duct taping it all together

Here it is just after Labor Day and I have no idea where summer went. Oh, wait, I live in PHX so for all intents & purposes, it’s still here, sticking its ugly thumb in my eye until at least Halloween. But the “fall” semester descended upon us a couple of weeks ago, and it is the. last. fall. semester. ever.

Or it was supposed to be.

My Better Half™ was supposed to graduate in December. Now that’s up in the air. His committee needs time to read the thousand pages he’s written or some sh*t like that. Can’t they just nod and go to their happy place like I do and sign something that says “yeah, whatever, sounds good, nice work!”? The point is that the patience that I had allocated to get me through one last semester of nonstop thinking anxiety about what the job market will hold for him and him stressing 24/7 about final edits and graphics and keeping up with all the department and graduation paperwork, and Oh yeah that whole what the F*CK to do after graduation needs to be spread out even more. Our idea that we would be able to reclaim more work-life balance and spend more time together as a family doing fun stuff has been pushed out to an even more distant horizon.

I’ve been doing my best to deal with that. Deep down I’m pissed. But deep, DEEP down, I’m still pissed but also part of me is the tiniest bit relieved that he won’t graduate until May because 1) it will look less bad to not have a job a year from now when you’ve only been unemployed since May (on paper anyway) and 2) the job market BLOWS so who cares? What’s the rush? The past couple of years, the academic job market has been great solidly not sucky in his field. If you’re a bioarchaeologist. (He’s not). This year it seems to be decent marginally not sucky if you’re a cultural anthropologist. (He’s not). But it doesn’t stop my brain from leaping ahead and connecting the dots unnecessarily. When the job alerts that we’re subscribed to come in, I find myself going “would I even entertain living THERE? what about our house, what about our kids, what about my job?” before I even get to “Desired Qualifications: Active research agenda in race and ethnicity, sociolinguistics, and award winning publications in the economic exchange systems of Sons of Anarchy.” I mean, come ON! Now if it were just Game of Thrones Beheadings he’d stand a chance… But at least the piecing together consulting + adjuncting work here is the devil we know, the job market is a complete unknown.

What’s made all that harder even still to deal with has been just a lot of adjustments in my personal life. This time around, I’m really feeling the isolating effects of having a baby. Part of it is I have very little energy left over after a long workday & two kiddos 3 and under, so I can’t summon the energy to think about what there is to go do, nevermind go do it. I’m just tired. All. The. Time. Also, just the timing of where our kids are at socially. Baby is at the peak of separation anxiety and requires being held at all of the times. So it’s just not all that fun to go out with them – I have to hold him. And when we do go out, Dawdler Toddler Preschooler stands frozen in place, clinging to my legs because she’s around “strangers” (i.e., anyone she doesn’t live with), so I can maybe get in 90 seconds of adult conversation at a time. And we almost never, EVER get to go out without them – it’s just too much money for a sitter when you’re only one full-time income and have 2 kids in daycare and no family nearby to dump the kids off with. I think we’ve been out once without the kids since Baby was born. Which will be a year ago in 3 weeks. (Or should I also count the time we used a sitter for us to have a date night the night I was IN THE HOSPITAL GIVING BIRTH? So twice then?)

Part of it is just the rhythm of life with a baby (not just particular to our current financial & geographical circumstances). You find yourself housebound when the baby’s asleep. In other words during the very same block of time you could be getting something done, you’re stranded inside your home seeing as Child Protective Services doesn’t look too kindly on leaving the little ones at home alone while you run errands. Thank God for the interwebz…but there’s only so much shopping and reading and movie watching you can get done online. Amazon’s not all that convenient when it’s milk you need FOR YOUR COFFEE or library books to return. And when you can venture forth, you’re got a little person (or in my case, two) attached at the hip, so heading to that new movie you’re dying to see or out with friends for a beer is not in the cards. And even if you can get out every once in awhile, social things can just be such a pain in the ass when you have to lug around a diaper bag stuffed with diapers, changes of clothes, hats, sunscreen…I’m cranky just typing a list never mind hauling it all around. As a result, all my “free” time becomes the spare moments I have for errands + gym + fun. In other words: no time left for fun 99% of the time.

