A Breather

by zunguzungu

So, last Saturday, I was sitting on a street corner at 3rd and Jackson, typing some notes into my MacBook while I waited for some friends to arrive; the cafe I had been working in had just closed, so I was finishing the thing I was doing while I waited. In that ten minute window, I became the victim of a crime that I’ve since learned is quite common in Oakland: a kid, about 19 or so (and pretty well dressed), snatched the laptop out of my hand and ran around the corner, where his friend in a getaway car was idling. I tried to chase him, but of course couldn’t catch up; I got a look at the license plate — something like “601z159” — and it was a silver sedan, but that approximation will not get you much, and my laptop has probably already had its memory wiped and been resold by now. It was over very quickly.

On Sunday, I went with a friend to Laney flea market, and watched as lots of people’s stolen laptops were resold. Mine (serial number C02GM6RYDV13) was not among the fifteen or so 2011/2012 Macbooks that I saw being passed from hand to hand in exchange for big wads of cash; presumably if you arrive at 7, when the flea market opens, you’ll see the thieves arrive to sell the laptops to the dealers, who were doing a busy business at 8:00, and were mostly done by 10. I don’t know that those computers were stolen, of course, but I also don’t know that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Chances are good, either way.

I bought that laptop in a moment of unusual financial solvency, a moment which has passed. Last Thanksgiving — on “black Friday” believe it or not — I bought it with money I had made writing this article for Technology Review, a bit of freelance writing that paid me nearly half a normal year’s total income (Thank you Jason Pontin and Technology Review!). I spent the rest of it paying down some debts, and that money is gone now. I have no savings with which to replace that laptop, and I probably won’t. The New Inquiry pays its writers as generously as they can, and I can’t emphasize enough how happy I am to write for a publication that prioritizes paying its writers over its editors (name another publication where management mostly works for free and revenues go to pay for labor? I’ll wait.) But TNI’s pool of subscribers isn’t (yet?) at the point where they can pay me anything like enough to defray the cost of being a human being in the world, even in the Oakland part of it.

Thanks to the kindness of a friend, I now have a year old, new-to-me chromebook that I can use for internet and portability, and I also have the six-year-old Dell laptop that the Macbook replaced, a tank of a computer whose battery and wireless card no longer work, but which I can still use for word processing. With any luck, that machine will keep me afloat for a while. But much worse than simply the loss of the laptop is the fact that I lost parts of my dissertation which I hadn’t fully backed up. Here, I can save you the trouble of stating the obvious: “Aaron, back your computer up, so this doesn’t happen.” Done! But the fact remains; lots of it wasn’t. It’s an eerie feeling to realize that documents I’ve labored over may be being erased, right now, never to be seen by anyone again. I wrote 1500 words on Foreign Policy magazine’s failed states index, and that’s gone; I had a written much of an essay on California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. But the dissertation is the important thing. The most important parts were backed up, but lots of it wasn’t.

The breakdown isn’t important, though. The point is this:  I’ve been set back, significantly, on the work I need to do on my dissertation, and my deadlines haven’t changed. So to catch up, I will need to make up that time and that work some other way. If I’’m going to replace the stolen computer, I will need to do more outside work to make the money to do it, which will cost me time and energy. And since I will need all my time and energy if I’m going to get back on track, I’m probably not going to replace it, at least not any time soon.

The calculus is quite simple: I have more to do, and less to do it with (though if anyone wants to kick in a few bucks to defray the cost, a WePay tip jar is here, or PayPal here).

One of the great and terrible fallacies of our time is the idea that you can “do more with less,” or even that you can do the same with less. The managerial notion, for example, that it is possible to cut away the resources a person or institution has without thereby degrading that person’s or that institution’s ability to do their job is a fiction, but a useful one. It’s a way of making it someone else’s problem to make up the shortfall. If funding to a government agency or university is cut, and the workers there are told to “do more with less,” they will try to do the things they already do, but they will do them more cheaply and worse. If an employee is told to get the same job done, but she is given less to work with in doing so, she will either do a shittier job of it, or she will have a shittier life as a result of having no other choice but to work harder and longer and be paid less. In other words, great ideological energy goes toward making us overlook what is simple and obvious: the cost of doing something will always get paid somehow. Either it will be done less well, or the cost will be shifted from the managers of the system, who give the orders and have the power to enforce them, to the people who have to do the work and make up the difference with extracurricular, unpaid time.

