Travis and I just got back from a weekend in Dallas to visit family for Greek Easter. Lamb, Spanakopita, Tsoureki—Easter is the biggest feast day of the year for the Greeks. Travis and I are dead tired because we stayed up talking after dinner. Between us, we got about 2 hours of sleep last night, then flew all morning. We had a lot to discuss because this trip was an important one–it was the first time I saw my family, Travis’ family, and their friends since I announced I was leaving my PhD program to begin organic farming. Over the phone, my parents have been … less than enthusiastic. As Travis and I boarded the plane to Dallas, I was dreading what sort of cornering finger-wagging I was in store for. Although I never intended to take their doubting and refutations seriously, somewhere over the weekend I realized I was actually learning about how our society defines success.
My parents don’t like this idea. Over the month or so that I’ve been talking about it, their position has changed from outright hostility to grudging acceptance, but only with the caveat of an indefatigable delusion that this is only a summer excursion, and that I will go back to finish my PhD in the fall. Travis’ parents are much different. His mother is an eternally supportive woman. She sees the positive in most everything and trusts Travis and his decisions, even if she doesn’t understand or agree with them. She’s just happy for us, and it’s a breath of air.
On Easter Sunday, my mother had a big dinner party. Julie, my mother’s well-to-do friend, arrived first with her (also well-to-do) husband. Sunday was the first time I’d seen Julie in two years. Before that, I’m pretty sure I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had any interaction with her. Still, as soon as she walked through my mother’s door, unopened bottle of wine in hand, she was on top of me. “I heard you are leaving your program! You are limiting your earning potential for the rest of your life if you don’t get your PhD!”
My response was a pointed, “uh, er, ok.”
The lecture she was about to embark upon was especially jarring at this point, because I had just spent the weekend getting the same sort of head shaking from my mother and father. “No one else in the family has a PhD,” “Your mother regrets not staying in graduate school,” “You are so academically-minded,” “You will needa PhD!” “You are unnecessarily closing doors.” Now, apparently, I was limiting my earning potential.
Julie followed me around telling me about her graduate school experience, then prodding Travis with a bony elbow and telling him it was “his job” to convince me to stay in school. “The only thing you’re qualified to do with a master’s is teach high school!” she bellowed. … I guess that’s bad?
Through all this, I kept looking at my parents, but quickly found that they weren’t prepared to offer up any defense for me, because, although they weren’t as abrasive as Julie, they agreed with her. My “talent” would be going to waste growing food on a farm in New York. “You’re going to a farm?!” Julie snickered, “oh that will pay really well!” During the dinner toast, my father said, “Neysa and Travis are going to a farm this summer. I still don’t know what all of that is about.” Thanks, Dad.
In the end, I remained cordial to Julie. I let her finish, said “ok,” and then stuffed myself with pastitsio. After all, what does her antagonism really do to me? But it took some self-control to bite my tongue. Where does this woman get off telling me how to live my life, number one. But my personal indignation aside, Julie perfectly articulated the theme of the reactions Travis and I continue to get when we tell people about this little career change of ours. One person asked if this was some sort of cult we were joining. What everyone is saying, really, is that farming is not considered a real job. Growing and selling food is considered beneath someone with any intellectual capabilities. Some of these stereotypes reflect associations of manual labor with low-class and low-intellect. But there’s another aspect to the reaction that has to do with the basicness, the fundamentality, of food. Doing something so essential to human survival, so simple and vital in life, has come to be seen as a “waste” for anyone with an education. Where did this disconnect come from? Have we bought into our own sense of industrialized modernity so much that basic sustainability and self-reliance have become “primitive”? Why is intellectual work necessarily separated from physical work? Hell, since it’s Easter, wasn’t Jesus a carpenter?
And more than that, why is getting a PhD “successful” but operating a profitable farm is not? Success, in America today, is defined by money and stuff. Well, I choose not to define it that way. Success, for me, is a sense of fulfillment, contentment, and contribution. If I have to “limit my earning potential” to do that, then so be it. My life is not an economic projection chart.