Life in installments
Last semester when I was 19 I would often think about dying while upstairs at Donkey Coffee. Usually I’d imagine the Athens News article if I dropped dead right there and the headline was “Student dies of heart attack, killed by power chai.” Donkey Coffee undergoes state investigation over its chai:caffeine ratio and my thumping turgid heart is blamed for the loss of a beloved community gathering place.
My friend Jake once caught me checking my pulse over a cup of chai and he reminded me I’m 120 pounds with a regular diet. “Go see a therapist.”
I never went to Hudson Clinic, because I’m only a yuppie. Manic thoughts of death came whenever I thought of my foggy future career, and I’d usually think of my career when studying this book by Charles Dickens called Bleak House. I was always studying Bleak House.
My English class, in its entirety, was structured around this novel. We were to scrupulously unpack each of its 989 pages from August to December, nobly attempting to simulate the Victorian experience by reading only a few installments of the story each week.
I was dismayed to learn my introduction to the Honors English program would be this, but I matured to consider it an opportunity to escape my juvenile obsession with postmodernism. I wasn’t going to become a tenured professor talking about Vonnegut all day.
September was upstairs at Donkey, worrying about global temperatures between paragraphs of what my professor called Dickens’s greatest novel. The sentence structures are intentionally convoluted, the voice is unshakably 19th century, and I needed a dictionary of British legal terms to get through the first 50-page installment. Which was perfect, because English majors aren’t supposed to like many of the books they study. It’s work, and I wanted it to be my life’s work because the alternatives filled me with unbearable flatness. From high school classrooms to newsrooms, all professional settings had been awful except for my grandpa GW’s office when I was six.
He chaired fine arts at Kent State, and on special days too sick for school but too well for home I’d get to sit in his office. We’d buy hot chocolate from Captain Brady’s Cafe and he’d seat me in a wide leather chair next to his bookshelf, where I could watch the students and professors without them noticing through the cracked door, and I’d read three Roald Dahl novels in one day. Students always frightened me as I didn’t know what to make of them, but GW’s colleagues would often come talk to me about my books and ask if I could draw like my grandpa. He’d go to teach class and I’d look out his window over the busy green campus and scan the gray suburban rooftops until I found my own in the distance, just beyond the Kent water tower.
Last semester I often wondered what books were on GW’s shelf. Something on Matisse; he had a wall-size portrait of Blue Nude II in his office and I’d search, bewildered, for this figure’s private parts. Surely an anthology of Van Gogh who was his favorite, and poetry by Robert Lowell, because GW memorized poems like an English professor. But I never asked and my mom never asked because she’s never shown interest in things like art books. She is a grade school teacher who laughs when she says her son wants to “get paid for reading.” Reading could get me a brownstone in Brooklyn, though, where I could fix everything up for Mom once she retires.
I motivated myself to read Bleak House by staring at the salaries of Harvard English professors. With Ivy League sweaters in mind I navigated the book’s intentionally convoluted sentence structure, and it took me 300 pages to realize one there is character who is remarkably poignant to a 21st-century undergraduate.
I met with my advisor, who was also the professor that assigned Bleak House, to discuss Richard Carstone. Richard is a well-meaning but immature young man who squanders the money of his adoptive guardian by failing to get serious about any career. Largely out of spite, Richard throws himself into law, foolishly committed to a suit “so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means.” Dickens portrays him hunched over papers, sweating in frustration while amassing Millennial amounts of anxiety and debt.
My advisor’s office was on the top floor of Ellis Hall, above the College Green oaks and eye-to-eye with the weather-compass on top of Galbreath Chapel. Instead of walls, he had white bookshelves, with books all different sizes and colors and ages leaning on one another. Most astoundingly, each of the hundreds had clearly been analyzed, as they were all weathered and creased and I love to remind myself that these were just his office books. I imagined the number of pages in his actual house as I sat next to the window, large enough to render electricity unnecessary. A French press sat on the wooden sill and I dreamt I owned it and the room surrounding it.
