Starting Over, Part 4

One of the other key challenges of re-starting my life in the wake of my wife's passing was figuring out how to work.  I have never had difficulty putting in long hours or letting my research consume me.  In seven years of marriage, Kate and I took two vacations of a weekend each, one to Milwaukee as a surprise birthday trip for her one year, and an agriculturismo near Caltanissetta, Sicily, in the middle of her sabbatical year.  I was so committed to work that I continued teaching via Skype for the remainder of the semester after Kate's passing.

This kind of commitment was just not possible on a long-term basis afterwards, however.  And I was floundering.  I had already arranged to use my pre-tenure sabbatical semester for the fall of 2013, so, while I needed some time to figure out my new life, my book revisions slowed way down.  I worked on them nearly every day, trying to maintain the breakneck pace I had kept up before and to keep up with the 60+ hour pace assistant professors often keep.  But I wasn't getting anywhere.  Workshop comments on my chapters were not very positive and I wasn't feeling the prose.  It just was not working for me, and I more or less lost that semester off, which for many of my colleagues was highly productive time.

I had no epiphany about what to do, but there was an evolution to my practice and thinking about work.  I actually took on more service work, advising the VT chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, so I could have some greater connection to our undergrads than just teaching hours.  I also started a semi-annual department tea (just the idea, really, and a little organizing, but it won the support of my chair).  There were logics to each of these activities, but I didn't have anyone to talk with about my overarching direction, in part because my situation was so unusual.  I have a few professional mentors who are supportive, but I doubt any of them would feel comfortable asking, "In the wake of this horrible event, do you still really want to be a historian?" or "what are you going to do to reorder your life and value system to disengage from the priorities you once had and to create more relevant new priorities?" or "can you still expect to be a historian when you really cannot travel to do research?" or something similarly blunt.  I read a good number of blogs and other pieces about individuals with various crises that I thought I could squint at and see some relevance for myself.

At some point I realized that I was going to have to emphasize just a few top priorities and say to heck with the rest.  Beyond a 35-45 hour work week, more work was going to come at the expense of my son.  I could not let that happen.  I also was working on two digital projects that would drain time and attention from my book.  I decided to slow down a bit on the book and work with an emerging set of collaborators on a HOLC redlining project that became "Mapping Inequality."  There were a couple milestones in that project and collaboration that helped build momentum and let me believe I was on the right track.  I had to put another digital project off, on Congressional political history, essentially reversing what had been the top priority of my digital work.  I also started writing regularly with a colleague.  This was not really more productive, but these things did let me feel some satisfaction and a real path forward, let me look forward to doing work, and helped me enjoy my days again.

It boiled down to doing what I enjoyed and found most valuable on my own terms, which was my natural inclination anyway.  My wife, Kate, and I spent every waking hour talking about our work and our ideas in great detail before she passed away.  I remember conversations and even horror stories of people who had put themselves through a wringer, emotionally, physically, even financially, and ended up not getting tenure.  I decided I did not want to risk chasing someone else's vision and priorities for the job and have that work against me -- I didn't want to get denied tenure trying to satisfy somebody else. (I use sports metaphors quite a bit, and often say if someone is a fastball pitcher, they should throw fastballs, meaning making sure they are featuring the strengths that their whole career is built around, rather than some half-assed model and priorities somebody else suggested was the right thing to do.) 

I also wanted to see if I could not work during the summer.  In the summer of 2014 and again in 2015 I took a vacation with my son, of about a month each, and with no obligation to work in the months I was not being paid.  After this, I came to the conclusion that we, and certainly I, should not feel obliged to grind myself into paste chasing more money or more productivity beyond a 40-hour work week, 9 months a year.  Whatever I did beyond the academic year had to be for pleasure or satisfaction.  This was specifically freeing in that I didn't let things like email or requests for meetings in June clutter up my day.  It was also more generally freeing in that I realized I should take advantage of the really great things this job provided -- weekly flexibility and summer independence.