And do I even need to mention life in Arizona during the summer? It might be fall where you are, but here it’s still 109 out there. Or so I hear, since I am too scared to peek out through the blackout curtains. People hole up indoors and/or take a bunch of time off to get the hell away from the Death Star. It should go without saying that I’ve been avoiding Face-stagram all summer because I’m seething with jealousy at all my friends’ trips to California, Hawaii, the beach, hikes in Flagstaff, and everywhere else that isn’t 109. So between the isolation of being at home with Baby and being indoors while it seems like the ENTIRE rest of the world is out having a blast has taken its toll. I guess while much of the rest of you get seasonal affective disorder from gray wintry days, I get it here from all the sun. I like a nice sunny day here & there. But it’s hard to appreciate when you’re living on the surface of the sun. It is relentless – brandishing a hole in my retinas and a deep resentment in my skin expressed by eleventeen million new freckles every month. I need weather. I need seasons. I could more easily accommodate living here if I ever got to escape and experience weather that would make me more appreciative of what I’d be coming back to. But since we’re still living the grad school life, there are no funds to get us out of here from time to time. Since I’m long winded today, I’ll also save you the details of our car troubles, too. As in: much of the summer spent WITHOUT AIR CONDITIONING in our one and only functioning vehicle. Bottom line: it’s hard to get out of the house, which feels really isolating.

You know what else feels isolating? Not being in sync with your friends. Our closest friends have all moved in the last 2 years. Every. Last. One. And now I’m struggling with knowing where to find our kind of peeps. We find ourselves gravitating more and more towards hanging out with the parents of our Dawdler Toddler Preschooler’s friends because if nothing else, they get the whole kids thing. The whole there is a naptime and a bedtime, and it’s tough to get out during those times and no, we can’t wait til 11-ish on a Sunday at a hip restaurant for an hour to have breakfast because we’d all be dying from our kids’ whining us to death from low blood sugar. I’ve been trying to make new friends at work. And, uh. Yeah, see? That’s about the only place I go besides the gym. But, it’s slow and hard, and y’know, just takes time even when you do make a work friend. Which I haven’t really yet.

So I’ve been holding it all together. Trying to just make my way from work to the gym to daycare. Repeat. It’s been going o-kaaayyyyy, I guess, but not great. I think that all of these things will get better soon. But I just don’t know when “soon” is.

Gettin Dumber by the Minute

I was cleaning out the garage and, faced with the inevitable question of “will I ever need this again?” I increasingly find myself unequivocally saying “nope. No way.” Especially when it came to all my grad school stuff.

I quit grad school in 2008, and in retrospect and with the benefit of hindsight, it was the best decision I could have made. While it was a difficult decision at the time, I now wish I had made it sooner. If only because I could have gotten on to the more important things in life.

Like reality tv.

The only regret I have? I seem to have suffered intelligence attrition. I started reading some of the stuff I’d written for my dissertation, and man, I was smart! I just don’t know WTF any of it means anymore.

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker

My museum career string of dead-end jobs is over. It will take me a while to be okay with closing that chapter. After all, I thought it was my dream job for more than 10 years. But I’m ready to do something different. If only I knew what that was. Last time I posted here I was thinking not about possible career paths but about immediate job prospects. A necessary consideration given that I’m typing this in pajamas thanks to my current unemployment. But I also think a lot about my future career – what I want to be when I grow up do next. There are a lot of things I think that I’d like to do. Things I can do. Writing and editing, for instance. Photography and photo editing. Baking. Web design. But what I can get hired to do? That’s another story.

I’ve taken an inventory of my existing skill set: googling, instant messaging, and procrastination. Okay, so I guess my work in museums did develop skills and abilities beyond those, when I think about it. As long as I think really hard, anyway. Research, writing, public speaking, planning, database administration, project management…But identifying those skills is one thing. Figuring out how to get employers to take note of my museum experience is another thing entirely.