“I’m pleasantly surprised by Bleak House,” I said. “I think Richard especially is relevant to modern college students.”
My advisor nodded in comprehension as he drew his lips from a “banned books” mug. “Do you relate to him?”
“Not entirely. I think I know what I really want to do with my life.”
In debt and anxious? Yes. Indecisive? No. My parallels to Richard start with tireless fixations o miserable work.
My advisor’s face was amicable. Countenance of a man who went to Duke and lives in a home with books and paintings and paper Whole Foods bags.
“I want to do what you do,” I said, expecting an offer to take me on as a research apprentice, or at least some invaluable advice.
He nodded slowly, lips pursed, and folded his hands over his lap like he was at a funeral service. “So in installment eight, page 334 …”
During one of my long nights at Donkey with a laptop, notebook, and Bleak House I took a break to Google “best English grad programs.” After staring at U.S. News and Report rankings I found a blog called “Ph.D in English Useless Destroyed My Life.” Its tone was suicidal and broke my daydream of the Harvard campus. Credible headlines made it valid: Slate had an article called “Thesis Hatement: Getting a Ph.D in Literature Will Turn You Into an Emotional Trainwreck, Not a Professor,” and Larry Cebula, a history professor, penned an open letter to students like me called “No, You Cannot be a Professor.” I wondered if my advisor was aware of these very clear instructions, or what he would say if I showed him. Writing about a thousand-page Dickens novel for sixteen weeks no longer seemed wholesome, but wasteful.
By November I was driven from the coffee shop by distinct anxiety, delusions of young men shooting everyone inside. Instead, I worked toward the twentieth and final installment of Bleak House at the campus library, a brutal brick-and-concrete structure that is like a seven-story prison for books. Looking blankly from the thin window above all campus back to my computer screen, my heart felt fast. One in the morning and I’d written one paragraph for the latest Bleak House paper, due in eight hours. Pressing my chin into my palm I saw my hair was rattling with my heartbeat, which was skipping in my throat. I typed, deleted, and typed something that was supposed to be “signs of heart attack” but the spelling was mauled by twitching fingers.
In males, pain in the left arm, discomfort at the center of the esophagus, stinging in the back teeth. Intensely I felt them each, in succession. I would later tell a counselor I lost touch with reality, but that isn’t true. I maintained a seed of sense, realizing it was astronomically unlikely that I would be having a heart attack at that moment. But the pain was vivid and if logic speaks evenly, panic screams “You’re dying!”
I stumbled down six flights of stairs into the ground-level commons, I circled the floor five times, starting and ending over the toilet each time. Now my heart was shooting even faster because of the failure of nerve and I needed an ambulance but my phone was long dead. Each time I circled the floor I stared at the desk worker until finally he looked up concerned from his paperback. I was going to ask him to call an ambulance but I ran outside without a coat, as I didn’t want to make a fool of myself if I didn’t truly need EMS. After pacing the whole of the library’s exterior I went home. Lying awake three hours, I fought a scream in my gut that would eventually escape, waking my roommate.
In the latter half of Bleak House Richard’s decline is rapid. His description evokes a college student panicking in the library: “Thus we came to Richard, poring over a table covered with dusty bundles of papers which seemed to me like dusty mirrors reflecting his own mind.” I had become Richard the destroyer of self, working slavishly to produce 12 papers on a text as maddening as the lawsuit itself. Athens became a reflection of Bleak House London, filled with debtors, unnavigable bureaucracy, and young people dragging hopelessly toward uncertain futures. Richard neglects everything outside the case, including his health. Life rolls onto him like a scroll, with no deadlines, no installments to cleanly measure how he had changed, just endless text. He eventually dies due to his misguided past, frustration with his present, and delusions of a successful future.
Bloggers and Internet journalists were still the only people who explicitly said I had no future. I was looking for reality, though I would have taken blissful world-clouding if I could get it.
