Chapter 1: Owls on Lovers Row

There are untold numbers of postal codes across Britain that have unusually high concentrations of magical residents. Some famous examples include Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, but there are also unassuming places like Burbage Row: an almost entirely muggle-free street situated in a quiet neighborhood in London’s far western suburbs.

On this street, bizarre music would emanate from smart-looking two-story homes: manic voices, often times singing in a language other than English, wailing about mythical creatures, or going on about various spells and enchantments, sometimes even making hissing noises, and so on and so forth. If modern instruments – such as guitars and drums – were employed at all, it seemed that the musicians didn’t know how to use them, or were intentionally misusing them in some ill-conceived artistic statement. (Of course, we students of history know that in those days musical experimentation was getting rather out of hand. It is my strong opinion that the brief era of disco music was payback for all those years of sprawling, incoherent, pseudo-psychedelic noise.) The music alone would usually be enough to keep muggles away; ordinary Britons would hear the ghastly noises and assume the neighborhood had been taken over by foreigners. Then there was the way people would dress – as though every day was Halloween. People wore long, flowing robes dyed in unnatural colors, which were often accompanied by the most peculiar hats you’d ever see. Perhaps most disturbing of all, though, were the smells. Night and day, the residents of Burbage Row seemed to be concocting some truly strange brews which often produced offensive scents like dirt, cow dung, or fungus – odors that hung especially heavy in the muggy summer air, sticking like leeches to sweat-soaked clothes. Muggles, of course, have no idea that a foul odor is often the sign of a well-made potion. For instance, while a non-magical type might gag at the first whiff of an expertly crafted Polyjuice Potion, a witch or wizard would jump for joy, knowing that she or he had made the elixir properly.

 Not all potions smell bad, though. Love potions, for example, generally possess a pleasant fragrance that’s meant to allure one’s target. On Burbage Row, it remains quite common for girls and boys to cook up such a potion for someone for whom they feel a deep longing – a longing that’s always initially unreciprocated. If the potion maker is successful, then eventually the two would become married women and men. However, there comes a point at which the potion maker becomes overly confident; he or she gets duped into believing that amorous feelings have become authentic, at which point the potion maker will decide that he or she can discontinue dosing their alleged “lover.” Then, as you can well imagine, some serious trouble commences. It is for this reason that Burbage Row’s overwhelmingly magical residents will often refer to the street as “Lovers Row.” Those in the know will understand the double meaning straight away: it is lovers’ row because people who live here are often drugging each other with potions and falling in false love, and it is also where lovers row because, once the drugged party is once again in a proper state of mind, legendary rows between the two are almost inevitable.

 Another common household potion is one that deals with erectile dysfunction. Occasionally, a man will make the potion himself and self-administer it with or without his wife’s knowledge. More often than not, though, men are too ashamed by their condition, and will simply deny that there exists a problem for which a potion need be made. In such cases, wives have been known to surreptitiously craft a potion and lace their husband’s tea or brandy with it. Mr. Thompson, the neighborhood drunk, never understood how he could drink almost an entire bottle of bourbon and not only still get a hard-on, but actually have an easier time of doing so.

 As you can surely see by now, witches and wizards drug one another constantly. (Of course, they tend not to call it “drugging,” because that’s generally thought of as a lowly muggle activity. Attitudes, however, have been changing in recent decades – especially among younger generations. Much more on this soon.) The ethics behind dosing a loved one, or dosing oneself to gain an unfair advantage over others (like consuming Liquid Luck to get a promotion that you and a coworker have been competing for), is debated endlessly among intellectuals in the wizarding world. Like so many other contentious subjects, we will likely never reach a consensus on this question; rather, it is well to approach the issue on a case-by-case basis. Mr. Thompson, for his part, was happy to get as drunk as he wanted and still make love to his wife. He was having his cake and eating it, too, as the saying goes.

“What are you thinking about there, Nigel?”

 Nigel looked up from his toast and saw his father’s face for the first time all morning. He had been avoiding eye contact with his parents all through their breakfast.

“Dunno,” Nigel answered his father lamely. He groped about in the murky waters of his brain for a proper response, but none was forthcoming. Fortunately, he was saved by his mother.

“Oh, can’t you tell, James?” Nigel’s mother spoke imploringly. “His nerves must be absolutely shot. Every day he wonders when he’ll finally be receiving correspondence from Hogwarts about this year’s O.W.L.s. Just look at the state of him.” Penelope looked at her son in total despair. “Look at how red his eyes are. Poor lad is hardly sleeping at all these days. And in summer, too! When boys his age are meant to be on holiday. I often wonder if there’s any justice at all in our examination system. I mean, putting a young child through all that pressure? It’s simply too much!”

“Aye, fifth year’s a bloody tough one,” Penelope’s brother, Freddie, chimed in.

“I suppose you would know all about that wouldn’t you?” James quipped, knowing full well that his brother-in-law dropped out of Hogwarts at the end of his fourth year. He sipped his coffee with great satisfaction; never did he miss an opportunity to insult the man who had been living off and on in his basement for decades.

 Freddie, who was by now so used to James’ rude comments that he hardly registered them as such, simply nodded his head at this remark and turned to address his nephew.

 “Chin up there, Nigel.” Freddie shook Nigel’s shoulder aggressively. “You’re a Ravenclaw!” He roared when he said this, as if forgetting that the lion belonged to another Hogwarts house. “This stuff is in your blood, boy!”

“Indeed.” James begrudgingly agreed with Freddie. “O.W.L.s are damn difficult, son – mind you, not as difficult as the N.E.W.T.s, of course – but you’ll get through it. You’ve got some of the greatest professors in the world teaching you, and you’ve got that big head on your shoulders. Ha!” He laughed triumphantly. “Just you wait, you’ll be a Healer just like your mum and dad.”

Penelope put a hand on her husband’s shoulder to restrain him. “If that’s what he wants, of course,” she added.

“Right,” said James.

Nigel sat back in his chair and sighed dramatically.

“And what if I don’t know what the bloody hell I want?”

Penelope stared at her son crossly. “Nigel, I understand the stress you’re under, but do mind your language at the breakfast table. And, well, at all times really.”

“Honestly,” Nigel continued, ignoring his mother’s chastisement, “how do they expect me to just stare into a crystal ball and predict my future at just fifteen years old?”

“Well, you are apparently quite good at Divination,” Nigel’s father put in.

“James, please, our son doesn’t want to hear your silly jokes right now.”

“I wasn’t making a joke!”

“So, you’re suggesting that prophesying is my future?” Nigel asked his father, a strong hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“Er, no, I don’t think that’s quite what I meant,” James spoke carefully, trying not to set off his son’s volatile emotions. (Puberty usually came a bit late for the McPherson boys, but James knew from experience that when it did, it could be very tempestuous.)

“So, what then? I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’m at a loss as to how to interpret your comment.”

Dearie me, James thought to himself. Now the boy is speaking lawyerly – a telltale sign of an imminent tantrum. He looked around frantically for a clock; before he could find one, he said: “Oh, but look at the time, Penelope! We best be going…lots of patients in at St. Mungo’s at the moment. We’ve been seeing a rather alarming spike in Unforgivable Curses this year…

“Nigel, we’ll talk later, I promise. In the meantime, try not to dwell on it too much, eh? It’s still the summer after all; relax a bit, enjoy yourself! Maybe go and see what Dipesh is up to!”

