Photo from Cisco, and I can name three dozen ways in which I know this is a staged image that has nothing to do with what a real prison visitation would be like. About the only thing they got right is the slip-on shoes.

It may be possible to be brave with others, but in fear, as in illness, each of us is alone.

Masha Gessen, “The Political Consequences of Loneliness and Isolation During the Pandemic,” The New Yorker

Nora and I get out as much as we can. Every Tuesday and Saturday, we go to the Historical Society to deliver the meals that our neighbors have requested. I go in to town most weekdays to pick up the mail. It’s been about two weeks since I’ve been into Rutland for a supermarket visit, and I miss it enormously, the simple fact of people-watching now revealed to be one of the most crucial commodities a supermarket provides.

On Sunday evening, we held our distancing picnic, the second time we’ve done it. I put out our patio chairs on the lawn, each chair seven feet from its nearest neighbor. Our friends from up the road stopped by with their own picnic baskets and their own beverages, and the ten of us sat and talked in our giant circle like some demented New Age ceremony. Normal conversations don’t happen in groups of ten; ten people naturally subdivide into two or three or four simultaneous groups, each with its conversational gravity drawing its participants close. Now we’re all engaged in a public-speaking club, like Toastmasters, our conversations turned into sequential pronouncements.

Zoom is worse. The practices of turn-taking are subtle, watching someone lean forward as they’re about to speak, watching someone turn their eyes down and shake their head in subtle disagreement that ought to be surfaced. None of that is available in our low-res, un-edited, poorly framed meeting space. People just don’t understand the amount of professional support required to make video look good. (I guess we do now, after a month of watching late-night TV shows shot on a single rigid-mount camera in the host’s rec room.)

It’s been about sixty years since the anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed his ideas on what he called proxemics, or the study of the social uses of distance. In his 1963 book The Hidden Dimension, Hall posited that there were four zones that we used for different kinds of interactions:

  • Intimate (touching to 18 inches), for those with whom we’re “closest”
  • Personal (18 inches to 4 feet), for interactions among “close” friends
  • Social (4 to 12 feet), for interactions among “more distant” acquaintances
  • Public (12 feet and beyond), used for addressing those who are “remote” from us, like theater or political audiences or a lecture hall

The way we describe our relations with the people in our lives, as close or distant or remote, is directly drawn from millennia of human relations. We find it hard to replicate those emotional relationships when we can’t manage physical relationships that match. Our circle of 7′ chairs was over twenty feet in diameter: I was sitting on the porch, and Sarah directly across from me was all the way out at the edge of the road. That’s no way to sustain a friendship, though it’s better than the phone.

Political commentator Masha Gessen had a smart essay in The New Yorker yesterday, from which the quote at the top is taken. She writes about how the work of meaningful thought is powered by the cyclical engine that spins between the intake of social engagement and the compressive chamber of solitude. Without both, solitude becomes loneliness, deprived of fuel. She writes:

I am much more worried about lonely educators and lonely politicians, lonely writers and lonely economists, lonely architects and lonely filmmakers, lonely organizers and lonely artists, and all the other lonely people whose job it is to imagine the future. 

I know that I’m finding it a lot harder right now to work on my fiction, on unearthing the communication between me and another complex and not entirely predictable human. It’s a lot easier to write in essay form, responding to a delimited condition, trimming away the extraneous to focus on a unified theme. Even my writing is lonely.

I was awfully good at essays. At the precise identification of a phenomenon, at naming its salient characteristics, on specifying the relationships between them. I made a career, from grade school onward, of writing in response to the essays of others. The world of essays is a closed circle of automatons, artificial intelligence in bounded communication with its peers.

The dissertation was a liberation from that. I lived for a full year with a high school full of kids and teachers who surprised me every day, who broke my carefully framed understandings over and over through the simple fact of being unclassifiable. And then I spent a second year writing about them, in a mode of storytelling that I hoped gave them the latitude to speak on their own behalves as I chased behind them and highlighted some particulars that I thought were interesting. The writing of that book was a continuation of the dialogue, in which their actions caused me to think about some new thing on the fly.

