Wednesday, May 9, 2012

the superannuated woman + white bean dip

This morning, out of habit, I woke up early. Then I remembered what day it was. Lazily, I picked up my phone, checked Facebook and email, and then rolled over and went back to sleep for another two whole hours. When I woke up, I ambled into the kitchen, made a cup of coffee, and piled some egg salad on top of a toasted English muffin. Sitting at the computer, I nibbled at breakfast as I reread Charles Lamb's essay "The Superannuated Man."

In this brief and delightful work, Lamb's narrator describes the effects of his working life, his astonishment at his employers' insistence that he finally retire (with an annual pension worth two-thirds of his salary), and the sudden, unaccustomed experience of now being at liberty to do whatever he wants. He sees his retirement as a seemingly endless vista of days that all run gloriously together. He wanders through gardens and book stalls and museums, sauntering here and there, led only by impulse and whimsy. It feels to him as though his professional career, though it only ended the day before, transpired an eternity ago.

The essay made me think of D's father and mine, who are both getting closer to retirement (in the case of the former dad, in just a couple of months). Our parents are all smart people who have tried to prepare financially for their golden years, but you only have to watch those financial planning commercials to know that it's a tough economy for retirees. That's a subject for another day. More generally, as a daughter(-in-law), I hope both men have thought about what they want to do - or not do - with their time when they finish working in their current positions.

But back to the essay. I admit that, on a smaller scale, I too feel a certain connection to Lamb's sentiments, as a teacher who posted final grades last night and is contemplating—though not an indefinite retirement—at the very least, an entire summer to spend however I choose.

Somewhat unlike Lamb, though, this prospect makes me feel guilty, lucky, and worried, all at the same time.

First, guilty, because—well, generally because I feel guilty about everything. In this specific case, I feel guilty because teaching is a something I enjoy, and I miraculously managed to land a full-time job doing it, and the job market is a horrific place for humanities Ph.Ds, and so many brilliant teachers I know don't have full-time jobs. What I do? It's a great gig. (I have to smile every time I use that last phrase. One evening several years ago, I went to dinner at a newly-opened chain restaurant in Athens with Valerie and Casie, who were, like me, enjoying the indolence of summer. Our server was one of the most socially inept individuals any of us had ever met. She kept trying to butt into our conversation. We were polite at first, thinking she was just being friendly, but when it continued, we tried to subtly discourage her by responding minimally to her conversational gambits. She still didn't take the hint, so at one point the three of us physically turned away from her, trying to indicate with our body language that we were having a private dinner, and that she should please just take our order, come back briefly to ask us if we needed anything, and then leave us alone. To illustrate the extent of her obliviousness: she managed to barge into a discussion we were having about that stupid Extra Sugar-Free Gum commercial with the cartoon stick of gum that had a Scottish brogue. How the hell does a person manage to weasel into that conversation? We agreed quietly that henceforth, none of us would respond to anything she said that wasn't related to our orders. Her name was Kristin—the word is burned into our memories—and she doggedly continued to try and make small talk with us, telling us how she had gotten an art degree at UGA and was thinking about going back to get an MFA in silversmithing because she just really liked being in school. Her story was met with awkward silence. I admit it: I was weak, the first one to break. I said lamely, "Well, it's a great gig..." Casie and Valerie's heads swiveled slowly in my direction, eyes widening at my betrayal. Later, Valerie scoffed, "'A great gig'? What are you, a roadie from the '70s?")

So. I have to give her credit because Kristin got it, too: teaching and grad school can be nice work if you can get it - and if you're very, very lucky. No, it will never make a body rich. It takes a lot out of you and requires more working at home than most people realize. Still, in many places it's only nine or so months of teaching a year, and I'm lucky enough to work at a school where we get paid for twelve. I get to read interesting, and sometimes downright gorgeous and inspiring, material. It's only two or three days a week of being on campus. I feel profoundly grateful for all this. And then there's the incredibly rewarding part where I get to facilitate and witness other people's personal and intellectual growth. At regular intervals during each semester, I have the privilege of watching light bulbs come on over the heads of people who are having epiphanies right in front of me. Looking out at a room full of faces incandescent with new knowledge, I often feel a similar vicarious thrill to that of Wordsworth's speaker in "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey," who declares to his younger sister:

              For thou art with me, here,
         [...] thou, my dearest Friend,
         My dear, dear Friend, and in thy voice I catch
         The language of my former heart, and read
         My former pleasures in the shooting lights
         Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
         May I behold in thee what I was once [...]