“You’re still knockin’ about with that Indian boy?” Freddie blurted out.

“Freddie, for heaven’s sake!” Penelope looked at her brother, aghast that such intolerance would rear its ugly head in the McPherson household.

Freddie made a pathetic attempt to walk back his comment.

“Meanin’ nothin’ by it, of course! It’s just a fact that the boy is Indian, is all. Mind, he does sort of smell a bit, doesn’t he?”

“If you’re trying to be funny, it’s not working!” Penelope thundered.

“We really need to be going now,” James said.

With that, Nigel’s parents got their wands out and, with a loud crack, they disapparated from the room.

Stuck there at the breakfast table with his uncle (who was presently laughing fitfully over the effect his uncouth comment had had on his sister), Nigel longed for the day of his seventeenth birthday to arrive, so that at moments like this he could just disappear. Where would I go? He wondered, and his mind was filled with flashes of memories from his childhood: sunny days at the beach in the south of England, hikes through dense pine forests with Dipesh’s nature-loving family, sightseeing tours along Ireland’s rugged coastline. Deep in thought, Nigel nearly dozed off there at the table, but he was brought back to lucidity by his uncle.

“Oi,” Freddie said. “Your parents may be too thick to know what’s goin’ on with you, but I know what bloodshot eyes mean.” He wagged an authoritative finger at his nephew. “You’ve been puffin’ on that magical grass, haven’t you?” Freddie had a talent for inventing new colloquialisms.


“Don’t make me spell it out, boy, you know damn well what I’m referrin’ to. Look, I’m not gonna try to tell you what to do, and I’m not gonna be tellin’ your parents or anything like that, but I’ll tell you this: that stuff is dangerous for a wizard’s mind. What do you think explains all the upheaval these days? It’s the You-Know-What, boy! It’s making witches and wizards go mad – callin’ for abolishin’ the office of Minister of Magic altogether and switchin’ over to communal leadership, bannin’ Azkaban on account of ‘it’s cruel,’ experimentin’ with homosexuality, freely fornicatin’ with muggles, and…”

“I don’t have to listen to this!” Nigel yelled, fighting through the cobwebs of his mind so that he could address his uncle’s lunacy head-on. “Firstly, ‘freely fornicating with muggles’? Are you daft? You’re dad’s a muggle!”

“Well, yeah, but…”

“SECONDLY! There has been found no linkage between the use of recreational drugs”

“Don’t use that word!”

including of the psychedelic variety, and long-term psychosis. In fact, the very narrative you just spewed is nothing but a reactionary attempt to delegitimize radicals’ well-founded concerns about the Ministry’s heavy-handedness and the abuses at Azkaban prison. As for the sex stuff, well, there can be no political revolution without sexual revolution.”

After a sustained silence, Freddie spoke. “You know what I think? I think you’ve been listenin’ to too much muggle radio. You’re startin’ to sound like one of them.” He crept closer to his nephew, peering directly into his eyes so as to get a good look at his soul. “You’re turnin’ out to be a very unusual sort of wizard, I think. That could be a very good thing, but it could also be a very bad thing.”

With that, he retired to his living quarters in the basement, allowing his premonitory words to soak into the adolescent boy’s highly impressionable brain.

Nigel cleaned up the mess his family left for him on the dining table (without magic!); this he did as quickly as he could so that he could spend the rest of the morning – and perhaps much of the afternoon – sulking in his bedroom.

His room was nestled in the far-right corner of the house’s second floor, on the opposite end of his parents’ bedroom. The distance between his own room and that of his parents meant he needn’t worry about the smell of weed drifting into their nostrils. Of course, Nigel reckoned that his parents probably wouldn’t recognize the scent anyways, as they were of a generation who wanted absolutely nothing to do with “muggle drugs,” or You-Know-What, as it was often called in those days. Yet even the most conservative in the magical community took no issue at all with imbibing beer and liquor the way muggles did; this led Nigel to believe that, over the centuries, alcohol had been slowly integrated into the culture of witchcraft and wizardry. He, along with other forward-thinking wizards, was certain that the same would inevitably happen with That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named – and with a revolution, it could happen very quickly. These and other thoughts swirled delicately through Nigel’s head as he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, taking a few drags from a half-used joint while the radio played a song from one of his favorite muggle bands.

Bloody hell, Nigel thought to himself. It’s been almost a decade since “Love Me Do” came out! Blimey, how their sound has evolved since then. Mind you, I still think their older songs are bloody brilliant.

He started to sing along out loud, quietly, as if he were half asleep. “You knoowwww aiiigghhh love you! So pleeeeease pleeease please me, whoa yeah – ah, shit, that’s a different song!” Nigel laughed hysterically at the thought of getting “Love Me Do” mixed up with “Please, Please Me” – so hysterically that, by the time he came to, the beloved two-minute pop song was over, to be replaced by the blaring sound of a middle-aged woman selling laundry detergent, an advert which he found nearly as amusing as his musical faux pas.

Nigel splayed out on his mattress, really noticing for the first time how much his feet fell off the bed these days. Last summer, this wasn’t an issue. Last summer, he was still short, chubby, and could sing soprano. Sometime earlier in the year, though, his transformation had begun. This summer, he stood taller than his uncle, he became rather lanky as a consequence of his body suddenly stretching upwards, and if he really tried hard, he could sometimes sound like an adult man when he spoke.

On one hand, his growth spurt made him excited about what girls would think when he got back to Hogwarts. (They hadn’t paid him much attention before, but now he was fast becoming a man. Heads will turn! He thought to himself. This was great news for Nigel, because he and his best mates at school [Xenophilius and Dipesh] had made a pact in their fourth year that they would lose their virginity before leaving school. Shagging – or rather, talking about shagging [the act itself was still quite unfamiliar to them] – had become a favorite topic of conversation, even if such discussions were filled with all of the awkwardness to be expected out of a few young blokes who don’t quite know what they’re saying.) On the other hand, Nigel’s full entry into adolescence made him somewhat melancholy; it reminded him too much of time’s relentless forward march. Yesterday, it feels like I was eight years old, shaking my little fanny around the living room with mum and dad while we listened to “Love Me Do;” indeed, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now, however, it looks as though they’re here to stay.

“Oooohhhh I beeelieve…in yesterrdayayy.”

Nigel rose from his bed and kicked away some rubbish that was strewn about the floor so he could have a clear space to perform. He assumed his best showman-like posture and stared out the window, drawing a deep breath for his favorite bit of the song:


Somewhere in the middle of the chorus, he started to notice an alarming number of owls flying about the rooftops across the street. It took time, however, for his brain to fully process this information; once it did, his heart began beating at a record pace. He knew that to see such a cluster of owls could only mean two things: either there was a major emergency in the wizarding world, or Hogwarts was sending out a mass correspondence. The latter was more likely, and Nigel reckoned he wasn’t ready for the letter that just flew through the front door.

He trampled on the meaty envelope as he made his way out of the house. The muggy air outside greeted him unkindly, but more unwelcome still was the sight of his uncle sitting pointlessly on the stoop, looking at nothing in particular, contributing nothing to the world around him. Seeing Freddie from his backside, hunched over, wearing his white tank top, Nigel thought that his uncle looked very much like a massive hunk of meat left out in the sun, melting, sagging, losing its shape.