But I soon found that professions aren’t usually dialogic. We write not about what people are doing, but about policies, about procedures, about projections, about categories and constructions that have been fixed and cannot be questioned. The professions are mostly conducted in essay form, efforts to reduce risk and ambiguity, to declare certainty. I was once told by a good friend that he watched me lose a job in the final interview. “They wanted answers,” he said, “and you gave them stories.”

The dissertation itself was contentious. My committee, who were in on the game from the start, thought it was revelatory; one colleague who ran the sponsored research office said “I had a lot of problems with it as the culmination of an academic study. If you wanted to write fiction, you should have said so.” Even then, I was mistaken about what academic life was for. I wanted to open possibilities, and the profession wanted to construct precision. A simple, fundamental conflict of purpose that could never be resolved, and was never actually named.

But people who can’t surprise us aren’t really people at all. That’s why the work of fiction has been such a blessing. My characters surprise me every time I sit down. If they don’t, then I’m writing an essay, and I know that it’s become a bad day at the desk, an artifice all of my own creation.

I like essays. I’m good at them. But they aren’t enough, not any more. In the fourteen months I’ve been writing the little essays on this website, I’ve simultaneously written two novels. They’re the leavening that allows the writing to rise. But for the past couple of months now, it’s all been hardtack, all matzo—the intellectualized ritual sacrifices that once were set apart to remind us of our good fortune, now become our daily lives.

Personales Borealis

Photo: Uwe Zucchi, dpa

Lots of religious traditions have some version of the concept of axis mundi, the point where heaven meets earth, and God is most present. Or the point at which the underworld has an exit to the surface, from which our earliest ancestors emerged. No matter the history or the explanation, the axis mundi is the point deemed to be at the spiritual center of the spinning world.

I’d like to propose a paired concept, the personales borealis, our own individual North that sets our course. I think that all of us have some magnetic pole that draws us perpetually toward our own home. We already have words for that, of course: obsession, or mania, or idée fixe, or mission, or passion. But I think none of those quite hit their mark, because they feel like either decisions or afflictions. I’d like to use personales borealis to designate something more neutral, more basic: our own individual polarization that pulls us perpetually in a single direction, toward the destination we never reach.

The axis mundi is settled and stable. The personales borealis makes us move.

The axis mundi is a point of reassurance. The personales borealis is the question perpetually unanswered.

The most identifying mantra for the axis mundi is Ram Dass’ simple be here now. But I think the best expression of the personales borealis comes from Martha Graham, who said to one of her friends, the choreographer Agnes de Mille, “No artist is pleased… There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Although too much of what we call education is intended to instill our own borealis into other minds, it’ll never take. The one we’re born with can never be supplanted by one that’s grafted on. At best, the artifice will be rejected. At worst, and far too often, the imposed purpose is loud enough that it muffles the authentic one, and we spend too many years not being able to hear our true call.

This is the 200th of these little essays since I started this website in February 2019, a full book’s worth of writing that will never be a book. It’ll never be anything—except what it is, a chance two or three times a week to think about whatever comes to mind. Some people pursue their personales borealis through their hands, drawn forward into paper, or yarn, or a fine restaurant meal. Some people pursue their personales borealis through music, or through dance, or through athletic endeavor. Mine seems to draw me through language, through writing and erasing and writing again, drawing closer but never quite reaching.

I hope that you give yourself some time today to sit with that question, to identify the magnetic charge of your own borealis. Let’s leave Martha Graham with today’s last word:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

Similar, but Not Congruent

How tenth grade explained the academic and arts job markets.

