The Life One Chooses: Then, Now, and Tomorrow

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I read recently an excellent article by Jesmyn Ward about a book I teach each year, The Great Gatsby. It really struck home with respect to how the essayist suggests that the literary character Jay Gatsby resonates strongly for young people who see limitless opportunities as to what they can do with their life.

I was once like this: young, full of dreams, everything ahead of me.

But no longer. And not for a long time.

Next month I am set to finish my 24th year of teaching. I am married, have two children aged 8 and 11, and work a full time job that exhausts me. I am a member of the middle class. I will turn 51 years of age next week. I am some ten years away from retirement.

My life is highly circumscribed. The obligations in my life take almost all my energy; my “free time” is limited. There are many days when I wake up and there is little I am going to do that day that is enjoyable. I get up out of bed in the morning, a bit reluctantly, knowing this to be true. For example, today:

  • Wake up, wake daughters up (difficult to do sometimes), get ready for work, eat breakfast;
  • Get daughters in car by 7:31 am (sometimes involves yelling) and arrive to daughter’s elementary school for drop off BEFORE 7:44;
  • Arrive at my desk by 7:51, work a full day with six classes and 175 students (tiring);
  • Pick up (often cranky) daughters as they get out of school, get them a snack and make sure homework is completed;
  • Take daughter Elizabeth to her tennis lesson from 5:00 until 6:00 pm while I swim ¾ mile in pool;
  • And back home, dinner, bedtime ritual, and then sleep.

By far the most enjoyable part of the day will be the 45 minute swim in the pool. I don’t enjoy swimming all that much, but it is a good workout that clears the mind and refreshes the body. The pool is quiet. I will have time to think, and I will feel better afterwards. I get some of my best lesson plans while swimming in the pool. My evening swim is the only thing I will do today that is just for me.

How did I arrive at a place where I spend so much of my time in activities I don’t really want to do?

That is a good question.

I chose my life. I generally enjoy teaching after so many years, but I find it harder and harder to endure all the grading and student contacts day after day month after month. And I have been doing it a long time. It is not a hobby or a short-term dalliance; it is a career over decades with ups and downs. Teaching for me is a vocation and a calling. It is also a job and an exhaustion. I don’t regret it. But some of the time I don’t enjoy it.

Similarly, I don’t regret becoming a husband or a father. But especially in parenting, the job is a harsh discipline. The job and the wife and the children all combine to give me a highly structured life wherein I have little time to mess around. My life is consumed with driving daughters hither and thither. My single friends can drink too much or go on a sex vacation to Cuba or weekend of debauchery in Las Vegas. They can ride their bike down the Pacific Coast or hike the Appalachian Trail. I cannot. The responsibilities of my life has helped me to live on the “straight and narrow.” Many men live recklessly without the harness of wife and children set firmly on their shoulders. Married men live longer and more healthily, multiple studies have shown; this has certainly been true with me. There are others who rely on me — this helps me in making “responsible” choices.

I do recognize that plenty of men still make poor choices while being married with kids. But for me to have family and students relying on me gives teeth to the idea that I will not let my demons get the better of me. There is too much at risk. There are others involved — end of debate.

And to be a teacher surely comes with financial limitations, compared to other workers with similar education. We will never be rich; we watch our money. While we have steady “tenured” government jobs, we will never earn a bonus at work or enjoy some huge financial windfall. But we made some $163,000 last year, and that is not nothing. We are not rich; we are not poor. We own our house, belong to a private sports club, and do not worry about money on a regular basis. We live within our means and have enough — and occasionally more than enough. We can go on vacation. We can buy what we want, within means. Our daughters want for nothing that is essential. All the enrichment activities (junior lifeguards, acting camps, money for athletic teams, private sports lessons, writing seminars, etc.) we can pay for. I do not have expensive habits/tastes. We have savings for emergencies. Our insurance premiums are all paid.

I have to say mostly I have no complaints.

So I guess there are the obligations to have the life one wants, and then one satisfies those requirements and enjoys the life that they chose. The good and the bad. Plenty of persons bounce around from one thing to the next in their lives; they never really chose anything. They were passive, not active, in their lives. That is in itself a choice.

No, this is the life I have made for myself. It is going to remain this way for another decade or so. There is little sense of adventure. Kids. Work. Wife. Bills. Essays to grade. Things to fix in the house. Students I enjoy more so or less so. Daughters in the throes of adolescence. Cars to upgrade. Doctors and dentist appointments. College tuition for daughters. Retirement.

I can work around the margins. This hobby or that. Vacation here or there. And the daughters as they mature are always a sort of adventure. Especially in terms of literature, history, and sporting endeavors.

But then there are the words from Ward’s essay —

I first read “The Great Gatsby” as a teenager; I imagine this is when most Americans encounter F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal work. Our teachers, rightly so, hail the novel as a masterpiece, so we read it under their influence, when we are young. We read it when we are bewildered and delighted at our changing bodies, flush with burgeoning sexuality, heady with the certainty of our ascendancy, the prospect of our future greatness shining off in the distance like a great green star.

It is easy for young people to see themselves in Gatsby. His earnestness is familiar. His ambition, twinned with desperation, resonates with any teenager who wants to journey off to college or move states away for work, in a bid to escape youthful boundaries. Poverty made Gatsby ravenously desperate for difference, for possibility. Some, perhaps from similar circumstances, will recognize that and see themselves. Others will empathize because they feel driven away by parents who don’t understand them, by peers who underestimate or limit them, by the larger culture that ostracizes them for one reason or another. Their hearts will be, as Gatsby’s was, “in a constant, turbulent riot.” The “instinct toward … future glory” leads them out into the world. They burn to flee, to grow beyond their birth circumstances. In some ways, adolescence is one great flight.

Teenage readers are especially understanding of Gatsby’s fixation on recreating that moment when his life was most open to possibility, when he could become and do anything. When he believed that if he worked hard enough, he could remake himself. He could ascend to a different social class, a class where life seemed to be an enchanted necklace, each moment a pearl on an endless string. It seems to be a universal sentiment of youth: the belief that, given the luxury of time and focus, one can become anything. Young readers walk down tree-lined Louisville streets with Gatsby and Daisy as the leaves fall. They see a ladder “mounted to a secret place above the trees. … Once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” The young know that golden moment when anything can happen, and they understand its allure because they are living it.

A part of me misses that sense of the possibilities present in youth. But would I ever want to be 19 years of age again? No, not really. The confusion, the hormones, the angst, the unease. But I do miss the flexibility and sense of wonder at what the world might have to offer.

In contrast, I have little hope for what the world offers now. I know more about it. I am not terribly optimistic.

Am I judging it too harshly? Maybe I should look more to the possibilities? Alternatives?

If you expect little or nothing from life or the larger world, should you then be surprised when it offers you little or nothing?

But what should I expect from my career? My marriage? My children? Myself? My life?

Lake Arrowhead, California on April 4, 2018.

One Comment

  • Joe Bostitch

    I think about people who get slapped with life and death sentences at young ages and I can see this process happening to them very quickly. I watched a documentary about the hospice program at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana and I recall seeing a guy in his late 20s who has a life sentence.

    Then there’s Ross Ulbricht, the guy who made the Silk Road. He had his whole life ahead of him, started a criminal enterprise after being frustrated by his failed legit business ventures, and now he has a life sentence in a federal prison in Colorado. He pleaded to the judge to leave him his old age.. nope!