Freddie turned to face his nephew. He sniffled dramatically, as if he intended to add to, even to celebrate, his revolting appearance.

“You’ve got yourself a letter there, Nigie,” Freddie teased.

“Fuck off,” Nigel returned, brushing past the rotting mound of meat.  

“Oi! That’s no way to talk to your uncle, boy!”

“I don’t care what you have to say about, about anything!”

“Nigel, get back here right now! We’re gonna go back inside and talk about what you said to me, and then you’re gonna read this bloody letter!”

“Get out of my life, Fred, for fuck’s sake!”


From the middle of the street, Nigel called out to his uncle: “Yeah? You’d – you reckon you – that you’d draw your wand against an underage wizard, eh? Someone who can’t even defend himself? Big man! Well go on then! P-pull…pull it out, man! Let’s uh, you know, see what that stubby little thing can do!”

Nigel didn’t stick around long enough to see if his uncle picked up on the innuendo. Before Freddie could offer a riposte, Nigel was already out of earshot.

Wait till Dipesh hears what I just said to that blithering idiot! Nigel thought. He’ll say, “Hang on, you said what to him mate?” And I’ll go, “Well, technically I was talking about his wand, but basically I told him to pull out his tiny cock when he threatened to hex me. Can you believe that, mate? He said he was gonna draw his wand on me? Like…wow, they’ll send you off to Azkaban for certain, and then, THEN let’s see if you still don’t agree with people who want to close that bloody medieval prison down!”

“Waz thad yer uncle goin’ on abou’ hexin’ yeh back there?” Mrs. Thompson slurred.

“What?!” Nigel was alarmed by Mrs. Thompson’s sudden appearance directly in front of his face. With her saggy skin, bushy, mean-looking eyebrows, and her thinning mane of unkempt hair, he initially mistook her for the loathsome Hogwarts caretaker, Argus Filch. Nigel was not one to hate, but he made special exception for Filch. And his uncle. And a few others, besides (mainly Slytherins, but also a couple of Gryffindors).

“Yer uncle, lad! Couldasworn I heard him sayin’ I’LL HEX YEH! Don’t he know the muggles can hear ‘im??”

“Muggles don’t live on this street, Mrs. Thompson, you know that.”

“Whaddabou’…whaddabou’…” While she spluttered, she wagged a tremulous finger somewhere down the row of houses before them.

Nigel scanned the street with her, trying desperately to help her find the muggles she was referring to so that the conversation could be over and he could get on with his day. Having failed to find anyone wearing bellbottoms or corduroy, he decided to placate her by making up a fictional muggle family, the Robinsons (inspired by a scandalous film he saw during Muggle Studies last year), who lived at the very end of Burbage Row, who probably heard nothing about hexes, and even if they did they probably would think nothing of it (just more crazy foreigners!).

“All else fails, Mrs. Thompson, we can just put a Memory Charm on the Robinsons; no harm done! Anyway, best be going now…do enjoy this lovely day!”

“Yezz well, look affer yerself there, lad.”

Owls seemed to fly tauntingly just over Nigel’s head as he walked, then jogged, then ran to Dipesh’s house. Why couldn’t they just leave Burbage Row already?

Not wanting Mr. and Mrs. Patil to see him in his disheveled state, Nigel decided against knocking on their front door and asking to see Dipesh, as he might ordinarily do. Instead, he chose the very clandestine option of throwing bits of gravel at Dipesh’s window and calling out his name. After Nigel felt his voice starting to go hoarse, Dipesh finally opened his window. A short teenager with a boyish, slightly pudgy face and a sort of overgrown mop of hair poked his head out the window.

“Blimey! Where were you?” Nigel asked his friend annoyedly. “Were you wankin’ it?”

“Quiet!” Dipesh pleaded. “Mum might be able to hear you. I’ll come down in a moment.”

Nigel passed the time by lying on the grass. Looking up at the bright blue sky, he was relieved to find that it was no longer so blotted by the silhouettes of owls flying about. After some time of staring into nothingness, his sharpened senses (he was convinced that You-Know-What endowed him with cat-like ears) could distinctly make out the sound of feet shuffling through grass. Dipesh stood right above him.

“I was on the toilet, if you must know,” Dipesh announced to his friend.

“Blech, I most certainly do not want to know that.” Nigel rose from his friend’s lawn and wiped blades of grass off his backside. He asked Dipesh if he’d gotten any letters from Hogwarts today.

“Sure I have,” Dipesh replied. “Haven’t you seen all the owls?”

“Well? Have you opened it?”

“Straight away. You haven’t?”

“I can’t bring myself to open it yet. Dunno why, really. What’s it say?”

“The usual stuff, of course: ‘here’s the classes you’re taking and here’s all the required course materials. See you in September.’”

“Don’t be thick. I’m talking about the other letter.”

“Oh, the one about the O.W.L.s? Come on, mate, we’ve been expecting that one all summer. It doesn’t say anything you don’t already know. The basic gist of it was, ‘expect to study extra hard this year and be prepared for a shellacking in the spring.’ I found it all perfectly perfunctory, really.” Dipesh wiped sweat from his forehead theatrically. “Look, mate, can we talk about this inside, where there’s air conditioning?”

“NO! No! Bad idea. If your parents saw me like this, and then they’d tell my mum and dad…no good.”

“Blimey, Nigel, you’re high again? It’s no wonder this stupid letter has you all frazzled. You haven’t suggested so much as a hint of worry about the O.W.L.s all summer, and now you look on the verge of a panic attack. You wouldn’t be feeling this way if you were straight, honest.”

Or I’m just able to see things perfectly clearly now!”

Dipesh grew concerned over the expression on Nigel’s face – he took on the appearance of a Seer who had read one too many tea leaves. “Let’s at least go for a walk. Might help you calm down a bit.”

Nigel begrudgingly agreed. “Where are we going, then?”

“Ice cream?”

“Fuck me, that sounds good right now. Do you think they’ll have water there as well?”

“I’m quite certain the ice cream shop will have water, yes.”

To get to Albert’s Frozen Wonderland, the boys needed to follow Lovers Row back in the direction Nigel came from. As the two passed by the McPherson house, Nigel could’ve sworn he saw Uncle Freddie peering at them through the blinds. How am I related to that man? Nigel wondered to himself. And since when does talking about revolution make me a muggle? Do they have a monopoly over progress? “I’m not meanin’ to offend, but the Indian boy does smell a bit, doesn’t he?” Racist git! Hey! I thought only muggles cared about the color of one’s skin? Like, isn’t that sort of prejudice meant to be beneath us wizards? I think it’s actually you who’s starting to sound like a muggle, Freddie. Not me!

The giant ice cream cone in front of Albert’s shop was covered in a thick film of soot – the result of years of pollution from coal-powered factories, many of which were on their dying breaths in the face of Britain’s de-industrialization. Despite the shop’s rather bleak exterior, locals knew better than to think that the physical state of Albert’s Frozen Wonderland meant that the ice cream itself was foul. Rather, just the opposite was true: those who frequented the shop – magical and non-magical alike – swore by the stuff, often referring to Albert’s product affectionately as the best ice cream available anywhere on the British Isles.

An arctic blast hit unsuspecting Nigel in the face when Dipesh swung open the door to the Frozen Wonderland. The boys panicked when they saw that almost all the tables inside were occupied by families, young couples, or bands of unaccompanied children who had free reign of the neighborhood all summer long.

