My Fantasy Job, A Year Later: What I Did and Did Not Know

November 24, 2012, 11:25 am

That can’t be my story. That’s only a start. I’ll say that a ZEBRA was pulling that cart! And that is a story that no one can beat, When I say that I saw it on Mulberry Street.

                               Dr. Seuss, 1937

This time last year, I was getting ready for the big change that brought la famille Radical to the People’s Republic of South Brooklyn. I was finishing up an almost twenty year tenure at Zenith University and getting ready to sell our house during one of the worst real estate markets since World War II (fun fact: not one home in our Shoreline neighborhood had been sold in 2011.) I was preparing to relinquish practically everything I knew to embark on my fantasy job/adventure, a future which I could only partly imagine at the time.

So how is it going? Very well, thank you.  Here are a few observations about the experience of the last year. They are sorted into categories originally designed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on February 12 2002, following the American-led invasion of Iraq and after that country had begun its tragic descent into social and political chaos.

Myself, I think my new job is working out better than the war did, but I suppose only time will tell.

The Known-knowns: things I knew.

I knew that after two decades, my exasperation with the state of play at Zenith had as much to do with the person I had become as it had to do with Zenith’s inability to satisfy or reward my aspirations.  Any of you who are contemplating a seismic professional move, take this advice: when you are interviewing, don’t b!tch about the job you have.  One reason for this is that no one wants to hire a complainer, a desperate soul, or someone who appears ready to stab an employer in the back as soon as they step off campus. But the other reason is this: it is perfectly reasonable to become a different person and want to change jobs. The more you explain that you are not trying to leave your job because you are unhappy, the more you come to believe it, and the more clearly you are able to see and explain the person you have become. Soon new jobs appear to have advantages and to be opportunities in and of themselves — not places where you might be able to escape conflict, disappointment or problems you can’t solve.

By the time I decided to accept the position I was offered:

I knew I would like my new job. It was a good fit, as they say. What I did not know is how much I would like my new job. I like my office, I like my colleagues, I like all the administrators, I like my students, I like running downstairs to the Korean deli for lunch, and I like never having to get into the car to go to work (sometimes I don’t drive for two weeks at a time.) I like offering people advice when I am asked for it, but not really being invested in whether they take it or not.

I knew that there were sacrifices to be made in leaving the ‘burbs. For example, I have had to give up rowing for the time being. Even though it is possible to row in both Queens and upper Manhattan, the transportation challenges at 5:00 AM are far more significant than they are in Shoreline. This has thrown me into a frenzy of athletic substitution: bike riding? Yoga? Wall climbing? Golf? (oddly, there is a golf course quite nearby, but surrounded by water as I am, no rowing.) Gym classes of various kinds — pilates, spinning, cardioboxing? Each of these is lacking in its own way when you compare it to gliding down a river in a 26 foot shell that weighs a little over 30 pounds or taking the Weeks bridge at the Head of the Charles in *exactly* the way you wanted to.

 The Known-unknowns: that is, the things I knew I did not know.

I hoped to begin riding my bike more, but because age erodes fearlessness, was not sure that this would work out. It has. I have begun to ride my bike everywhere, and therefore have converted my daily routine into exercise and a way to explore Brooklyn, a place I never knew well during the 25 years I actually lived in New York. Several days a week, inspired by Hurricane Sandy as well as by a longtime friend and colleague who teaches at Potemkin U., I ride my bike to work. This twelve-mile round-trip includes pedaling over the Manhattan Bridge with a great many other people who do this to save money, or to get in a workout, or from political conviction that even public transportation doesn’t slow global warming as it should. Riding to work includes such novel experiences as the D train thundering by, being passed by athletic fashion models in high heeled boots, observing bike messengers gathering for a beer at twilight, and participating in the occasional coffee and doughnut service provided by Transportation Alternatives on the Manhattan side.

I did not know whether someone would buy our house, or whether I would have to become a long-distance landlord. This has happened to more than one friend of mine, and it means you are constantly tending to and spending money on property from which you derive no pleasure. I ran into someone at the recent meeting of Happy-Go-Lucky-Conventioneers-Wearing-Lampshades who, when he decided to look for a new job, put his house on the market, sold it and moved into a rental prior to actually receiving an offer of employment. I admire this kind of planning enormously, but also know that I would have been incapable of it. I have moved more than practically anyone I know and the idea of throwing a prophylactic move into the mix is horrifying.

