A few weeks ago, I cleaned out my office at Missouri State University, in Springfield, where I’ve been a professor since 1999. I retired this Fall, following my wife, Nancy, who in the Spring finished fifteen years of teaching high school. It’s been three years since I’ve set foot in the office after Covid-19 first hit back in the Spring of 2020, though I have been on campus a few times since then: for department meetings, once they resumed in-person; to get my Covid-19 vaccinations and booster shots; and most recently to man the department’s booth at what would be my last Major’s Fair, where I realized that I’d been gone so long, I no longer knew any of our students.
I dreaded confronting my three-years-unoccupied office, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it already was largely emptied, especially of the books that once had filled its shelves. Less pleasant was remembering why: that even before Covid-19 hit, I’d already felt sufficiently estranged from my university not to want to spend much time there and had moved the majority of my books into my home-office. This is also why a number of framed prints I’d bought sat at the office door still wrapped in plastic. By the time they had arrived, I’d already started working from home and saw no reason to decorate an office where I no longer would spend any significant time. (I’d forgotten I even bought the things.) Only a four-cup coffee machine, an old pair of workout sneakers, an umbrella, and my academic cap and gown slung over several stacked folding chairs (in happier days, students would come by just to hang out) betrayed the fact that I used to be there quite a lot.
My retirement is early – I am 54 – and driven by “events,” specifically, my father’s death last January from congestive heart failure. Covid-19 turned domestic air travel into an even greater catastrophe than it already was, post 9/11, and as I discovered through my father’s protracted decline – which saw me dashing back to New York again and again with every emergency – getting there and back again from southern Missouri via the commercial airlines is tortuous and unreliable; so much so that in the final, wintery months of my dad’s life, I chose to do the punishing two-day drive, rather than play airline-roulette. As my mother now lives bereaved and alone in the house on Long Island in which I was raised, a move back East is necessary. Nancy and I have been living in Springfield for the past twenty-four years, and it is where our daughter was born and spent her childhood and adolescence. This is the first house we have ever owned and will be the last. One ending begets another.
When I first arrived in 1999 at what was then Southwest Missouri State (SMS), I’d already taught for years as an adjunct in the CUNY and NYC community college systems. Back then, SMS was a regional university that served students primarily from Missouri, eastern Kansas and Oklahoma, and northern Arkansas, and it did so well. (The school remains largely regional in its draw today, regardless of the name change and pretensions at something grander). A thing that I used to say but no longer do was that we offered a first-rate education to students who, but for their backgrounds and circumstances, might have gone to a top public or private school anywhere in the country, and for my first five or six years, student quality and interest in philosophy at SMS was high. We had outstanding majors and minors – several of whom went on to top graduate programs – and an active philosophy club that not only brought in speakers and held events that could fill lecture halls but the members of which socialized at a local bar – named “The Epicurean,” funnily enough – that for years was our regular spot. Classes were a joy to teach, as student discussions were enthusiastic and smart.
My commitment ran deep, and I grabbed every opportunity and played every role possible: several terms as a Faculty Senator; a stint as Program Director; several Chairmanships of our college’s curricular council, and even more departmental search committee Chairs. I created and financed a departmental scholarship, aimed at first-generation college students. But most rewarding were the relationships I developed with the students and faculty in Art and Design. Having been hired to teach our upper-division course in Aesthetics, I noticed that the class regularly enrolled a healthy number of Art and Design students. I reached out to the then-Department Head, Martin Rosenberg (who has long since decamped to Rutgers), and we agreed to make our relationship formal, granting elective credit to A&D majors, minors, and graduate students who took Aesthetics. Beyond raising the proportion of these students in the class to half its population, this also marked the beginning of my service on Senior Show committees (as a condition for graduation, all A&D students are required to do a Senior Show of their work, vetted by a faculty committee of their choosing), which became one of my favorite things to do as professor. The last one I worked on, before Covid-19 hit – and probably my favorite of them all – was a large-scale, multi-element, mobile sculpture of the solar system, constructed from industrial-grade metals by a young woman whose personality was as big as her installations.
