A few years ago, when I was facing down the Apollyon of PhD exams, I hatched a cunning plan. Why not give up on the intellectual evisceration and start an organic goat farm? You would be suprized how many grad students (and tenured faculty, for that matter) were ready to jump on board. We could make cheese. We could write intellectual sayings on the wrappers. A friend suggested she could bake bread–another volunteered to knit wool sweaters–still more suggested we could brew our own beer, monastery style.Why not? A pack of rogue intellectuals, forsaking the academy and trusting to luck, to courage, to collective knowledge about book history and comma splices… What could possibly go wrong?
Well. I passed the exams, and so never made the goat-herding plunge. I did, however, hatch a different kind of plan. I started work on the second of my novels for adults (rather than YA): Failed Intellectuals, Inc. Three young women from three fields (English, Sociology and Anthropology) escape the confines of the university to try their luck at farming. Knowing nothing about making cheese, and still less about milking goats (who will always, always, always kick the milk pail over), they embark on a journey of rediscovering what matters. Everything goes wrong. Everything goes right. Hilarity ensures.
An excerpt appears below. I like to think of this work as an homage to all my beleaguered associates. Buried alive in the misty dungeons of wee-hour-grading; hemmed in by the paper-piled-cubicle you call your office; beaten and bleeding by the latest round of grant applications; scourged by the automatically generated rejection letter from a system cyborg making more money that you… If from these chains you should chance to hear the sweet melody of bleeting goats and long for freedom: this is for you.
Chapter 1: The Alternative
Lottie Brown couldn’t remember how the Idea got its start. Somehow it had taken up residence in an unused corner of her brain, wedged between “I should have been a diesel mechanic” and “I could still be a lounge singer.” Apparently, it liked the environment, because it had grown more vigorous over time—cropping up in her conscious mind during staff meetings, graduate student senate and, most alarmingly, conversations with her exam committee. She tried to beat it back, since it suggested a terrible lack of focus, but for months, focus and the mental fortitude it required were simply in short supply. She chalked it up to exams and the five-year-flag…after all, five years of graduate work in Victorian literature could drain anyone’s intellectual stamina.
It could also drain anyone’s financial resources. Sure, the teaching stipend was a blessing, but it came in just under the cost of her living expenses, not including the price of books meant to make the PhD exam (and forthcoming dissertation) a success. Which was why she took the job in the Anthropology Department. Editing. That was the way English grad students made their money (if they made money). Revise a dissertation here, edit a grant proposal there. Or, as in Lottie’s case, take a job as a part time editor for a full time medical-anthropology journal. It wasn’t much, but it paid the bills—most of them, anyway. Unfortunately, it was another nail in the focus coffin, and reading about people doing more interesting work than she was ever likely to do only served as bitter nourishment for the Idea. As Lottie trudged up the stairs to the fourth floor of the English department—the unkempt and mostly forgotten home of graduate students—she wondered if the extra coin was worth all the trouble.
“Hey Lottie,” said an impoverished looking man with a scrunched ball cap and glasses.
Lottie nodded on auto pilot. She couldn’t remember his name, as most of the English graduate students had an impoverished, scrunched and near-sighted look. It was hard to keep them straight. She set her bags down and brought the nearest desktop to life. Might as well check her email before lugging everything over to the journal office.
Addersaw32@: Nights like never before!!!
Rimblack.biggy@: Bigger, faster stronger!!!
AidenwestTWO@: My friend, I have deal for u…
Egsworten@: Blue pill works like never before…
Mywebshorts@: Pain meds at a discount…
She sighed and flipped through another ten emails telling her more about penis-enlargement (always with accompanying exclamation points), discount medicine, her long lost relative’s cash load and the latest craze: the European Lottery. So this is academia, she sighed. Her brain reverted to autopilot (that is, to the Idea) as she attempted to clean out her trash-ridden in-box. Lottie vs. the high tech school with a low-tech firewall and a thousand ways to sell inappropriate gender-nonspecific crap…Delete, delete, delete.
…Your exam results.
Lottie made a sudden constricted noise in her throat and quickly shifted the screen to reveal the trash folder. Subject: Your exam results. Her heart skipped. She only turned them in four days ago. Her finger hovered over the mouse key. Four days wasn’t very long to read two 40-pages documents, was it? She clicked.
We regret to inform you that your examination did not pass. Your adviser will provide you with the details of our decision. Please contact us to discuss rescheduling.
Lottie stared at the screen. She stared at it for a very long time.
