Monthly Archives: December 2012

Will the Introspection Ever End?

Since posting my reasons for quitting a couple of days ago, I’ve been thinking about what parts are bullshit and which parts are true. (For impatient readers, all that really matters in this post can be found in the last three sentences. The rest is navel-gazing.) Many of those reasons were imagined, polished and adjusted in the process of explaining myself to other people. Along the way, I surely noticed and selected phrases that got a positive response and had good entertainment value. And I surely selected phrases that helped me feel more comfortable with my decision (and avoided topics that rubbed the raw flesh of my doubt). The more I adjusted and reiterated my explanations, the more I’ve persuaded myself that they are true. Whatever my original reasons were, I have new reasons now.

Put in their most productive light, the public explanations helped me put words to feelings of which I’d only been vaguely aware. For example, many people asked why I wanted to leave such a cushy situation where I am free to teach what I want. This encouraged me to think more carefully about what I did and did not find worthwhile in the Drugs and Big History classes, and why it just seemed like beating my head against the wall to do more of the same. I am very well trained in the shaping of evidence into plausible arguments in the service of persuading others and myself. That was my job.

On the other hand, my insistence that “I’ve had a good career, it’s time to move on” is more of a soundbite than an insight. This phrase that gained a life of its own through positive audience response. It is true that I am much less cynical and bitter than before, and that I think this has freed me up for change. But what I did not mention is that I am actually still a bit jealous of the greater success some of my colleagues have earned. This is less true than before as I’ve become increasingly detached. But these kinds of feelings are still hard to avoid. They are saturated into the fabric of the institution, and are deeply at the core of what makes the institution miserable. To put it differently, however much I could perform some of the actions that led to success, I still didn’t feel like I fit.

I really don’t know the balance between my just wanting to escape this poisonous emotional cycle of academia (which can be so easily framed as ‘running away’) and my repeated assertions that I have gone as far as I can with academia (‘I appreciate what I’ve learned but am ready to move on’). The former seems to come from a deeper, less acknowledged place. The latter seems more like a rationalization. But perhaps this is just my fear and cynicism talking? Why should I believe my self-critical feelings more than my positive feelings?

The Indian stages of life stuff is something that I’ve repeated to myself frequently over the past few months, as much to persuade myself as to explain anything to others. I find it inspiring, much like those “You can’t do something great until you take a risk” clichés. I didn’t talk about taking risks in my explanations precisely because it sounds like such a platitude. The Indian stages sound less like Nike commercials. But, to be sure, it is the equivalent of Nike commercials for introspective, middle-aged people like me.

In explaining myself, I very consciously toned down some of the spiritual, Tantra and Jungian stuff I’ve been reading and doing the past few years. I aluded to it through phrases such as ‘learned new things’, ‘reached the limits of academic thought’, ‘lopsidedly intellectual’ (which is something I read in a Jungian book 5 years ago) and references to ineffable drug experiences and Indian life stages. But even this toned down version still runs the risk of seeming flaky to an academic audience. But why should I care, why am I afraid? Well, because I am still enough of an academic that a lot of this still seems a bit flaky to me, and I am quite embarrassed and uncertain about it. I tell myself that my academic training will help me cut through the New Age bullshit and get to the core. And much of my public explanation is about how academic attitudes can limit our understanding and engagement with life. I hope it’s true.

My audiences also conspired in helped me to avoid certain topics. For example, only one person asked me why I can’t look at my job as a service, and opportunity to contribute to knowledge, help students, and to give back some of what I have learned in the first half of my life? Most people seemed to share the assumption that a life of self-absorbed self-discovery is a good life. I’m not so sure.

Only a couple of people asked about my family and daughter. To a large extent, this reflected our inexperience and incompetence in discussing (beyond banalities) anything outside the narrow academic world where we interact. But my daughter is definitely my strongest attachment, the person that makes every choice difficult, especially choices that will take me away from her and reduce the resources I can provide for her. On the other hand, my girlfriend is one of the greatest inspirations, a constant reminder of how it is possible to be a fantastic person without school and without fear. My mother and ex-wife are there too, someplace deep in my soul and in my self-criticisms and self-confidence in ways that I still don’t quite understand. It’s a complicated mess, and I am glad nobody pushed this question too far.

