Category Archives: Douglas Coupland



Avatar, an Australian colleague, asks me about the state of tenure in the US. I blather on about tenuous tenure, a topic which years of tenurelessness has made me an expert in. I cite the latest statistics I’ve seen: “In 2009, only 24.4 percent of American faculty members were tenured or tenure-track,” according to a recent New York Times book review of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, a book by bitter long-time adjunct Professor X who taught introductory courses that many students failed, as the students, he says, were “in some cases barely literate” (in case you don’t plan to buy the book, I’ll jump ahead: he’s going to suggest that university might not be for everybody. This might be very good news for those of you who are debating between putting your money into 529s for your less-than-brilliant children or into future passage for your hard-working self on the Crystal Serenity for a taste of LA, Papeete, Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Dubai, Cape Town, and London, with a few dozen at-sea days in between).

Technically, Avatar and I are about to find ourselves among (or increasing?) that untenured/untracked 75.6%. But you won’t find me complaining. My students will be far more than literate. I will have small classes of engaged, intelligent future Nobel prize winners. I will be mentoring my future senators and perhaps a president or two on an individual basis, discussing their ideas, helping them to refine their critical thinking skills, guiding them through the thickets of theoretical texts and their own sometimes muddled prose (that might end up in The Great American Novel). So I’m definitely not complaining.

Actually, I’m ecstatic.

But I might not be in 5 years.

Because that, my friends, is around the time I’ll be looking for a new job.

That’s the way it goes. Tenure might be a failing system, but it’s the system everyone seems to be upholding; the tenured want to keep their power, and the untenured want to gain that power.

And so–

The boys debate between them the next three places we’ll live. This is a debate they have taken up between them, without a word about future relocations from The Scientist or me. They just understand this to be life: first you move, then you move, then you move again. And each time, you’re the “new guy” and everyone comes over and checks you out and maybe, if you’re lucky, one or two of them also really likes Super Mario or Toy Story and then you pretty much have everything in common there is to have in common, and you’re BFFs–at least until the next move.

“I’ll do first and second grade here,” announces LL. “Then we’ll move to Miami to be near the alligators.”

“NO!” retorts Cool J. “There are way more alligators in New York. Remember how many we counted in the sewers?”

“Oh yeah! I think it was 426!”

“I think it was infinity alligators.”

“Would you rather go to Your-ami?” (Much laughter here. Tell this joke–this Mi-ami/Your-ami bit–to children under 6, and you will be the equivalent of Jackie Mason for the alter kockers) (Did you know Jackie Mason is still alive, by the way? I have friends going to see him in Long Island this week. One of them is not even 35. But I guess alter kockers come in all ages).

“I want to go to where Dada’s from next. If we live there, we can play with all of his Lego.”

“What about The Tower of Power? I want to go back to the Tower of Power.”

“The Tower of Power! It had a red elevator and a yellow elevator!”

(they are sidetracked for a while in the discussion of the elevators)

The Tower of Power

(a long while)

The conversation resumes another day, the thread intact: “How about Miami, THEN the Tower of Power, THEN Dada’s old house?”


“Does Baby MoFo get a say in all this?” I ask. Baby MoFo chooses not to talk yet, but the big boys regularly report on his desires (“Mama, the baby said he wants to watch Backyardigans.” “Mama, the baby said he wants a popsicle, but don’t worry–I’ll hold it for him.””Mama, the baby said he really really really really wants a Zurg Lego, and he wants to go to Target right now to get it.”).

“I think . . . ” begins Cool J. “I think the deer place. Yeah, that’s it. He wants to live in the deer place.”

(Nara, Japan: those were some impressive deer. They certainly got intimate with Cool J:

Or maybe he just remembers what a rock star he was–a Baby Sensation.

So here’s to the tenureless dream: every five years or so, pack up your bags. Find a place to live. Grasp a new culture or language or laws. Learn the the new job, the new schools, the new kids that come to your door from here and there and everywhere. Meet the kids’ parents, meet the work colleagues, meet the neighbor that comes by with homemade empenadas and grilled plantains. And of course: collect many more Facebook friends.

