Tag Archives: Ambition

No Joke

Scanned from a Xerox multifunction device(45)Surprise! Even on the internet, something defies discovery.

In 1982, visiting a graduate school classmate’s Massachusetts home, I heard a comedy album collecting Vermont humor, a combination he called “a contradiction in terms.” The only joke I remember is…

Farmer, I’ve been on this hill for an hour now, ain’t there no end to it?

Stranger, this ain’t no hill. You’ve just lost your hind wheels.

It wasn’t really funny then, and, muted by time and missing a Vermonter accent, it seems less funny now. Still, it sticks. I hoped the oracle Google might peg its provenance, but she turned up nothing—despite every combination of entreaties.

I’m asking too much, have traveled too much. Who wrote and/or told the joke doesn’t matter. Its persistence does. I’ve climbed many hills since, most of my own making.

When my daughter was young, I learned about “catastrophizers,” people who validate adversity and see struggles as graver than they really are. A broader—probably more personal—definition might include those who endow their lives with meaning according to real or imagined obstacles. It’s a terrible but persistent habit.

Sometimes, my own hill feels endless. The formula says, “Must I always be second?” or “They are all against me,” or “I just can’t catch a break” or “When will my train arrive?” Separating reality from perspective sometimes feels impossible. I subsist on my perspective. Without hind wheels, I climb and climb.

For years, I’ve been looking for anyone who can tell me what hill I’m actually on, but we’re all on hills made steeper by their being ours. I accept friends’ preoccupations because I have so many myself. They have—we all have—our troubles. Still, oddly and irrationally, a voice says, “What about mine?”

It’s selfish to crave recognition in this distracted and overactive time, but I look for moments someone turns to regard my hill and, however politely or secretly insincerely, says, “Yes, I see.”

This week, I retire from teaching after 37 years, but, for all the fond memories that time represents, it’s early—not only because I’m just 60 but also because, aside from missing hind wheels, I still have something to offer. The stereotype of an “Experienced” teacher features shuffling yellowed notes, telling students “Well, that’s your problem,” and meeting each wave of pedagogical innovation with “Not again,” but that’s not me. I still love the people I teach. Caring about their learning has sustained me over so many cycles of September to June. I’m just tired, though ready to travel on.

In my fantasy, the farmer offers help. He backtracks until we find what’s missing. He overlooks my self-absorption. He affixes the old wheels or new ones or a facsimile and sends me off, saying, “Stranger, we need wheels. Let’s hope these are meant for you.”

That might end this hill.

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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?

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Modus Operandi

dan_ariely_work_ideas-ted-comThe story of the poor shoemaker keeps resurfacing. As I remember it, the owner of a failing shoe business ends the day with just one scrap a leather remaining and lovingly places it on his workbench, sighing and resolving to close up shop the next morning. Yet, as the kindly protagonist sleeps, elves turn his final scrap into a fine pair of slippers, which the shoemaker sells profitably enough to buy more leather, which the elves—ever helpful—turn into two pairs of shoes… and so on.

I can’t remember the end because I can’t get past elves grading my papers or, in the likely case elves don’t exist, the notion the story metaphorically describes sleep labor or work performed under hypnosis.

My tasks accumulate like towering sheets of leather. I’m wondering, “Where the hell are my elves?” and “Hey, does anyone know a good hypnotist?”

Gretchen Rubin divides people into four types based on their source of motivation. Obligers respond to demands made by others—the parameters of job descriptions, the promise to undertake a project, the crunch of deadlines. Questioners only undertake tasks they internalize—if it makes sense, they will do it and, if not, no. Rebels don’t accept any outside instruction, period, because instructions must come from within. The final type, Upholders, answer calls of circumstance and desire—the source, in or out, makes little difference.

Apparently, I’m an upholder.