Take writing, for instance. Writing (and the accompanying research skill set that enables me pull together the content to write about) has been, by far, the major component of my work for…I don’t even know how long. For the past 6 years continuously, but even my first job out of college was to write, edit, and layout all the museum newsletters, brochures, and marketing materials. My last job title was, well, Writer. But the only time I see jobs in publishing or writing, they are looking for someone with a degree in English or Journalism. I’ve written website copy, brochures, newsletters, social media campaigns, grant applications, press releases…and, oh yeah!, museum exhibits. Over the years, I’ve written tons of different kinds of materials for highly diverse audiences but it feels like I might as well toss those years of experience out the window when it comes to jobs that list degrees I don’t have even when I match all the other qualifications. Sure, I could provide a portfolio, I guess. But mine consists of tight little 100-150 word labels, which is a highly technical skill in and of itself but evidently does little to impress upon the general reader how much work goes into crafting them, nor the research that goes into their content. (You try transforming highly complex scholarly information into an approachable and engaging narrative written for general audiences using 125 or fewer words per label on deadline and let me know how it goes.)  I can’t provide my personal blog (read by my faithful audience that fluctuated between zero and two) as a portfolio of my talents. I’ve said “fuck” and “shitballs” on there, people!

My degrees are in history and anthropology. Useless, really. Okay, fine. I don’t really think my degrees are useless – I think they have served me well in landing short-term employment in jobs that pay poorly and provide no benefits. But they also helped me develop a ton of skills & abilities. Historians rely on a journalist’s skills – the ability to research using a wide variety of sources and critically examine the claims and biases of all sources – and the writing chops of an English major to tell the stories of the past. And I’m really good at all of those things. But since employers don’t see “English” or “Journalism” when they check my resume against their minimum qualifications, I don’t think my resume and cover letter make it past the recycling bin. Especially in this economy when even folks who match the minimum qualifications get weeded out because there’s always someone else with more directly relevant experience.

I feel like I need to stumble upon someone who could serve as my ambassador to potential employers. Someone who understands the skill set I bring to the table. When you work in nonprofits like museums, you wear a lot of hats, which has afforded me the opportunity to code and design websites and put my Adobe Creative Suite skills to use in developing and designing exhibits, catalogues, newsletters, and all other manner of whatnot. But try as I might, I can’t get anyone to notice that my work experience is directly relevant to any publishing or writing job because I lack the specified credentials. If I decided I wanted to go into web design, I could send a portfolio of the websites I’ve done, but since I don’t have a web design certificate or degree, I’d run into the same problem I would with publishing and writing jobs.

Figuring out which experience I even want to take with me to my next career is tough, too. Take database administration, for instance. I did a TON of database work in museums – collections management databases, development (read: fundraising) databases, membership databases – TMS, re:Discovery, Argus, PastPerfect, Access, Crystal Reports, and so many more – but I’m not interested in doing database work. I left collections management to go into exhibit development because I was sick of sitting at a computer staring at databases all day. And, even if I wanted to do database administration, “real” DBAs would take issue with hiring someone whose background/degrees/job titles weren’t in computing.

My work experience feels so unbalanced. On the one hand, I found my M.A. to be simultaneously required for my work in museums and yet totally and completely unnecessary for the tasks that were assigned to me in my museum jobs. On the other hand, I don’t have the degrees needed for the work I’d like to be doing. And I’m still not clear on what that is, anyway. I guess if I could dream up any job that I wanted, it would be to work as a blogger (writing my own blog, not writing SEO crap for some realtor or for about.com). But as far as I know, the only ways to get paid as an individual blogger are to a) write stuff & b) make sure folks are reading it, and last I checked, well, let’s just say I’ve got a long way to go. Hmmm. Maybe I should take a crash course in SEO – ha!

Somehow I lucked into figuring out how one can have both a good amount of work experience directly relevant to jobs I’d like to do and exactly the wrong credentials for the same jobs. I’m not asking to go into a totally new career at a highly advanced level – I’d totally be willing to accept a lower-paying job in publishing or writing just so I could get started as long as there’s a possibility that I’d advance as I brought my skills and abilities to bear on whatever new career I choose.

As I think about all this, though, I also think that I don’t really have the luxury of carefully orchestrating a career transition. Thanks to sudden unemployment, right now what I need most is to find a steady paycheck before this baby gets here. After baby’s here, I’ll worry about what I’d really like to do with my career…It seems likely that more short-term work is in my near future while I try to sort out my long-term career goals.

It’s Official

Sign that my dissertation is about a year overdue. My idiot boss used the term “cultural landscape” today. My dissertation topic used to be on the forefront, cutting edge. Now it’s so common, so much a part of our conversations, so intuitively understood that my topic is increasingly boring,  passé.  I guess I’m officially old school. Maybe this is just what happens when it takes you forever to write a dissertation. The topic passes you by.