It would be inaccurate to say that my university’s decline was the direct result of the name-change, but undoubtedly our becoming “Missouri State” university and taking on a “statewide mission in public affairs” (I cringe every time I write or see this insipid slogan) led to a shift in priorities and management that bears a heavy responsibility. Suddenly, it was no longer enough to be a great teaching college for a regional population too poor or provincial to send their children up and away. Now, we had to add a raftload of expensive (and mediocre to lousy) graduate programs and “professional doctorates,” so as to become a cheaper, somewhat less shiny, easier-to-get-into version of the University of Missouri, which began a race to the bottom-line that fundamentally transformed everything we did.
Saddled with one ambition- and scandal-soaked university President after another, we lurched from one “initiative” to the next, as each President tried to build a resume that would land him an even better job than a half-million-dollar-a-year university presidency. Support was yanked from liberal and humanistic disciplines in order to feed the new graduate programs and “professional doctorates,” and the coarsest version of the consumerist mentality took over. The clearest example of this was the collapse of Modern and Classical Languages, which had been sustained through a requirement for the Bachelor of Arts degree of two years’ coursework in a foreign language. As one might expect, students chafed against this, but rather than tell them what adults have been saying to young people forever about such things, viz., “sorry, but you have to do it,” the university added Bachelor of Science options to every degree program (the BS has no foreign language requirement), which means that no student on campus ever need take a course in foreign language again. Language study on campus was thereby doomed, and the merger of the College of Arts and Letters, a few months ago – in which Modern and Classical Languages is housed – and my own College of Humanities and Public Affairs seals it. The philosophy department, which has hemorrhaged majors and lost enrollment over the last decade and is constantly threatened with elimination, will go too, as Classics did some years ago. And so, the place in which I spent my entire academic career – as well as my entire thirties, forties, and half my fifties – likely will not survive my leaving it. At least not intact.
My father, Alexander Kaufman – “Aba” to me; “Pop-Pop” to my daughter; “Alex” to everyone else – was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1928. His family fled Germany for British, Mandatory Palestine, when Hitler came to power in 1933. By adolescence, my father had joined the Haganah, and in 1948, he fought in the War of Independence out of which the modern state of Israel was born. He met my mother, they married after the war, and the two of them moved to New York in the 1950’s. I was born in 1968 and enjoyed a happy childhood and adolescence in a lovely suburb on the north shore of Long Island, before heading off to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan in 1986 and the adult life that would come after.
If the expression ‘self-made man’ is ever apt, it describes my father. Each new turn in his life brought him to a place where he was penniless and did not know the language, and each time, he not only made the best of his circumstances but excelled in them. In Mandatory Palestine, he was part of the generation that founded a new nation. In the US, he created and ran a design company that would become an industry-leader, and when he was done with that, he became a successful investor, consultant, and real estate developer. Aba was an impressive man: powerful, iron-willed, talented, funny, and charming.
He was wonderful with children: with me, as a child, and with my daughter, when she was one. In part, this was because Aba retained a child’s enthusiasm throughout his life, but it also was because he took an untrusting, confrontational posture with adults. Relations with business partners and associates would be strong for a while and even cross over into friendships, but would sour as my father became disenchanted for one reason or another (in fairness, they often were good ones). This is why he sold his design company and moved into forms of business that require neither employees nor partners. And as I settled into adulthood myself and began to learn the ropes of managing what had become a substantial, Aba-created “empire,” he regularly would emphasize to me that while one needed other people – lawyers, brokers, etc. – they were essentially idiot-savants who knew their business and nothing else; whose knowledge and ideas were conventional; who tended to be venal and self-serving; and whose advice, consequently, should be taken with loads of salt.