Only I’m not. I combine the worst possibilities of all four. Like a rebel, I’m keenly aware of obligations’ imposition. Like a questioner, I must convince myself anew each task matters. Like an obliger, the guilt of not completing something surpasses the pleasure of completion. Like an upholder, I’m unsure when I’m being true to what I want.

Maybe I belong in a fifth category—the Inert. My wife asks whether I want to go to an art fair or the movies or the grocery store, and I say no—not because I can’t, really, but because not deciding is easier than grappling with what I want. A body at rest stays at rest.

Seen from afar, I look disciplined in habit and demeanor, full of conspicuous effort. I rise punctually and early. I exercise daily. I finish work in mostly timely fashion, and—every day—manage. Most of my tasks, however, are furniture, and none of what appears self-discipline is actually challenging. I’m relieved not having to think. The elves might as well be responsible.

Fundamental to Rubin’s motivational types is desire. Wherever the request arises—from you, someone else, and/or you via someone else—nothing substitutes for desire. Whether obliging, questioning, rebelling, or upholding, all paths lead to accepting your motives as true.

But what if truth eludes you? The question becomes, “What do you want to do?” and, until you know that answer, motivation remains a mystery.

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Nuance-ing

“Nuance” isn’t a verb, though I heard it used as one recently. “We just haven’t nuanced the problem,” she said. My teacher-mind cringed. A second feeling chased the first, however. For the U.S., facing problems with so little thought, maybe we could use more nuancing.

I won’t try to write again about American anti-intellectualism—authors as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville have done so better than I—but I’ll describe five contemporary manifestations of the un-complications that plague us.

1. We’ve come to rely almost exclusively on one-size-fits-all-solutions. With hot-buttons particularly, we seek the simplest remedy. Gun advocates regard “gun control” as a guns-or-no-guns question. Because nuanced issues about abortions—how and when and if in what circumstances—suggest fine distinctions, some say we should ban them entirely.

More insidious is the collateral damage of good intentions. I can be momentarily generous and attribute good intentions to FCC chair Ajit Pai as he decries regulations as that, he says, discourage internet research and development, but ending net-neutrality, his one-size solution, seems a weed killer destined to take the lawn with it.

2. Part of our oversimplification arises from a desire to alleviate symptoms, not causes. Americans have a subject-object problem. They wish to treat opioid addicts without addressing the systemic origins of opioid addiction. They howl over individual instances of racism, sexism, and every other sort of bias but rarely get around to institutional forces proliferating them. The impoverished must solve poverty. If you’re feeling stressed by your circumstances, someone will help you deal with it. Just don’t try to cure its causes.

3. For simplicity’s sake, many Americans reduce groups like opioid addicts, immigrants, Democrats, or Republicans to monochromatic groups. A caravan racing from Guatemala must be bad hombres crashing our gates, and we’d prefer not to believe that those tiki-torch bearers, who appear otherwise conformist, yearn for white supremacy. It’s much too complicated to look closely at any one complicated member, never mind examining what subtle influences initiate and perpetuate socially and politically problematic attitudes.

4. Instead, we focus on individuals as emblems of broader concerns. We wish to believe our dilemmas might vanish if we could just get past the Trump presidency when, actually, Donald Trump may be the side effect of decades—and maybe centuries—of problematic American values. His removal may give hate and bigotry less credibility and a smaller megaphone, but what will happen to hate and bigotry?

And our obsession with emblems works the other way too. A figure like Martin Luther King can supply strict standards to complicated individuals with complicated circumstances. Being like MLK (or more accurately adhering to approved aspects of his thinking) can become a weapon to wield against dissent. Behavior like Trump’s or like King’s is aim or anathema, model or scapegoat. Either way it oversimplifies.

5. We look increasingly to humor or righteousness as a remedy, as if extremity substitutes for deliberation and verdicts or jokes are as worthy as science or rumination. Our laughter or pique is mostly confirmation, a pacifier to troubles we can know—and solve—only through contradiction and courage and disagreement and discussion. Yet it’s easier to assail enemies with oblique blows than to negotiate and/or reconcile.