“How about I order for the both of us and you save us that empty table in the far corner next to the toilets?” Dipesh suggested.

“Good idea,” said Nigel. He handed Dipesh a few bronze coins. “Here you go, that should cover it.”

“Er, mate,” Dipesh whispered. “Wrong currency?”

Nigel snatched his knuts back from Dipesh and frantically stowed them in his pocket before any other patrons could notice, then he handed him some muggle coins. A few adult wizards in the shop noticed what happened and rolled their eyes.

“Rocky Road?” Dipesh asked.

“Yes, please! And a water? My throat’s drier than a…” He trailed off, never able to find the appropriate analogy.

Nigel seated himself at the table nearest the toilets; while he waited, he couldn’t help but feel that Dipesh was being inappropriately chummy with Albert today, asking him for several samples of different flavors (even though they always ordered Rocky Road) and droning on about the recent football match. He wanted to yell at his friend to hurry up, but he restrained himself, soothing his angst by swishing his long black hair from side to side. This hair thing was becoming a new twitch for him, one that his mother didn’t fail to notice. Several times this summer she had warned him that he was going to suffer a neck spasm if he kept it up, and why wouldn’t he just let her cut his hair anyway?

Because this is how wizards are wearing their hair now, mum, deal with it!

Once Dipesh set his ice cream down in front of him, Nigel forgot all about his irritation over his friend’s slowness and took to attacking the generously portioned treat.

To avoid brain freeze, the two occasionally took breaks from their Rocky Road to chat. During one of these intermissions, Dipesh asked Nigel if he’d heard from their other close friends at Hogwarts lately.

“Xen sent me a letter last week,” Nigel said. “He’s alright. You know, usual nonsense about him and his dad trying to catch ‘Cackling Willawonks’ or whatever creature it is that they’re making up these days.”

Dipesh laughed. “That whole family is mental.”

Of course, Nigel and Dipesh both found it quite cruel that other students at Hogwarts went around calling their best friend Loony Lovegood; at the same time, however, they couldn’t help but see at least a smidgen of truth behind the name-calling. Yet while others at Hogwarts avoided Xenophilius because of his eccentricities, Dipesh and Nigel were drawn to him precisely for that reason.

“Got a letter from Julianna as well,” Nigel announced.

“Oh, yeah?” Dipesh studied his spoonful of ice cream carefully, pretending not to be very interested in their other good friend, Julianna Fioretti.

“She’s going around with a new guy now, apparently. Some Christopher bloke? From Hufflepuff? A seventh year, supposedly.”

Though he tried to hide it, Dipesh looked crestfallen at this bit of news. Nigel immediately wished he hadn’t brought it up; he knew his friend fancied Julianna very much. In fact, they all did – Xenophilius included. It was why they sort of kept Julianna’s friendship at arm’s length. To be sure, they thought she was out of sight, and they loved spending time with her, but they all tried too hard to be cool when she came round, and that could become exhausting.

“I hear he’s a real git.” Nigel attempted to comfort his friend. “And, like, most of his O.W.L. marks were so bad that he’s hardly taking any N.E.W.T.s at all? I mean, what’s the point of even sticking around school? Just get on with your pathetic life already.”

“Ah, so we’ve come back round to the O.W.L.s,” Dipesh observed sagely.

“Oh, we have, haven’t we? Well, we don’t need to talk about it.” Nigel’s efforts to sound casual weren’t working.

“Honestly, I don’t understand what’s bringing all this on. All I can say is that you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re a Ravenclaw!”

“But what if the Sorting Hat made a mistake?” Nigel said hastily, almost monosyllabically.


“What if, like, I’m not meant to be a Ravenclaw?”

Dipesh set his cup of ice cream down. “You’re sounding daft now, mate, just daft. Of course you were meant to be one. Your father was, your mum was, even your bloody uncle was! And if he was good enough for Ravenclaw then you sure as hell are! Honestly, Nigel, you’re a brilliant…” He looked round the shop and, seeing how crowded it still was, he lowered his voice. “You’re a brilliant wizard, absolutely brilliant.”

“Not as brilliant as you are…”

“Please, Nigel, we all have our strengths. Perhaps I can brew potions better than you can, but your knowledge of muggles is truly vast – almost equal to that of the professor. At the very least I would say that no one, not even Professor Quirrell, knows more about contemporary muggle culture at Hogwarts than you do.”

“Kind words, but false words.” Nigel could see his friend becoming exasperated, but he went on anyway. “I mean it! You know the Sorting Hat almost put me in Hufflepuff?”

Dipesh nearly screamed before catching himself. “But it didn’t, did it?! Really Nigel, come off it, you’re not thinking straight.”

“Don’t you dare try and blame this on the grass again!” He pointed his finger at Dipesh emphatically, once again taking on the look of a crazed prophet. “I am stone-cold sober now, man.”

“Right, well, if you insist on keeping this conversation going, I suggest we get out of here. The muggles amongst us might not have a clue as to what we’re talking about, but they sure will think we’ve lost our heads.”

Indeed, a man reading a newspaper with still photos all over it had been continually casting glances in their direction. He likely presumed that a smooth-talking guru had lured the poor boys into some hippy cult. Surely, the man thought, this tension between Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, in which one group is ostensibly superior to the other, is all by design, a way to keep a healthy amount of infighting amongst rank-and-file cult members.

Dipesh and Nigel took a different route back home: a narrow alleyway running parallel to Burbage Row. Here, they would be shaded from the sun by the houses that flanked the alleyway on both sides. Plus, they could speak privately, as people rarely went down this way. Through overflowing trash cans and puddles of mysterious liquids seeping from people’s homes (most likely refuse from the aforementioned love-making potions), the boys rehashed the same debate they had while inhaling their Rocky Road at Albert’s. To add gravitas to his arguments, Nigel kicked a loose stone down the alleyway as they walked.

“Here’s what I think is really getting to me, Dipesh,” Nigel began. “Let’s say that, you know, this year I’m thinking to myself, ‘wow, I’m rather keen on Muggle Studies. Perhaps I’d like to teach it someday? Or maybe I’d want to work in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office, like that Weasley bloke is planning.’ But a lad changes his mind quite a bit, doesn’t he? Maybe in my sixth year I suddenly change course and decide, ‘oh hang on a minute. I’m actually not that keen on muggles, after all. I’d rather chase after dark wizards. Yeah, that’s it! I’ll become an auror!’ Only problem is I haven’t got sufficient marks in Defense Against the Dark Arts and Potions to advance to N.E.W.T. level because I spent all my time toiling away at Muggle Studies! You see the dilemma?”

“I suppose I do,” Dipesh answered truthfully. “But is being an auror something you’re seriously pondering?”

“Well, no, not exactly. Er, not at all really, if I’m being honest. I was just using it as an example. Anyway, I trust you see my point. All I’m trying to say is that we’re sort of being forced to decide our futures early on, aren’t we? It’s quite a lot of –”


A spell issued from an unknown assailant’s wand.

Quite shocked to find himself floating in midair, Nigel turned around wildly, like an astronaut adrift in space, to get a look at his attacker. Meanwhile, at ground level, Dipesh was busy trying to disarm – with his bare hands, mind you, not a wand – Nigel’s mad uncle.

“Let him down, Freddie!” Dipesh yelled.