Finally, I feel worried this morning because at the end of the semester, I usually immediately lose it for a couple of weeks. I tend to postpone dealing with any pressing emotional and psychological issues until the year is over—so when I post grades and finally look up, there's usually an enormous pot of crazy, boiling the hell over, right there on the back burner of the stove. 

The worst thing that I could have done to myself after I finally finished my dissertation was not to have a new, all-consuming project at the ready to supplant that mammoth undertaking. The other Ph.Ds I've consulted agree: it does weird things to your mind to spend years and years and years obsessed with a project that you always feel you should be working on instead of doing whatever else you're doing - so that even sitting down and having dinner feels like you're slacking—and then, suddenly, to have that project removed from your life. The same with a semester. Months and months and months of nonstop grading, that bane of every teacher's existence. I can't read a book / take a trip / clean out my closet; I need to be grading this weekend. We wait with bated breath for that balmy day in May or June when our free time becomes legitimately, completely our own.

But here's the kicker: when that happens, many of us don't know what to do with it. For a certain kind of person, idleness can feel more oppressive than The Giant Stack of Grading. When the grade book is finally closed and the lesson planning is finished, it's disconcertingly quiet. My friend MJ, also a teacher, agrees with me that she gets depressed when she has nothing to do. This summer, she's taking a job she doesn't particularly like, in order to avoid the dismaying experience of being at a loose end.

So, while I am profoundly grateful for my time off, I don't entirely agree with you, Charles Lamb, when you say, "Man, I verily believe, is out of his element as long as he is operative." Maybe it's the Capricorn work ethic; I'm not there yet. Still, I admire your ability to embrace indolence. I figure it's something I need to figure out, myself - and figure out well prior to, God willing, my own future years of superannuation.

All that is to say: here's where the blog comes in. I hope it - and the sizable stack of unread books on my nightstand - might just keep me from losing it this summer. To those of you who are reading my reflections here: thank you. For good or ill, you can expect more frequent posts from me this summer as, à la Lamb, I fill up my hours with what I hope will be leisurely (yet also fruitful) meandering:

         I am to be met with in trim gardens. I am already come to be 
         known by my vacant face and careless gesture, perambulating 
         at no fixed pace, nor with any settled purpose. I walk about; not 
         to and from. They tell me, a certain cum dignitate air, that has 
         been buried so long with my other good parts, has begun to 
         shoot forth in my person. I grow into gentility perceptibly. When 
         I take up a newspaper, it is to read the state of the opera. Opus 
         operatum est. I have done all that I came into this world to do. 
         I have worked task work, and have the rest of the day to myself.

Well, for at least as long as the summer lasts. 

portrait of indolence

And here's a snack for the afternoon of your leisure.

A couple of recipe notes: first, the original recipe calls for cannellini beans, but I like to use great northern beans because I like how creamy they are. Your choice, as always. Second, feel free to play with adding or subtracting the "accent" ingredient(s). I usually add kalamatas (or leave them out), but you could add roasted red peppers instead, and/or capers, and/or pepperoncinis, and so on. It's a simple dip, but super delicious and fresh-tasting. Finally, because it's that kind of recipe, it's also really important to use a good, fruity olive oil. I highly recommend the organic Whole Foods kind, which I just recently discovered.

white bean dip
(adapted from Giada Di Laurentiis’s recipe)

1 can white beans, drained and rinsed
2 smallish cloves garlic
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/3 c. olive oil
1/4 c. (loosely packed) fresh Italian parsley leaves
a sprinkle of dried oregano
salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 or 6 kalamata olives, roughly chopped (optional)

Add everything but parsley to a small food processor and puree for a minute or two, until it’s smooth and creamy. Add parsley and blend until all you see are small green flecks. Be careful not to over-blend; it will make the parsley oxidize and turn everything a weird gray color.

Spoon into a bowl and serve with bread or pita chips. Stacy’s Parmesan and Garlic ones are a good choice with this.


Tanvi Patel said...

I totally agree with your assessments of "leisure" time and post-Phd malaise here. I think that I expected to be very happy doing nothing for a very long time after I complete my PhD but seemingly unconsciously, I did substitute it with other projects (I complete a ton of crochet projects that summer). I think what I needed was to be busy but to be a different kind of busy. I couldn't write, didn't feel like reading much, and definitely didn't want to talk academics for a while. And, I totally felt guilty about it. I guess it is that crazy academic mentality we learn over so many years. But I'm super glad you get to enjoy a summer of leisure with your books, blog and other projects. This blog is super excellent!

Heather Akers said...

Thank you for your kind words, Tanvi! I think you put it so perfectly: "A different kind of busy." Sometimes I think a dissertation can help you figure out what you don't want to write and read about. :) I'm glad you have creative projects now - I think that's very, very good for academics!