When I returned home from the final day of my short, grossly underpaid stint as a staff writer for a newspaper named for a fish that climbs out of the water to mate, Fang–then the art director of the paper—sent me an e-mail in which he expressed his delight in working with me and announced that “in a parallel universe, we made a terrific couple!”
My first thought—after shit shit shit! (because I had harbored a crush on him for a couple months, and in ten days I would move from Long Beach to Iowa City)—was, “Wait a minute; I live in a parallel universe.”
That sentiment emerged from my experience as someone who was socially awkward and thus lived intellectually and psychologically on the margins of my world even as I seemed to bodily inhabit it. I like to think I’ve overcome most of my social awkwardness (ha! more like embraced it), so in recent years I’ve seen myself as on a sometimes unconventional path through Earth Prime.
But then, suddenly, this summer has been all about parallel universes.
I’ve spent almost as much time outside Boise as I have in it: a dozen days or so in the Bay Area and Davis, California for a women-in-technology unconference and archival research; two weeks in a village just north of New York City for my internship with Seth; and ten days in Long Beach visiting family and trying to recover from what turned into a summer in which I worked a lot and accomplished much, but none of it what I projected in my faculty activity plan.
I stayed in Davis long enough to feel as if I had moved right back into the town. My evenings and weekends were packed with visits with friends and former colleagues, and it was downright charming—perfect, in fact, except for the absence of Lucas, Fang, and a bicycle. And indeed, in a parallel universe, I never left Davis, never landed a job in the ultra-collegial history department at Boise State, never met all the funny and awesome Boiseans whose friendships I treasure.
Then there was the internship with Seth Godin. As you know, I’m still processing it. But for two weeks I inhabited a parallel universe in which I wasn’t an academic, in which people valued my expertise and skills differently (more highly! more openly!) than in my everyday professorial life.
And Long Beach. Honestly, I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with this city. It would take a lot of therapy, and a lot more writing, for me to distill what exactly it is I believe about Long Beach—typical, I suppose, of any place where one’s family has lived for nearly a century. But this trip has been delightful thus far. I’ve spent lots of time with my sister, helping her with her business, but more importantly hanging out with her mercurial two-year-old daughter and absolutely charming three-month-old son.
Today, for example, I breakfasted with Lucas and my parents, then headed down to a local saltwater lagoon because my parents said with its restoration, it’s possible to stand on the pier that runs across it and see jellyfish. Lucas and I saw huge moon jellies, yes, but also lots of fish, an egret, crabs, a skate, and an octopus that put on quite a show of locomotion and camouflage. Then we went down to Newport Beach, where, just as I settled into my beach chair, a pod of dolphins swam near shore and stayed for a while to play and feed. I headed out into the waves with Lucas and my parents, and we took turns body boarding in the excellent surf. We were amused by the biggest, fastest fish I’ve ever seen in such shallow waters—maybe three feet long and six to eight inches tall. I finished out the day with my sister and her family at a concert in a park featuring a really fun 1980s cover band. We dined on some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had.
It would be easy to dismiss such relaxing, delightful experiences as a vacationer’s indulgence. And for me, at the moment they are. And the story I’ve been telling myself all these years is that Long Beach is too expensive a place to live on an academic’s salary—hell, Boise is, too—yet millions of people manage to live in Southern California, and probably hundreds of thousands of them end up at the beach each day during the summer, even on a weekday. The secondary narrative is that even if I did see an academic job advertised here that paid sufficiently, the applicant pool is too competitive because the weather is nice and the cultural resources are plentiful.
With these thoughts running through my head, I count down the days—three, now—before I must return to Boise for the new semester (at a job, remember, I love—but whose salary is insufficient). I look at the news and see that much of the country immediately outside Boise is on fire, which means horrifying air quality (Lucas and I both have asthma). I think about how unhappy Fang has been in Boise, and how few connections we’ve been able to make in the city because everyone else at Lucas’s school seems to have deep family roots in town and established social networks that can be difficult to penetrate.* And I wonder why the hell I’m going back there.
Because despite my mild-mannered academic life, the truth is, I fully inhabit a parallel universe—one in which as a professor I apply for stuff that seems crazy, like two weeks of 7 a.m.-to-1 a.m. days as an intern for a mystery project with a marketing genius on the other side of the country.
During that internship, Seth dedicated the last couple days to not only tying up loose ends, but to having individual conversations with each of us about where we’re headed next. My private meeting with Seth lasted only a few minutes, but what emerged was this: I’m way too intelligent and talented to feel underappreciated, and I’m too smart to stay somewhere I’m not adequately financially compensated for my work.
As I mentioned in a previous post, later that day, during the business brainstorming session, I tossed out an idea I had no intention of following up on myself, but which a room full of frighteningly bright people seemed to think was a perfect fit for me. I began reading the websites of other people in this professional niche, and I realized—I admit, to as much horror as delight—I would very likely succeed in it.
I pulled Seth aside and asked him what he would do if he were me, in an academic culture that (a) expects us to give 110% of our waking hours to the job and (b) doesn’t usually smile upon professorial entrepreneurialism unless it directly benefits the university. As I remember the conversation, Seth pressed me: Was I worried people wouldn’t like me if I took on a side project that had a high financial return on a small investment of my time? Yes, I said, I was. Then he asked which was more important to me: making six figures or being liked by my colleagues. I averted my eyes and said, “Making enough to fully support my family.” To which he added quickly, “They’re going to like you anyway.”
I ran this conversation by a friend and colleague, and she confirmed that yes, indeed, this narrative of doom-and-gloom was mostly in my head, and not based in reality. The university, she says, wants faculty to be out in the community, and now that she knew about this potential side hustle, she’d think I was crazy not to pursue it.
And it is crazy not to at least give it a try. It shouldn’t prove much of a distraction from my university duties, nor a conflict with them. So I’m spending the final evenings of summer researching the field, creating a website, and filing the appropriate paperwork with the state to make everything above-board.
Worst-case scenario? I fail, and I learn to survive on a professorial gig I love and at which by all accounts I’m excelling. Somehow, I find ways to make Idaho life less corrosive on my family’s individual and collective psyches.
Best-case scenario? I try this for a couple of years, I’m crazy successful at it, and I get to pick which path to take: an intellectually rich but financially unstable life as a tenured historian in a state for which I’ll never be a booster, or this other thing—I promise not to be coy about it much longer—that would allow me to live wherever I want (read: near my extended family).
So here’s to parallel universes, as confusing as they can be when they become less-than-parallel and intersect. This should be fun.
*When complaining thus, I need to acknowledge my gratitude for Lisa V. and Bert V., who have been so generous with their kindness and their Thanksgiving dinners. Without them, we’d feel completely alienated from non-university life in Boise.