“Are you laughin’ now, boy?!” Freddie cackled with villainous glee while he kept his helpless nephew suspended above ground with his wand hand and fended off little Dipesh with his free hand. “Still have some snide remark to make about me nethers, boy?”

“Oh, shit,” Nigel said, almost dreamily, overwhelmed by the shock.

“Ah, now you appreciate the…GRAVITY…of the situation, eh?” Freddie laughed some more.

“No, turn around, you dunce.” Nigel could tell by her dress that the woman taking out the trash behind them was not of the magical persuasion. She had dropped her bag of rubbish and stood rooted to the spot when she noticed Nigel being tossed about by Freddie’s wand.

When Freddie noticed what was happening, he dropped his nephew, who hit the concrete hard, and tried desperately to hit the muggle – who was now fleeing down the alleyway – with a Memory Charm.

Obliviate!” He called after her. “Obliviate! Obliviate!” Several impotent sparks of blue light kicked up dust on the ground, barely missing the muggle woman’s feet. “Shit! Shit!”

“Now you’ve done it,” said Nigel, rubbing his bruised chest.

“Oh dear, I think that must’ve been Mrs. Robinson,” said Dipesh.

“Who??” Nigel asked.

“You don’t know the Robinsons? They’re the only muggle family that lives on this street.”

“Hang on, the Robinsons are real?!”

COVID-19 won’t change a damn thing–unless we want it to

Written back in August 2020. Boy, I was very angry when I wrote this. Dealing with the loss of a parent, as well as the loss of your former life and former self, is a lot to handle in just one short year. That kind of pressure and emotional stress causes you to behave and think in ways that don’t really speak to who you truly are as a person. While I don’t exactly disagree with anything I argued here, I do in hindsight take issue with the overly bitter and resentful form with which I decided to articulate my thoughts. But I’m sharing anyways, at the very least as a manifestation of how mainstream culture’s response to the pandemic unnerves those who might feel the effects of COVID-19 far more acutely.

Do you remember back in the Spring when your effervescent friends, Coca-Cola, and practically every car company in the country battered you over the head with this bravely optimistic message?: “Things look pretty scary right now, but look on the bright side!” And out poured the whimsical fantasies:

We would all stay home for a few weeks to reset and stay safe (staycation, am I right?!), and as a result, we would become more enlightened, less materialistic; we would learn to slow down every now and then. Families would be brought closer together. Thanks to the pandemic, those who survived would emerge from it better people due to sacrifices made and hardships endured.

We would find inspiration in front-line workers’ everyday heroism. We would repay the favor by making FREE painted rocks. Thanks to the pandemic, humanity would come together like this, united by the simple fact that an undiscriminating virus affects all of us equally.

Nature would heal. After just one month, maybe two, of people mostly staying home, the environment would begin to bounce back. A significant — albeit partial and temporary — reduction in carbon emissions would somehow undo roughly two and a half centuries of unfathomable ecological destruction.

Now several months into the pandemic, we’re a bit less naive than that. We know the pandemic has not necessarily brought out the better angels of our nature. Masks are irritating, they’re hard to breathe through because I never learned how to breathe properly, and they make it hard to talk because I never learned how to enunciate and project. And hang on, grocery store workers want hazard pay to become permanent? Nurses are traumatized and exhausted and fed up with the public’s platitudes? Teachers would rather live than babysit little super spreader Kenny so that I can be freed up to work my far less stressful job in which I make double their salary? I’ll have my pretty rock back, thank you very much.

We also know now that a pack of blue whales could reclaim Times Square for nature and it wouldn’t change the fact that the Arctic is melting, forests around the world are on fire, failing oil and gas companies are haphazardly abandoning wells across the country and leaving ordinary people to suffer the environmental fallout…all while deadly heat waves and freak hurricanes continue to kill thousands.

For the most part, anybody still peddling early Corona fantasies are rightly dismissed either as damn fools or charlatans. Yet some optimism remains that something good is bound to emerge from the pandemic, that there’s inevitably going to be some sort of revolutionary political or socioeconomic change — or both.

For proof that things are going to change, we apparently need to look at history. In search of parallels to our own time, some pundits will point to the Second World War — a cataclysmic global event that strengthened the cause of social welfare in Western countries. Given that we’re “at war” with a deadly virus, the logic goes, maybe we will come out of this fight with a renewed commitment to equality and social justice.

The WWII analogy almost makes sense until you step back and realize that it’s actually absurd. We’re dealing with two very different contexts: WWII was a war; the current pandemic is not. In fact, it can’t even be characterized as a figurative war anymore, as that would imply a shared sense of sacrifice that is clearly belied by the selfish hostility towards mask-wearing and closures.

Fine, maybe we’re not engaged in total war with the virus. Would it be fair, though, to suggest that our current situation is very much like the Great Depression? Given the economic disaster wrought by the virus, this does seem like a fair comparison. It would also then seem fair to assume that we should anticipate a host of drastic systemic change a la New Deal. Once again, though, I think our current context is too distinct. During the Depression, it was easier to make the claim that the crisis was produced by fatal flaws within the economic system itself, thereby making reform essential. But because today’s economic crisis is so inextricably tied to the virus, it’s too easy for those opposed to reform to say that there’s actually nothing wrong with the system. Their arguments, however flawed, are helped on by the fact that the economy was in decent shape before the pandemic hit.

These erroneous comparisons to other historic events is symptomatic of a common problem: the tendency for people to draw the wrong lessons from history. Lessons that are most amenable to their hopes for the future, but perhaps not grounded in harsh reality. The unfortunate truth, that which many of us would like to ignore, is that the best historical antecedent we can find to the current pandemic is, of course, another pandemic — the Spanish flu. Unfortunately, the lessons we can draw from this much more relevant event are desperately lacking in any kind of silver lining.

To sum up a complicated story, Americans emerged from the influenza pandemic of 1918–1920 understandably exhausted: worn out from the death, tired of shortages, sick of uncertainty. On the whole, ordinary people did not choose to see their brief intervention in WWI and the public health crisis that followed as opportunities to refashion society and the political system. Instead, after all the suffering and hardship they endured, most Americans hungered for a return to the status quo. The 1920s became an era of small, business-friendly government; rampant stock market speculation; rising income inequality; retrenched racial divides — seen perhaps most clearly in the resurgence of the KKK. It was precisely what people were after: a “return to normalcy.” A return, in other words, to all America’s ugliness.

Over 600,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu. Sadly, their deaths turned out to be as meaningless as the millions of deaths caused by the First World War. Despite these losses, little changed. That’s the key lament of the disillusioned artists who came to be known as the “Lost Generation.” So many people died for nothing.

In our own time, are we doomed to cry a similar lament? What ultimate lesson is to be drawn from history’s closest parallel to the present crisis?

The most pessimistic argument would be that, just like the Spanish flu, COVID-19 will inevitably push people to return to what’s comfortable rather than do whatever is necessary to address the glaring socioeconomic issues that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief. We can already see signs that we’ll be reverting to the status quo once the virus is under control. The proof is in the angst over a possible second lock-down, the outrage over remote learning this fall, and the apparently massive appeal of a boring, moderate presidential candidate. It is after all Joe Biden’s “normalcy,” rather than any hint of progressivism, that accounts for his popularity. (That and the fact that his clear competence makes him a thousand times more palatable than the sitting president — who appears hell-bent on driving us towards failed-state status.)