Are we exemplars of a 21st-century post-modern rootless cosmopolitanism? Not a chance. LL was born in one country, The Scientist and I in another. Throw in LL’s 4 grandparents, and you’ve added 4 more countries to our family tree. Their parents, our grandparents? Add another 4 countries. That’s 11 countries accounted for in 4 generations. There’s nothing new here. We’re not modern; we’re traditional–a family of Wandering Jews descended from Wandering Jews. . .


The Poverty Jet Set


This week, The Scientist packed his bags and took off for sunny Florida, leaving behind his darling wife with their 3 kiddies in subfreezing weather.

You can guess which of us was bitter.

Yup, it was him. He had to fly an American airline, one he wasn’t elite on. “There was just no legroom,” he complained. Note that though not as vertically challenged as some of our beloved fellow members of the tribe, The Scientist is under six feet (and with a few more complaints while I feed, clothe, change, and everything his children, he might just end up under six feet another way).

It might surprise you that someone as poor as The Scientist would be elite with an airline. If so, it’s time to return to the Poor Princess Diaries’ primer:

To wit, Coupland writes of the Poverty Jet Set: “A group of people given to chronic traveling at the expense of long-term job stability or a permanent residence. Tend to have doomed and extremely expensive phone call relationships with people names Serge or Ilyana. Tend to discuss frequent-flyer programs at parties.”

Since I do reap the benefits of The Scientist’s status at times, I’ll say: that’s us. Chronic traveling? Check. No long-term job stability? Check. No permanent residence? Check. Friends with names like Serge or Ilyana–how close is Sergiy? He lives in Ukraine (thank you, JSF, for teaching me to omit the “the”) and recently suggested we skype (fortunately, we have the modern-day advantage of not racking up extremely expensive phone calls). Tend to discuss frequent-flyer programs at parties? I think it’s one of The Scientist’s favorite topics.

If I had to pick the 3 best reasons it’s so wonderful to have elite status (or be married to an elite fellow), they would be as follows:

  1. Not only do you get to hang out in the lounge, drink endless cappuccinos spiked with the free alcohol they give out (only in the Canadian lounges, mind you–the American lounges suck), but you can also get really snooty about which lounges are the best and which the worst (see parentheses above)
  2. Free baggage, free heavy baggage, baggage that arrives first. Coach class, I know they tell you that union rules dictate that there are problems taking bags heavier than 50 lbs, but you should know those rules only apply to you.
  3. And best of all, bragging rights. On a recent trip to Florida, our flight into Houston was late, and we missed our connection. It was Friday. The next flight that we–and pretty much our entire flight, all of whom, it seemed, were also going to Florida–could get on took off Monday morning. A whole weekend in Houston! (how not fun). When The Scientist pointed out he was elite, they kicked some coach riffraff off of the next flight and put us on it instead (whew!). See ya, riffraff. Another time, we were flying home, the whole family, and for no good reason other than that there was extra room in first class and The Scientist was elite, we got upgraded. By chance, we ran into a friend, Mrs. Brain, who was also on the flight, her two kids in tow. The Brain family has, one will admit, all those things we don’t: a real income, a real house, the ability to pay for the Brain kids’ education–the typical stuff. On the other hand, Mrs. Brain did not have first class. So when she got on board and saw us, right there, at the very front, in our big comfy leather chairs, our legs stretched out to kingdom come, awaiting our fancy meals served with real silverware, boy was she surprised. “Well, I will have to tell my husband that being a DOCTOR clearly does not cut it!” she declared. Feeling sympathy for Mrs. Brain, I schlepped back to coach halfway through the flight to offer her one of my bonbons.

All this is not to say I forgive The Scientist for abandoning me and still kvetching, but I will encourage him to take flights that rack up lots of points so that I can continue to fly the friendly skies in style.



The Princess and the PhD: Post-doctoral Depression


The Scientist shows me an ad he has found in Science. It reads:

The Basic Sciences Program at the University of Sint Eustatius School of Medicine is seeking a Ph.D. graduate interested in earning an M.D. degree. The applicant is required to teach one of the following courses: Histology/Cell Biology, Psychology & Ethics, Neurosciences, Physiology, Biochemistry & Genetics, Microbiology & Immunology, Pathology, or Pharmacology. The candidate is expected to teach at our campus located on the Dutch Caribbean Island of Sint Eustatius.