I’m struck by how many of my cohort thought they were headed for junior faculty, who’ve become data managers or advocates for women in science or some non-teaching role. There were a few of my colleagues who wound up running academic programs, like a travel study program. An associated thing that wasn’t what they’d set out to do

“Paul,” ten year adjunct faculty quoted in The Adjunct Underclass

Sixty-eight years ago, the renowned sociologist Erving Goffman wrote an ingenious essay called “On Cooling the Mark Out,” a study of how con men kept their “marks” from losing confidence and calling the cops. I’ve written before about how precisely Goffman’s language mirrors that of Damon Runyon and Guys and Dolls:

A mark’s participation in a play, and his investment in it, clearly commit him in his own eyes to the proposition that he is a smart man. The process by which he comes to believe that he cannot lose is also the process by which he drops the defenses and compensations that previously protected him from defeats. When the blowoff comes, the mark finds that he has no defense for not being a shrewd man. He has defined himself as a shrewd man and must face the fact that he is only another easy mark. He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miserably lacking in them… It is no wonder that the mark needs to be cooled out and that it is good business policy for one of the operators to stay with the mark in order to talk him into a point of view from which it is possible to accept a loss. In essence, then, the cooler has the job of handling persons who have been caught out on a limb—persons whose expectations and self‐conceptions have been built up and then shattered. The mark is a person who has compromised himself, in his own eyes if not in the eyes of others.

Goffman notes, in fact, that it’s more important for institutional cons to cool the mark than it is for street-corner hustlers: “One may note that a service organization does not operate in an anonymous world, as does a con mob, and is therefore strongly obliged to make some effort to cool the mark out. An institution, after all, cannot take it on the lam; it must pacify its marks.” That unproductive PhD program can’t just beat it and catch a bus to Poughkeepsie; it has to stay put and drag more people into the net, and so must calm its losers.

In Goffman’s analysis, there are two primary modes of cooling the mark. The first is to “offer him a status which differs from the one he has lost or failed to gain but which provides at least a something or a somebody for him to become.”

How many hundreds of thousands of former mid-level athletes now coach in pee-wees and high school and community college and independent leagues? How many lapsed high-school jocks are now in college, majoring in sports administration or athletic training?

How many artists run galleries, or write grant proposals for nonprofits, or teach life drawing and intro to watercolor at the local community college? How many poets teach freshman comp?

How many fully qualified scholars teach as adjuncts for three or four grand per course? How many become academic advisors, run the tutoring center, direct the women’s center?

How many novelists park their work on the hard drive in order to write news copy, or edit the work of others? Become a corporate media director, a book reviewer, a pop-culture writer?

The Washington Post reported a few years ago that the Washington Nationals baseball team employed about 200 players at all levels of major and minor leagues, and over 1,100 other employees, from business operations to travel management to chefs and trainers. Rob McDonald, the Vice President of Clubhouse Operations and Team Travel, was a perfect example of a former athlete who used a quasi-athletic job to stay close to the action:

McDonald grew up outside St. Louis, went to Northern Illinois to play quarterback, moved to wide receiver, then suffered a back injury that ended his football career. He transferred to the University of Arizona, studied pre-law, and decided he preferred the pursuit of a career in pro sports over law school. So he worked in Tucson rec leagues, then for a sports radio station in Phoenix, then for the Arizona Diamondbacks in spring training before landing in the Arizona Fall League, where baseball’s best prospects go each year.

Barry Svrluga, “The Glue,” Washington Post, September 22, 2014

Colleges especially are full of ways to cool the academic mark. Student services, IT, co-curricular offices, assessment and institutional research, grants offices, financial aid, registrar, admissions—so many functions that welcome those who are fluent in the language and practices of higher education, but who will not themselves get to participate in the life of teaching and scholarship. I used to describe being a college administrator as like living next door to your old girlfriend—you got to see her every day, but you’d always be reminded of the life you’d never, ever have. It’s a way of life that’s similar, but not congruent, to the work you’d dreamed of doing. You get paid, sometimes pretty well, to endure a very specific form of cruelty.

