Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Workers' Bar and Unfiltered Beer

When Zach and I got to Pilsen we immediately searched for a watering hole close to the dorms. We found one. It was hard to see, the entrance was somewhat confusing, and when we went inside we saw a room of about 30 square feet, with some tables, a few booths and a small bar. At first it felt awkward, quiet and uncomfortable. At this point we spoke no Czech, and babbled something we thought might bring us beer, which worked. As Zach and I sat in the corner, pondering this new bar, I noticed the eclectic decor and a few choice posters made my affection for this new establishment grow. It was not long after this that a man from a small group of people nearby began speaking to us in accented, but pretty decent, English. They invited us to join them and we spent the next several hours speaking a variety of Czech, English and French to each other having a marvelous time with our new-found Friends. Later, Zach and I told some of our colleagues who had been to Pilsen before that we went to this particular bar. In disgust, one American replied "the workers bar?" Little by little we have pieced together the American perspective of this bar that Zach and I found to be grossly mistaken. We were told things must have changed, that before the people in that "workers bar" were impolite and cold to foreigners. Maybe. But the night that Zach and I were there I met some of the warmest people I ever have in my life. I know that when we came back again our English speaking friend shouted to everyone in the bar "Sara is here!" And I know that each subsequent visit, we have been met with warm smiles, and the occasional drink invitation.
One of the many wonderful new things that we've tried is unfiltered beer. I don't know what that means, exactly, accept delicious. We got our first taste at the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen. This resulted in my favorite picture of me ever taken. We've been having a marvelous time here in Pilsen, and I would love to write more but I have things to do and my computer is driving me crazy. Na Schledanou! (that's Czech for "see you later"!).

Changing the life plan

For the past two years I've been focused on one goal: Get to an MFA program. It was, I thought, a simple, reasonable goal that would kick open the doors of opportunity and change my life for the better and forever. Book deals, big money, movies with my words coming out of some other guys mouth. The works.

Now, reality. MFA programs are spectacularly diffiult to get in to. I should know, I got in to some. Out of the fifteen programs I applied to, I got into the University of Memphis, New Mexico State University, and Colorado State University. I was also wait-listed at Vanderbilt University. Not a bad final tally, especially when considering Vandy. Vandy's acceptance rate was 1.5 percent. Over 400 applicants, 6 acceptances. Percentage-wise, it was the most selective program in America. Granted, I was the last person on the 7 person wait-list, but still, I'll take it.

Things were looking good. The University of Memphis wanted me and they were willing to offer a T.A. position. My road to riches was paved. The U of M would pay for 4 classes a semester and I would get 7500 dollars a year and teach 2 classes a semester for three years. Wow. Two big problems here, at least. I know that many people in the world live on less than $7,500 dollars a year. In many places, that's a king's salary. In America, that's a lousy income for a quarter of the year, even for a guy with a degree in English lit. The nice people at Memphis let me know that many of their MFA students have second jobs, either as cashiers/over-educated experts at bookstores, or baristas at Starbucks. Hm... maybe if Sara got an awesome job we could make it work.

The second problem with the above. Take 4 classes, teach 2. Every semester. At Kansas State I took at most 3 and taught at most 2. There was no semester where my work load was more than 4 classes. That being said I constantly felt like I was drowning in homework and papers at KSU. It was torture, it was hell. And I was going to add 2 classes to it. What was the point of an MFA again? (To be fair to U of M, a lot of this is a state problem and a university problem, which trickles down to the English dept. The MFA faculty and administration were all excellent people who were extremely helpful throughout the process)

The point of an MFA, as I understand it, is to write. To finish with a book in hand ready to be sent to the publishers. Maybe it's not the greatest book in the world, maybe it's not even publishable, but at least you've got it. I know for a fact that with that school load, plus a relationship I'm deeply invested in, plus eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom, I wouldn't have time for all of it. Something would lose out. At KSU the time and energy crunch was the same and the losers were my students. Fine, I'm willing to moderately shaft the future of America for my own personal gains. Who isn't? (In my defense I'm not talking about not showing up to teach or not grading papers or anything like that, I'm just saying my priorities started with my writing, my school work, and my life. Teaching was a close fourth, but still fourth.) Eventually I figured I could work it all out; everybody would be happy. I'd be busy, but I'd get it all done: reading, writing, teaching, living. So I told the U of M Yes, I'd love to join your MFA program.