In this scenario, we confront the same harsh reality that people faced 100 years ago: sometimes, bad things happen and there’s no silver lining. A new virus emerges and — like our own species — it does everything it can to adapt and survive, even at the expense of other living organisms. We are so disturbed by such a merciless act of nature that we want nothing more than to forget what happened as soon as possible. The outcome is a society firmly retrenched in the familiar — despite, or perhaps because of, the experience of mass death.

I would rather argue, though, that what the 1918–1920 pandemic teaches us is not that we’re doomed to an equally dreary outcome, but that events are not the most significant catalysts for change — it’s people. When disaster strikes, people choose how to react, and those choices determine our future trajectory.

People who choose to believe that certain seismic events will inevitably produce change fall into a dangerous passivity. They tend to believe that they’re powerless to alter the future — history is going to do what it’s going to do. To think that everything, for better or for worse, is inevitable, is to accept complacency.

Yet most historians would contend that absolutely nothing is inevitable. Rather, the outcome of events is contingent upon what people choose to make of the manifold crises and tragedies that unexpectedly befall us. For instance, it was not inevitable that the murder of George Floyd would produce the largest mass protests that this country has ever seen. Activists chose to make George Floyd a new rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, and millions of ordinary people chose to listen. Without this human action, Floyd’s death would’ve been nothing more than another example of racist police violence, but not necessarily a catalyst for civil rights protests.

By the same token, it’s a fantasy to think that COVID-19, in and of itself, is not only a deadly virus, but also somehow a harbinger of miracles. If we choose to believe that the pandemic by itself carries enough momentum to bring about the change we desire, then, just like the previous pandemic, all the death will indeed be meaningless.

There is no silver lining to this pandemic unless you make it so. Things aren’t going to change just because you sat at home for a month, learned a new hobby, painted a rock, and let your gas-guzzling SUV hibernate in the garage. You want change? Let the people in power know that you’re angry and fed up. Continue to show up as an ally for your oppressed friends. Do whatever it takes to get your ballot in this November. If Joe Biden wins, don’t rest on your laurels; it will be tempting to take your eyes off government and Congress once the professionals are in charge again, but don’t fall into that complacency. Keep the pressure on Biden and other moderate Democrats to pursue genuine change. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that events alone will do the work for you. And — for God’s sake — don’t wish so desperately for things to go back to normal that you lose sight of how gravely ill the world already was under the status quo.

A Love Letter to Chicago

When President Trump announced his manifestly fascistic Operation Legend yesterday, I felt the need to revisit this love letter I wrote about Chicago. Trump’s promise to invade the city with his federal henchmen reminded me again of my burning affection for that place I briefly called home. To see that enchanting, brilliantly diverse hub of art, culture, intellectual and political life characterized as “out of control” was an absolutely ludicrous attempt to justify an illegal power grab over cities run by Democrats. Anyone who has ever lived in Chicago, even visited Chicago, knows this: the city and its people will not abide outside intervention. It doesn’t need anyone’s help. It’s far from perfect, but the city stands on its own and the people there help each other out. That’s the magic of Chicago that I tried to convey in this letter I wrote on the eve of my departure, that I share publicly now as a plea to see the city the way I do, and not the way the President wants you to see it — as some urban cesspool.

A sudden rain that feeds the newly lush trees of late May, causing me to take refuge in the first bar I find (a cheesy sports bar, lonely in mid-afternoon: one bartender and only two patrons, including myself). A whirlwind tour of mid-century walkup apartments with their decaying wood frames and charming courtyards that become barren wastelands in the winter and verdant gardens in the summer — buildings that hardly exist in the agonizingly twenty-first century city that I come from. An unfortunate encounter with an ex near the Howard station, someone I hadn’t seen in years, who I thought I’d never see again, someone I didn’t even know lived in Chicago. We pretend not to notice one another. A spontaneous visit to the bathroom of the nearest Jewel-Osco to have a nice cry over the emotions that seeing her stirred up inside me (I had to be escorted to the bathroom by a security guard; Howard is a rough location, apparently). Squeezing into a packed train on its way to dump fans into Cubs Stadium. A meeting in one of Lincoln Park’s many posh neighborhoods with a stranger who would soon become my most important — and my only — friend in that city. Getting hopelessly lost on my way back to my Airbnb, at which point I witness a mugging outside a Walgreens in West Chicago.

These are some snapshots from my less-than-glamorous first encounter with you, Chicago. Since these anecdotal ephemera are from two years ago, they’re probably destined to be a permanent part of my mental archive, being instantly retrievable from memory even if no physical record of these events exists. These initial experiences with you might have left a bad taste in my mouth, lingering long after the smell of your sewage has left my nostrils; instead, they caused me to immediately fall in love with you. How could that be?

I think it’s because you don’t hide who you are. If Los Angeles is a city that never turns off its Instagram filter, then you’re a city that’s too old to even know what Instagram is, or to care about the culture of pathological lying fueled by social media. With your unwashed brick buildings and crumbling infrastructure, you leave your grit on full display. But you give us things of beauty, too — the Art Institute, early twentieth-century movie theaters, restaurants offering up food that’s as diverse as the people of Chicago, not to mention an absurd number of spacious parks — and by doing so, you make a point of showing us that urban blight is not all that you are. And we, the people who live here, believe you, because you’ve shown us the ugly side too.

When I first arrived here in 2018, the Laquan McDonald case was rising to a crescendo, soon to turn into what Black Lives Matter activists would rightly characterize as a miscarriage of justice, yet another victory for institutional racism occurring even as Chicagoans elected their first openly gay black mayor. The following year, historical societies, activist groups, and intellectuals across the city commemorated the 1919 riots that were ignited when a black child was murdered by white adults for unwittingly transgressing racial boundaries. With the McDonald case and the 1919 centennial, we were forced to repeatedly reckon with a racial violence so brutal that it would take the lives of people too young to fully understand the complexities of the racist system into which they were born.

These acts of violence happen in a city like you, Chicago, because it’s part of your genetic makeup: you were designed in the days when white supremacy was the stated law of the land — rather than something that’s coyly hidden behind complex systems of legal and social inequality. But people who have come to call this place home, people who have come from all parts of the country, all parts of the world, have also built into you a kind of energy that creates space for frank conversations. This level of honesty is a quality in a city that’s far from easily obtained. Having spent a lot of time in southern cities, I can tell you that one often must do a lot of digging to find evidence of a city’s traumatic past — or even of the evil deeds that continue in the present, for that matter.

But above and beyond your brutal honesty, the thing that has really confirmed my love for you over time is the perspective that you’ve given me on life.

With the passing of each season, you help us gain a deeper understanding of what it means to live in this world. I know every tree in my neighborhood and how they behave in each season — which ones bloom the earliest and which take the longest — because you’ve encouraged me to attend to the cycles of life around me: death in winter and spring’s rebirth. In November, when the snows come, we’re all initially a little eager to play in the fresh powder, but by January we’re all in agreement about one thing: winter here is truly awful. The trees stand naked and skeletal, a dead silence fills the air as the birds hunker down for the season, and the days are stuck in a perpetual dusk. I’ll say no more on winter than that because I’d rather move on to spring — which starts off as a lighter version of winter, but eventually comes into its own with its soothing breezes, refreshing rains, and kaleidoscopic colors. While there may come a point in deep winter that I begin to hate you just a little, in spring I fall in love with you all over again. But for many (though I disagree), late spring is just a rehearsal for the real show, summer: the time of year when all the sins you committed against us in winter are absolved over long bike rides along the lake; a swim in the refreshingly cold, probably polluted, waters of Lake Michigan; days that never seem to end; nights that pulsate with the energy of millions of people who’ve waited six long months to really party. Yet summer wouldn’t beat so hard with the vitality of life if winter weren’t there to remind us of how quickly it can be snatched away. Eventually, the relentless heat and passion of summer does make us weary, and fall arrives just in time to cool our heads and invite us to slow down. We accept this new passing of the season just as we all learn to accept the coming of old age — and eventually death.