I went to a particular history professor, because I saw in his path to success a lot of my own story. Product of a non-intellectual house, educated first in a punk scene, an editor for an alternative political magazine.
“Don’t go to grad school,” he said between bites of a sandwich. “And only consider going if it’s free. People who take out loans for grad school are bordering on stupid.”
His office was not as appealing as my advisor’s. One wall had a bookshelf with brown bald-spots even though his desk was so cluttered that the only only open space was occupied by my coffee. His desk wasn’t angled toward the small window, but was facing the door. What he did have, though, was a framed picture drawn by his son where a doctorate degree might have been.
I made eye contact with the blue stick figure as I said my dream was to live in New York and be a sort of modern-day Norman Mailer, writing and editing while also teaching at a university.
The professor used a teacup for his coffee. He swallowed and refilled it three times before responding.
“When I hear someone is living in New York as a writer or student I think, ‘this is a trust fund baby.’ The problem for people like you is universities began a restructuring in the 70s that has moved increasingly toward cheap adjunct labor. You can work at a college, but you’re going to struggle. Have you thought about ghost writing?”
“Have you talked to anyone else about this?”
“A couple other professors.”
“How old were they?”
“I think in their 50s.”
“The job market is completely different from the time they were in school. No Baby Boomer has the right to give a student career advice.”
I walked to class with him, talking more but the conversation was already over. He said “good luck” as I left.
Yet, I made no plans to pursue another career. I had a mentor, the man who first told me I could go anywhere from Ohio University, who invited me to his Christmas party at the semester’s end.
A portrait of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara showed guests to the wide living room, which had a wall made completely of glass. Hor d’oeuvres I had never seen covered the living room credenza—cheese that looked like bread, Italian meat wrapped around a thin breadstick, wine that almost certainly didn’t come from a supermarket. I was surrounded by my English professors, surprised, elated, and sometimes nervous to see me. Regardless, drinking wine with people I so admired, so directly wanted to be, invigorated me, as I jumped eagerly into conversations on James Joyce, Richard Wright, and 70s cinema. My mentor scrunched his gauze whiskers into a smile at me. I talked to him about Bleak House and, inevitably, my newfound hopelessness and anxiety.
“If there aren’t going to be any more professors, who’s going to read Bleak House?” he demanded.
I told him about the articles “No, You Can’t Be a Professor” and “Ph.D in English Useless Destroyed My Life.”
His eyes narrowed behind black-rimmed frames and his lips tightened in a way that said he knew these articles, or ones like them, and thought they were right.
“I’m very pessimistic,” he simply said.
Another glass of wine and I could joke with him. I yelled, “Dickens is a hack!” He laughed, as he’s a bit of postmodernist..
“It is kind of a slog to get through,” he agreed.
“Well, we took it in installments.”
“That’s the best way to read Dickens.”
I finished my final Bleak House paper at six a.m., the day I was leaving Athens for winter break. Eight hours on the sixth floor of the library, no heart attack. Ellis Hall is always open, so I put the paper in my advisor’s mailbox and walked through the empty halls. I wondered what the professors thought about when they walked into their offices every morning. If I had stayed for half an hour I could have watched it all happen, but I was too tired to stay and too tired to wonder whether my future would be like theirs.
I walked to Union Street Diner in triumph for the last breakfast of my semester. Eggs, coffee, and a book of my own choice: Slaughterhouse-Five. Reflecting on the past three months, I suddenly paused to write in the novel’s inside cover:
I live in the past, present, and future all at once. Thinking of GW’s office, schoolwork, and my career relentlessly. Billy Pilgrim should be a nervous wreck.
The morning waitresses sprinkled in for their shifts, talking about their neighbors’ babies between absent-minded glances at the news playing in the kitchen. The next six hours all that was in their eyes, and for once the drive home was the only thing in mine. Although I’d pick up something by Vonnegut before Bleak House, I would rather live in installments than be unstuck in time.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Penguin Books. 2003. Print.