We regret to inform you.
Regret. When she’d spent a year researching, compiling, writing and revising.
Did not pass.
She read the words over, shut the screen, pulled it back up and read them again. Not pass. Not. Behind Lottie, a buzzing murmur had begun. Classes were over and the room, mostly empty before, had filled with other graduate students. She turned to look at them, but just couldn’t see them. They were fuzzy somehow, and her hearing seemed retarded. Instead, she turned back to the screen, as a faint prickling spread all over her body. She felt as if she were trying to shrink out of her skin—that she was curling up like the house-smashed witch in the Wizard of Oz.
“Lottie, watcha reading?” She didn’t know who said it, and she didn’t want to answer. Not here, in front of everyone.
“My—my,” she started. Then she just shook her head. “Well, you read it.” The student leaned over her shoulder.
“Dear Charlotte, We regret to—oh my. Oh my God!”
“What’s wrong?” –that was the scrunched boy again. Younger than her. Lottie looked around. They were all younger than her, weren’t they?
“I failed, thank you,” she said tersely. “The exam.” And with that, she gathered her things and left the room—but not before hearing the sudden and urgent question: People fail them? I didn’t know that ever happened! Lottie felt her face get warm. She fumbled her way into the ladies room and managed to get in-stalled before being seriously sick. Did people fail? A year—five years, dammit—of hard work, constant reading, stress, deadlines and meetings. For what? Four days of review and four lines expressing their regret. She’d skipped going home for Thanksgiving and Easter. She’d spent half Christmas break working out the details of her research. She’d been threatened by three libraries, whose books she had kidnapped for well beyond their due date. Four years of course work leading up to a year of hell—for what ultimately failed to pass? What, at the end of five years, did she—thirty-something and living in a teeny apartment with more bills than dollars—have to show for it?
Well. She had a stupid daydream and an editing job, which she was late for. More than that, she was afraid to consider.
Alexis McConnell was from Kentucky, but—she liked to add—no relation to Senator Mitch McConnell of the same state. Mostly she liked to say it because Senator McConnell was a white republican good-old-boy, and when she kept a perfectly straight face about it, it made people uncomfortable. It was an interesting ethnographic study, she thought, and the method of changing the subject varied with the crowd. Of course, since moving to Ohio, much of the punch had gone out of this little joke. She had taken, instead, to introducing herself as an Irish refugee. That was always fun, since most people’s gut response was “there are black people in Ireland?” Apparently there were, in Antrim at least, though Lexi had never been there.
Ethnography of evasion was not, of course, the main of Lexi’s work. She was an anthropologist of the medical variety, coming to the field as a second career after being a physical therapist and physician’s assistant. Given this grounding and a Kentucky childhood as a (very literal) “black Irish,” she entered the field of anthropology with every intention of making waves about race and health. Trouble was, most of her waves seemed to be breaking on pretty rocky shores.
“There is no such thing as race,” she said in response to the second rejection of her grant proposal. That comment, astute as it might have been, managed to earn her the third. But she wasn’t angry. Not unless you consider ripping up the NIH letter into tiny pieces and setting them on fire an act of anger. She had squared her shoulders—which were rather square anyway—and walked with profound dignity to her advisor’s office, where she was permitted to call every member of the NIH committee a name that ought not be repeated. Then, with his very understanding approval, she left for an early lunch where she had too much irritation-infused alcohol to permit returning to the department. She found a chocolatier instead, and purchased enough imported cacao to choke a horse. Which, after the first assault, she decided she’d better share with someone. Unfortunately, there wasn’t someone near at hand. There rarely ever was. She hadn’t lived among family in eleven years, she’d not had time to cultivate many friends between research trips, and the idea of trying to fit a relationship into that mess was just ridiculous. She coughed. Well, not ridiculous. Just—unhandy. Perhaps a phone call and a little venting among sisters would be more in order.
“Twyla, I was rejected by NIH again,” she said into her cell phone when it connected.
“By who? Hang on—Tobias!” Twyla broke off for a moment and Lexi heard the far-away sound of ‘caterwauling.’ “Okay, I’m back. NIH. Is that the national honor society?”
“Oh for heaven’s sake! The National Institute of Health. Don’t you listen to anything I tell you?” Lexi asked.
“Of course, I do!” Twyla’s voice took a slight edge. “It’s just that you’re always trying to get published one place or another.”
“I’m not getting published, Twyla. I am trying to get a grant for my research.”