Every year you force us (sometimes too harshly) to confront the fact that life and death are entwined, but the presence of the latter only makes us appreciate the former all the more strongly. To varying degrees, of course, this is a fundamental lesson about life’s tricky balance that we all share, one of the few things that’s able to transcend the North-South divide simply by virtue of the fact that we’re all human, living here, choosing to face the deep freeze of winter so that we can feel especially delighted by the eventual arrival of a warm day.

Yet while you may say that life is a balance, in our present moment there are forces at work threatening to disrupt that balance. The virus’ spread has brought feelings of a present calamity to the forefront in a way that the slow process of environmental degradation could not.

Sometime in late March I took what might have been my last bike ride to downtown. On the way down, I rode past innumerable empty bars and restaurants with “closed” signs on their windows: chilling reminders of the economic freeze brought about by the pandemic. Once in the heart of the city, I still felt no pulse. I looked down a street normally packed with tourists and saw nothing but a gaggle of geese slowly crossing Grand Avenue, unhindered by cars or buses.

Even as spring has progressed, I continue to sense a stillness and quietness of death in you. I feel a winter-like phantom haunting the increasingly sunny and balmy days ahead of us.

But a city like you should never be allowed to die. You contain too much history, too many lessons. You’ve introduced me to amazing people, you’ve shown me beauty, restored in me a sense of enchantment about the world that I thought I’d lost forever; but you’ve also made plain to me the evil of which all people are capable, shown me the ugliness of urban decay, and given me painful memories I wish I could forget. Such are the paradoxes of life, though, and that’s the lesson you’ve taught me, which will stay with me no matter where I go and no matter what the future holds for you and me.

It’s painful to have to say goodbye to you; but if I were happy to do so, I would not, in all honesty, be able to say that I love you.

Due to unforeseen crises both personal and global, I moved from Chicago back to Austin in the summer of 2020. I wrote this after I had already decided to move and shortly before my mother died. Since then I have considered moving back, but have opted instead to remain in Austin while making (hopefully) frequent visits to my temporary home city. As you can tell, the city has a way of calling you back after you leave.

I left my PhD program on the eve of the pandemic…

…and I still don’t regret my decision.

Don’t get me wrong, leaving my PhD program was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It produced an existential crisis that I’ve only recently begun to recover from and has had a host of consequences that are still developing even seven months on. Most significant of these repercussions was the fact that I withdrew from the program in December 2019, having no clue of the economic and public health crisis just on the horizon. Yet at no point have I felt remorse so acutely that I would consider a return to grad school (if, hypothetically, I had the option).

Part of what made me confident about my decision were the soothing words from former PhDs who wrote about their own experiences leaving their programs. (Just Google “leaving the phd program” and you will get TONS of results.) Their stories helped me feel less alone, like I hadn’t lost my mind for contemplating a break with the academy. That’s why I want to share my own story about leaving academia, so that if there’s someone out there who’s considering leaving their program, they too won’t need to feel so alone.

The existential crisis of leaving grad school

That one December night, it felt as though I had abruptly erased my entire identity — since that’s what academia does, it makes you believe that you have no existence outside your course of study. Since I was about 19 years old, I had been telling myself that I lived and breathed history, and that I would only be happy if I one day became a history professor. For most of my twenties, I was convinced that I was willing to submit completely to the demands of graduate school because there was nothing else for me in life. So when I suddenly decided that pursuing a PhD in history was no longer making me feel happy or fulfilled, what do you think the result might have been? It was like my entire adult life had been a lie. It was like the biggest part of me had died.

You must not delude yourself into thinking that the only people who leave grad school are the ones who were never really that serious about it in the first place. I know from firsthand experience that a lot of PhD students adopt this attitude; it plays a considerable role in the tension that pervades departments all over the country. Nobody wants to be outed as the slacker in the cohort who’s less committed than everyone else, so we all constantly one-up each other, sharing stories about how we’ve been consuming history books and documentaries since childhood, how we used to love it when our parents would take us to museums, or how we would stay up all night crafting the perfect paper about the French Revolution rather than partying with friends the way a normal college kid might. We lie to ourselves and to others about our steadfast determination to go on with the program not because we intentionally want to put people down; rather, we find it a useful coping mechanism for dealing with the psychological damage that grad school inflicts on us all.

When the day finally comes that the lie can no longer be maintained, it inevitably produces a catastrophic identity crisis. I will never forget the way I sobbed uncontrollably on my yoga mat after I meditated and made the decision to leave the program, or again the next morning when I emailed the Director of Graduate Studies. The emptiness inside of me was unbearable. I felt no desire to get out of bed, no interest in bettering myself or making healthy decisions. I did, however, have a strong urge to tear to shreds the Foucault books on my shelves and the departmental documents piling up around my computer — that was about the only energy I could muster.

Initially, I started overcoming the severe depression that my decision caused by making a list of all the reasons why I left the program. I came up with at least 16 unique reasons. Doing that helped me realize that, despite the short-term pain, this was obviously something that needed to be done for the good of my mental well-being. I also started thinking beyond my immediate suffering and into the future, imagining a better life for myself later on because of the sacrifices I was making now.

Those coping mechanisms I devised for myself were helpful, but it didn’t mean that I had definitively restored balance inside of me. In fact, if it weren’t for the much bigger crises of COVID-19 and the death of my mother, I would probably still be confronting the gravity of my decision in a much more emotional way. Because of those far greater tragedies, though, leaving the PhD program feels like very small potatoes indeed.

Like so many others right now, the hell of 2020 has forced me to adopt new perspectives on life. Now, I no longer construct my identity around things that I do, but rather around the things that make me who I am, because now I realize that, when everything goes to shit, my basic humanity is the only thing that I have control over.

The consequences of my actions

The emotional repercussions of leaving grad school are, I think, the most important to address, but there are a slew of practical concerns you’re forced to contend with as well.

In December 2019, I left my PhD program knowing that I wouldn’t be able to predict all those consequences, but BOY HOWDY, I never expected 2020 to be the year that it’s been. Like many people who keep up with the news, I’d had a hunch that there was some sort of minor recession on the horizon, but otherwise the job market looked pretty good. I had no illusions about how difficult it would be for me to find a job after dropping out of the PhD program (“mastering out” is the polite term), but I didn’t expect to be entering a frozen economy.

But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. Because initially, things didn’t look quite so bad. At first, it seemed like at worst I might need to pick up a serving job to cover the bills. Since I’d already had a robust working background as a server, I didn’t see this as a problem — which isn’t to say that I wasn’t dreading the prospect of returning to the restaurant industry, I just didn’t think it would be impossible to do so.