Finally, I made working out a priority again.  This was partly necessary to help me deal with my growing son.  He comes from large parents, and by age three he was at the top of the size and weight charts.  But a three-year-old sometimes needs to be carried, and I needed to increase my strength to be able to comfortably pick up and carry a 35-pound, then a 40 pound, then a 45 pound kid (usually in one arm).  So I started going to the gym more often and working out more regularly, and I always feel much better, both in my ability to do things with my son and in overall health and satisfaction.  It's also an activity and setting in which my son and colleagues are almost never present, so I can disengage from both work and parenting for a bit, and I think can approach work with more vigor when I come back to it.

All of this has worked fairly well so far.  I got my book in under the wire, rather than a couple years early.  But we also launched Mapping Inequality, which has turned out to be very high-impact.  It is satisfying to me, and more than makes up for the article or two I might have written if I had just been focused on traditional publishing.  And those internal motivations and satisfactions are my true compass.  I've been somewhat privileged all along to follow the white dude's mantra of "do what you like," without having to do much to satisfy or reassure anyone that I fit the mold of what a historian is.  But I hope anyone faced with daily micro-aggressions or major life crises can find some internal reserve of energy, or affirmation, or set of priorities to keep going on what they love.  

Kate's rowing coach, a Hungarian man now in his 90s, fought in World War II, was captured by the Germans and escaped twice.  Then, after the war, he made the Hungarian Olympic rowing team.  He eventually immigrated to the U.S. and then Canada and was just a tough dude.  He used to tell her how to manage priorities while excelling at rowing.  "First, the mother house, then the school house, then the boat house.  Then, everything else."  Good advice.

Starting Over, Part 3

In my last post, I mentioned my son and I moved to Blacksburg with no friends, no family, and nothing else resembling a social life or community, other than a handful of work colleagues.  I had started work in January of 2012 and for a year-and-a-half split time between Blacksburg and Evanston, IL, where my wife worked.  We really had not made (or had opportunities) to make friends in VA.  I was not that great a father, either, as Kate had been much better and more patient than I was with a baby/toddler/small child.  

This sounds like a bleak situation, and in casting my mind back, the bleakness returns in a way I had forgotten or blocked out.  I was only able to make my way through by relying on those far-distant friends.  We skyped weekly with some good friends from graduate school and from Evanston, we had a couple visits from some friends from college and from family, we traveled quite a bit, and I tried to explore the new relationship I would have with my son.  But there was not much in the community.

This was a tough nut to crack.  I cannot emphasize enough how much attention a two-and-a-half-year-old child requires: all of it.  You must pretty much constantly have eyes on and be offering stimulation or correction or supervision.  My son was probably working through issues of his own, always asking me to play with him and climbing on me, even while I was trying to cook him dinner.  (One of my wife's former colleagues had lost his mother at about age two and offered the comforting assessment that it had never been a source of trauma for him.  I think that was generally the case for my son, but I'm sure he felt the loss in some ways, including the halving of the attention he could receive.)  Unfortunately our day care was several miles away and drew kids from all over the town, meaning there was no local dynamic to the emergence of daytime play friends.

It turned out that food was a key part of the equation.  I was reading some work by Michael Pollan, who was discussing cooking and community in several forms, and reading several chef's memoirs.  This was part of my process of learning how to cook more skillfully and ambitiously, because I was suddenly fully responsible for family food.  But I also continued a tradition of a weekly pizza night that the family had established during our year in Philadelphia.  I thought back, again and again, to an account of a 36-hour dinner party around a wood-fired cob oven that Pollan wrote up in the NYTimes.  It had appealed to me then as a struggling, childless grad student, but even moreso as a desperate, widower single father who wanted to attract people over to my house to provide stimulation for my son and some form of adult discussion.

I had hit it off with a colleague and we decided to organize a backyard lamb roast in May of 2014, and it went off quite well.  It was about the same time I decided I wanted a wood-fired oven of my own.  I had pledged that I would have to make pizza once a week for a year in order to make the oven worthwhile.  We met that goal and I found someone to help design and build it in the fall of 2014.  In 2015 we started holding regular backyard pizza events, where I provide all the pizzas you can eat and everyone else brings sides and beverages.  Now, if a weekend goes by where we don't bake, I feel the loss.  There is a group of regular attendees from the neighborhood and from VT, and my son has organized a "kids' table" on the front porch, where they get a little more autonomy.  There are also a few kids who ask to come for the pizza parties, as word has spread around his school.  I'm pleased to think it has become a destination and we have created an event where kids and adults like to meet each other, catch up, and eat.  I'm now considering my own 16-hour party in the fall (not yet a full 36 hours) to see what is possible with a wide array of people cooking in the oven.

