Carpenter, Contractor and Real Estate Developer
Chicago, Illinois -- Carpenter, Contractor and Real Estate Developer
“I just couldn’t take the chasing after a receding horizon.”
Shortly after I requested an interview with Matt, his wife, Amy, sent me the following excerpt from Wendell Berry’s commencement address at Bellaramine University, May 12, 2007. She said that this passage hangs on their refrigerator at home.
“You will have to avoid thinking of yourselves as employable minds equipped with a few digits useful for pushing buttons. You will have to recover for yourselves the old understanding that you are whole beings inextricably and mysteriously compounded of minds and bodies.You will have to understand that the logic of success is radically different from the logic of vocation. The logic of what our society means by ‘success’ supposedly leads you ever upward to any higher-paying job that can be done sitting down. The logic of vocation holds that there is an indispensable justice, to yourself and to others, in doing well the work that you are “called” or prepared by your talents to do.”
Our conversation occurs in an apartment building in Chicago that Matt, now a builder, had bought, gutted and was renovating. The only furniture is the two chairs where we sit,
Matt has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and had hoped to pursue a life in academia. We talk about his belief in Wendell Berry’s thinking and how it conflicts with the realities he, like many of us, face. And, perhaps, how it may have led him astray. Or not.
(Laughs) One of my major problems over the last number of years has been an inability to tell a good narrative about my work life and how I got to where I am and how what I’m doing now relates to what I did previously. It’s been a kind of disorienting period in my life, work life.[In 2009, after I got] my Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, I’d assumed that that was the first step in an academic career.
Then realizing that that wasn’t going to work out the way I wanted it to, then trying to re-imagine what it is I’m going to be, what it is I’m going to do. Doing stuff with your hands and working hard in a physical way to make your living is a value that’s very strongly valorized in my family, which is not a set of values that necessarily often goes with the sort of upper middle class kind of quasi-academic professional world that I grew up in.
My dad got a Ph.D. in chemistry in his twenties. Right about the time I was born, he walked away from that academic track, did classes in architecture for a year and a half, then started a kind of design and building company. He’s become a real estate developer. My mom’s a psychotherapist. I grew up in a very upper middle class milieu in Berkley. [Social] class was always complicated for us. At the time I was about 16 or so, it kind of became clear that a number of these developments that he’d been working on were pretty successful, and suddenly we had a lot of money. Felt pretty rich.
In 1992, Matt graduated from Wesleyan with an undergraduate degree in history. With help from his father, Matt designed a small home, which he and a few friends built themselves on property his parents had bought in a remote area of the Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range in Montana. “We cut down the trees for a lot of the timbers that we used. It’s a beautiful, beautiful little house. Cabin. There’s a strong kind of atavistic, Luddite strain that I definitely picked up from my dad and my mom. I love being in the wilderness. Super remote. Ultimately, we didn’t have any rent. We didn’t have electricity, utilities, phone. Yeah, I think I was making $6 an hour, something like that. But we had some money in savings as well. I don’t remember us ever really worrying about money. I mean, literally, it was groceries and our bar bill.”
I had become a blacksmith. A blacksmith these days makes hand-forged hardware, fireplace screens, chandeliers, gates, railings, all the kind of really high-end rustic items. I had done blacksmithing as a kid. I think I had picked it up at summer camp. My dad had helped me set up the forge. It’s something I always wanted to do more of, and when we moved to Montana, by very, very strange circumstances, I met a guy who was starting a little blacksmithing business, and I asked him if he’d hire me. Then I was in business for myself for a while. I was making things, beautiful things as a blacksmith. But I was struggling to figure out exactly where to take my business. What’s next?
I toyed around with blacksmithing as art, making pieces for galleries and stuff, but I always felt weird just spending time working on something without knowing what it was for, who was going to buy it. I think artists make things because they’re compelled, but that wasn’t me really. It’s pretty grueling work. It’s hard, hard work. (Laughs) I had very big forearms.
There came a moment when I was kind of like, What the fuck am I doing? You know, there just came a moment when Amy and I were thinking about having kids and we weren’t really sure we wanted to live in Montana and do that. Some of the class/cultural issues there made it hard to imagine how we would negotiate childrearing.
I applied and got into graduate school at University of Chicago. In retrospect, probably a failure of imagination on my part, but I had given up blacksmithing, and it just felt very natural to go back to graduate school and become an academic. The only other thing I’d ever really been good at was school and writing and thinking. It seemed like a good life. To say I was naïve is a massive understatement. I’d seen my professors at Wesleyan, and it seemed like they had a pretty good gig. They got to talk to smart kids, teach classes; it didn’t seem like they worked all that much. They had a gym membership; they lived in a cute little New England town. I thought, that must be what all college professors do. (Laughs)
It took most of ten years to finish my dissertation. Then I was on the job market for four years, probably. There were jobs; they just didn’t offer one to me. At a certain point, I just couldn’t take the …the chasing after a receding horizon. It just felt too stalled. I didn’t do what I would have needed to do to move myself forward. I didn’t turn my dissertation into a book. For history people, that’s the gold standard. I wasn’t very strategic about being in graduate school. I really came in with much more of the old liberal arts thinking, like, it doesn’t matter exactly what you do as long as you use it to expand your mind.
Amy sent you that little passage by Wendell Berry, which is great. The moral of that story is that you shouldn’t define yourself by money, that you should find something that you love to do and do it well. You should focus on being happy, not on some socially constructed visions of success. Those are bedrock values that I was brought up with. More or less believe them or whatever, but they’ve been hard on me.
