Tuesday, September 27, 2005

the right side of the glass

I retired from fulltime teaching four years ago, and I've never regretted it. But I still love to teach, and I've stayed with it part-time. Fortunately I left my university in good standing, so I've gotten invited back nearly each semester to pick up a class or two. Some of my colleagues have suggested I come back full time; flattering, I tell them, but no thanks. I might miss the classes and conversation, but I wouldn't miss the meetings, paperwork, and reports that are an increasing part of every teacher's job today.

After lunch today I found a big, deep-cushioned armchair across from a glass wall and sat down to jot down some ideas. It wasn't till someone went through the glass doors in that wall that I heard a familiar sound from the past: the entire fulltime faculty was meeting on the other side of the glass in a large conference room, and as the door swung open, I heard an administrator giving a report.

As I peered through the opened vertical blinds behind the glass, I recogized many of my former colleagues, dutifully listening to the speaker, and for the first time my retirement really hit home to me. They were in there and I was out here. We both did the same thing, but they made probably about ten times more salary than I did for the same work, because in addition to the teaching, they had to attend meetings, advise students, and do reports and tasks that I, as a part-timer, no longer had to do.

It made me think. I could have been in there with them, on the other side of that glass wall, as I had been every year at one college or another for thirty-five years, as a professor, department chair, division chair and finally dean, for seven of them. But did I miss it? No, not a bit. Not the meetings and other tasks outside the classroom, and certainly not the committees and reports, phoning and planning problems resolution. I realized how much I love ideas and respect learning, love to teach, but do not love to practise the professional responsibilities of a fulltimer, and I was, and still am, happy to be on the outside looking in.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Oh Bury Me Not in a Shoulder Tote

I've been in a time warp, I guess. We're flying to New York next week (our first flight in eight years), and our usual auto trip luggage has to be reconsidered for today's air travel. Barb's baby blue Samsonite train case won't survive it: after thirty years' use, it's chromed clasp flips open sometimes as we carry it by the top handle, and all the lipsticks, nail files, hair rollers and dryers, toothbrushes and q-tips, shampoos, conditioners, mouthwashes, toothpastes, soaps and other essentials it organizes in its two plastic trays go clittering and clattering across the walk or stairs. So I wanted to get her a new train case, and we went to the luggage store at the local mall to find one. It was the first time I've been in a luggage store in about a decade. Things have changed.

I thought at first I'd stepped into the back-to-school store. Gone were the racks of neat rows of hard-shell suitcases and trunks, valises and leather briefcases I'd grown up with. In their place were basically shapeless canvas backpacks and amorphous gym bags with wheels. When I checked their attached pricetags, I learned these were not just children's school backpacks, which might have cost ten or twenty dollars. These were luggage. These cost hundreds of dollars.

They sure looked like backpacks though. Or gym bags. Or a Claus Oldenburg stuffed typewriter or soft cheeseburger. The only thing vaguely resembling a suitcase as I remembered one was a two-hundred-dollar Samsonite, bright red fiberglass shell (also with wheels), and there were no train cases anywhere. It seems that to replace the train case, we were supposed to buy something they called a "shoulder tote" instead, which looked like a canvas covered small gym bag with shoulder straps. Most models began at about seventy to ninety dollars.

The designers of these bags had seemingly gone to some lengths to convince the user that its single interior breadbox of space was the perfect place to organize all a lady's essentials. It had removable dividers, elastic loops in neat rows for pencil-shaped objects like toothbrushes, eyeliners, and lipsticks, files, and trimmers; and it also contained plastic tubes, transluscent zipping plastic compartments, and zippered nets all around the sides for items too sundry to categorize or capture with the loops. Some models of totes unsnapped into an impressive descending cascade of panels like a booklet of postcards and had a small hangar at the top to fit over a doorknob, where the cosmetic cascade could be deployed to greatest effect and the user could hope to find what she put where. It would probably be impossible, in fact, to find anything in its closed, travel position. I wondered what she would do if she just wanted to reach for something. Would she have to stand and, holding the hangar overhead with one hand, fling the accordioned panels down to their full length to see them?

We looked at many makes and models, but we couldn't make up our minds, despite the pricey tag prices and the advice and helpfulness of two salespeople who sensed our naivete, between a small laptop-case sized object called The Essentials and a larger model called the Elite. We bought them both, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that they were both deep-discounted at the register.

In retrospect, I think I agree that soft-sided shoulder totes and extended-handle, wheeled luggage units of today make more sense than the awkward, heavy, hand-carried boxes and trunks of my day and the fiberglass clamshells of my wife's, which were forever banging into our bodies and making bruises as we rushed through terminals and garages. These shapeless blobs of our contained possessions with which we clothe ourselves and make ourselves presentable to the world as we travel, pack and handle better as workers heave and cram them into cargo hold heaps and scatter them across stainless revolving pickup wheels. They don't hurt as much when we bang into each other with them, and they are more pliable as we hoist them into overhead compartments and cram them under seats. And somehow they feel more "organic" and comfortable overall.

The new luggage, like the new looser-fit, baggy flight clothing we watch Amazing Race contestants like Amber and Rob, Uchenna and Joyce, Meditith and Gretchen (we identify the most with them at our age) rush around in, makes travel more comfortable; We're looking forward to using it and probably getting some more in the near future.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Saturday, September 10, 2005

It's the most wonderful time of the year

It's autumn, my favorite season. How would I know, living in South Florida, that fall has arrived? The first few years of living down here since 1976 it was hard to tell, but Florida does have changing seasons, all the way down to the Keys.

The angle of the light is subtly changing, and the sun rises a minute later and sets a minute earlier every day. The summer heat begins to give way to slightly cooler evenings, and the vegetation changes a bit.

But even after thirty years in SoFla I still miss the northern blaze of leaves falling and the crisp, cool northern air. In any event we still celebrate the buildup of holidays through the fall months: the Halloween trick-or-treaters still bang on our door here as in Indiana, the Thanksgiving turkey or ham is still the best meal of the year, the crazy Christmas shopping frenzy is just as spirited in our balmy super malls as it is in the heart of New York City, and we still go out and bang our pots and pans with spoons at midnight on New Year's Eve with the rest of you. It's just a little warmer outside.

Just a little warmer, as in, maybe by then some of us have the windows open instead of running the air conditioner, and open up our doors to our patios. It's too hot and humid to enjoy the patio until about November, but from then till the humidity comes back in May or June is really prime time for playing Trivial Pursuit under the covered porch, lazily swinging back and forth on the swing, or just talking in the dark and watching the stars.

Autumn is the time for doing that. It begins the nine months when our steam room region becomes a veritable paradise, and the snowbirds begin coming by Thanksgiving and don't leave till next Easter. It's where we would be, possibly, if we could get away from a northern residence; but we're already here and comfortable with what we have.