Summer. 1972. Photos by Rick McCloskey.
Branko Milanovic reads the bios of “several contemporary economists” and is struck by their “bareness”: “The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives (to the extent that I could tell).”
The lives (i.e. CVs) typically went like this. He/she graduated from a very prestigious university as the best in their class; had many offers from equally prestigious universities; became an assistant professor at X, tenured at Y; wrote a seminal paper on Z when he/she was W. Served on one or two government panels. Moved to another prestigious university. Wrote another seminal paper. Then wrote a book. And then…this went on and on. You could create a single template, and just input the name of the author, and the titles of the papers, and perhaps only slight differences in age for each of them.
Surely there are some generic conventions at play here — indeed, Milanovic could be describing his own academic bio in the paragraph above — but is the boringness of so many academic bios indicative of some special paucity of life among the contemporary professoriate?
If so, Milanovic wonders about the implications:
[H]ow can people who had lived such boring lives, mostly in one or two countries, with the knowledge of at most two languages, having read only the literature in one language, having travelled only from one campus to another, and perhaps from one hiking resort to another, have meaningful things to say about social sciences with all their fights, corruption, struggles, wars, betrayals and cheating. Had they been physicists or chemists, it would not matter. You do not have to lead an interesting life in order to understand how atoms move, but perhaps you do need it to understand what moves humans (cf. Vico).
I think Milanovic has point, but again, part of this is genre. Academic bios elide all kinds of interesting stuff. That’s what makes them academic bios. Remember, too, that Milanovic is talking about economists. Yet I also wonder if the template he skewers has a normative function. There is a danger, it seems to me, of trying to live a life that might lead to one of these conventional bios, rather than a life that flows from other concerns. If you’ve ever warily asked yourself, “How would X look on my CV?,” where X is something that’s maybe just slightly unusual, and which is a question academics (particularly junior academics) are encouraged to ask themselves, you’ve submitted to the subtle tyranny of the boring academic bio.
I imagine such self-disciplining happens in other professions, too.
One school of thought says, as per Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” But another school of thought — the school I increasingly find myself admiring, if not fully a part of — wonders if something about Flaubert’s formula doesn’t add up, or is at least a kind of privilege. “Orderly and boring lives are a privilege of rich and orderly societies,” asserts Milanovic.
Recents events have exposed the fact — if it was ever really hidden — that maybe we aren’t living in as rich or as orderly a society as we might have once liked to think we were. Paths that once seemed straight have become more obviously crooked. If the perfectly neat and tidy academic bio was always a sort of humblebrag by those who made it to the top, the résuméic equivalent of a millionaire wearing jeans, now it seems fanciful in its lifelessness.
Let us turn instead to unconventional, unacademic bios and advice for inspiration, as I have long found myself doing.
Sinclair Lewis argues that aspiring writers should “become a doctor or a grocer, a mail-flying aviator or a carpenter, a farmer or a bacteriologist, a priest or a Communist agitator” in addition to seeking to become a writer. Decades later, Werner Herzog would proffer advice to aspiring filmmakers, encouraging them to “work as a bouncer in a sex-club, a warden in a lunatic asylum or in a slaughterhouse. Walk on foot, learn languages, learn a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema.” This, needless to say, isn’t the advice given to aspiring academics. If, for example, you’re an academic who dabbles as a dominatrix, you might be blackballed.
Writer Charles Bukowski famously worked a number of odd jobs while cranking out poems and stories. Composer Philip Glass worked as a taxi driver, plumber, gallery assistant, and furniture mover until he was 41. Before becoming a bestselling author, Louis L’Amour was “a longshoreman, a lumberjack, an elephant handler, a fruit picker and an officer on a tank destroyer in World War II. He had also circled the world on a freighter, sailed a dhow on the Red Sea, been shipwrecked in the West Indies and been stranded in the Mojave Desert, and had won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer.” Compare these biographical sketches, which I draw energy from, to the one Milanovic puts forward above, which puts me to sleep.
Similarly, before he was an actor, James Garner worked as “telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, fatefully, gas station attendant.” Kris Kristofferson was a “Rhodes scholar, a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, a boxer, [and] a professional helicopter pilot” before becoming a songwriter and actor. Viggo Mortensen’s “previous careers included driving a truck, delivering flowers, and loading ships in Denmark. For years he lived from gig to gig, check to check, mostly broke. It probably didn’t help that, on a whim, he left L. A. and moved to Idaho. He supported his acting career for years by bartending and waiting tables.” These were jobs these guys did before they made it big, yes, but they weren’t merely that; they were constitutive of who they were/are later as people and artists.
Even if an academic once worked as, say, a bartender, and I imagine a lot of academics have done some bartending, it’s not something you expect to see listed in their bio, which is a shame. Something like bartending, as Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner write in Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), “can be taken as evidence … that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life.” “One of the common sources of difficulty with teachers,” they continue, “can be found in the fact that most of them simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as ‘teachers’) and they have not had much contact with the ways things are outside of school rooms.” Putting aside the eternal debate over whether the classroom is part of the “real world,” I’ll simply say this: rather than omit bartending stints from their bios, academics should be encouraged to include them.
