Category Archives: Birthdays

The Not Chair

DislineatedIn a drawing class a few years ago, a teacher asked us to draw a chair by depicting all the spaces around it. Drawing the not-chair, he told us, restarts the mind, tricks it into bypassing the brain’s assumptions about how a chair should look. The exercise does, as he promised, force you to scrutinize the scene afresh.

Figuratively speaking, I’ve been drawing the not-chair a lot recently.

With my 60th birthday approaching Paperclipsand after 36 years of teaching, I’m working part-time this year, meaning I have not only fewer classes but also fewer responsibilities as advisor, club sponsor, or coach. My schedule is largely open. I arrive a little before I teach. I leave a little after I finish. This new regimen is only a couple of weeks old but feels mostly like not-teaching. Assumptions about my life’s purpose have changed.

Like probably most people, furniture fills my day. Usual tasks take up its room: exercising, making a bag lunch for work, commuting, visiting Starbucks, and engaging in various other regular activities you may know as well as I do. And most of that furniture—until this fall—surrounded work. I had little time left over after planning for class, grading papers, meeting with colleagues, and answering student emails.

Now I look for ways to occupy my newly expansive day. I already have one other sort of furniture—writing a daily haiku for my haiku blog—and, in June, I added another by creating Instagram account (@davidb.marshall) for a daily doodle. “Doodle,” though, may not be the right term for what I post there, some of which take hours to complete. Perhaps because it’s easier to draw patterns than it is to think about what I really need to do, I spend a lot of time brainlessly coloring in shapes or painting pages in preparation for making shapes to color in. Maybe as long as I have the time to doodle there’s no harm in it, but I’m never sure whether I’m using time or filling it in. I believe in any endeavor that I can regard as practice—that’s what I tell myself, anyway—but how does one become a more skilled doodler?

Devil's TableclothSo I also work on work more than necessary—planning, grading, and planning some more. My son correctly predicted I’d have trouble kicking workahol, and he was right. I’m still waking at 4 am to reread what I’m teaching and put the finest of finishing touches on lesson plans. I’ve discovered you never need run out of work if you can think of more work to do. I’ve concluded everything takes exactly as long as you have to do it.

Plus, what I want to do stands little chance against what others want from me.fuzzy A life of fulfilling expectations, keeping appointments, and meeting deadlines hasn’t prepared me for initiative. For a workaholic, a fine line divides idleness and guilt. Relaxation seems out of the question. I read the back pages of the paper, listen to podcasts as soon as they appear in my feed, and try to do those household chores I too often neglect. I’m embarrassed to admit how often I check Instagram. Yet I wonder about where I’m going,  who I am now that I’m only part time me.

So far, I’ve found time for everything but redefinition. Where does identity come from—circumstance or choice? Once you remove the chair, how do you draw the not-chair?


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Birthdays, Blogging, Desire, Doubt, Education, Essays, Haiku, High School Teaching, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Motivation, Procrastination, Resolutions, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry, Writing

Father Math

My father was 30 when I was born, a nice round number that should make it easy to say where he was and what I was doing when he was my present age. Yet I struggle with the math and have to do it anew every time I compare us. And the past is murky. Mine is clear enough, but my father at my present age is mysterious. I wasn’t paying attention, though wish I had been.

This week, on Halloween, my son turned 21, a number that sneaked up on me and might have sneaked up on my father as well, though he had seen three children hit 21 before I arrived at that milestone. By the time I turned 21, my father had watched five children leave home for college. Three were already working, financially independent and well gone. I understand now what relief he might have felt, and how empty the house must have seemed, and how it must have felt to be nearing the end of that part of his life.

His father, my grandfather, was my present age—54—when my father was born. My grandfather and his wife started late, and my father arrived as the last of five brothers. The first died in the flu epidemic of 1917, one dropped from the sky in World War II, and only three lived when my father reached my present age. I don’t know if they were close, whether they talked, whether they shared the sense of time fleeing, whether they missed their father or barely thought of him.

I didn’t really talk to my son on his birthday. I sent him a text: “Welcome to your majority, Mr. Marshall.” He sent a couple of confused texts back, and I had to explain the legal meaning of “majority” (one who’s no longer a minor, eligible for inheritance and full legal rights) and why he was “Mister” instead of “Master.” The exchange was much too complicated, and I’m sure he didn’t care much. I understand.

My father would have been my last thought at 21. With so much ahead, I barely looked back, and, though I felt considerable affection for my father, I barely knew him. I sometimes wonder if my son feels he knows me. I wonder if he wants to know me more, as I wish I might know my father more. My son’s life is so exciting, and mine not, really. Just as, when I was in college, I groaned inwardly when my mother passed the phone. What could my father have to say—what really changed in his life?

My grandfather, 84 the year I was born, hardly seems real at all except that my younger brother requested his records from college, and I’ve seen his immaculate handwriting clinging to the lines of his college application. He graduated in 1898.

My son will graduate in 2014, 116 years after my grandfather. Sometimes our generations seem to swim in different dimensions, my grandfather, my father, my son, and me. We meet in shadowy overlaps, layers of future and past that seldom accommodate the present. I often feel the urge to tell my son about his future, but then it seems as futile as telling my father, dead since 1993, about his past. We only understand where we are. Maybe that’s right.

This weekend I intend to call my son, ask about his birthday celebration and bridge gaping time and place again. I remember my own 21st birthday, not as though it were yesterday, but as though it still matters, and I hope I’ll be able to tell my son so. We do so much these days that reaching birthdays hardly counts, but they do count. They are more time together, and, even if we are not exactly together, years layer like pages of a book bigger than any of us.