In the end, you might dismiss my whining. I’m admittedly guilty of sweeping assumptions I rail against and, yes, have no answer myself. Before contradiction disqualifies me, however, let me defend myself. Solutions begin by identifying issues, though they may seem inconvenient or byzantine. We face so many troubles. Can we afford easy answers?

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Screed #468

spin_prod_206227001-1A favorite expression of mine is “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Naturally, I use it to describe other people, not myself. But lately I’ve changed my mind.

I not only have a hammer, I am one.

On the most fundamental level, we rely on five senses that create as much as describe our world. We regard as immutable the output of the peculiar apparatus we operate, but temperature can’t exist without some variety of thermometer. The sightless, given sight, have no context for the odd and, to them, senseless stimulus they receive. Attributes we see as inherent can’t be divorced from how we perceive them. We would not detect a fourth or fifth dimension either, but that doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist.

Yet, even without the cosmic epiphany that nails are created by hammers, we fit everything we encounter into a system initiated by experience. Your father may have been a good man or a drunk, but, whatever he was, that relationship shapes your feelings about every interaction now and forever. My own father was a quiet man, not given to effusive expressions of feeling. Part of me resists repeating his example and part of me repeats it nonetheless. In either case, he moves me in largely unconscious ways though he’s been dead over twenty years.

Which might also explain the increased polarization of US and international politics. Indulged by the comfort of dwelling in cyber-zones sympathetic to our perspectives, we see our position as rectitude and everyone else’s as ignorance. I want to say the other side is simply wrong, but, more likely, they have their hammers out. No one likes to believe they’re mistaken. Few can accept being mistaken. Fewer still feel mistaken.

Over the years, I’ve come up with so many tragic flaws for humanity—our unbridled ambition broaching no objection, our reluctance to divorce ourselves from the past, our self-interest, our desperate need for approval, our proclivity for vengeance and hate—but all might be subsumed under the tools that make us tools.

It’s hard to imagine organisms not imprisoned by their bodies and minds, but we have no trouble considering humans free of restraint. We alone, we believe, are unlimited. Maybe our curse is the assumption we alone elude biology. Perhaps the problem is our biology—not hand guns, but gun hands. Our hammers are out and nails are everywhere.

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Another (In 12 Parts)

tesla-spacex-starman-falcon-heavy-rocket-elon-musk1.

In my backpack is a moleskin notebook containing to-do lists for the last few months. Each morning, I write the date and transfer every unaccomplished thing to another page. I add fresh imperatives—a deadline rushing up, an unexpected demand, some aspirational whims I rarely reach.

This habit doesn’t make me unusual, but sometimes, examining those pages, I regard them as others might, wondering at how repetitious my life is, how devoted I am to similar tasks.

2.

The word “another” is called a determiner, which describes words that modify nouns as adjectives do. Though grammarians classify determiners as adjectives however, they see them as different. Determiners require context. Adjectives make distinctions by differentiating one thing and another—the brown dog rather than the blue one—but determiners like “this,” “that,” “these,” “those,” and “another” rely on frames of reference understood by readers. To have another dog, you must know what a dog is. You must be sure of dogs as a species to identify another.

3.

So much of my mental energy focuses on the next few hours—tasks desired and dreaded, classes to meet, challenging colleagues and friends, presentations, tiresome meetings, and other obligations.

Expectation and experience mix like air and gasoline, and I sputter forward on my timeline, looking ahead and back, feeling the familiar in all of it.

4.

A search of “Another” on my haiku blog turns up more than fifty finds, proof I use the word frequently. When you add in work communication, personal emails, and other scribblings, it could be evidence little is new now. Maybe all I expected or didn’t has already come to pass.

5.

Elon Musk says, “If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.” For me, most days, at my age, not.