I was also a bit vague about what I plan to do for the next year or so. Plenty of people asked—surely curious (as am I) about how one can survive outside of the ivory walls. I made glancing audience-appropriate references to massage classes, spiritual and tantric practice, Luna’s businesses, my fascination for the complexities of the Thai sex industry, working with ayahuasca healing or just focusing on my non-intellectual side before I made a decision. Some people wanted reassurance that I might return to intellectual activities, and I acknowledged the possibility. But for the most part it was easy enough to deflect the question and stick to talking about the reasons for leaving. There is nothing that humanists and social scientists like more than to hear an insightful critique laced with with vague references to a better possible world. And historians are particularly loathe to go beyond vague references and actually predict the future.

All told, my explanations have a jaunty tone that rings a bit false. Even if my explanations are true as far as they go, they are also continued evasion of those personal shadows I don’t want to confront—a tendency to avoid confrontation, self-isolation, fear of power and responsibility, distaste for practical concerns, etc. But maybe this is just my mom and ex-wife speaking? . . .

Enough. Really, all I should just say to myself and to others is, “It is finally time to stop fucking worrying about it. You’ll never know anything unless you get on with it.”

Why I Resigned: The Permutations

I’ve spent a lot of the past month telling students and colleagues why I have resigned my job as a history professor. My first explanations were a kind of nervous, disconnected stuttering. But it gradually grew into a polished presentation, with detachable modules that could be slectd and rearranged depending on the audience. In the process, my decision grew life of its own, following a logic of performance as much as explanation. It is becoming something else, yet again, as I translate into the written word. So, here is the latest permutation:

I’ve had a good career. I’ve written one book that is pretty good, and one that is really good. I’ve published several articles, including one that has been very significant in reshaping my field, another that has been very well-cited (although much less important in my opinion)—and a couple of others that I think are innovative and significant but haven’t gained much attention. I played an important role in helping define the shifting intellectual orientation of my department, helping to make it stand out from its peers. I can be happy with what I have accomplished. It’s time to move on.

The ideas that once felt so expansive now feel limiting. I haven’t had a really new idea for 10 years. To be sure, I have plenty of ideas for books and articles that can flesh out more permutations of those ideas and push them to their bitter end. And the kind of history I do is just beginning to catch on. I could still present myself cutting edge, and professional kudos and respect would only increase in the next ten years as this kind of history becomes more routine and widely accepted. But I know in my heart that I’ve already peaked. From here, it is the slide into careerism, repetition, boredom, and old fogeydom. I don’t really like teaching. Despite a few good moments, I am a mediocre teacher. I look at what my senior colleagues have done to take their careers to the next step—run centers, consolidate fields, become administrators, create teaching materials, write op-eds and get on television—and it doesn’t interest me. I can see some possible new directions, especially in computational history and collaboration with hard sciences. I have a couple of colleagues going in this direction, and I greatly respect their shift. But it doesn’t quite compel me. The curiosity and excitement that led me into academia are now pulling me into other ways of being—more experiential and sensual.

I’ve been thinking about this for five years, ever since I finished my second book. At that time I was headachy, sleepless, irritable and generally miserable. I figured that I had to learn how to enjoy my job. It looks so good on paper—why do so many of us find it so difficult to put that potential into practice? I got divorced instead (a wise decision). But I also put a lot of effort into making my job better: 35-40 hour work weeks during the semester (even less during leaves); only teaching classes I enjoy; saying no to things I don’t want to do (especially hiring and tenure committees); avoiding academic politics.

In terms reducing irritability, cynicism, sleeplessness, headaches, backaches etc. the new regime was effective. But I also found that:

1) The extra time allowed me to develop other interests.

2) I was rapidly losing interest in academic questions. I now find it nearly impossible to read a history or social science book or journal article. They’re all so predictable. Fresh approaches are increasingly rare for me.

3) I’ve become lopsidedly intellectual. Time to develop my emotional, sensual and intuitive sides.

4) The job demands more attention and conviction than I have been able to give it at only 35-40 hours a week and greatly diminished interest. It is nearly impossible to keep up with my readings & networking enough to be able to serve grad students, update classes or do my editorial work well.

5) I still enjoy helping graduate students and talking about ideas with them–in fact it is where I have focused much of my work time. But they are such potent conduits of that dark, heavy cloud of anxiety, insecurity, fear and doubt that pervades upper academia. They haven’t yet learned how to absorb or defend themselves against that cloud, and they channel and project it in an especially concentrated manner. I’ve had days when I’ve left work with my body literally drooping from all the anxiety I have absorbed from graduate students. And my favorite students—the ones who came with so many dreams and curiosities and are inept at careerism—are so often the ones most beaten down by this cloud. What am I doing working for an institution that so effectively squelches curiosity, wastes youth and encourages petty careerism, insecurities, jealousies and cynicism?