“Oh, that’s right. Did you get it?” Lexi took a deep breath.
“No, I did not,” she said slowly. “My proposal was rejected.”
“Oh my, you said that in the beginning, didn’t you. I’m sorry—really I am. I know all that stuff means a lot to you,” Twyla said. It was obvious from the sudden softening that she meant it, but Lexi’s brain bounced hard on “all that stuff.”
“Yes, well. I suppose I should have seen it coming.”
“Why’s that?” Twyla asked, switching ears. Lexi could hear the distinct sound of scouring.
“They—well, most people—don’t like it when you challenge concepts of race,” she said.
“Oh that again! For crying out loud, Lex, can’t you just leave well enough alone? Hang on—Andrew, Tobias, so help me!” There was another long pause, more crying, and some extensive scolding. Lexi could here sink water running. Twyla had likely set the phone down on the counter, and it was equally likely that she’d forget she put it there. Lexi pursed her lips, shook her head and hung up. Twyla’s advise always seemed to be ‘leave well enough alone.’ One might consider it the battle-cry of the family. Why all the fuss? You’re leaving a perfectly good job in the hospital to go back to school? That was a favorite. Equally favored was Why don’t you just settle down and get married before it’s too late? “Too late” was always thrown in, sometimes accompanied by “at your age.” Age was always a factor for the McConnells. Once you passed the gilded age of 28, you were practically a lost soul. No husband, no children and still in school. Sounded like all kinds of failure to the matriarchs. Sounded like all kinds of freedom and courage to Lexi. If only the grant-giving institutions could see it her way, instead of her mother’s and sister’s way. That was certainly bitter food for thought—so she took a nice deep inhalation from the chocolate bag and headed back toward campus. She was late for the journal office. Lottie and Sam were already there, most likely, working on the submissions that had been piling up. They could do with a spot of chocolate, too.
Samantha Steiner-Cochran was married. This was, she discovered pretty quickly, a rare thing in the Sociology Department’s graduate student pool. Moreover, she was married to an engineer-turned-lawyer who worked as the “legal counsel” of a large automation company. This was doubly rare, and she found herself often repeating the same conversation over the years: Oh, you’re married? What department? Oh, he’s not with the school—my, what does he do? Sometimes she wanted to say something quippy, but she didn’t. How were they to know, after all, that people lived, worked, married and had children outside of academia? Not that Sam and Aaron, her husband, had children. Not yet, anyway. Apparently, it wasn’t meant to be.
They were, however, wildly successful people in every other respect. Aaron had gone through school in record time and passed the bar on the first try. Sam had already done her fieldwork and was about midway through the dissertation phase. And unlike most other graduates, she had—with her husband—an income that was stable and sizeable and left room for new cars and vacations abroad. The academy had been, as it were, kind to her. She was blessed, and had set about picking the low-hanging fruit in her easy manner. In less than a year, she would have her Ph.D. and then they would move on, into the circles of dual-professional households they always dreamed of.
And, interestingly, people seemed happy to see her succeed. Sam didn’t consider herself, and that was what people liked about her. She was pleasant, kind, benign in a way. She had a general shoulder-shrugging manner about her achievements that looked like humility and deference, and she seemed legitimately dismayed when others missed opportunities she was given. It had an assuaging effect, even on Lexi, who had been turned down for two grants that Sam received on the first (effortless) try. It may have been her manner, which was quiet but warm, or even her person—blond, curly, smiling, scarved. But somehow she seemed like a smaller presence than her achievements intended. Retiring would be the McConnell word—retiring and proper.
Sam sighed and leaned back in her chair. Across from her, Lottie was working furiously on something, and she wondered what that was like, to work furiously. So much rubbing, and etching, and rubbing again—the pencil dipping down and up. It didn’t look like editing. But it looked very intense. Lottie had arrived late without a word, and Lexi hadn’t arrived at all. Sam had been on time, precisely, but as she turned her attention back to the monitor, she couldn’t help but wonder why everyone’s life seemed more interestingly varied than her own.
“Have you seen Lexi today?” she asked Lottie at last, but Lottie didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. Lexi had just swung into the room and slapped a large confectioner’s bag on the desk.
“Well, ladies, I’ve been rejected by NIH because they’re a pack of candy-ass ‘good-uns’ afraid of change. And here’s chocolate. How the hell are you?”
“Oh, Lex, that’s awful!” Sam, who had risen moments before, actually sat down with the force of it. She felt her face burning; she’d received two NIH grants and the Wenner-Gren over the course of her study.