In my search for a full-time job, I imagined employers would have lots of questions about why I left my PhD program. In fact, this has basically been a non-issue. Sometimes employers will express confusion when they see that I have two Masters degrees, but often times even that doesn’t come up! The fact is this (and this is absolutely critical to keep in mind if you’re thinking about leaving your program): outsiders don’t really know what goes on in academia. It sounds obvious enough, but when you’re cloistered in a university you tend to forget that it’s not the center of the universe. In reality, though, the vast majority of Americans don’t have a graduate degree, so they wouldn’t be able to intuit that if someone has two MAs then that means they were on track to earn a PhD but then “mastered out.” My best guess is they think you just really like school. And so I have been pleasantly surprised to find that my status as a PhD dropout carries little stigma in the job market. Nobody really cares.

And there’s the not so pleasant surprise: the fact that nobody really cares is a double-edged sword. Because most Americans never attend graduate school and therefore have false assumptions about what graduate students do, employers aren’t necessarily going to be impressed when they see a resume decorated with so many degrees. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which most people only value education insofar as it can be used as a tool to unlock job opportunities. The pursuit of knowledge in and of itself does not seem to be highly valued outside academia. We need only look at the current state of the humanities during the pandemic to see where our country’s priorities are. As a result, I have had to find creative ways to pitch my advanced education as an asset to employers — and this, as it turns out, is a hard sell.

The unfortunate truth, one that I really didn’t see coming, is that in a lot of ways my two Masters degrees are a liability, not an asset. Here’s the main reason why: if you’re transitioning out of a PhD program and searching for careers completely outside your field, you will most likely have to start at the bottom because you lack the necessary skills and experience. For me, this has meant applying for a lot of low-level admin assistant type jobs that I’m hugely over-qualified for in terms of my education but hugely under-qualified for in terms of work experience. Yes, I have tried to pitch the things I did in grad school as representing transferable skills (constructing a thesis became project management experience, fulfilling TA duties became administrative experience, etc.), but the fact is that most employers don’t want to waste their time wrapping their heads around how being a grad student is a full-time profession (and a difficult one at that), and they don’t want to risk hiring a candidate who is “too educated” for the job. To them, someone with that much education probably won’t last — either because they’ll get bored or because something better will come along. In sum, if your background is anything like mine, you’re probably a little too qualified for entry-level jobs but not quite qualified enough for anything beyond that.

That’s been one of the biggest unforeseen consequences: a job search in which I’m putting all my energy towards trying to secure a job that really shouldn’t be that hard to get, performing all sorts of mental gymnastics to contrive a way to convince just one employer to take a chance on someone who left academia to pursue a different kind of life. We ex-academics deserve to be treated like any other person who’s made a career change, but somehow we’re a class apart, because in our society there’s just something inherently off about someone who wastes so many years in the frivolous pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. As I’ve already suggested, we live in a time and in a country where intellectual life is often viewed with disdain.

In hindsight, would I have done anything different?

If I knew what I know now, would I have seriously mulled over leaving my PhD program…but then blinked? Probably not. I was suffocating. The feeling was overwhelming — I had to get out. It’s too bad that things got to such a boiling point when it did. Due to the poor timing, I unwittingly entered an extremely tight labor market in which employers are particularly risk-adverse (and therefore even less willing to look at candidates with unconventional backgrounds). On top of that, I don’t have the ability to collect unemployment. I’m also facing the prospect of losing health insurance next month during a pandemic.

Even so, I wouldn’t take it all back. It says something about how miserable I had become that I still don’t regret leaving despite the precarious position that doing so has put me in.

That said, there were certain benefits to being a grad student that I miss — specifically, the monthly stipends, the health insurance, and having my student loan payments defrayed. You don’t know how valuable those basic protections are until they’re gone. (I should acknowledge that not all grad students get all these perks; some grad students actually have to pay to be in their program.)

So, my suggestion to you is this: if there’s any way you think you can grin and bear another several months of grad school, during which time you would secretly be looking for a way out while you continue to collect a steady paycheck from the school, I would strongly encourage you to do so — especially during this prolonged period of crisis. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but several months ago I didn’t even consider this possibility. So obsequious was I that I believed it would be unethical to lie about my continued interest in the program just so that I could collect the benefits. But hey, this is the kind of servility that grad school breeds; while some professors and administrators do fight back against this toxic culture, it remains an overwhelming force in most departments. So, if you’re anything like me in this respect, remember that, in the private sector, people do this all the time. We can all name at least one friend who secretly hates their job but stays with it until something else comes along just so they can pay their bills. So long as they’re still doing their job, nothing about this seems even remotely unethical, does it? If you still don’t feel right about taking advantage of your program like that, I’ve got news for you: your school takes advantage of you all the time.

All this is to say that in hindsight I do think that abruptly leaving your program — the way I did — can be a bit foolhardy. Nevertheless, if there is any part of you that feels like you can’t endure even one more day of graduate school, then you should get out as soon as you can for the sake of your mental health. It might comfort you to know that my department was extremely gracious with me when I left the program. At the same time, I fear that this isn’t the case for all PhD students who choose to withdraw. If you do receive any kind of blow-back from your department when you decide to quit, you should know two things: 1) Nobody knows what’s best for you but yourself. 2) Once you’re out in the wide open world, there’s probably very little your former professors and colleagues can do to detrimentally impact your future. This, I guess, is one silver lining to the fact that much of the public (your future employer included) cares little about the opinions of academics.

Final thoughts, words of advice

I am by no means a career coach, but it should be obvious by now that, through a lot of trial and error, I’ve learned a thing or two about what happens next when you leave your PhD program. Some of this I learned on my own, and other things I’ve learned from reading Susan Basalla’s and Maggie Debelius’ “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia. (If you take anything away from me, it should be to read that book.)

My other piece of advice is this: in your job search, cast a wide net, being as open as possible to any number of opportunities you think might be a good fit with your values, skills, and interests. Beyond the obvious fact that doing so will up your odds of getting a job, you might also find it liberating that your life can go in a lot of different directions. After so many years of being on one very narrow track, your life can finally start to feel boundless again.

Also — and this is a point that Basall and Debelius make in their book — you need to get comfortable with completely reworking your professional biography to make it fit with the norms and standards of the non-academic world. You are no longer trying to get a professorship, so it’s not helpful to talk about your teaching experience or pedagogical theory. Instead, think about how your teaching background gives you the necessary skills to train and supervise people, or to lead presentations. It’s also not appropriate to give potential employers the finer details of your thesis or dissertation research, but it is important to mention how that research background gives you incredible project management skills, a meticulous attention to detail (God, employers love this), and the ability to rapidly assimilate new knowledge.

But in the final analysis, the most important question is still the existential one. Who are you if you’re not an academic? For most people, this is a really tough thing to address, and ultimately everyone has their unique way of dealing with it. No matter how you choose to work through this deeply personal inner struggle, though, remember that you were always more than just an academic; at the same time, you will probably never completely stop being a scholar — and that’s okay, too. In fact, when the dust finally settles, you’ll likely find yourself wanting to engage with scholarly debates again, and you have every right to do so. You are still free to read and critique books, share your deeply informed thoughts about pressing issues with friends and family members (if your uncle tries to talk over you, just shout louder!), or blast politicians for making dangerous, unfounded claims — all of this you still get to do despite the fact that you made the perfectly rational decision to leave the academy behind in order to build the best possible life for yourself.

This was originally posted to Medium back in July of 2020.