They are the lives all of us have, do, and will lead. They are all of us, even if in our own time, living.


Filed under Aging, Birthdays, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Thoughts

Ahead and Behind

Other runners must have the same daydream—shambling along at my tired pace, I look up and imagine the back of my younger self racing out of reach ahead.  The two of us can’t be split and still be one person, but, if we could be, he’d be winning.

Like most ex-competitive runners over fifty, my best times are behind me. I’ve nearly used up the expression, “Back in the day.”

Little in life is as quantifiable as the time it once took you to cover a distance.  I don’t figure my time completing projects at work or my efficiency answering e-mails—but I remember my best at every distance.  The numbers have remained relevant because the high school cross country athletes I coach—including my son—periodically ask me, “What’s your fastest at…?”

But I’m sensible enough to know how meaningless those numbers really are.  Some runners—even ones whose bodies have long betrayed them—still see themselves as an X-minute, Y-seconds Z-distance runner.  They regale you with former workouts and stellar performances at races that occurred decades ago.  Their triumphs are as fresh as last weekend.

Okay, me too.  But usually I wait to be asked and tell the story with disbelief.  Those performances belong to someone else.  That I once ran so fast astounds me.  What astounds me even more is that I once trained hard enough to attain those times.

The biggest difference between me and the imaginary younger runner ahead is the spirit behind his dedication.  He has a naive faith in sacrifice, the cumulative effect of daily work, and the tolerance of pain.  He has no excuse for taking it easy—mostly because he doesn’t take it easy—and he’s never as impressed with himself as he hopes to be after his next race.  He’s not nostalgic because it’s not time yet.

His perspective is what I miss, not the times or even the body that produced the times.  I’m lucky I get to work with young runners filled with hope and am grateful so much of their spirit rubs off on me.  However, experience, especially the sort that tells you what’s possible, makes you resistant to their sort of ambition.

Perhaps it’s time for another dream. For me, the hardest part of aging has been feeling less hopeful.  My racing years have ended, and I could turn to other goals, but little seems as quantifiable—verifiable—as those old times do.  Strangely, new tasks often feel like starting over.  Another magnitude of desire seems required.  I gulp very hard to toe the line.

I’d love to shout to the young man ahead of me—ask him to stop for a moment and indulge an old man with a little advice—how does he do it?  I’d love to get a pat on the back, a smile, and a shove.


Filed under Aging, Birthdays, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, life, Meditations, Memory, Numbers, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

Birthday Story

Today is my birthday, and rather than writing reflections as an essay, I thought I’d create a sort of parable to gather all the different thoughts I have about celebrating this day.  This sort-of story is a little surreal and a lot cryptic and very experimental but closer to the confusion I always feel on this day.  For me, writing often means settling things, which sometimes feels false.  I grow so tired of conclusions.  As strange as this piece may seem, perhaps it mirrors what’s in my head today better than an essay might…

14venus1.395Every citizen cycled through the duty, so the remnants of waiting littered the post—half-written notes, tiny totems built of splinters or carved from fragments of shattered wall, a stack of reading well-worth abandoning in the middle.  You were to sound a bell if you saw anyone outside the town walls, but someone long ago yanked the bell’s rope down.  It lay in a shadowy corner like a sleeping snake.

His turn came once a year like everyone else’s, but his stay there felt continuous.  He’d just been pacing in front of the narrow window, just craning his neck to stick his face out and catch scents borne by the wind’s new direction.  Out there were winds.  They whipped tiny circles of dirt in the expanse surrounding the town.  In the absence of anyone arriving, those ghost dervishes came closest to company.  He imagined they were trying to tell him history no one knew.  They’d traveled and he hadn’t, after all.

And he imagined a figure walking out of the horizon, a blur at first, a flicker that could be something loose in a current of air, and then actually a thing with legs and volition moving consciously, purposefully toward him.  Not everyone took this duty seriously anymore—most spent the time sleeping and dreaming—but he’d never been able to accept being alone.  Someday someone would materialize in the distance, and he’d watch, each step of the strange shape erasing a little of the calm forbearance he’d been taught to value.

The hours at the post made his eyes sore with watching and his psyche tired with longing.  He may have dozed a little because, for just a moment, he was sure the figure in the distance would be himself, coming into focus like a reflection in a bowl of water as it comes to rest.  That picture of fate seemed fleetingly right to him.  He was really looking for himself, another self who came from the outside instead of projecting itself onto nights of black and stars.

He shook himself awake, and the fantasy evaporated.  Out on the horizon, the line of trees thinned for fall. A week ago, he knew, some trees must have seemed to burst into flames as their leaves changed, but that hadn’t been on his watch.  He always arrived just after, and sometimes whatever changed in his life since his previous duty felt as wan as trees graying in anticipation of winter.

Soon he’d hear the knock signaling the next watch. He lifted a little statue from a crowded shelf and studied its shape, a woman’s figure whose belly and breasts promised fertility.  Her head and face were unfinished, but he read her inscrutable expression as concentration on the moment she would be two, herself and her child.  His own mother had that moment, and he wondered, for perhaps the first time, how her waiting felt, the inevitable arriving so slowly as to seem invisible and yet rushing up with an undeniable, physical urgency.

And the thought roused him.  He gathered his things to go.  When the door opened, he would be relieved for another year of living.  His eyes off the horizon, he thought of all the different arrivals the world offers.  He thought of his own children, sitting near the windows, looking for their father’s figure rounding the corner.


Filed under Allegory, Birthdays, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, life, Meditations, Memory, Parables, Thoughts, Writing