The above are all examples taken from this blog, and admittedly white and masculinist ones at that. But there are many more such cases. And there has never been a better time to draw inspiration from them, whatever your career. Don’t worry if your story is messy, I say. Shun the boilerplate bio, and the conformity it hints at. Embrace the idiosyncratic and vibrant path you surely are already on, and let your bio be a testament to as much. In the end, those are the ones people like to read, not CVs.
I wrote about Killing Them Softly (dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012) for Decider, a Brad Pitt film you’ve probably never even heard of, but that I think makes for a timely (re-)watch post coronavirus.
Here’s a taste:
If you’re one of those people who, in times of turmoil, craves art equal in gravity to the moment, consider adding it to your Netflix list. Though it offers little in the way of escapism, the point it makes about America — namely, that we’re a country where consequences are unevenly distributed — is more relevant than ever.
Check out the whole thing.
From photographer Joshua Dudley Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line series, a compliation of photographs depicting “the state of America’s infrastructure as a physical manifestation of its economic, social and environmental circumstances in unforeseen moments of humor, pathos and humanity”:
(Via Swiss Miss.)
“At Toni’s memorial service, Angela Davis was there, and we were talking about how Toni never thought anyone was guilty of a crime. Do you remember the Menendez brothers’ trial? Toni, who loved detective stories and trials and stuff like that, told me that the Menendez brothers were innocent. One of them had gone to Princeton for, like, five minutes, during which time Toni had met him. And Toni was a much nicer person than me. My meeting someone does not necessarily make me like them, but to Toni it does. The Menendez trial was one of the first televised trials, and Toni and I watched every single day on the telephone together. And the trial started at noon, because it was in L.A. I was supposed to be writing, of course, and I thought, I’m spending the whole day on the phone watching television, but it must be O.K., because so is Toni. And then I found out that Toni got up at five in the morning, and by twelve she had already done a full day’s work.”
I’ve actually been sending them out via email since 2014, when my buddy Austin Kleon suggested I share them in email newsletter form. (Email newsletters were all the rage then.) In that time, a few thousand people – including people at the New York Times – have signed up for the newsletter version with very little promotion on my part, suggesting there is interest in the email iteration of it. I’ve gotten some positive feedback and shout-outs on it as well, which is always nice.
In the first edition I emailed out to people, I explained that I started doing these Sunday New York Times Digests to “give myself a Sunday morning ritual, to keep track of articles I wanted to talk to my dad about, and to assemble an archive of my recurring preoccupations, as well as track how those preoccupations shift over time.” Those things are still, more or less, true. But my life is different now than it was when I started doing these, and sometimes I debate whether to continue. For now, though, I’m content to simply make them emails and free up this blog for other – and hopefully more-frequent – posts.
If you’d like to continue reading my Sunday New York Times Digest, you can sign up to receive them via email here: https://tinyletter.com/mattthomas. (And even if you don’t subscribe, you can read them, including the latest one I sent out yesterday, in the archive here.)
Who knows, I might change my mind and go back to posting them here, but for now I’m going to try things this way.
“Even the Cheesecake Factory, a multibillion-dollar company, has told landlords not to expect an April remittance.”
“‘I live in something smaller than a jail cell all the time,’ Mr. Woolsey said. ‘I hear other people complaining, and I’m like, get over it. There’s lots of us living like this all the time, coronavirus or not.’”
“All the traditional rules of engagement in a job hunt suddenly feel irrelevant.”
“Somebody once suggested that when you’re stuck in a situation that you can’t do anything about, the best thing is to immerse yourself in study.”
“As the coronavirus sweeps the globe, even chief executives — who normally flit from meetings to conferences in chauffeured SUVs and private jets — have been confined to spare rooms.”
“We are standing on the edge of the ocean in the dark. We’re waiting for the wave to hit and we have no idea how high the wave is going to be.”
“This global crisis is also an inflection point for that other global crisis, the slower one with even higher stakes, which remains the backdrop against which modernity now plays out.”
“Thanks largely to the wolf’s reintroduction into Yellowstone, their reputation has swung from scourge to savior, at least among some, as biologists have come to understand the wolves’ role in maintaining the park’s ecological balance.”
“We asked 35 major African-American creators from different worlds (film, art, TV, music, books and more) to talk about the work that has inspired them the most over the past two decades.”
“For me, the need to buy seeds and garden felt like part of the broader suite of practices I’d taken up — running, meditating, jump roping — to stay calm.”
“Murray McMurray Hatchery, of Webster City, Iowa, ships day-old poultry through the Postal Service, and is almost completely sold out of chicks for the next four weeks.”
“Last week, seemingly lost amid the new coronavirus news, Playboy announced that the company will stop publishing a print edition. The spring 2020 issue is the last. A quiet exit for a magazine that liked to make noise, beginning with its splashy debut 67 years ago, when Hugh Hefner put Marilyn Monroe on the cover.”
“The new coronavirus presents an extreme case of the country turning to GoFundMe as a financial safety net.”