At this point, 4 years after the death of my wife, the prospects for reconstituting a family are not yet certain.  It's difficult in Blacksburg, a town with a major university bubble that heavily features nuclear families.  But I am really glad to have found a way to connect with my neighborhood and found a regular social outlet that makes use of the house and yard that had been a dream for so long.  My son is also very confident and socially adept, and I'm glad to have created opportunities for him to be able to build those skills and some of the relationships we had to start from scratch.

Starting Over, Part 2

While I'm starting over with my blog and web presence, I think it's important to acknowledge the most difficult form of starting over I faced in my professional and personal life: the death of my wife, Kathryn Bosher, from cancer in 2013.  I hope this will be useful for anyone else facing such a challenge.

During the most demanding and vulnerable part of my professional career, I have been a widower with a young son (now almost 7), living about 500 miles from my nearest family member.  I chose to keep the job and live in Blacksburg because I wanted some stability for my son.  We had lived in 4 cities in the 2 1/2 years since his birth in order to balance our dual careers (Philadelphia for my career, Rome for her career during a sabbatical, Blacksburg for my career, and back to Evanston for her job) plus the upheaval of our seeking medical care.  I had a job (I was in the first year on the tenure clock upon Kate's death) and also didn't want to make any rash decisions about redirecting my life or starting another career.  Basically, I stayed with the plan I had been on for the last ten years, accepting the geographic and cultural change as a tradeoff for personal and professional continuity.

On the plus side, I was able to purchase a very nice and well-located house for my son and me, more or less the dream home my wife and I had always wanted, and I did not really have to worry about where my next paycheck was coming from for five years.  I also fulfilled the life goal of publishing my book, which will come out in the fall.  On the negative side, I basically knew no one outside my department colleagues, and had no friends.  Kate and I were the type of people who made a handful of friends over the years and then kept them, and they were scattered across the country and the world.  In pursuing our careers, we had no community to lean on.  In addition, I had no help with child care or around the house, other than the help I was willing to pay for in the form of nannies/sitters and cleaning people, and a visit by my parents each year.

All of this was easier because we had gotten a pretty generous life insurance policy.  I can't emphasize enough how important this was.  The discussions Kate and I had had beforehand boiled down to her idea that, whatever happened to one of us, money should not be another worry on top of it.  And it wasn't.  We also got a will after she was diagnosed with cancer, and that was also helpful in settling her affairs.  It was difficult to take any of those steps and envision the worst when we were still in the flowers of our lives, but it was worthwhile.

I know some people who, after life upheavals such as the dissolution of a marriage or a death, returned to their hometown in order to be closer to family or friends.  This was not a serious option for me because my career work is fairly specialized and I'm sure I bought into the idea that being a history professor is too important to leave.  In addition, the life that my wife and I had chosen was about leaving our hometowns in pursuit of a new community that was not defined by our parents' choices or familiar landscapes.  I have questioned this, for each of us individually and for us together as a family, whether we might have been better off setting down roots at the expense of our chosen careers, and I can't see how it would have worked for us.  The ideal we sought was a setting that was cosmopolitan and had community, and had jobs for us.  We were still seeking it.  But I cannot imagine that we could have chosen a city over a career, reasonable as that choice may have been for many others.  And so I kept playing our strategy.

In the next posts, I'll discuss how I tried to (re)build our social lives, and then how I re-thought my work.

Starting Over

I have been blogging since 2004.  I recently decided to change hosting services when it became clear that tech support at the other service was seriously deteriorating.  It was impossible to speak with a person on the phone; the live chat support people took your information and kicked it to the engineering team; you never got to speak with, answer questions, or ask questions of the engineers, so it was a terrible unending cycle of waiting and getting no help.

This is not terribly revelatory or shocking, but it has meant both an opportunity and a need to relaunch my work on the web.  This fall my book will be coming out and I will be working on a new set of projects.  Thus, the new site and a slow piecing back together of the important pieces of my old content.