The second strategy Goffman lays out for cooling the mark is to “offer him another chance to qualify for the role at which he has failed.” The arts are terrific at this: there’s always another fellowship to write for, another residency, another group show. Every Starbucks needs something on the walls. The writers’ magazines are laden with short story competitions, the prize for which almost always includes having your work actually read by someone important. Maybe only televangelists exceed the arts in their demands to be sucked up to without giving anything back except promises. Con men always promise. Twenty dollar entry fee, please; tithing as our shared act of contrition and fealty.

We publish in the little magazines, paid in two contributor’s copies, read by an audience in the high dozens. But it’s printed, after all, with our names on it and everything. Unless it isn’t, unless it’s an online journal, in which case we just put the URL into our CV and hope they keep paying the registration fees for that domain name.

Parafaculty life is the same. Every year brings its new job market, new possibilities to which we rise like trout to the fly. And mostly, we find that the colleges practice catch-and-release; we’re taken up for a semester and returned to the hungry stream. But because we aren’t as smart as trout, we hang around, hoping to be caught again. We hear the murmurs of affection, from our students and our department chair, and believe that we’re accomplishing… something. Something unnamed but clearly positive, clearly productive, demonstrating our qualifications and our goodwill and our capability of being a good permanent partner if only, if only.

To return to Hans Abbing’s book that we discussed yesterday, he makes several comparisons between life in the arts and life in religious vocations. “According to an early US census report, only employees of the church faced larger income penalties than artists; it again suggests that there is a parallel between art and religion. Both invite employees to make sacrifices.” We imagine ourselves participating in something sacred, and are willing to forego earthly comforts to attain a larger reward.

The salespeople know it’s a business. Salespeople always do. But what they sell is a prosperity gospel in which our poverty is merely evidence of our insufficient faith. They tell us that our dedication and talent are similar, but not congruent, to those more righteous who have attained their promised seat in heaven. But they hold out hope, so that we persist.

Guess what, friends? This is the 199th little essay in the fourteen-month run of this website. Tomorrow will be posting #200. I’ll throw us a party.

Devalued Work

It’d just look less compelling with a keyboard or paint brush instead of a wrench, wouldn’t it?

Given that today is May 1, I thought it would be a good day to talk about work and money. Happy Workers’ Day, and thank you to all who work in hidden backstage ways to make our lives better.

It’s interesting that the two professions I write most about, writers and college faculty members, are both winner-takes-all markets, in which a handful of practitioners are handsomely rewarded and economically secure, and most scuffle together what they can on the freelance market. My friend Aimee pointed me to a wonderful book by Hans Abbing, called Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts (Amsterdam University Press, 2002). Abbing wrote this book from a nearly unique standpoint: he’s an academically trained economist who is also a recognized painter and photographer. The book is an attempt for Abbing to reconcile the cognitive dissonance created by living simultaneously within those two logic systems. Lots of sections of the book contain a construction that shows him actively comparing his two mutually exclusive beliefs, such as this one:

Although I actually earn a substantial portion of my income through the market, as an artist I am convinced that aesthetic value is independent of market value. But as an economist, I disagree with this. As an economist I believe that quality in general corresponds with success in the market(54)

Must be exhausting to live inside that head. To his great credit, rather than trying to gloss or elide these contradictions, Abbing has spent much of his academic career trying to understand exactly why they diverge and how they might cohere. His conclusion frames the subtitle of this book: the arts represents an exceptional economy, which behaves in specific and knowable ways that are dissimilar to the economies of manufacture or service.

The book is full of takeaway quotes, and is totally worth your time. (You can read and download the entire book at, the European academic open-access consortium.) But given that it’s May Day, I want to focus on one particular aspect, the notion of the winner-take-all market.