“There is something tantalizing about being there but not being there, about being everywhere and nowhere at once. The geospatial distance leaves us wanting, hungry for more. I’m enamored with the glitchiness of these human landscapes, the way people’s legs are sometimes separated from their bodies, the way everyone’s faces are blurred out, as if they no longer exist (sometimes they no longer do). This is our world, but it is not our world.”
“In 1820, the British poet spent 10 days quarantined in the Bay of Naples as typhus raged, an enforced stillness mirrored by our own.”
“So much of childhood involved boredom, lying on the rug on my stomach — as I am right now — wishing I could see more of the vast world than was available to me as a 7-year-old. The reason I fell in love with books is that they were a passport to other places and lives. Books mimicked travel. In a book, I could go anywhere and be anyone. I haven’t read with that primary motivation in a long time, but it feels especially attractive again.”
“During the Great Inflation of the 1970s, when living expenses became unstable, factory jobs disappeared and C.E.O. pay began its exorbitant rise, home prices also spiked and, for the first time, outpaced stock performance. Two things happened to homes, according to Dougherty: They became not just dwellings but strategic investments — ones that represented the bulk of American household wealth. As a result, cities, driven by ‘homevoters’ — essentially single-issue voters who wanted to protect their property values — began passing zoning ordinances to limit growth and ‘protect neighborhoods.’”
“I advise you to go outside on a clear night and look out into the universe. It seems utterly indifferent to what we are doing. Now we are taking a very close look at the sun with a space probe. Look at the utmost hostility of the hundreds of millions of atomic bombs going off at the same time in its interior. So my personal interpretation of nature comes from taking a quick look at the stars.”
“I was on a kind of perverse pilgrimage: I wanted to see what the end of the world looked like. I wanted to haunt its ruins and be haunted by them. I wanted to see what could not otherwise be seen, to inspect the remains of the human era. The Zone presented this prospect in a manner more clear and stark than any other place I was aware of. It seemed to me that to travel there would be to look upon the end of the world from the vantage point of its aftermath. It was my understanding, my conceit, that I was catching a glimpse of the future. I did not then understand that this future, or something like it, was closer than it appeared at the time. I did not understand that before long the idea of the Zone would advance outward from the realm of abstraction to encompass my experience of everyday life, that cities across the developed world would be locked down in an effort to suppress the spread of a lethal new virus, an enemy as invisible and insidious in its way as radiation and as capable of hollowing out the substance of society overnight.”
“Will we endure 2.2 million deaths? Or will we manage to turn things around?”
“More a fan favorite than a critics’ darling, Mr. Rogers was something of a late bloomer in country music; his career as a solo artist did not gain traction until after his breakthrough single, ‘Lucille,’ was released by United Artists in 1977. He was 38 at the time.”
“These are the hallmarks of a horizontal, open society, one that is often inefficient but ultimately more innovative and resilient than closed, top-down systems.”
“He was drawn to his theme because he believed that the actual historical incidents we call plagues are merely concentrations of a universal precondition, dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man.”
“Many Americans are not aware of how bleak the education landscape in this country has become.”
“In the midst of this churning hell, with no place safe or sacred, with a bomb falling even on Buckingham Palace, the new prime minister’s voice became a reassuring wellspring of hope and resolve. His speeches never failed to rise to the demands of the occasion, each one more powerful and stirring than the last.”
“In a liberal democracy, not everything need be decided by majority vote. But once something is put to a vote, it is hard to understand why the side getting fewer votes should win. And Americans have long understood themselves to be voting for their president, not for presidential electors. It is long past time to get rid of the Electoral College.”
“Perhaps the reason James remains beloved by so many readers more than a century after his death is that his pragmatism often shaded into self-help. He believed in the power of positive thinking, in bucking up; he counseled action, and not just philosophizing, in the face of uncertainty; he may have even, from time to time, turned his frown upside down. But he expressed all of his (and our) struggles and their potential solutions in the smartest possible ways, and never pretended that a revised mood was a settled state of affairs. He knew that living is a continual process, and that perhaps the best we can hope for is just enough therapy to make it to the next crisis.”
“A good gym, like a good bar, fuses two things: oblivion and anonymity. Of course there are the ritual greetings and glances and such, but these should be minimal and strictly proscribed.”
“Reading is visually and cognitively complicated; it’s OK to reread a line because it’s confusing or, better yet, to linger on a phrase so beautiful that it makes you want to close your eyes.”
“Even some of those who have access to the finest ingredients, chefs for whom the distance between ocean and table is smaller than average, men and women known for their devotion to the fresh and the new — even they love a can of fish. Especially if it’s what I’ll call a best-available can of fish: sustainably caught, packed in good oil.”
“Women represent both a consumer demographic and a political constituency, and the wires of politics and consumption are easily crossed.”
“While truth may be subjective, its balustrades are always the facts at hand. And in the case of our story, I quickly realized that we would never persuade anyone of what we knew to be true — that the accusations were invented — if we couldn’t isolate one key fact: who was making them up.”