“Oh Lord, don’t let it take the wind out of you—I’m sure being perfect is no fault of yours.”
“What did they say this time? Did you get their report?”
“Oh yes. Same old bullshit,” Lexi slumped into a chair and then sat up again. “Actually, no. New bullshit. Now they think there’s a problem with my methods.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Sam said, her voice rising a little and her face flushing. This was anger, if you knew what to look for. “Lottie, can you believe this?” Lottie was still intent on her work, but as the silence stretched she looked up.
“Did you ever think perhaps you weren’t meant for academia?” she asked.
“Beg your pardon?” Lexi stuttered. She was nonplussed, and that was difficult to do. Sam’s eyes had grown wide with sudden anxiety. Clearly, this was not the thing to say at such a time.
“Have you ever thought,” Lottie began again, “that you just weren’t supposed to be doing this? That you should think about a new career path—something different.” Lexi was sitting very straight now.
“Lottie, I’ve already changed careers once—just what did you have in mind for me?” she asked. Sam pursed her lips, waiting for God-knew-what, but now it was Lottie’s turn to look confused.
“You? I wasn’t talking about you. I’ve—well. I failed my exams, didn’t I, and now I wonder if this was the wrong path all along.”
If silence had prevailed before, it was nothing to the heavy blanket of stunned quiet that followed. Sam felt unsure where to look, and Lexi merely gaped. To lose a funding opportunity was major, but after three times she’d gotten used to it (almost). To fail an exam, however, was an utterly terrifying concept—and still a fresh one, as she’d only passed the semester before. Lottie looked up expectantly, and suddenly Lexi and Sam were talking at once.
“I didn’t know—”
“Have some chocolate—”
“Wait, now,” Lottie said with her hand up, still grasping the pencil. “I was serious. I mean it. What if this isn’t the thing? The academy, the intellectual circle. All this—well, you said it, Lexi. All this bullshit.”
“What, this isn’t glamorous?” Lexi asked, but she didn’t feel the joke. Certainly, she’d sometimes wondered if, in leaving physical therapy, she’d landed on quite the right thing.
“Why, Lottie? Don’t you think you’ll try again?” Sam asked. There was a note of urgency to her voice.
“Well. Maybe. But to be honest, I don’t see the point. If I reschedule, I need a new topic and new research. That may take a year or more. Then what? Write a dissertation for two years and maybe find out that won’t fly either? And even if I pass, what am I going to do? Take a teaching post and replicate this whole hellish process for someone else? I just don’t know if I can do it.”
“This may be a stretch, but I’m going to guess you were thinking about this before now,” Lexi said. She also unwrapped a piece of chocolate and pushed it surreptitiously toward Lottie, who took it and looked it over thoughtfully.
“How much did you pay for this?” she asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Lexi laughed.
“Yes, I do. This little piece of chocolate. How much?” There was an intensity of voice that kept Sam from saying—even from thinking—that it was rather inappropriate to ask. Lexi pulled out her receipt.
“Three and a half dollars for that one. Why?”
“It’s a lot, isn’t it? But people pay it. Why do they pay it?”
“That’s sounding like philosophy. Are you feeling all right?” Sam asked. She considered philosophy at random a rather strange and possibly symptomatic phenomenon.
“We pay it,” Lottie said, answering her own question, “Because it’s small and quality and beautifully wrapped. It’s special, isn’t it? Not like a Hershey bar.”
“I’m following you,” Lexi said nodding slowly. “But I don’t know where you’re going. What are you talking about?” Lottie looked at her desk and then blushed slightly. She just realized that she’d been saying aloud things she only meant to think about.
“I’ve had a bad shock, you know. But I am beginning to think I should be thankful, in a way. What if I just kept blundering along to the Ph.D. without thinking about why? Without asking whether I even want it?”
“You don’t want it?” Sam sounded breathless.
“Or you have other ideas” Lexi suggested. Sam pursed her lips.
“ You aren’t going to go into the chocolate business are you?” she asked. Lottie laughed. Really laughed, and it seemed to release something inside.
“Not in chocolate, no. But I do have an idea. It’s the Idea—I guess. The Alternative.” She turned the sheet of paper she’d been working on around so the others could see it. The notepaper was covered with small drawings. Some seemed to be plans for buildings, others seemed to be calculations. But in the middle was a large figure, underlined twice and circled. It appeared, at first glance, to be the head and shoulders of a goat.