Last week, Musk launched his Tesla roadster into orbit with a manikin bedecked in a space suit at the wheel. It’s a silly expense—he might have sent the entire senior class of several inner-city high schools to four-year colleges instead—but he must have meant to inaugurate his heavy lift rocket with a grand gesture. He’s said on multiple occasions that he wants us to be a “multi-planet species.” Any other fate, he says is “incredibly depressing.”

It occurs to me, however, that if we move to Mars, it will be us moving there, another footing but not another species. All our tragic flaws will come along for the ride. We aren’t manikins.

6.

What is hope minus surprise? Does hope necessitate believing in the unexpected?

7.

When I was eleven I found a black river stone I was sure could be magic. After soaking it in my sister’s perfume and lighting it on fire, I waited for it to cool and held it against my forehead. I pictured my thoughts moving from my brain through my skin and into igneous rock. Conceptions limit us, I believed then. Notions we didn’t question held us back, so, if you believed something could be—believed it enough—it could be.

Though my alchemy never worked (that I could tell) I carried that rock through another and another move and, even now, I think I know which plastic bin it’s in.

8.

The calendar is a strange instrument. It proceeds and circles. It originates, renews, and repeats. It contrives to describe time and does so in familiarly named days, weeks, months, and years aligned with predictable and comforting patterns.

For a teacher, the school calendar is especially rigid. People in “the real world” remind me their years have no clear demarcation of stopping or starting, no obvious moment of completion or break between one year and the next. I suppose that’s true, but the events in school year are nearly all rites and routines. When they aren’t, it’s usually bad.

9.

Once I argued with a student about social constructs. He was willing to accede we invent some distinctions we then see as real, but not everything, he said, is a social construct.

His example was progress. He couldn’t accept anyone saying we weren’t better off now than in the past. I tried pointing out parts of “primitive” societies that might be better—connections to nature, the sense of common work, lives devoted to essential needs, not material wants. While life then might be harder, harder wasn’t necessarily worse.

Truth is, I don’t really want to wrap my body in a buffalo hide or wipe my ass with a leaf, but I fought with fury for Neil Postman’s insight that every invention produces complicated and often contradictory consequences, and that every sign of “progress” is really “this and that” instead of “either-or.” But, to my student, history was a chain of skepticism like mine, the short-sighted carping about the latest invention—the steamboat or the telegraph or radio or television or computer—ruining things.

In the end, I surrendered. It isn’t my business to deny students hope. Still I heard his faith as proof humans are finite. He couldn’t believe another day wouldn’t bring us closer to perfection. From my perspective, another day couldn’t help being another day.

10.

I’m not saying humanity is like Macbeth whose “instructions… being taught, return to plague the inventor.” Some elements of the present make me happy. I delight as much as anyone in technology’s wonders. It’s just that inventions have been, and always will be, ours.

11.

Growing up in the heyday of NASA, I lived for launches and drew control panels on the underside of tables so I could pretend to run through checklists and play along with liftoffs.

You can monitor the progress of Elon Musk’s roadster online. It’s 1.8 million miles from earth, and its heading takes it beyond the orbit of Mars. Ben Pearson, an engineer who devised the site, saw that his projection of the roadster’s path didn’t match Musk’s and welcomed discovering he, and not Musk, was correct. “I was just relieved to know that I wasn’t doing anything critically wrong,” Pearson said, “Elon Musk is a visionary man, incredibly far forward, but there’s a reality distortion field when it comes to him.”

There’s something enviable in that distortion field, something experience disbelieves.

12.

It’s a point of pride with my school that it does not close, that no opportunity to learn is lost, so it was the rarest of events when, last week, I experienced a snow day. As soon as we learned we’d be off, colleagues asked each other what they’d do with this found time.

Like them, I came up with wild and mild possibilities. But I spent the day preparing and grading, barely questioning if I could do anything else.

“New,” I’m guessing, is also a determiner. Context matters. Who’s using the word, though, might matter more.

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On Humor

article-0-0A6B4B82000005DC-470_468x560Has anyone who wanted to be funnier ever managed to become so?