The pushback to Wendell Berry is: it’s a big load to dump on somebody — to have to come up with something meaningful to do. There’s a part of me that thinks, God, it sure would have been easier to graduate from college with a bunch of loans and have to figure out what I could do well that would put me on a career track that would allow me to get those loans paid off and establish a nice little middle class life.
I think a lot about my graduating from Wesleyan University without any student loans. That obviously had a huge impact. I could have graduated with massive amounts of student loans, and I didn’t. My parents were able to pay for my college education.
What were you studying to be?
Studying to be? Well, I mean, I wasn’t studying to be anything. I was going to become educated. It was still a different time, you know. My parents very much bought into the kind of liberal arts idea. You go to college to become well educated because it’ll allow you to do whatever you want to do down the road. The idea of doing college as kind of a vocational school was pretty far removed from anyone’s mind. I just wanted to be educated.
So the loans would have been an impetus to find work?
Right. I think a lot of people are just raised that that’s what you need to do. You need to go out there and conform to these very clear measures of success. You’ve been given these opportunities, and now go forth, young man, and do. There would be something comforting in, or I imagine something comforting in that as well. I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t lots of reasons why that’s not something to wish for in your life.
But the reality is, for the last five or so years, the academic death was slow, was slow and painful. It wasn’t like I woke up one morning and realized, okay, this is not happening. It’s years of applying for jobs and putting yourself out there and it not happening and a growing doubt that it’ll ever happen. And then making the calculations about, Okay, do I really want to move my family to eastern Tennessee or wherever it would be that I would get a job that would allow me to kind of live this academic life? I’m just saying, it was a long, slow kind of death of that dream.
Did there come a time when you finally buried it?
I think we’re sitting in its crypt right now, right?
The renovated apartment where we sit is almost ready to be rented out. The rest of the building is a hollowed out shell. Young workers with paper masks lowered to their throats enter from time to time to get water from the refrigerator.
I spent a lot of time thinking about, Okay, not going to be an academic, what are you going to do? It was in the middle of the recession and real estate had tanked and there were all these empty buildings. Everybody was underwater. I got some money from a dead grandparent here, got more money from a dead grandparent there. But mostly I had enough capital through my parents that allowed me to do this.
So the idea was, Okay, we’ve got all this great old real estate in Chicago, but it’s rundown and it’s super energy inefficient. So the idea of this project is trying to figure out how to do real, mid-priced, energy efficient rental units.
At a certain point, I realized maybe I should just take on the project, do it and kind of see where it goes, and that’s kind of where I am right now — in the middle of taking on the project and seeing where it goes. And to be honest, I’m super overwhelmed. I went from being a Ph.D. student to being a general contractor. I am a pretty skilled guy, but this is all new to me, and I’m making it up as I go along. My dad obviously has been a huge help. I call him and bounce things off of him, but the learning curve is very steep. I wake up in the morning with my teeth gritted wondering what kind of new problem I’m going to deal with today.
The $64,000 question for me right now is what I’m going to do when this project’s done and rented out? Will I run the next project or do something different? I have ideas about trying to blend what I’m doing with my aspirations as an educator. But I haven’t figured out exactly how that would look, to be honest. Amy and I have talked about getting out of Chicago and maybe trying to do something in the Bay area. Just seems so nice. My parents are still there. That’s a reason. But that’s where the conversation sort of stalls.
What do you want your kids to inherit from you in terms of a value system about money?
Shit. Now you’re really getting there, huh? I don’t know, because I’m so ambivalent about all this stuff right now. I will tell you that it is all getting worked out on the baseball diamond. The baseball diamond, right? I mean, we have these two boys who are very good baseball players, 12 and, almost 13 and 10.
I’m very invested in their baseball playing, as fathers are apt to be. But I’ve thought about it a lot in terms of the issues we’re talking about now. I mean, being good at baseball in some ways is kind of the opposite of my approach to things, right? Committing yourself to being good at baseball is a lot of work. First, it’s pretty socially valorized. It’s a kind of success that’s very clear in the world.
It’s not like just your own internal kind of satisfaction with the life you’ve made; it’s a very externally validated sort of set of things. You can even look at your box score and quantify your success or failure or whatever. So, of course I worry that my kids are working out all my psychological issues on the baseball diamond. So. What do I want for them? I want them to figure out how to find something and work hard at it and find satisfaction in it.
That’s where you started.
Yeah. I expect it’ll probably come with all sorts of disappointments. That’s the thing, right? You don’t meet a whole lot of people who are capable of that, right?
Is it possible that whole Wendell Berry thing is a luxury that can’t survive, today?
Well, that’s the question. I think that’s the question. Yeah.
What is it you’re struggling toward, Matt? What’s missing?
Well, that’s the problem. Not a whole lot is missing. What’s missing is a little financial stability. I haven’t earned a decent income in a really fucking long time. You know, we have enough wealth that it hasn’t negatively impacted us as it could have. Amy’s had a good job and all that. But at a certain point, okay, enough already. It’s time to have a decent income.
I’d love for us to be in a situation where Amy felt more free to follow whatever thing she wants to do. Or at least not have it be something she worries about as she negotiates her next existential work-related crisis. So that’s a big thing. What’s missing? I’d love to have a more coherent story to tell people when they ask me, “What do you do?” (Laughs)
My interview with Matt’s wife, Amy Greenspan Millikin, an educator, is forthcoming.