A long career and a happy one

long career


Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times solicits questions from her readers. She posts them, asks her readers to send in responses, and then weaves the whole thing into a column two weeks later.

A recent question went something like this: “I’m around thirty, and I’m very happy with what I’m doing. All my friends are looking for newer, higher-level positions, and are telling me that I’m crazy for wanting to stay put. Question: am I doing the wrong thing?”

This is an excellent question to put to someone like me, who’s been with his current employer since 1987, and has held his current position since 1999.

Answer: why not stay in your current job, if you’re happy?

But this is what will really happen if (like me) you stick with one job for the long haul:

For a while, while you’re new, you’ll see your contemporaries come and go. Some will stick around, but most will move on. (I’m assuming you’re under forty. If you’re over forty and starting a new job, probably you have different ideas. But read on.)

After about ten years, you’ll become part of the wallpaper: no one will notice you. You’re now a drone. No one will worry too much about offending you, because – why would they? You’re not gonna quit. (This can be a difficult phase. You will have the sense that people are looking down on you. And you know what? Some of them will look down on you. You are now, to use another Lucy Kellaway term, a “bumbler.”)

Then, around twenty years into your tenure, you will begin to notice that people are giving you a kind of peculiar respect. You’ve been there since forever, and everyone knows that. You can make things happen. You know who to talk to, and whom to call. You have faced a variety of crises, and not a single one of them came close to killing you.

Your personal appearance will be a little weathered, probably. But you will go on and on. Sto lat, as they say on your birthday in Poland: “a hundred years.”

And now, the last verse of a poem by Elinor Wylie (d. 1929):

In masks outrageous and austere

The years go by in single file;

But none has merited my fear,

And none has quite escaped my smile.


The Visigoth crowns in the Cluny Museum

visigoth-pearl-studded-cross


For a long time I only knew the Visigoth crowns from a poem by Elinor Wylie, which a friend recently quoted to me:

I cannot give you the Metropolitan Tower;
I cannot give you heaven;
Nor the nine Visigoth crowns in the Cluny Museum;
Nor happiness, even.

When Partner and I were in Paris last October, I noticed that the Cluny Museum was very close to our hotel. We went there on our last full day in Paris. It’s an old building with a Roman foundation; there are lots of old relics from the days when Paris was called Lutetia. As you ascend through the building, you find all manner of other works of art: later Roman, Dark Ages, Holy Roman Empire, medieval France.

And among those works of art are the Visigoth crowns.

They are not big chunky Burger-King style crowns in the Halloween-costume sense. They are delicate circlets encrusted with sapphires and pearls and other polished stones, festooned with slender strands of gold. (I counted only eight of them, and was a little disappointed. Then I learned that the ninth, the crown of King Suinthila, was stolen in 1921 and has never been found again.)

They were never meant to be worn; they were to be hung above a church’s altar, as a symbol of royalty. With a little modification, however, they would look like something an Elf might have worn in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

I want lots of things from museums the world over. I want Suzanne Valadon’s portrait of Erik Satie, which hangs in the Modern Art Museum in Paris (though I’ve never seen it in person). I want the Salomon Ruysdael waterscape that hangs in the RISD Museum only a few blocks from our apartment here. I want Ilya Repin’s gorily tragic “Ivan the Terrible and His Son” from the Tretyakov in Moscow, which would look nice over the sofa. I want a Rembrandt here and a Koons there, and a couple of the Monets from the Metropolitan in New York. Also I might throw in a couple of the Unicorn tapestries from the Cloisters, and I wouldn’t mind the Bayeux Tapestry (if only I had a room big enough to display it in).

But I think I would trade all of the above for one – just one! – of the Visigoth crowns from the Cluny Museum.

Is that so much to ask?


The cormorant and the mayflower

cormorant and mayflower

I was walking across the Point Street Bridge recently, here in Providence. There’s an ancient wooden piling / dock beneath the bridge, which is now terribly rickety and unsafe.

But the birds love it. There are always gulls and ducks there, and sometimes egrets and swans. And almost always there are cormorants: lithe delicate birds with slender curving necks and broad wings, which fly low over the water’s surface and dive quickly to snap up fish with their sharp little beaks.