This semester I’m teaching a class called “Humor and Satire,” and, though we haven’t reached the satire part, I’m beginning to wonder if I understand humor very well. So far, nothing on the reading list, apparently, is funny, and my students’ idea of what’s funny often doesn’t match my sense of humor either.

It occurs to me I might be better off teaching a course called “Humorless Sermons” than one that’s supposed to be funny. No one is laughing as much as I hoped, and, in the middle of the night when I wake up from twisted and disturbing dreams designed to sublimate my frustration, I ruminate on the very nature of humor and what skills or traits (or whatever) a person needs to get a joke and/or whether a sense of humor is inherently subjective, untouchable by education.

Some years ago, during my quixotic teaching years, I devised and taught another course called “The Comic View” and ran into different but similarly nettling issues. Then, students did find some of the content funny, but, beyond sharing what each person thought was funny, they weren’t interested in talking. I’d ask how humor worked—what we can learn about what elicits laughter—and the response would be… crickets. No one wanted to talk about why they were amused.

But at least they laughed at first.

I took over “Humor and Satire”—with considerable trepidation—from a colleague when the class wouldn’t fit into his schedule. He is a director and drama teacher and improv sponsor at our school. Unlike me, he’s quite funny, and, though he helped me design and organize the course and approved the books I chose, thus far I haven’t been able to create the magic he intended.

Why? It might be because I’m not funny or they are not sophisticated enough as readers to detect humor or humor itself is a challenging art form that’s easy to under-appreciate until you try it or maybe that humor, the minute you expose it to the spotlight of analysis, withers and dies. It could be all that and more.

For a recent assignment, I asked my class to write an essay (with the same title as this one) speculating on an essential trait of humor. The elusiveness of the answer, I hoped, would challenge them and—like the laboratory a course like this should be—lead us, together, to more sophisticated questions about what’s funny and why. I haven’t read their work yet, but, based on the number of times I answered, “Is it okay if we quote someone saying ‘fuck’?” I’m intimidated and afraid.

Were I writing the essay, I might argue similarly, that humor is inherently transgressive. It must cross a line or elude what’s “usual” or “acceptable” to hit its mark—but, if true, where does that leave stodgy (and older) professorial types like me? Does assigning a work as humor disqualify it as funny immediately?

My class, in their defense, puts up with me. My misguided enthusiasm, they communicate, is occasionally quaint and charming. I can’t help feeling a failure, however. Maybe an explained joke can’t be funny, but, if so, that truth doesn’t leave me much room to teach. The whole situation leads to a more existential question, “Can anything be taught at all?

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Artist’s Statement II

IMG_1995-1Though unpracticed at improv, I think I understand the principle—place faith in skills you’ve developed and, when the moment comes to invent, you will respond. The same feelings apply to every art form. There are hours of experience… and right now.

For about twenty years, I’ve been painting abstracts. Most of that time, I’ve sought only to play with marks, colors, and shapes to please myself. Every stage alternates pattern and variation, processes I commit to and then violate. Each layer superimposes on the last until the final picture emerges as something unexpected. I know artists who express frustration when their final product doesn’t match their visions, but I rarely feel that. Surprise satisfies me most. If the end point is unanticipated, that’s enough. I await serendipity.

Or failure. At some stage, I hate the painting emerging from blank space. I worry about sophistication most, whether what I’m creating is complex or interesting enough to reward scrutiny and whether it possesses enough skill to seem virtuous. Of course, I can’t see my art as others do—like a grown child, each stage remains visible to me in the final product. But all art, I suppose, rests on faith. If you like it, you think, someone else may possibly (hopefully) like it too.

IMG_0711-1And, anyway, only a fool expects people to appreciate abstract art generally. When I show my work, most people profess to like the colors or specific interesting shapes. They ask, “What did you have in mind—what were you thinking about?” I have answers—a cracked sidewalk, a koi pond viewed from overhead, roots laid bare by erosion, failing paint beneath leaf shadows—but we’re both being polite. Most of the time, my making supplanted my thinking. Referents appear only in retrospect.

