What have you learned about life?
By Jon T. Coleman (Notre Dame)
To rise in academe and reach the high ground where review committees stop questioning your record and deans quit pondering your trajectory, where students applaud when you close out the semester with your lecture on the War of 1812 and Stephen Colbert invites you on his Report to plug your book, one must cultivate an entry-level superpower.
Save your supersonic speed, your laser-beam eyeballs, and your ability to communicate with sea life for emergencies and holiday parties. Instead concentrate on blocking projectiles. To get a job, to surmount third-year review, to receive tenure, to advance to full professorship, to merit a Wikipedia page that you didn’t write yourself, all you need to be is bulletproof. And if you want a Kevlar career, do as I say, not as I did. For while I excelled at thwarting some bullets, I had zero talent for dodging the countless shots I administered to myself.
As with most things scholastic, bulletproofing starts in print. In my field, two articles published in reputable history journals marks you as a hard-to-ding graduate student. Once employed, the progress of your book (based on your dissertation research) measures your indestructibility.
Colleagues open fire with “the question.” Hallway conversations might begin with the weather or a funny story about a priest and a cricket bat, but they invariably end with the parting shot: How’s the book coming? A bulletproof junior professor answers with an ISBN number and a publication date.
I arrived at my first (and current) job with a title between covers. The monograph provided shelter while I settled into teaching and juggled caring for a young family with a commuting partner. The next year, my book won two prizes. Nothing diverts missiles like the verb “to win” activating the noun that is you. Awards, fellowships, and grants clad you in armor forged in the anonymous beyond. If a random committee of outsiders says you’re bulletproof, then the people who know you better might begin to think so.
Still, holes appeared in my body of work. Accolades for publications couldn’t hide my failure to secure a research fellowship—a golden ticket my colleagues seemed to punch all the time. I envied them, snuggled in archives and writing nooks for yearlong stints free from term papers, committee assignments, and senior theses.
As the semesters rolled by, and the rejections from grant sources accumulated, the dream of an unencumbered sabbatical died. I signed a contract for a second book and squeezed research into short archival jaunts and writing into early-morning sessions. The regimen worked. I accumulated chapters and plastered them over my soft spots.
If my life were my career, I could stop here and dispense some advice: Vigorous literary output can defend against most professional assaults. But alas, I am not my CV, and no amount of writing could protect me from myself.
I started drinking regularly at the age of 13. At 14, I showed up loaded at a middle-school dance and got kicked off the basketball team. I stayed out of trouble—and kept on drinking—until college, when I was arrested for driving under the influence. Embarrassed and remorseful, I vowed reform. I would have to be more careful if I wanted to keep imbibing at a high level. I married, had children, and added whiskey to the six-packs of beer and bottles of wine I consumed nightly. My hands started shaking; I calmed them with martinis.
By the time I found employment as a history professor, I had blossomed into an accomplished lush. A man of steady habits, I wrote and drank, transforming myself daily into a comic type neither super nor heroic.
My wake-up arrived in a dream. Excessive consumption of a depressant capsized my sleeping patterns. After passing out at 10 p.m., I’d jolt awake at 2:30 a.m., dizzy and glue-mouthed, and wait until dawn for the slumber that rarely came back. One night, no different from a thousand others, I slipped past 2:30 and glimpsed oblivion. My subconscious perched me on the edge of an abyss in a folding aluminum lawn chair. I remembered the chair from the patios of my youth. It was the kind with the screws in the back that you could reweave yourself with plastic webbing that you bought at the hardware store. I loved running my fingers along the rough edges of the brightly colored rolls.
Those lawn chairs ate kids. They would catch a whiff of a small bottom, snap shut, and keel over. I recall being trapped in the wreckage, adult hands hustling to extract me, and being struck by the weightlessness of the aluminum tubing and day-glo webbing. In my dream, if I sat in the chair, I would float into the void. The drinking would stop. I would stop.
Terrified by the flimsiness of the chair and the immensity of the darkness, I put the bottle down. That was more than two years ago. In the early days of my sobriety, I would have chugged the first drink handed me. By some miracle, the drink never appeared.
Months passed, and I accumulated reasons for staying dry. As my head cleared, so did my self-perception. One of the most sinister aspects of alcoholism was the intramural loathing it encouraged. Near the end, I swallowed gallons of booze to mute the feelings of guilt, failure, and panic that came from not being able to control my drinking. Caught in a trap, I cursed my inability to break loose. I had graduated from college, earned a Ph.D., secured a job, won book awards, and received tenure from a top-tier university while engaging in a habitual behavior that rendered me a dumbass.
The lawn chair saved me. A mass-produced icon of backyard leisure, it was the perfect vehicle for a comeback. The chairs furnished my underage summers. I remember male relatives sipping cans of beer in the folding contraptions, the aluminum frames and plastic webbing creaking as the men shifted their weight to stamp out a cigarette or throw a tennis ball to a panting dog. The chairs held the people I loved, people I desperately wanted to please and imitate. As soon as I could, I grabbed a can and joined them.
Now, most of those men are gone; so, too, the chairs and the beer. The men were precious; the chairs were throwaways. The aluminum frames and synthetic webbing represented the uniformity of suburban life. The color of the plastic changed, but at their core, all the chairs were the same.
Alcoholics share a parallel symmetry. Our stories merge into one story of youthful swagger turned into ugly addiction interrupted by a recovery or a dive into nothingness. Drunks’ unswerving adherence to formula underscores the tiredness of their acts. I had always considered myself clever and unique. The chair showed me otherwise. I, too, am a mass product of 1980s suburban America, the addled son of Spuds MacKenzie.
Review committees will never stop picking over my record, and deans will continue to question my trajectory. My version of the War of 1812 acts more like an anesthetic than a prompt for ovation. The lecture seems longer and more boring than the actual conflict to me; I can only imagine the horror of my audience. Colbert refuses to call.
I do not rank among the bulletproof, which comes as a relief. Feeling less repulsive feels OK.
Jon T. Coleman is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book, “Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation,” is just out from Hill & Wang.
This essay was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 4, 2012.