I say all this to explain why the theft of my laptop — and the loss of a significant amount of work on my dissertation and on other things — means I’m going to stop blogging and tweeting for a while. I don’t have the resources I need to do my job the right way, and the fact that it was a snatch-and-run theft rather than a funding cut doesn’t change the basic logic of the situation. Rather than “do more with less,” and keep waking up at 2 a.m. in a panic over undone things,  therefore, I am going to do less with the less I have. Rather than fool myself into thinking I can just make it up magically, I am going to be realistic, and revise my plans and expectations according to my diminished pool of resources. I’ve lost time, work, and money and I need to make up the work without the money, so something’s got to give. In administrationese, I have to Be Realistic, and “being realistic” means deciding which of my priorities I am going to eliminate.

I spend a lot of time on twitter, which I value. Gone. I spend a lot of time writing blogposts, and trawling the internet. Also, gone. At least for the duration, I can’t spend time and energy doing this. There just isn’t any left over. I’m paid enough to be a graduate student, but not enough to be much of anything else, and if I’m to have any hope of getting a job better than the month-to-month, hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck existence I currently enjoy, I need to get eight months worth of work done in the next four. I’ve got to do that, and only that.

If you are reading these words, I want you to understand how much I appreciate that you are, how much it means to me that a decision of mine, like this one, would be of interest to anyone other than me. It means a great deal to me. If you’ve read this far, thank you. The academic world frustrates me by the extent to which we labor on writing that such a very few people will read, and that’s why I have a blog. It’s a way of doing a more capacious, more open version of intellectual labor.

But: having this kind of precarious existence means the privilege of spending so much time and energy writing for free about whatever I think is important is only one disaster away from becoming unaffordable, and I am one disaster past that moment.

There are greater tragedies in the world than this, obviously; losing one’s laptop and parts of one’s dissertation are the worst thing that can happen to a graduate student, but I’ve been joking to people that being a graduate student is already one of the worst things that can happen to a person, so the glass is half-empty either way. There’s a certain amount of truth to that: this experience has forced me to think about ways I can interface with the world not through a computer screen, and that’s important; I’m going to make this experience into something healthy, a way to re-focus my intellectual energies. But it’s also kind of a bitter joke. Being a graduate student is much more stressful and anxious than people often realize. The psychic and physical toll you pay is significant (there are those costs again!), and the end (when you face the seemingly non-existent employment prospects) can be rough. I tell people starting out that they should expect to fuck up their backs, to maybe need or go on some kind of anti-anxiety medication, and to spend their twenties intimately aware of the price of peanut butter. Your ability to be a graduate student for the next 7-10 years will be totally contingent on finding new strategies to keep yourself healthy.

But, of course, all of this only makes graduate students a lot like most latter day American workers: a paycheck away from missing rent, physically damaged by the work they do, and often waking up at 2 in the morning consumed with anxiety about the future. Like most people of my generation, it can be hard to imagine doing the things that my parents saw as the good life. That doesn’t mean I won’t have a future endowed with health insurance; that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to financially support a family, that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to “have it all,” as they say. Statistically, a person with an advanced degree like mine is still way ahead of the median American worker, and I’m well aware of that fact. But at the moment, I look at my bank account, I look at my job prospects, and I look at what I’ve got on my plate, and it makes me tired just to try to figure out where all the time and energy is going to come from even to get to the place where something good can happen.

So, for the time being, the next few months, maybe the rest of the year — depending on how the dissertation comes — I’m not going to cannibalize body and mind to do more with less. There’s a certain kind of politics to this choice, maybe, but the main thing is just an honest account of my situation, and an effort to make an actual choice, rather than coast along on momentum. Writing this blog and having you read it has been a real privilege, but it’s one that I don’t think I can afford any longer. I will lack the time and energy to put together the Sunday Reading posts each week, so the great Jane Hu has kindly agreed to do it in my stead. I’m going to hand my twitter password over to a friend and ask them to change it, so I can’t log on (and believe me, that’s what it will take to keep my addiction in check; I haven’t yet gotten up the courage to do it, but I will, soon). I’m not going to blog for a while and I’m going to try to chill out on the internet in general, try to read a few books and maybe go outside every once in a while. Feel free to drop me a line, aaron AT thenewinquiry.com.

UPDATE: Thanks to the generosity of a really humbling number of people, I now have enough to replace the computer, and then some  (over $2k in total). I don’t have the words to express my gratitude, so thank you will have to do.