The things that Aba had enjoyed sharing with me so much, when I was a child – trick-or-treating on Halloween, as I wore the costumes he had made with his own hands; traveling through America, Europe, and the Middle East; and Little League baseball, which he adored both for the endearing incompetence with which we played the game at eight and nine years-old, and for the spectacle offered by over involved parents – gave way in my adulthood to activities and pursuits that he either was unable or unwilling to share in and enthuse over, other than as signs of my material success. Undergraduate degrees in philosophy and history and a doctorate in philosophy effected a tremendous leap forward in my education and understanding, bringing me leagues beyond my father who, despite being brilliant and talented and knowledgeable, had never gone past the sixth grade. But, not only did our conversations which had been so plentiful and exciting when I was a child not expand and deepen, they almost entirely disappeared to be replaced by exchanges that were more like listening to stock speeches than conversing. Aba was proud of my accomplishments and the positions and professional ranks I attained, but I never was able to share things with him in the way I had when I was young. (Over years of giving papers at Oxford, for the annual meetings of the British Society of Aesthetics, I could get him excited about Oxford, but never the papers.) Only the birth of my daughter, Victoria, brought back the enthusiasm and involvement that so characterized him during my childhood, and for a time – up through her Bat Mitzvah, as I think about it – he seemed like the Aba I remembered from my own youth. But as Victoria drifted into adolescence and then adulthood herself, and as my father approached his final years, he withdrew more and more into his own universe; one that became smaller and tighter as his impairments multiplied and intensified and the disease that finally would kill him took hold.
His last few years were largely of his own making. They begin with a six-week hospitalization and institutional rehabilitation that revealed he was suffering from congestive heart failure. But, out of a combination of denial, stubbornness, and the fact that he did not understand much of what his doctors were telling him and lacked the respect for their expertise to shut up, listen and do what he was told, he refused to take the steps necessary to effect a less torturous, more peaceful end for himself (and for everyone else). He would not move into a managed environment and would not do what was necessary to get the house into the kind of shape required to keep two 90-somethings, one of whom was profoundly ill, safe and comfortable. With each hospitalization (and there were more than I can count), he would be returned home, having promised to accept the 24/7 care he required – and whom I hired each time – only to fire them a few days or weeks later. On one particular occasion, well into his decline, I was visiting after some hospitalization or other and awoke to screaming coming from my parents’ bedroom. I ran upstairs to find my father sitting naked on the edge of the bed, with the outgoing night-aide and the incoming day-aide standing there. He had decided he didn’t like the looks of the day-aide and told him to get out or he’d call the police. I told Aba that he needed the aide. He said he did not. I told him to stand up and show us. He said, “I don’t take tests.” The aide was sent away.
Aside from picking out burial plots for himself and for my mother (and funnily enough, for my wife and me), my father did absolutely nothing to prepare for his decline and death, and once they came, it fell entirely on me to handle, even as he fought my every effort. My mother, who belonged to a generation of women who were not generally heads of households, was not in any position to contradict or oppose him (ten years earlier, privately, she had confided to me that she wanted to go into a managed living environment), and because Aba was so unreasonable, so unpersuadable, so willful, I had to lie, cheat, manipulate, and take advantage of his impairments just to get things into a not-entirely-disastrous state. Indeed, at the end of his last hospitalization, I lied to his face that they would not release him unless he signed the hospice papers, and because he wanted to get out so badly, he signed them.
When I last saw him, he was gasping and in agony, only recognizing me for a fleeting moment, something that would not have happened had he done what had been advised to him, for years by this point. He died the very next night, just a few hours after I’d returned home to Missouri.
Joan Didion’s, The White Album (1979) begins like this:
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea… We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
In Didion’s first novel, Play it as it Lays (1970), Maria, the protagonist, has rejected any narrational view of her life, repeatedly telling us that “nothing applies” and thereby adopting the ethos of the gambler. By the book’s end, she is the only one of her group of friends to have survived relatively intact the dashed hopes, shattered illusions, and never-t0-be-accomplished dreams of Hollywood and of America more generally; the only one who can bear to “keep playing,” as her best friend BZ describes the act of living, before he commits suicide.