There exists a number of markets where a large and often increasing part of consumer spending ends up in the pockets of a small number of producers, while the majority of the producers earn little or nothing. Those near the top secure a disproportionate share of the particular market’s income. . . For instance, professional tennis players operate in a ‘winner-takes-all’ market. There are thousands of tennis players all over the world offering high quality performances, but only a select few earns the big incomes, while the vast majority cannot even earn a basic living from playing tennis. (54)

I’ve long been interested in people who are nearly but not quite at the pinnacle of their chosen fields, and who because of that can’t practice them at all. As an example, pick any college baseball player at random: that person would be the best baseball player you’ve ever met, an elite athlete with rarified skills, truly praiseworthy. Maybe one percent of those will go on to make a living (for a brief while) playing baseball, if even for the Lowell Spinners or the El Paso Chihuahuas or the Richmond Flying Squirrels. A tiny percentage of those minor league players will make a major league roster somewhere. So much remarkable talent goes unrecognized and unutilized.

But I think Abbing leads us down a side road by using athletes as his example. Tennis players are engaged in a knowable, objective competition in which one will empirically be better than the other. A career of those empirical outcomes leads some players to be Serena Williams, and others to be Haley Giavara, the world’s #732 ranked women’s player who has made $12,724 in her career. Haley is a starter on the UC Berkeley tennis team, a brilliant player. But the current world #1, Ashleigh Barty of Australia, has already made $17,594,569 at the age of 24. It would be like if the 700th-best carpenter in the US made about thirty cents an hour.

Most professions don’t have an empirical mechanism for determining relative quality, or perhaps for defining quality at all. Those markets are externally influenced: by credentialling systems (passing the bar exam, for instance, or getting a barber’s license), or by a community of gatekeepers. Both of those serve to maximize income for those deemed to be “inside the professions,” and to eliminate the possibility of meaningful competition by those outside.

I absolutely don’t mean to suggest that those restrictions are a bad idea. In law and cosmetology, we want some certification that our practitioner knows what she’s doing, isn’t just making an unwarranted claim to competency. In the arts, in writing… well, we’ve all been to the local craft show, and the world of electronic self-publishing will tell you an awful lot about the gradients of storytelling capability. Nobody has time to winnow through all of that.

And frankly, the gatekeepers don’t, either. There are too many of us who are trying to enter the market, and we can’t all be judged on the merits of our work. So proxies and personalities come into play:

Gatekeepers have an information advantage that allows them to monopolize the discourse, which in turn enables them to easily exclude both artists and experts who do not understand the discourse well enough. (269) Gatekeepers decide on who to let in (to attain a certain reputation) and those who are to be kept out. In fact, participants in the discourse occasionally let artists in by granting them a favorable reputation, while others are rejected or are stripped of their favorable reputations. This way the favorable reputation of the insider artists can be protected. (272)

That “reputation” is generated by facts that lie outside any specific piece of work. Aspiring artists and academics alike are notorious CV polishers. Every award, every show, every mention in the media—all part of our permanent record. We present it to the gatekeepers, to edge our new work to the front of the line; we gaze at it in the mirror, to convince ourselves that our work has mattered.

And every one of those gatekeepers relies on gatekeepers before them. An MFA from Columbia weighs more than an MFA from across the river at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. A distance far greater than the nominal hundred miles separates the MFAs from the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University; the two equivalent degrees are tickets to entirely different kinds of conversations. Literary editors are loathe to read unagented work, and the agentry community itself uses the word “slush” to designate the writing (and by extension, the writers) who must be cleared from the porch before the real workday can actually start. Each of those offers a simple binary of consideration: do you have the reputation that makes you worthy of scarce attention, or are you safely ignored?

The value of reputation is what economists would refer to as a market distortion, in which some external factors prevent product A for price $A from being set directly against product B offered at price $B. Most products, from prospective faculty and prospective artists and prospective writers, have no access to a meaningful marketplace at all.

More tomorrow.