Jackson Pollock described his work as “Energy and motion made visible—memories arrested in space.” Abstraction, Robert Motherwell said, is “nakedness, an art stripped bare.”

I try not to care whether I’m any good or not. I mean only to open a conduit to my unconscious and what I’ve seen and absorbed and can offer back—however mixed up—without excessive interference from impulses that might organize or otherwise impose.

IMG_2050Writing, the other great creative venture of my life, is different. In discussing visual art, I feel the danger of explanation. Writing essays like this one, I think explanation might be everything. Gerhard Richter once compared abstract art to fiction. Abstract paintings, he said, “make visible a reality we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate.”

A closer comparison  might be poetry, an effort to represent the most elusive elements of experience. After so many years of trying to say exactly what I mean, Richter’s “postulation” has much to recommend it—regardless of what, in the end, it says.

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Drive Time

retirement-age-pension-fund-savings-886939Every day, almost every hour, I imagine being a sought-after editor, a teacher’s teacher, a designer for Crate and Barrel pillows and tablecloths, a podcaster, a muralist, an educational theorist and consultant, a freelance writer specializing in personal essays, a highly-paid fine artist. I could add masters athlete, but my body says, “no.”

My circumstances fuel these fantasies. When you reach a certain age, people ask, “When will you retire?” Then they ask, “What will you do then?”

I don’t know and blame our society’s new understanding of the word “retirement.” The dictionary says retirement is “leaving one’s job and ceasing to work,” but we’ve revised the concept. Where it used to entail traveling, gardening, doing crosswords, and just bemusedly (and charmingly) puttering about, now it means “second acts,” “rewiring,” and “side hustles.”

The impulse to stay vital makes sense. “The best way to stay on a bicycle,” a friend reminds me over and over, “is to keep peddling.” And I like completing tasks, helping out, creating what did not exist before I conceived it. I love being productive. What seems different now, however, is the vision of a post-work life I’ve absorbed, that, if I’m ready to cease teaching, I need to find something essential to my being and remunerative, preferably something I always dreamed of doing yet never did. I so easily confuse what I might do and what I should have done before now.

Like that other life-redefining moment—college—retirement isn’t cheap, but, unlike college, you can’t borrow for it, which may be what motivates people to remain in their jobs as long as they can. The pension era has passed. In 2002, the average age at which Americans expected to retire was 63. Now it’s 66. If Medicare fades away, we may end up working until we can work no longer, but, even now, if you haven’t saved for idleness, you can’t afford it.

If you have saved, you might still feel compelled to work. Books and articles claim savings justify bold ventures and alternative identities you’ve had to abandon. Like a professional athlete whose playing days are over, your situation is a golden opportunity to remake yourself. You can go back to school or start working in another industry or throw yourself into entrepreneurship… never mind that few places want to admit or to hire or to finance someone of your “experience.”

The “tired” part of “retired” no longer carries much weight. I confess, sometimes every fantasy appears more interesting than continuing down the same road, yet the prospect of starting over terrifies me enough to keep me on the job. My own father received his last paycheck the day after he died. Part of me hungers for an old-fashioned, more traditional retirement, the one where I see a lot of movies and feed the ducks in the park. What if I relearn the sidestroke or take up painting bad watercolors that don’t yield a dime? I’m not talking about idleness, I promise. Can’t my post-work life be busy without being stressful? Is that acceptable?

My school contracts with a service providing substitutes on short notice, and we see a parade of retired teachers pass through. A few don’t have laptops, don’t know how to attach or un-attach documents, and absent-mindedly forget to collect what we ask, but many are vibrant and capable, enjoying students as much as they ever did but going home without papers or parent phone calls to return. They earn nearly nothing—I’ve looked into it—except the satisfaction of putting in a decent day’s work.

