I spent the morning at Prolific Oven, a cafe in downtown Palo Alto. When I was a postdoc, this was one of the places I spent an immense amount of time in. Somehow it became the place I would always go when I was trying to make sense of Barbara Stafford’s work, an enterprise that frankly was never successful. But my lack of success in surfing the cutting edge of art theory can’t be blamed on the place.
The place has changed a little bit since I was here a dozen years ago: the furniture is nicer, and the pastries are a little higher-end. But there are still a lot of graduate students here, backpacks spilling out onto their tables, nursing two hour-old small lattes.
What a life that is. I loved it when I was doing it, but I don’t think I could do it again. Being a postdoc is an institutionalized form of marginality: you’re no longer a student, but you’re not yet a professor (or some other kind of adult). It’s designed insecurity. As such, it’s great for someone young, who can afford (both financially and emotionally) to live the life of an academic ronin, and can still find nobility in voluntary poverty.
In my first pass through the Bay Area, I never really assumed I’d stay: I would have loved to, but knew that the odds of getting an academic job here were near zero. I spent a fair amount of my life moving from one place to another, or living in places I couldn’t imagine staying in my whole life. And now I’m so back, I’m paying property taxes and dropping off my daughter at her impossible-to-get-into school. And I can imagine sitting in the Prolific Oven ten or twenty years from now. At some point I put down roots, and didn’t notice it.
[To the tune of Counting Crows, “Sullivan Street,” from the album August & Everything After.]