Flash forward about a month. I'm going over finances and looking for apartments. A modest one bedroom in a part of town that will give you a 50/50 chance of being home invaded costs $600 a month. Bills, another $100-200, depending on cell phones, car insurance, cable, internet, heating, electricity, water, garbage, blah blah blah. So that's conservatively $700. That would leave me $50 dollars a month for food. $1.67 a day. Now, granted everything would be split, but I'm pretty sure that it doesn't make solid financial sense, or relationship sense, to move somewhere, thereby depleting your savings to nothing, and then proceed to spend 93% of monthly income on rent until your girlfriend gets a job and bails your ass out. So that got me thinking. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

Also, I have to admit, I'm pretty bent out of shape about not getting funding at New Mexico State and Colorado State and not getting into Vanderbilt or any of my top 8 choices. Yeah, that sucked and I've got a moderately large chip on my shoulder about MFA's in general. What's that called by the way? I'm not jealous or envious, I'm upset about not being included or not being wanted. Is there a word for that? "Being bent out of shape?" "Feeling left out?" Those don't really include the desire to get back at those people who have not included you, and hoping that the teachers they did give funding to are freaks who make the university look bad in some gambling/cheating/prostituion scandal in the near future, so I'm not sure they apply. But yeah, maybe my being bent out of shape got into my decision making process and made those whispers about finances a little bit louder, I don't know.

The final nail in the MFA coffin was when my brother got to Korea. I have friends going to MFA programs next fall. I'm very happy for them and I'm sure that they will do amazing work, but I'm not jealous. I don't want to kidnap them, steal their identities, and switch places with them. I want them to have a great time without any of that. But my brother, and all the other teachers in Korea, I'm jealous of. I want to be those people. I want to go to work every day knowing that I'm doing what I love, getting paid a reasonable amount for it, and I'm not stressed out about school every free minute of every day.

(A very quick note on "Reasonable pay." The pay in Korea amounts to about $1800 a month. Plus health insurance and inclusion in a national pension plan. Not bad. Oh yeah, did I mention they pay my rent and for my plane ticket to Korea? Or that when I finish my one year contract they give me a bonus of one month's salary? Pretty reasonable for 6.5 hours a day.)

It took Sara and me about a week to decide that Korea would be a very good place for us. Within one week we had jobs and by October 15th we'll be teaching our very own classes. Not bad.

But that's not really a life plan, that's more like a short-term solution to what is hopefully a short-term money problem. So the question is, do I want an MFA? Eh... I don't know. I think what I've decided is that I want the atmosphere of an MFA: The time to write, the workshops, the access to professors. All that stuff. I don't care about the letters after my name. The chances of them ever getting me a job are slim to none. About the same as me getting into Vanderbilt if I apply again. Do I have to teach creative writing to be happy? No. I loved teaching freshman comp, and although the sample size is low, I'm loving teaching EFL in the Czech Republic. I love teaching in general and have no desire to exclusively teach creative writing. Instead, I think I want to teach English abroad. I love travelling, I love teaching, and I'm pretty good at both.

How can you be good at travelling? I'm not sure exactly, but I do know that you can be really really bad at it, so there must be an opposite - a space for people like me who love new places, new people, and new things. A place for people who don't curl up into the fetal position when they can't order a water, or find a bathroom where they don't have to pay.

The goal now has changed. A PhD in Applied Linguistics will kick open a lot of doors down the road. In seven years, I'll be Dr. Thomas and you'll be asking me if I can take a look at the weird growth on your back.

So that's it. A long-winded, self-indulgent rant, ready to float in the nothingness of the internet. Hopefully someone made it all the way to the end. Also, hopefully Sara posts again soon, otherwise I'm looking for someone else's initials to put on this blog. ZTAND... Or I'll just start calling it ZTANDME.