Fortunately we sold the house.

I did not know that I was capable of downsizing my personal and professional possessions by almost two-thirds. The office I had at Zenith was about the size of what the realtors here in New York call a “junior studio apartment.” It had yards and yards of shelf space, a large closet, acres of file cabinets, and a charming little back door so that I could slip out if I needed to disappear.

The office downsizing was at least as dramatic as the home downsizing (which was impressive.) I sold all but about three hundred work books. I consider myself quite lucky to have a small, private room with a view at my new university: having one’s own workspace is not the norm for people whose primary posting is to the undergraduate programs. Similarly, our apartment now consists of three rooms, down from nine in the house; we have no basement or garage to store things; and there is no garden (although there is a balcony.)

And yet, as nearly everyone who lives in a Communist country will attest, you can live comfortably in a small space. Most of the stuff middle class Americans own they don’t use most of the time, and some stuff they use not at all. Several rooms in our lovely former house had a person in them a fraction of the time. In fact, I can honestly say that although I sometimes miss our house, I have not missed a single thing I gave away or sold, nor do I miss the extra space. I have missed exactly one book so I went and took it out of the library.

The Unknown-unknowns: the things I did not know I did not know.  As Secretary Rumsfeld pointed out at the time and (more embarrassingly) four months later at a NATO meeting in Brussels, “these tend to be the difficult ones.”

I did not know that, just as I had begun commuting to my new job on the train last spring, and prior to moving, our beloved dog would suddenly die. She pegged out overnight, in her crate, entirely without warning, probably from an undiagnosed cardiovascular complication. In addition to being a terrible shock and the cause of great grief, at the time I took our darling dog’s death as a sign that it was time to move on in life, even though I had not yet made a permanent decision to do so. She had many virtues, but she was not a flexible dog, and I was in many ways far more concerned about how she would adapt to apartment living than how all transitions combined would go for me.

I did not know that, after we were settled, that we would adopt a lovely little grey cat who is funny and cute and raises all kinds of kitty havoc that makes everyone laugh. We used to have cats: three died, and one, who was given to bouts of hysteria in the presence of our dog (then a puppy), moved. Somehow the business of having cats  faded away, and then bingo! I am adapting to living in three rooms ten stories in the sky and suddenly it makes all kinds of sense not to want to paper train a puppy right away.

I did not know that, although it is genuinely more expensive to live in New York, there are lots of things you do not pay for and many things that are cheaper. Food, housing and doctor’s visits are more expensive in New York. Having one car is cheaper than having two, and car insurance rates are lower in Brooklyn than they were in Shoreline. Haircuts cost either a lot or not so much, depending on your preferences. We didn’t buy a new home so we pay renter’s — not owner’s — insurance, which is a lot less; we pay no property taxes; we do not pay for an alarm system or any of the things that periodically need to be replaced on a house. Utilities are less than a third of what we paid before, and there is no sewer or water bill. Air travel is cheaper, and you can get direct flights. Connecticut taxes, if you take the car tax and the many sales taxes, as well as the income taxes into account, are much higher than taxes in New York. The gas tax is slightly higher, but if you pop over the line to New Jersey you pay half of that; and since you don’t have to use your car to go to work or shop, you use a fraction of the gas. The tax on beer is 4% as opposed to 8% — and you can buy it in the grocery store on Sunday!

I did not know how much I would like my new students. My Zenith students were incredible (I ran into six of them at the recent meeting of Happy-Go-Lucky-Conventioneers-Wearing-Lampshades in case I had forgotten just how wonderful) and I am glad I had the chance to work with them. Some of my new students are quite similar to Zenith students, in fact, but different in the sense that they stepped off the escalator at some point, often dropping out of places like Zenith and Oligarch and going to work for a few years or a decade while they found themselves. Some are initiating a degree program as much older people, or are finishing a B.A. abandoned years ago because life and responsibilities demanded something else from them. Teaching people who are in school in such intentional ways, and working with colleagues who appreciate the quality of such an environment, is a whole new pleasure that has, frankly, re-energized my interest in the craft of teaching.

For years people told me how lucky I was to be teaching at Zenith (as if I didn’t know), and I’m glad I had that experience. Now I’m glad I have this experience, because nearly every time I walk into the classroom something new and interesting happens that causes me to reflect on how lucky I am to teach at all.

Readers, have you made a big change? What did you know — or not know?

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