At the same time, the more I have externalized my insecurities as a poisonous institutional cloud, the less I am bitter and bitter and cynical about my job. Some anger remains, but nothing like five years ago. This, more than anything, has helped me to resign. On days when I have gone to some horrible meeting, talked academic politics and withered under burning grad student agonies, I go home and think “What a stupid idea to leave the job. It’s got so many perks, so much security. What a foolish idea to leave.” Bitterness and fear is a form of attachment. But on days when classes went well, when I see that people appreciate my work and find it useful, when I remember some of the great things that I’ve learned over the past 20+ years–those are the days when it makes total sense to move on. My heart is open. The past and future no longer trap me.

Also, over the past five years, when I’ve told people about my experiences in Thailand, they often answer, “That’s so cool, you should write an article about it.” But that is precisely what I don’t want to do. Is that really the end and value that makes all experiences worth having, to write an academic analysis of it? In so many ways, that just kills experiences and ideas. Yes, academic analysis has opened lots of doors to me, and has fundamentally shaped the way I see the world (and my difficulties in understanding how other people see the world). But now I am increasingly aware of the doors it leaves closed.

Of course, this would not be possible if my father hadn’t died last year. Selling his house in California has given me the resources to escape the bondage to mortgage, alimony and tuition that holds so many of my colleagues. But my father’s death also inspired this in ways beyond the material cushion. After buying an coop apartment, I realized that I have no good idea what to do with the rest of the money. I would probably just let it sit in the bank and wait. For what. Even with reduced material constraints, I realized, fear of change still lingered. Who would I be, if not a CU Professor? What could I tell people?

Then after I was actually promoted to full professor last summer, I laughed out loud. “I don’t want to inhabit this title. This is not me. I’m no professor. ” A professor is what my dad wanted to be. It is what my mom and ex-wife wanted to marry, the kind of children they wanted to have. When I grew up, my parents appeared to be totally liberal and open: “Whatever you want to do is fine with us.” But the one constant theme was “School is good. Go to school. More school is better. School creates opportunities. School is good.” So I never left. I followed their path all the way through. But throughout high school and college, my best friends were always people who hated school and sometimes dropped out. I have a girlfriend who never went to school. It’s time to see the signs, to finally live my own life.

The two classes I’ve enjoyed teaching most over the past years have been Big & Deep History; and Drugs in World History. I’ve enjoyed them precisely because they both point so firmly past the limits of an academic approach to the world. In big and deep history we read works that place human history in the context of the history of the universe, natural processes, evolution and neurophysiology (i.e., books that make many of my colleagues a bit uncomfortable and inclined to burrow back into their disciplinary boundaries). They relentlessly draw attention to the complexity of the human brain; the continuities of human, animal and chemical life; the fact that even the actions of conscious beings follow the same statistical patterns as non-conscious objects; and the triviality of human life in the face of time, space and complexity. Academic research made every of these books possible. And every one of this books takes us to the brink of the ineffable, lets us peek into the depths, and then steps back in fear and analysis to kill the vision. They respond to the vision with premature systematization, subjection to concepts and human abstractions, academic debates, and platitudes reaffirming the value of our conventional understanding of daily life. I love the directions those books have pointed. But I hate the theories, platitudes and egoic appeals they use to pull us back.

My drug class has consistently pointed to our repeated failures in understanding, representing, containing and regulating the drug experience (in other words, the experience of our minds and bodies). The drug experience has consistently all attempt to constrain it, whether through academic concepts, medicine, politics or police. Academic analysis can give us some insights. It can show the social and political and scientific construction of drug experiences. It can show the enormous diversity of drug experiences, and a few of the factors that may shape those variations. And, in the hands of a few authors (especially those who admit to being drug users themselves) academic analysis can even show us where the analytical approach hits its limits, and suggest the enormous mystery and possibility that lies beyond. As with Big and Deep History, I am thankful that academic analysis has taken me to the door. I am ready to take another step.

I’ve been doing enough meditation, tantric exercises and psychedelics the past few years to see that it is true what the mystics and psychonauts say: concepts, abstractions and words are one of the main barriers to having those mystic/ineffable experiences in their fullness. Words and analysis are very useful at certain stages to point you in the right (or wrong) direction. But they can only take you so far. You can only take the next step by letting go of those concepts, forsaking the need to intellectually fix an experience, by surrendering control.

The idealized Indian stages of life makes more sense to me that the life path into which I have been living. I have been socialized to expect that most of my life from mid-20s to late 60s will be concerend with ‘career’ and social responsibilities and achievements. After that, I will just fade away and ‘enjoy myself’ when I retire (if I haven’t faded away already).