I don’t feel good about the big endings I’ve experienced so far: the career whose finale saw the university and department I’d spent it in teetering on the brink of collapse, with all the good memories lying well in the past; the relationship with my father that was so tense and desperate in his final years, but which already had lost most of what once made it so special; the last twenty-plus years of life spent in a place that feels like what it had to offer got used up a decade ago, and which aside from being where we spent our careers and raised our daughter, might have been anyplace, anywhere. Even Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I spent just four years, means more to me.
‘Ending’ has a literal connotation, according to which it means that something is over; finished. But it also has a literary sense, in which it represents the culmination of a story; something that implies a shape and a direction; a way things are supposed to be; an “end,” in the teleological sense of the word. And it is this second sense of ending that informs the feelings of fulfillment, ambivalence, or disappointment that we experience when it is reached.
One problem is that lives are not entirely in the control of those living them: both the circumstances of and people in one’s life represent independent variables and may go in this that or the other direction, no matter what one does. No effort I made would have changed my father’s decisions and behavior late in his life or the direction in which my university chose to go. A life treated as a story written by a committee of other people and capricious circumstances can only be filled with disappointment and failure.
Another issue is that a story is conceived and begins at a specific point in one’s life, but we all change as we get older. Something I wanted at twenty may not be so important at forty. Something that means everything to me at fifty-four, might have meant nothing when I was thirty. But beyond the obvious fact that people and their aspirations change over time, the sparkling magic that things can have when one is young does not carry over into middle and older age. We lose the capacity for a kind of enchantment that is only possible when one is young, fresh, inexperienced, and naturally prone to magical thinking: first love; first romance; first time abroad; first time living on one’s own. These have a quality that is never felt again, as a degree of disenchantment and demystification are inherent to mature life. And it’s a good thing too, as both are necessary to successfully navigate the deep, complicated, and often difficult waters of that life.
So, of course four years in Ann Arbor made a bigger impact on me than twenty-four years in Springfield. I was eighteen then, enrolled at the University of Michigan, and living away from home for the first time. By the time I arrived in Springfield, I was thirty-one and engaged to be married. And though technically starting my “career,” I’d already taught philosophy at the college level for seven years, while in graduate school. So, another problem with lives-as-stories is that in addition to outgrowing them, as we slowly turn into our older selves, we no longer have the kind of mindset in which they make much sense. They are formed when we are young, inexperienced, romantic, and excitable, but we hold onto them – in my case, tightly – long past the time that they are either useful or apt. Boundless romanticism and magical thinking are constitutive of a healthy child’s mind. In a well-adjusted adult, they are liabilities.
But Maria’s choice – “nothing applies” – also seems distasteful. It’s all very well to “keep playing,” but inevitably, at some point, one will want to know “what for?” People, for the most part, are not made to be aimless and random: to hope and aspire and make plans not only seem quintessentially human, but part of what make it potentially such a joy. This is not to deny the beauty or significance of the accidental pleasures and good fortune that occasionally surprise us with their unexpected bounties, but simply to observe that human happiness seems wrapped up with hoping for things and seeing them through; so much so that life seems diminished without it. Indeed, this is what I found so dissatisfying about Stoicism. It’s all very well to classify the things over which we have no control as “indifferents” and to tell us that we shouldn’t be distressed by them when they go wrong, but the notion that a life in which none or few of the things one hoped for and worked towards have come to pass but where one has “tried well” should (or could) be satisfying, because the latter is “in our control,” while the former is not, is either silly or glib or both.
The trick, then, is to find a way of thinking about one’s life that is neither narrational nor that of the aimless gambler for whom “nothing applies,” but also not that of the Stoic who claims that success and failure have nothing to do with “flourishing.” Though also somewhat glib, the old chestnut, “it’s the journey not the destination” seems to hold some promise, but it will require thought and development and hopefully, greater sophistication. I’m working on it.