The Place Where We Can Always Start Over
In 1998, I received tenure at Pasadena City College. My mother already held tenure at Monterey Peninsula College, while daddy was a tenured professor at UC Santa Barbara. My brother was finishing his PhD at Berkeley, headed towards a glittering academic career.
“You’re all dangerously dependent on the economic fortunes of the state of California,” a cousin observed. We laughed – what the family lacked in professional diversification; we made up for with security. There are few positions more secure (a word whose Latin root means “without worry”) than college or university tenure. In the late 1990s, California was flush, as was most of the nation. Tenured professorships in public institutions -- in the nation’s wealthiest state -- seemed as certain a guarantee of lifetime comfort as could be imagined at any time in human history. (Parenthetical aside: I’m one of those Gen Xers whose deep affection for Bill Clinton is all mixed up with the happy memories I have of what I was doing, thinking, and believing while he was president. Oh, those gay and tranquil Nineties, for some…)
Tenure is all my parents knew all their adult lives. My brother became, and remains, a full professor at the University of Exeter in England, enjoying the closest thing to tenure possible in post-Thatcherite Britain.
Tenure prevented me from being fired, but it could not prevent me from resigning in shame and self-destruction.
In the months and years after my resignation, I struggled and flailed. I worked as a tax accountant’s assistant, paid under the table. Things got better when Trader Joe’s took a chance on me in October 2017. It wasn’t tenure, but it was security of a sort. After five years at TJs, I made less than a quarter of what I made at Pasadena, even though I worked 48-49 weeks a year in the store compared to just 36 weeks annually at the college. But there was health insurance. There was a simple W-2 for taxes. There was a retirement plan. There was the familiarity of exchanging labor for pay and benefits, even if the labor had changed, and the pay and benefits diminished.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’m striking out on my own. I have enough freelance work to become entirely self-employed. It is wonderful to make money doing something I enjoy; I liked to say I was born to teach, but helping other people tell their stories is surely the Next Best Thing. It is humbling to be paid well to do this work, but it is also daunting. I must buy health insurance for my wife and children. I must deal with my own taxes (I have a corporation, fortunately), and provide for a retirement that is unlikely to ever happen. I have traded a little security for a great deal of opportunity, and that is surely the most American thing I’ve ever done.
My father came to this country in 1959. He was coming to go to graduate school, but also to see about a girl in Miami. The romance fell through, but America did not. Though he spent his adult life as a tenured professor, he had already more than paid his dues as a risk-taker. Papa fled Austria and the Nazis as a child, served in the RAF, and sailed across the Atlantic to chase a pretty face. He had lost his grandparents, and most of his uncles and aunts in the Holocaust – he damn well earned the comforts of a professorship in Santa Barbara.
My maternal ancestors came here centuries before my papa, from England and Germany and Wales; the earliest ones came for religious liberty; the later arrivals, for gold and opportunity. My great-great-great grandfather, William Whiteside Moore, left his wife and 10 children in Illinois while he went to look for gold in California. He found it, but as the family story goes, was robbed of it in New Orleans while waiting for a steamboat ride back up the Mississippi. He came home penniless but filled with stories of glories he had seen in the West. William brought the whole clan of Moores back to California with him; they scratched out a decent living farming in the Santa Clara Valley, and made just enough to pay the fees for his youngest son to go to college. That son became a lawyer, later Alameda County’s District Attorney. He vaulted his offspring into the Bay Area’s upper-middle-class.
I was in high school when I first read the following famous lines, taken from our second president’s letter to his wife. John Adams remarked to Abigail that "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
My mother’s family took a slightly longer version of that noble route. William Whiteside’s great-grandfather, Captain James Moore, fought with George Rogers Clark in the Revolution – and became one of the first white Americans to settle in Western Illinois. His descendants spent several generations focused on studying agriculture in Little Egypt (the still-extant name for Southern Illinois) before William Whiteside Moore, having had less luck than his forebears at farming, decided to look for gold in California.
No one in the family has gotten around to tapestry, but mama wrote her dissertation on Thomas Hobbes and I wrote mine on the role of English bishops in the Anglo-Scottish wars, and our intellectual labors were built on the foundations laid, and assurances made, by our ancestors. Their gambles and their sacrifices paid off in giving the 20th century generations the chance to pursue passions esoteric and obscure. Tenure at the college or university level allows one to continue to pursue those passions, while ensuring that one’s offspring can have both orthodonture and opportunity.As a family, we shifted from relying on what we could earn with muscle and wit to depending upon the famous largesse of the California taxpayer.
I ain’t knocking the academic life; I would have stayed if I had been a less mercurial and damaged man. Instead, having thrown away a fortune, I must see if I can make a small one all over again.
Had I stayed at Pasadena City College, I could have taken early retirement at 55. Instead, at 55 – 30 years after I began my teaching career – I am stepping away from even the modest benefits and securities of a grocery store job, to hang out my shingle and make a living entirely on my own. It is frightening, it is utterly unexpected, and it is also totally exhilarating. Raised to rely on family and on public institutions, I have had to learn street smarts, acquire survival skills, and to find joy in work that a pre-fall me would have found unfulfilling and dreary. I have had to decide whether I wanted to buy into a tragic story of having thrown away my life, or if I wanted to turn the proverbial page and say, “Right, that was rough. What next? What now?”
I do not know where this ghostwriting business will lead. I do know that I need to pursue it with my whole heart and my whole mind, and I need to choose Hope over Fear. I need to tap into the spirit of my ancestors, who sacrificed much and risked everything. That does not mean that I equate ghostwriting as an independent contractor to be on par with crossing the plains, prospecting in the Sierras, fleeing the Nazis, or participating in a daring raid on a British fort. My forebears did these things in lives shorter and harder than mine; whatever brief privations I have endured because of my own decisions is nothing compared to the difficulties they faced and overcame. And yet. And yet.
If nothing else, Heloise and David will know that their father never stopped trying to provide and to create. They will know that neither public shaming nor a plunge into poverty constitute a death sentence. They will know, perhaps, that their daddy believed in the capacity to start over, as often as necessary, and more often than that. They will know that their daddy believed that the absence of a reliable safety net is both America’s weakness and her great strength. I was a good teacher when I had tenure – but it is in tenure’s absence that I have found out the full picture of what I can be.
I am terrified of what is to come. I am excited, too. My forebears are with me, my wife and children believe in me, and I live in a time and a place where unexpectedly marvelous things still can be. With the ancestors above and the living at my side, with the support of a network of friends far more loving than I deserve, I am taking my best shot.
Wishing all my readers the very best for 2023.