The Indian stages, however, finish up the stage of money, career and household in the late 40s. A person should then go off into the forest and learn to communicate with the gods. It makes much more sense to make a bit shift in late 40s—with plenty of experience behind you and stil enough energy to go into the unknown. I look at nearly all of my relatives except one—they spent their last years alone, lonely and bitter, unable to make any sense out of retirement. I can see that happening to me so easily. It will certainly happen if I follow the career path to the bitter end. I should follow those other paths now, not just wait. If I fail, my past achievements still won’t have gone away any more than if I wait another 20 years to retire.

In Amman, on the way to . . .

I’m in the airport of Amman, Jordan, waiting for my connecting flight to Bangkok. My classes are finished, office cleaned out, and house-sitter moving into my apartment next week. It is the end of my life as a professor.

The Amman airport is a rinky-dink affair–a throwback to the Third World 70s more than the predictable cosmopolitanism of most airports today. Lots of interesting people around. But my mind is elsewhere.

I bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok. I could depict this monodirectionality as a fearless, sever-the-ties, make-or-break, reckless leap into a new life. Fact is, I’m just indecisiveness about what to do in the next few months. My Thai visa is only good for three months. I’ll probably be back in NY at the end of March for my daughter’s birthday.

For the past month, I’ve avoided thinking about what will happen after I arrive in Bangkok on December 27. I’ve just focused on correcting papers, redistributing the stuff in my office, cleaning my house, wrapping up the paperwork for my departure, arranging my physical movements around the pinched nerve in my back, dealing with a horrible sore throat. I’ve spent a lot of time explaining why I’ve resigned to friends and colleagues why. I’ve worked it up into a pretty good performance. I’m not sure how much of it is true or bullshit anymore.

I’ve been much vaguer about what I intend to do next. Some comments about leaving it open for a while. I mention massage classes and Luna’s small businesses in Thaland. With some people I might even mention my interest in tantric training, my fascination with the challenges that Luna is having in dealing with the sex-work in her bar, or my thoughts about what some people are doing with ayahuasca and psychedelic healing. I say I’ve got enough funds to last me 2-3 years, which is enough to have a good cushion but not enough to get lazy. Many people want me to say that I may still to come back to intellectual life, or even back to the university after my leave is over. I nod and agree that is a possibility.

For a long time I thought that giving away my books would bring me face-to-face with the reality of my choice to resign, bring up some kind of emotion. But no, nothing. No fear, no pleasure of generosity, no excitement, no regret. Just worry about the practicalities of who will get what and how I can get rid of all of them. But I do think that I gave my office the best cleaining it’s had in decades. All the way down to the early 70s–both the remnants of previous occupants and some childhood stuff of mine that I’d forgotten I’d put there. A good cleaning is really a destructive act. All those years of carefully accumulated sediment washed away just like that.

I avoided telling my mom for a long time, although I know she’s supected. She was predictably furious. “Why do you want to throw your life away? Why don’t you care about education? What about your daughter? I don’t know you any more!” But then I reminded her how much I admired her when she took a year off to go to Czechoslovakia and how happy and open she was that year. And she agreed, but said, “The problem was that I didn’t make anything out of that experience. I just convinced myself of my limits and went back to my old life. I’m afraid that you’ll do the same thing.”

My ex-wife went full-drama when I told her. She cried and insisted that I don’t care about my daughter. But I can pack the bags for that guilt trip much better than she can (indeed, my love of being with is the biggest reason why adventurous long-term planning is so difficult for me right now) and she couldn’t take me very far down that road. Then she talked about how hard it would be for her. But that quickly turned into a discussion of the technicalities of our divorce agreement, issues that are well-hashed and pretty much resolved. I assured her that alimony and child support would not stop. Then she told me that she still loves me so much, that she still wants me back, that she doesn’t understand why I can’t enjoy having a good family together . . . . . It still chokes me up as I write this.


In 1989, I travelled with my wife through Kham, the eastern part of Tibet in Sichuan Province. Bus trips took multiple days. The buses usually left before dawn, drove up and down enormous valleys and passes on single lane roads, arriving at the next town in early afternoon. Passengers would stay in a hotel and wander the town until the next dawn.Tibet Map

We were turned back at the border to Tibet Autonomous region, and decided to go up to Amdo in  Qinghai province instead. This required a three-day bus ride back to the town of Kangding, and then another three days to the town nearest the border of Qinghai.

