

Today in contemporary literature (haha), we had some fun evaluating Steve Almond's "Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched," the leadoff hitter in the Richard Russo edited 2010 Best of American Stories. Although that one is mainly about fathers and sons, therapy, poker, and among men competition, bonding, animosity, drunkenness, insanity, and generalized angst, we still had time to consider his comic "deconstruction" of Toto's Africa in relation to all of the postcolonial and transnational stories we've been reading.

So it was a veritable Steve Almond Experience in Daniel 405, and apologies to any students present or innocents reading this now who wind up swaying to the beat at an inopportune moment.

Here's some bonus coverage of Almond on bad jobs with some additional thoughts on the bad job that is the writing life.

Man, if this wily veteran rock 'n roller is still knocking on doors, what does that mean for the rest of us?

Yikes.

Monday, December 3, 2012

peace and trade, redux

Here's a follow up to the peace and trade blog below, Philly style with Michael Nutter in Tianjin. I can't prove that this sister-city business lifts all boats in both towns, but I can't prove it doesn't, either (although there are news articles everyday about how young people around the world are struggling).

"Staggering" is Mayor Nutter's first description, and his impressions sound similar to mine during last summer's visit to Suzhou and Shanghai. Here's an excerpt from the article:

"Seeing what goes on here is a reminder of the things we can do and must do to maintain our presence on the world stage," Nutter said.

It also underscores "what our federal government can do if we would have, at times, a little less debate and a whole lot more work and understand that investment brings job and activity and furthers American interests," said Nutter, who also is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Make no mistake, Mike, China is very much the kind of place where behind the amazing skyscrapers, ports, bridges, and trains, you can still see the signs of hand-to-mouth living. Then again, every place in the world is like that.