The cormorants were resting that day. It was warm and humid, but there was a pleasant quiet breeze blowing off the land toward the ocean; I could feel it up on the bridge, and the birds on the piling could feel it too.

One cormorant was facing into the breeze, its winds outstretched as if it were flying. It stood and rocked gently in the cool breeze.  I took some pictures, but I’m not very good with my phone’s camera, so you can barely see it:

cormorant flying

“He was pretending to fly in the breeze,” I said to my friend Cathleen later, showing her the photo. “He looked so serene and happy.”

“He was drying his wings,” she said soberly. “It’s just instinct.”

Maybe Cathleen is right. But I prefer to think that the cormorant was dreaming about flying.

It does my heart good to see things like this. Not very many things make me truly happy, now that I’m a sour old codger. Partner makes me happy, and once in a while Apollonia or Cathleen says something that makes me laugh.

But seeing that bird in imaginary flight made me happy. Sometimes small things – a flower, a tree, a bird – take us out of ourselves; they make us realize that life isn’t as difficult as it might be, and that sometimes there are moments of pure unconsidered joy.

Which brings me to Elinor Wylie.

Elinor’s poetry is mostly forgotten nowadays. She was active in the 1910s and 1920s, and died in 1929. She’s a minor poet, but (I think) an important one. I have bits and pieces of her verse rattling around in my head all the time.

This is the last stanza of her poem “As I Went Down by Havre de Grace”:

As I went out by Prettymarsh

I saw the mayflower under the leaves:

Life (I said) is rough and harsh

And fretted by a hundred griefs:

Yet were it more than I could face,

Who have faced out a hundred dooms,

Had I been born in any place

Where this small flower never blooms.


“Principal Principle,” and teaching, and teachers

2012_season_poster


Partner and I saw a brand-new play called “Principal Principle,” by Joe Zarrow, at Brown the other evening. It’s a funny / serious look at a year in the life of four high-school teachers, seen from the teachers’ workroom. Overall, it was excellent: crisp dialogue, good use of devices like the P.A. system (what would school be without one?), and (as usual) really excellent performances by the five actresses in the show.

 

 

(It was a new play, and not perfect. The ending was a little unsatisfying. Some of the moral dilemmas seemed a little too pat. And the passage of the school year – we began in September, so we knew that intermission would be December and the ending would be May – was a little too clockwork-predictable, like the passage of time in a Harry Potter novel.)

 

 

But it made me thoughtful about the teaching profession.

 

 

Firstly, it made me (again) grateful that I did not choose teaching as a career. I am not built for it. I have tried it, fitfully, over the years, in harmless small doses that did no real harm to my “students,” and I know for a fact now that I was not constructed to be a teacher. I am tough, in my lotus-blossom way, and (in the words of Elinor Wylie) I have faced out a hundred dooms, but if I’d ever tried to be a real honest-to-god teacher, I’d have been a gibbering wreck by mid-October.

 

 

This leads me, secondly, to give honor and respect to the very many good / great teachers I’ve had in my life. One of them is actually now my Facebook friend, forty years later. She was a wonderful teacher, and is now retired, and has now dedicated her life to being an all-around wonderful human being. Other great teachers – from grade school, intermediate school, high school, college, grad school – crowd to mind. They were distinctive, and authoritative, and knew their onions. Some were funny; some were stuffily serious; some were alternately remote and chummy. (I guess that’s to say that they were, in general, various types of human beings.)

 

 

This leads me, thirdly, to say that I feel vaguely nauseous when I hear people (mostly Republicans, strangely enough) talk about teaching as if it’s a well-paid racket run by crooked unions. I wonder, sincerely, if they’re playing to the fact that there’s a significant chunk of the population that hated school, and always regarded teachers as the enemy. (You know: dullards and idiots. And there will never be a shortage of those.)

 

 

So I suppose “Principal Principle” was a pretty good play after all, if it caused me to do all this deep thinking after seeing it.

 

 

(Of course, there were two women sitting behind us eating potato chips for a while. But I turned suddenly and gave both of them the Deadly Radioactive Stare a few times, and it seemed to quiet them down (although one had a nasty cough, and kept spraying Partner with dengue fever, or whatever she had).)

 

 

(But isn’t that what theater is all about?)


 

 

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