Putting the “Pro” in Procrastination

I get this a lot. Why isn’t my dissertation done already? What is taking so long?

Mostly I get this from people who have Ph.D.’s already. I’m wondering if the process of writing a dissertation is a lot like giving birth: you forget about the pain and selectively remember only the end result? Or are these folks from disciplines that require less of their Ph.D. students? Or am I making this harder than it needs to be? (Or, just as likely, are they passing judgment from their mighty perch?)

So here’s what’s going on. I’m writing a dissertation that looks at the 19th century cultural landscapes of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, from the points of view of Americans, Mexicans, and native peoples. That’s a jargony way of saying that I’m curious about how people viewed and shaped their environments, and if people from different backgrounds and cultures used similar materials and methods to shape and adapt to the desert environments or if the different backgrounds were apparent in different ways of seeing the landscapes. It’s really complex and requires a lot of research and analysis. And not just research I can do online or locally because I’m using a wide variety of sources. I’m looking at photographs, drawings, sketches, and maps to see how people depicted their surroundings. I’m looking at things people wrote about their surroundings and how their writing, sketches, and maps changed over time.

But here’s the major sticking point with my data: my Mexican sources. So first I had to learn Spanish, and then I was ready to dive in. I talked to people who had done research in Mexico and it sounded like it was going to be an easy task. From all appearances, the collections I need should be in the Secretary of Foreign Relations Archives, accessible to international researchers. Only when I dug a little deeper did I discover that the stuff I wanted to see was managed by the National Department of Defense, and it would be a lengthy and difficult process to obtain access as a foreigner. Letters from foreign consulates, hanging around for approval, and then the time it would take to sift through the materials. It could take months! And I didn’t have the funds. I came in as runner up for a major research fellowship, and I hadn’t come up with a Plan B to fund my research. After spending four years working for $10,000 a year, it’s a little hard to come up with savings to offset the cost of living, nevermind international travel and research. It’s also awfully hard to be simultaneously without pay AND spending lots of money. Somehow the math just didn’t add up. So I work full-time while I try to figure things out.

And here’s the real hold-up: I need it to be good. I have really high standards, and I want it to not just be good, but to be kick-ass. I already have a publisher who approached me about it (if I ever get it finished). I’ve gotten amazing positive feedback from what I’ve presented at conferences and several bigwigs in my subject have asked for copies of my work. There’s a lot riding on it, and that’s a lot of pressure. My department needs me to finish, I need me to finish, my bank account needs me to finish, and I find myself stumped, staring at the laptop. I’m not just looking for something brilliant to say — I’m also looking for the right way to say it.

My Master’s degree is in Public History, which is a lot of things (that I won’t go into here), but what I took away from it is a methodology. It’s the sharing of scholarly & academic work in an approachable, jargon-free way. Whether it’s in writing (what I do), teaching, public service, museums or archives, public history expands the audience for historical and anthropological research, opening it up to a discussion, a dialogue. Public history opens up the topic for discussion. It’s a concept that seems simple now. With developments like web 2.0, nowadays people just get that learning takes place when people share information in a dynamic environment that encourages debate, fosters multiple points of view, and enables end-users to come to their own conclusions. But 30+ years ago when public history appeared, that wasn’t the case. “Knowledge” got passed down through authoritative lectures that presented the “Facts” and exhibits that explained “what happened.” But then something happened. (Actually a lot of things happened, but I’ll leave that for another post.) And we got the “new” history and anthropology, These disciplines began to value subjectivity, shift authority, and question how we know what we know and what it all means. What does this have to do with my dissertation? A lot. For me, it’s not enough to just write what I’ve learned about my topic. It’s essential that I write in a manner that makes the topic approachable, frames my subject within history and anthropology without assuming my readers know anything about either subject (nevermind the intersection of the two). I want to prove to myself as much as anyone else that a dissertation can be great writing.

So for a lot of reasons it’s hard for me to get solid momentum on the dissertation. Outside of working full-time, I’m supposed to be able to go to the library for research, travel to look at other archives’ holdings, take the time to analyze the data I collect, and then turn my stream-of-consciousness disorganized scribbles into something resembling processed thoughts, and then edit it into good writing. I’ve got a long road ahead of me.