Goodbye to Boston

July 21, 2017
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Goodbye to Boston

[Probably not of interest to most people–academics may chuckle here or there.]

Just a few days after Scott Alexander heads for the West Coast, I’m also heading west.  I was nearly 27 when I arrived in Boston (in 1982), and today I leave for Southern California, where I’ve always wanted to live (since I was 10.)

I’ve always been a “late bloomer”, perhaps because my parents sent me to school at too young an age.  In first grade I was rated “below grade level” in reading and my high school GPA was only 3.2.

In a public high school.

In the early 1970s.

But I was accepted to the University of Chicago, perhaps because my SATs were much better.  The UC expected each of my parents to contribute $1000/year—good luck with that!  Since I could not afford Chicago, I went to the UW-Madison where tuition was $330 a semester.  I did go to Chicago for graduate school through a combination of student loans for tuition, and working 20 hours a week for room and board.

It was the same story in the job market—a real slow start.  Three months unemployed, then one semester at a branch of the UW, then one year at St. Bonaventure, and then I ended up at Bentley College.  In my second year at Bentley I was given an ultimatum—30 days to produce a letter from my adviser that I was making good progress on my dissertation.  That’s when I started on the project.  I basically did most of the dissertation in about 25 days, sent it to Robert Lucas with the request for a letter, and lucked out.  A few years later I was told that I was up for tenure, which was news to me. Seems I had brought in a year when I was hired.  Who knew that we were supposed to read our contracts?  I asked for a one-year delay and was granted my request.  Then I went up for tenure and was turned down.  Seems I didn’t have any publications.  Oops.

By then I was sending a bunch of papers out to journals like the JME and JPE.  My NGDP futures targeting paper was revised and resubmitted to the JME four times before being rejected.  (That’s unusual.)  My JPE paper (with Steve Silver) was rejected the first time, but then I complained and it was accepted.  (That’s also unusual.)  Indeed I had a number of papers flat out rejected the first time around, but later accepted after I complained.  I think that’s because I wasn’t a very good writer, and it was only in my complaint letter that I properly explained what the heck I was trying to do.  Ironically I got three pubs immediately after being rejected for tenure, including the JPE

So I re-applied for tenure in my terminal year at Bentley, while I also went on the job market.  I got an offer from the New York Fed for $57,000, but decided to stay at Bentley for $33,000.  My colleagues thought I was crazy.  I probably was—but the NY Fed might not have let me do TheMoneyIllusion, at least the way I actually did it.  Then after doing almost nothing on my extra long tenure track period, I started averaging three or four publications a year after I got tenure.  That’s sort of the reverse of how it’s supposed to be done.

Initially I was a very poor teacher.  My evaluations were below 3 out of 5, which is bottom 10%.  After about two years I rose to 4 out of 5, which is average at Bentley, and stayed there until I started blogging.  I expected the blogging to hurt my student evaluations, because I was so busy.  Instead they rose to well above average, until finally in my very last semester (fall of 2014) I got a perfect score (by now the scale was out of 6) on at least some of the questions.  It’s so weird, I had to take a picture to convince myself:

William Galston has a nice piece in the WSJ where he describes returning to a much richer Prague after being away for 22 years, and feeling kind of melancholy. It lacked the romance of his first visit:

In 1995 I could still pass for young, and Europe was young again. As we convened in Prague for an international conference on civic education, everything seemed possible. If history had not quite ended, it was moving in the right direction, and more rapidly than sober analysts had thought possible. With Vaclav Havel in the Castle, the idealists had turned out to be the true realists.

Prague was still struggling to remove the accumulated grime of four communist decades, but the surface didn’t matter. Spirits were high. Music was everywhere, in churches as well as bars, announced on huge placards that magically appeared each morning before breakfast. Students thronged the squares. The ancient buildings were more than reminders of the past; they had become part of a new drama written and staged by a generation that had prevailed against all odds. As Wordsworth wrote of a similar moment: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”

I landed in Prague this time under different circumstances. The surface was gleaming, but the spirit had darkened.

Boston was a bit run down when I arrived in 1982, and is now being spruced up in all sorts of ways.  Objectively is a far better city, indeed one of the finest in the world.  But when I think of my life in my 20s and 30s, all this improvement seems kind of meaningless.

I also have mixed feelings about my house, which is a Georgian 2-family built in 1930.  People tell me it was a good investment, but I regret ever becoming a landlord.  I like the appearance of old houses, but over time I got sick of the constant problems.  In retrospect, I realize that this is a sort of toxic waste dump, full of asbestos, lead paint, etc.  I don’t care about the lead, but I have a family history of lung disease so I probably shouldn’t have spend so much time doing dusty construction projects without wearing a face mask.  It’s also a good feeling to get rid of an enormous mountain of junk that I had accumulated.  Whatever possessed me to accumulate stuff like a pile of old Fortune magazines from the 1930s?  I don’t seem able to throw anything away.  Millennials are smart in being less materialistic.

Tomorrow morning I start a cross-country drive.  I won’t miss driving in Boston, which is bad in almost every conceivable way (bad traffic, potholes, no street signs, rude drivers, low speed limits, no parking, snow, unfriendly cops, etc.)  But I will miss the movie scene, especially the Harvard Film Archive.  I plan to switch to watching “films” on TV, since everything is becoming digital anyway.  If only the price of 77-inch OLEDs would drop . . .

Back in 2011, my dream was a midcentury modern house high up in the hills of Sherman Oaks, with a view out over a kidney shaped pool to the valley below.  I’d spend my retirement years reading (or re-reading) my favorite 19th century Anglo-American authors or 20th century European/Latin American and Japanese authors. (Not sure why my taste switched continents around 1910.) Then prices soared and I ended up buying in boring Orange County.

Moving has been a hassle, but visions of my new gazebo with a lake view have kept me motivated:

I still have some packing to do tonight, and won’t have much time for blogging over the next 12 days.  But I’ll try to check in occasionally.

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