Flying Lovers and Ugly Glasses

January 06, 2005

Now that I'm on the trailing-spouse track, I wear "ugly" glasses: I can no longer see the academic hierarchy as anything but ugly.

My "part-time" teaching gig doesn't offer health insurance, but it came with a heck of a vision plan. After only a few months on the job, I was fitted with the weary adjunct's goggles of disenchantment -- specially designed to dim one's outlook and distort self-perception. My ugly glasses also magnified the error of starting both a marriage and an academic career as my husband's appendage, bringing our particular "two-body problem" into acute focus.

As I wrote in my first column, I felt an awful jolt of recognition watching the Sylvia Plath biopic, Sylvia. That film's portrayal of Plath's struggle to start her own career in husband Ted Hughes's shadow looked eerily familiar to this trailing spouse. Frankly, so did Plath's declining mental health.

One thing that has helped me a lot lately has been my decision to reject the indignities of trailing spousedom, one way or another. When I asked my dissertation adviser to write a letter of recommendation for my job search, she responded with the joyful relief of someone whose friend has at last escaped a dangerous cult: "It's about time you realized that teaching at your husband's university is a dead-end situation. You deserve a job of your own."

If I got a little teary at her admonition, it was partly because my adjunct's ears are so unaccustomed to affirmation, and partly from the embarrassment at having accepted such a lousy employment situation in the first place.

Why, in those months after finishing my Ph.D. and having followed my new husband across the country, had I not immediately gone on the job market myself? Why had the idea of temporarily living apart from him seemed so out of the question? And what sort of love-induced brain damage persuaded me to think that, having toiled the same number of years as my husband on the Ph.D., I could blithely abandon my own scholarly aspirations in deference to his?

See what I mean about those ugly glasses, gift of the university and source of my embittered, new perspective?

Maybe you've heard of the recent study that showed that brusque waitresses garner higher tips than solicitous ones. (Or so claimed NPR's This American Life program, which tested the theory with female servers only.) More savvy academics may laugh at my naïveté, but for me, the study was an epiphany.

Of course the churlish servers got better tips. Hadn't I witnessed the exact same pattern of rewards in academe? Even at my allegedly "student-centered" university, devoting too much time to students is the kiss of death. Go public with any of that warped other-directedness and one might as well be teaching in Composition, where professors who are devoted and kind are rewarded with low status and lower pay.

Far better to act perpetually harried and to speak exclusively of one's research. Far better, I fear, to be the curt scholar than the kindly one. The latter's good citizenship is too often mistaken for weakness, while the affectations of the former shout, "My time is valuable. You are lucky to have me."

My husband is patient and kind at home. But, no denying it, there's a less-lovable part of him who knows well how to play the academic game. He is the surly waitress swimming in tips. Always, his own research comes first. And while he works hard on his teaching, he does so only in the couple of hours right before his course is to meet. He would never be so foolish as to volunteer to be a summer adviser, to serve unpaid on a curriculum committee, or to spend several Saturdays shuttling freshmen to orientation events -- all things that his adjuncting wife did last semester.

"Those things don't mean anything to the institution," he says. I want to howl with frustration, but I know that he is right. "The university doesn't care about you. It cares about the publications on your CV," he says. And then he has to duck the pillow I've thrown, because he's brought the judgment of the academic institution into our bedroom.

Am I destined to fail in every effort? The pillow misses by a mile. I scoop it up and go sleep on the couch.

On the couch, I become my own analyst, turning the ugly glasses on myself:

"So, Vera. Tell me about my mother."

"She thinks I'm crazy."


"Like any rational person, she's astounded that university teaching counts for so little. And she's baffled that her daughter, the Ph.D., has yet to earn a living wage."

The countertransference is getting fierce, but I press on.

"What would she have you do then?" (I pause a moment, waiting for me to answer.)

"She'd probably want me to be a third type of waitress ... the type who's smiling because she's secretly poisoned the department head.

I sit up to make a note on the patient's passive-aggressive tendencies. Fumbling for the lamp, I catch sight of the Marc Chagall calendar on the wall. There's something unnerving about this month's Chagall print, called "Birthday." It's of a woman receiving a surprise kiss from her lover, who is gliding in the air above her head. The lover's neck is bent at an impossible angle, suggesting either that his spine is broken or that he is made of rubber. Both the kiss and the arc of the man's floating body have generally been interpreted as signs of loving tenderness -- which is why the image is so often reproduced on valentines.

Chagall modeled the woman in the painting after his beloved wife, Bella. The composition is fanciful and romantic -- so why am I irritated by it tonight? Maybe it's the detail of Bella's startled, wide-open eye. Maybe it's because she is trying to walk to her desk. The man who kisses her is also blocking her path.

Of course, it's absurd to look for messages in a wall calendar. I'd like to avert my eyes, but the ugly glasses insist that I look.

The page for March features another of Chagall's "flying lovers" paintings -- "Above the Town," in which he and Bella sail merrily across the sky. Or, rather, Chagall runs across the sky, with a sideways Bella tucked under his arm. Bella has one arm extended, and I wonder: Is hers a gesture for help? Or is she at peace with her role as passenger on the flight?

I am not at peace, which is why I've resolved to school myself in the brand of self-interest that appears key to a young academic's success. I may abhor the academic hierarchy, but it will not spit me out. Not just yet. I will give writing as much time as my teaching. I will teach courses that tilt toward my research interests. And never again will I be flattered by administrators looking for "team players" when, technically, I'm not on the team.

For the future, nothing is certain, apart from my certainty that I will never accept work as a trailing-spouse adjunct again. I may soon land a publishing contract for my dissertation, or I may not. I may have found the perfect topic for a second book, or I may not. And in the summer ...

... In the summer, I'll be moving. I can't tell you where yet, but I know it's true. Either I'll move away from my spouse and toward an academic career of my own, or I'll move out of academe and toward the unknown.

The "unknown" is a lot of things, including how one as well-suited as my husband is to the university would adjust to having me outside of it.

The Chagall calendar features the painting "Promenade" for June. Chagall has laid out a cozy picnic on a hill of brilliant green. His right hand clasps a bird. His left clasps Bella, who soars above him, eager as a kite.

I take off my ugly glasses and squint at the image. Both figures look happy, but she may have a secret in her smile. Does he hold her in the fragile happiness of two? Which one of them grips the other more tightly? Or does he -- or she -- eventually loosen fingers, and let go?

Vera Taz is the pseudonym of a trailing spouse and a new Ph.D. who this year risks (or preserves?) her marital bliss by going on the job market.