There’s plenty of productivity left in me, and I could be someone’s new model employee, but is it so terrible to rest my drive and contribute what I can?

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About Pursuit

57a101e3c724f.imageEvery year, in each of my classes, I try at least one of the assignments I give. My post today is my attempt at a “Hybrid Essay,” an essay I assigned to my American literature class that mixes critical and personal attention to a text, in this case Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

Though I’m slightly over the word count (300-600 words), I wanted to accomplish what I ask of my students, that they make their own encounter with the text the central and explicit subject. I’m asking them what the book makes them think about.

I’ve made some adjustments for a more general audience, and the page numbers refer to the hardback edition.

Midway through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the main character, the runaway slave Cora, asks about the word “ravening.” She encounters it in a North Carolina attic, in the Bible loaned her to practice reading while she awaits a chance to escape again. Martin Wells, her savior and captor, can’t define the word at first, but a few pages later, as Cora urges action, Martin reports, seemingly out of the blue, “Ravening—I think it means very hungry” (178). It means more. Its full definition refers to animals’ ferocious hunger as they seek prey. In the context of the moment, Martin recalls “ravening” as he thinks about Night Raiders, Whitehead’s version of the KKK. “The boys,” he says, “will be hungry for a souvenir” (178). In the context of the novel—and in the context of the issue of slavery and in the context of American life—“ravening” may be a key to our character.

I use “our” deliberately. Dress it up as we will, all Americans seem touched by desperate ambition. Our ravening curiosity brought us to the moon, and our ravening desire created global business and industry. Our ravening idealism believed we might create a utopia where all people are endowed with an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness—and life, and liberty.

The trouble begins with pursuit. In Underground Railroad, the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway’s fascination with the “American Imperative” puts pursuit at the center of American life. He defines it as “the divine thread connecting all human behavior—if you can keep it, it is yours” (80). Something in us, some hunting impulse, believes in ambition even when its object is dubiously valuable and dubiously just.

Americans aren’t unique in their ambitions, but they may be the most conspicuously unapologetic about them. Ridgeway can’t resist bringing God into the American Imperative. The spirit that carried us to the new continent, he says, called us “to conquer and build and civilize,” and also “destroy what needs to be destroyed” (221). Charitably, he includes the will to “lift up the lesser races,” but adds “If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate” (222). All this ravening is, he suggests, “Our destiny by divine prescription” (222).

Ridgeway is a villain, and Whitehead can’t mean him to be an American Everyman. Yet his dark version of American ambition needs to be heard and understood as an inalienable American value. Ridgeway dies extolling his rectitude. “The American imperative is a splendid thing,” he sputters, “a shining beacon… born of necessity and virtue” (303). That label “beacon” sees the American Imperative as a signal aim—up on that City on the Hill—a virtue worth pursuing unquestioningly. Like many Americans, Ridgeway’s “greed is good” mentality places the side effect of progress ahead of primary effects like subjugation and destruction.

Alexis De Tocqueville believed Americans ought to amend “self-interest” with “rightly understood,” the comprehension that desires shouldn’t trammel or prevent others’ desires. Most of us know our aspirations are common. Whitehead goes further to create characters who sacrifice their desires. Cora lists them as “People she had loved, people who had helped her”: the Hob women, Lovey, Martin and Ethel, Fletcher (215). They seek to control what others are controlled by.

Trouble, Whitehead knows, comes from regarding documents like the Declaration of Independence as good and only good or bad and only bad. We must remember the Declaration did nothing to curb belief in slavery as natural or divinely ordained. Though we aren’t slavers anymore, the impulse to rationalize—and to fabricate—in order to justify personal advantage remains. We want to call ambition “the American Dream,” but Whitehead suggests we need to wake up and see its context. “The Declaration is like a map,” his Indiana teacher Georgina says, “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it for yourself” (240). We can’t become so ravenous we don’t continually test our map’s accuracy and limits.

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