Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Life Report--What David Brooks Didn't Publish

In October 2011, N.Y Times columnist David Brooks asked readers over 70 to evaluate their lives including lessons learned, failures, accomplishments etc. Although he did not publish my contribution, here it is anyway, warts and all. As Elizabeth Taylor said to her seventh husband, "I won't keep you long!" I grew up in Montana and went to high school there on the Crow Indian Reservation. Although I would classify my accomplishments as modest, when I consider the economic and social conditions from which I came (with no indoor plumbing until I was well into high school and being a Caucasian minority in a not particularly hospitable environment), as I look back on it, I think I was surprising successful—particularly for someone who never had a life plan. Now at nearly 72, I suspect like most my age, I can not believe how fast time has gone by and it is difficult to contemplate that I have had many more yesterdays than I will have tomorrows. Perhaps had I known I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself. After high school, I obtained a B.S. and Ph.D. degree and subsequently was a professor at a state university for 34 years during which time I received numerous teaching awards. These were very meaningful for me particularly to achieve them at a university that valued research contributions more than teaching competence. In fact, I almost was a victim of the “publish or perish” phenomenon, but I survived by assuming additional roles in the college that no one else wanted to do—important roles in administration for example, but which most often only received attention if you screwed up and things didn’t go as planned. The lesson here is to try to put yourself in a position where you are irreplaceable—that is, cheerfully do those things that others don’t want to do. Many times since I have retired I have thought how it might have been more fulfilling to have been a carpenter or a bricklayer, so that I could go back after 40 years and see something that I helped construct. As an educator, mostly all you have are memories and nothing concrete that represents your toil. I am reminded of the fellow who wets his pants while wearing a tuxedo—he gets a nice warm feeling and nobody knows he’s done anything. That’s what I thought until this month when I received a letter (not an e-mail, an actual full page letter!) from one of my students of 20 years ago, expressing the impact I had had on his life and that he had recently won a teaching award, he felt largely due to the example I had set for him. Suddenly, I am glad I wasn’t a bricklayer after all. After my early retirement from the university, I spent four years in the Washington D.C. area, one of which was as a Congressional Fellow in the U. S. Senate. Even though I passed through the Pentagon on the Metro on 9/11, was in the Hart Building the day the anthrax was discovered and lived nearby where one of the victims in the D.C. sniper shooting occurred, overall it was a marvelous experience. And it would not have happened had I not, on a whim, applied for a position outside of my expertise, but not outside my interest. Similarly, years ago I complained to a professional organization regarding a publication that I felt mislead students. There response was, “Why don’t you join us?” I did, and as a result still enjoy a satisfying professional relationship more than 30 years later. The lesson here is, not surprisingly, that sometimes seemingly insignificant actions can have meaningful consequences. Unfortunately, I have met few people in my career who were really happy in their work. Contrary to most everything found in the self-help books, my advice is to forget about loving your job (it is after all called a job), but find a position in a location where, when you are not working, you can enjoy what you love to do. That might be considered “settling,” but in my experience it is a better alternative than frequent job-hopping in a vain attempt to achieve perfection. The lesson here is that it is not a sign of failure to set your sights a little lower. After all, you are one of seven billion people and if you live in the U.S., better off by far than most of them, so why continue to frustrate yourself by searching for the mostly unattainable? In my late 30s for reasons that are not at all clear, I started running. Best of all, I kept a log of how far and where I ran. It has become a diary of sorts, and I can look back and see what city I was or what race I ran in a given year. So I have my remembrances of the New York Marathon and many other road races with friends. Although I no longer run, I walk about five miles a day, and my log is up to about 45,000 miles and counting. I am not sure that the lesson is that one should keep a diary, but I would suggest that it can be meaningful to keep a record of your hobby and how you pursued it. On a more personal level, I have been married and divorced more than once. I do not have any biological children, but I did adopt two boys years ago. That was a good choice as was divorcing their mother some years later. Although I have some regrets and made some mistakes, this was one arena in which I didn’t “settle.” It has been playful noted that if one-half of marriages end in divorce, think about what caused the end of the other half? Just because a relationship ends for a reason other than one partner dying, doesn’t mean the relationship was necessarily a failure. Although I admire those who have stayed married for 50 or more years, most of the couples that I know that have achieved that milestone “settled” years ago. And finally through all of the trials and tribulations, successes and failures, as a fallen away Unitarian, I have not been able to find any comfort in organized religion. Sometimes I envy those who have and who benefit from it, but if they are looking for salvation, I think they are fooling themselves. So, as Blood, Sweat, and Tears would put it, I “swear there ain't no heaven and I pray there ain't no hell, But I'll never know by living, only my dying will tell.” In the meantime, in retirement every day is Saturday.