Friday, December 30, 2011


It's the time of year when people "look back," and I'm afraid I'm no exception. 2011 was an eventful year for me: among other significant events, I got married, took a position as a college professor, and moved to Des Moines.

All of those are really one event: accepting the professor position meant moving to Des Moines, and moving to Des Moines while staying partners with my one true love Brian without condemning him to the immoral abyss of the uninsured meant getting married. We'd previously agreed that we had no interest in getting married until marriage was equally available to our gay & lesbian friends -- being part of an institution that's about love sounds great; being part of an institution that's about perpetuating archaic hetero-normative traditions sounds like total bullshit that can go fuck itself. But allowing my one true love to risk living without insurance again wasn't acceptable.

He and I have both been there: in 2004, my last full uninsured year, I had a dripping, painful ear infection. After a month of hoping it would go away, I had to spend $100 to see a mystery doctor at a walk-in clinic who couldn't help me and couldn't refer me so she prescribed me a $200 course of antibiotics that did nothing. Out of money, I was screwed. So in 2004 and early 2005 I lived life with constant pain and a constant stream of pus oozing out of my ear, unable to do anything about it.

In the Fall of 2005 I got a job that came with insurance and went to a doctor ($15) who sent me to a specialist ($20) who found a tear in my eardrum and fixed it on the spot, then prescribed me a course of antibiotics to clean up the residual infection ($25). My ear hasn't bothered me since, but if I hadn't gotten insurance through that job, this year would probably mark my 7th year of stinky pus constantly dripping out of my ear. I'm sure I would've eventually lost some hearing too. And that's just a little eardrum tear. Imagine if something serious had happened.

Tying health insurance to employment is moronic. It's like separating toilets according to sex: we do it because it has always been done that way, not because there's any good reason for it, and we should be smart enough and original enough to do better. I found this quote recently for Brian, for an essay he's working on: "It ought to be the first endeavor of the writer to distinguish nature from custom, or that which is established because it is right from that which is right only because it is established" (Samuel Johnson, The Rambler #156).

Not just writers!

But we don't get to make the world we live in. Letting Brian go without health insurance when I could do something about it wasn't an option; we married. And that marriage was also our farewell and adieu to a South Florida full of dear friends and family. In our six years in Florida we met some amazing people and had some amazingly good times. It's pretty hard to go from a place where you are constantly surrounded by love and fun to a place where you don't know anyone -- I'm meeting people every week, and have no doubt that I will, over time, make great friends in Iowa too, but people are unique, not interchangeable. Thank goodness for Facebook. :)

This is of course one of the perils of a life in academia: you don't exactly get to pick where you live. I got incredibly lucky, because Des Moines is a perfect place for us: a medium-sized city with lots to do (and, significantly for a person moving from South Florida, virtually no traffic!). There are no good bagels here, but holy frijoles what these people can do with hashbrowns! It's also pretty laid-back, open, walkable, and small-business-oriented, at least downtown. And it's really interesting to be in the center of the country after living most of my life at its extreme South-East tip. I've gone from living in a place where it took 10 hours just to get to Georgia (nowhere else in the US, just Georgia), to a place where in just a few hours I can be in eight different states. That's different.

The biggest transitional shock from South Florida to Iowa will be the "Continental" climate, which includes extreme temperatures, Arctic winds, and massive snowfalls. So far, it hasn't come. I like to think that I dragged a little Florida up here with me, and that, while it probably won't last too much longer, for now the winter weather is warded off by the power of my tropical blood! In the meantime I'm collecting winter clothes: coats, sweaters, socks... I started from near-zero. I feel like 90% of my wardrobe was spaghetti-strapped sundresses. Maybe 80%. It was a lot.

Then of course there's the transition from "Instructor" to "Professor." At my old FAU job, they treated us pretty well. I was teaching 8 classes a year for 30k, which was too much for too little, but I can't complain about the working conditions. On the whole, I worked with really wonderful people, had great students, and I found the classes I taught to be rewarding and challenging. Now that I'm at Drake, I find that I'm working with different really wonderful people, have different great students, and still find my classes rewarding and challenging, although in different ways.

FAU students are extraordinarily diverse and people are individuals first and foremost, so it's hard to generalize meaningfully, but (salt grains flying) Drake students are on the average much more "advantaged." I don't think that's necessarily a money thing -- but I do think that they have, on the whole, benefited from real, robust support systems, be they financial or emotional or civic (solid public school systems with small classes and involved teachers, for example).

There are a lot (not all, but a lot) of students at a university like FAU who are there against all odds. They have had hundreds of bad breaks, and have fought their way to where they are; for them, success looks like FAU, because they have had to work like hell just to get where they are. We live in a society were someone with every advantage who sleeps through four years of Yale on "gentlemen's Cs" and graduates to run gifted-business after gifted-business into the ground can become president, while someone whose life from 14 to 25 was a horror show of hardships and instability, who gets back into school and works her way through college on smarts alone will be lucky to land a job as a grade-school teacher. And heaven forbid she got through any of it by stripping, she'll be morality-policed out of running for School Board, let alone anything higher.

Working at a school like FAU puts you in real-time contact with some of the most heroic and inspiring stories you'll ever encounter. At Drake I'm seeing something pretty different: it looks like "talent," but I think we are all born creative geniuses and the only question is whether we are subjected to a life that beats it (or just discourages it) out of us, or to pressures that pervert our creativity into strange containment. The students I've had so far seem to me to be examples of what is possible when we take a precious new-born creative soul and don't fuck it up. If these students seem to be a barrel of shinier apples, it may simply be that they are the apples who haven't been bitten, bruised, and left on the ground for the worms -- they are the apples that were cared for.

This isn't to minimize how wonderful they are. Despite their relative lack of real-life experience, I'm encountering students who by study and/or empathy and/or imagination have tremendous insight into the world. For them, being at Drake may not be the same kind of major life success, but they have dreams of bigger successes "out there" -- and let's face it, the shiny, unbruised, intact fruit are going to do far better at the marketplace. These students have not had their talents blunted, they have not had their ambitions delayed, and so they are not only "capable of" doing great things, they're getting a leg and a push on the way there. They're going to see their dreams made real, a lot of them. Being a part of their educations is, as I said, rewarding and challenging... just in a very different way.

The ups and downs of my own non-traditional life path certainly incline me towards the amazing students I used to teach. But these new students are working on creative projects far more in tune with what I want to do. It's probably not worth laboring the comparison. Before I did that, and now I'm doing this.

And this is me talking about something I've been exposed to for three months -- a single semester. This, for me, is the start of a new adventure, and there's much more to discover. And that's what 2011 has been: a bunch of changes, a new start. Year (two thousand plus ten plus) One. :) Happy New Year!

PS: Thanks, Mom, I'm sure you're the only one who read this far. ;) Love you!


bobbyletter said...

Hey! I always read your "Elclectic Gal" posts. ;)

Kristie Letter said...

Me too!