Hello gentle readers, thanks for stopping by.
My name is James Olchowski, I write the Valley Nerd Watch. I figured that for the anniversary I should drop the royal we and just talk about what this has meant to me.
First of all: without my mom and my sister – Bonnie and Sara – this site wouldn’t exist. They’ve been incredibly supportive and I’m lucky to have family like them. They’re the people in the picture up top who look like they know what to do with their hair. Also my friend Maggie made the excellent logo in exchange for my cooking her a few dinners, and that was very kind.
I came to Northampton August of 2011 because I got into a PhD program at UMass and I like stopping my car on bridges. I got into a PhD program largely because I had never seriously considered not getting into academics. Carl Sagan worked his magic on me early. I couldn’t imagine being aware there was so much out there that we knew so little about and not doing my level best to contribute something.
My dad died in January of 2012. Just before his birthday. He’d only been able to visit my new place a few times. I was back in Northampton for about a day or two after Christmas getting ready for my second semester when I got the call to come back because something was wrong. He died in the same hospital where he’d been a resident in med school.
After he died, people would tell me that he’d be proud of me for getting my doctorate.
Turns out, staggering raw intellect and a magnetically attractive pair of baby blues don’t actually guarantee that the vagaries of grad school work out in your favor. I graduated with a Masters in 2014.
This was the nail in the coffin. I wasn’t going to be a scientist. And like I said: no other plans. I kind of figured I’d get a PhD, magic would happen, and I’d comfortably compare arcane cognitive models against one another until I got old enough to shout inane questions during seminars and wear ratty sneakers with a tweed jacket. Instead, I spent about a year and a half frantically trying to put together a new career.
One thing about being unemployed is that it destroys your priorities. Because you have no money coming in. So why do you care about anything but figuring out how to get money to come back in? And yet no matter how much time and effort you put into job hunting, it feels like nothing will ever come back. Every idea I had that wasn’t a potential job opening felt like a trap, and every job opening I pursued felt like a mirage.
I was pretty depressed for the majority of 2014 into early 2015. That was around when my then-girlfriend and her coworker started the Valley Nibbler. I liked the Nibbler immediately. It was useful. I thought about what sort of events I might like to see more of in town, and about how my current method of finding out about stuff was consulting with the local haruspex.
One thing that comforted me during this time in my life was that I knew my dad never really cared one way or another about the doctorate. “Just be useful, kiddo.”
The Nerd Watch was a way to work on what it meant for me to be useful. It was a time sink that wasn’t as depressing as job hunting and that I didn’t need to feel guilty about. Every hour I spent finding out about interesting people and places and events in the Valley was an hour someone else didn’t need to waste.
At the tail end of my unemployment, when a lot of resources had run out, it kept me hopeful. It allowed me to talk about something other than the deep fear of never finding work when I met interesting new people. It allowed me to help rather than to be vulnerable.
For that, I’m indebted deeply to everyone who reads the Nerd Watch.
About six months after I began the Nerd Watch, I got a job at a lovely organization with an incredibly neat boss that puts my skill-set to use. After that, the Nerd Watch didn’t feel so much like a lifeline anymore, it felt like an opportunity to help.
So hopefully I’m pointing you to things that are interesting. Or I’m at least making you laugh once in a while with my event descriptions. Or I’m featuring your work in a way that makes it a little easier for you to keep doing what you do. Or I’m making your time as an academic a little less isolating. Or I’m making your job hunt a little less terrifying. Or I’m helping you find the people that make you feel useful and interesting.
Because I owe you.
Thank you for reading, and have a great year. Let me know if you need anything.
The Nerd Watch will probably be out tomorrow, because I need to hang out with my mom and watch more X-Files today. It’s her birthday weekend!