At the last town before Kangding, we looked at the map and saw a road that cut north and joined the road to Amdo. This would have cut our travel time down by at least a day. We learned that no buses travelled this road. People discouraged us from hitchhiking, telling us that the Tibetans out in the mountains were wild and would hijack and kill us.

We chickened out and went back to Kangding.

On the road across the border to Qinghai, we still had to hitchhike and several young Tibetan men showed us their long knives. I also learned that the Chinese word for vegetables sounds a lot like the word for firewood in the local accent. When I asked if people grew vegetables in the next town, I was told, “No, only yak shit.” Our hotel room did have a closet full of dried yak shit. We were supposed to shovel it into the cast iron stove and burn it to keep warm.yak-dung-stove

Tibetans cooked in yak oil, burned yak butter candles, lived in yak skin tents, wore yak skin clothes, decorated their homes with yak bones, and even smelled like yak grease (because they rarely showered). Yak meat is a dark brownish-red, with bright yellow marbled fat. In towns, we would see men and women with long dreadlocked hair, long knives, dark weatherbeaten skin, and wild pirate clothes coming down from the mountains with piles of reeking yak meat on their backs. It was often topped with a yak head, split open on top to reveal the brain. They were always friendly and smiling. But I probably had this image in my head when we chickened out.


Schrödinger Says

(i) My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.

(ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I forsee the effects that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.

The only possible inference from these two facts is that I—I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt ‘I’—am the person, if any who controls the ‘motion of the atoms’ according to the Laws of Nature.

—Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life?

Too Many Words to Choose

The universe is polymorphous and multifluous. The idea that god or divinity should be mono- is . . . . insufficient? constraining? disappointing? perverse? inadequate? claustrophobic? unimaginative? simplistic? incomplete?

There are lots of possible words to finish this sentence. And that’s only in English.

Farming and Schooling

Farmers can be good entrepreneurs. Farmers are used to investing a large amount of time, money and labor now for an uncertain payoff in the future. In contrast, kids who grow up in school want structure, predictable rewards and guaranteed income.  They don’t want to take chances, and resent the idea of working for free. And learning to think in terms of paper- and screen-bound concepts and abstractions can kill the kind of concrete, creative intelligence that they can learn on the farm, and which can be so useful in setting up a small business.

Yeah, I’m overgeneralizing. But I look at the kids now in rural Thailand who have at least 7 or 8 years of schooling (as compared to their parents, who mostly have 0-4 years of school). and it is hard to get them to open a market stall, plant a vegetable garden, or even take a chance on a bus ticket into Bangkok without a job waiting. They’ll only invest in a machine like a chain saw or electric sander if they are sure it will get them a job with daily pay. After several years of required schooling, they are really good for nothing. They have been taken off the farm, so they no longer like farm work or can even do it very well. They are wary of risks. But after several years of lousy rural schooling, they haven’t learned enough to get a good job in town or a government job. They are just good for construction or working in the chicken factory.

A couple of times Luna has tried to hire people with high school or even some college to help her with her marketing job (ordering and designing clothes and bags in Thailand to send to her contacts in Italy). It never worked out very well. She complains they are lazy, “They know computer, know math, know English. But they not want to do nothing, not want to learn about job. Just want somebody to give money to them, not want to work.”

Every now and then, a rural family puts some money into educating a child enough to get a low level professional job in the city—secretary or nurse or bookkeeper or something like that. The results are often not satisfactory. The professional kids become obsessed with their city live and careers. They are embarrassed by their rural family, and rarely visit home or send money (except when they need their parents to take care of their kids). To be fair, entry-level professional jobs are often very low-paid, and the kids have to use what little money they earn to maintain appearances with a certain standard of living. But the family back on the farm can still wonder; why is this any better than opening a market stall–or even working construction?

But a government job, or the police is a different story. Nobody will ever second-guess a job like that. Sure the police are corrupt, womanizing bastards, and government workers are arrogant jerks who have to sit in an office all day long. But that kind of guaranteed income, while still being able to live near family and country, and maybe even own land and work the harvest . . . . But these are mostly open to men. Women still have to rely on their own resources.

And in the U.S.? Our system is so geared to preparing us for paper- and screen-bound office hierarchies and salary-work that it is hard to imagine alternatives, other than free-lancing office work that is symbiotic to the corporate hierarchies. It is no coincidence that many of the great tech entrepreneurs and creative entertainers are people who dropped out of school (although, to be fair, only after receiving a decent elementary and high school education). And immigrants are disproportionately represented in small business.