I say: “DO IT.”

Here is what I envision:


And for later, after the degree:

I know I lack subtlety here. Usually I am way smoother. Like when commercial after commercial comes on TV for Cialis, Flovent, Abilify, Nexium, Celebrex, DitropanXL, half of them obscure (“There are some things you don’t have to accept!” “For the road ahead!” “the purple pill”) and he complains that this country only advertises for drugs, and I say, “Hmmm . . . maybe there’s a reason that’s all you’re seeing!” In my slick, suave way, I am suggesting that perhaps there’s a Higher Being directing him to nearby Big Pharma. The Scientist, however, ponders my statement in his typically scientific way—is it possible that Fios is streaming particular commercials based on the shows we are watching, just as Facebook puts ads on the sidebar based on the content of our profiles and comments?

I’m clearly too subtle.

Sticking with the drug dream, I also like to pull out articles such as one about GlaxoSmithKline wiping out malaria and declare, as though it has spontaneously occurred to me, “Wow. Did you see this humanitarian work GSK is doing in Africa? Some people think working for a drug company is like selling your soul to the devil, but CLEARLY it’s more like saving the world!”

OK, maybe not that smooth. . .

In 1992, the Canadian polymath Douglas Coupland was becoming a well-known name, having just published his irreverent, precocious postmodern post-novel, Generation X, chronicling the lives of Canadian, Canadian-American, and American overeducated, oversmart, underemployed and underpaid college graduates.

That same year, The Scientist and I, still unknown to each other, were graduating from high school—very similar Jewish day schools, some 300 miles apart, that would turn out professionals of several (but not too many) flavors, young men and women who would seek higher, and in some cases higher, and higher, education in the years to come. We didn’t really fit Coupland’s idea of itinerant, rootless grads. Or did we?

About a decade after graduating, The Scientist and I were planning our wedding, and we invited 15 friends to be our bridesmaids and groomsmen, all former attendees of our Jewish day schools. Among them we could count 5 doctors (or doctors-to-be), 3 almost-lawyers, 4 MBAs, 1 dentist, and 2 PhD candidates (our siblings added 2 more dentists and a PhD-to-be, and then there was us—the bride and groom—another 2 future PhDs).

The Princess and the Sociology Socialite,
a bridesmaid who was also a PhD candidate;
We danced the night away thinking we had all the options
our friends surrounding us had . . .
Now, after a couple of teaching positions in a couple of
countries, I'm unemployed with a post-post-doc husband, and she is
finishing up a fellowship and may be decamping to Central America
to join her academic husband.

There were and are very real expectations for Jewish dayschool kids, and though many of us were the children of far-less educated parents—welders, plumbers, contractors, homemakers—we had grown up with a sense of self-entitlement that meant we demanded big diamonds for our engagement rings, intellectually-rigorous jobs that paid us well but didn’t expect us to come in on a daily basis, and holidays that alternately had us wandering through Rodin gardens or Freud’s fossilized house and on beach boardwalks topped with eruvs.

Did we think we were making similar choices, those doctors, those MBAs, and us? There was no question that we could and would all put in the sleepless nights of studying, all ace the tests, all successfully graduate from our programs in our chosen fields. We were pursuing loves or passions or lives with meaning. We thought we were choosing equally: yes, the doctors, you know, save lives, but we would be solving the mysteries of the universe, and molding the lives of the next generation while doing so. We weren’t trying to become Coupland’s Gen-Xers with their McJobs (low pay, low prestige, low benefits, low future), although it was fine when we, like they, were 25 and single, with nary a responsibility in the world.

But now we’re grown up, with kids (and a minivan!), and all these choices, all hallmarks or hard work and long hours, did not, in the end, make us equal. We’re still transient, still penniless, still unstable.

In the end, some of us got the Rodin gardens. And some of us got royally screwed.

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