As far back as I can recall, probably starting when I was around 6 years old, I remember that on the occasional Saturday or Sunday my mother would tell me that we were taking a drive. Of course I’d ask, “Where are we going, Mama?” and she’d slyly smile and say, “We’re going on a mystery ride.” A “mystery ride” never ceased to induce excitement and curiosity in me.
Typically we’d drive what seemed to be a random route, while I guessed at every turn or fork in the road where we might be heading. My mother loved to drive (and obviously passed that on to me) and we’d talk, look at the passing scenery, and listen to songs on the radio, like Sweet Pea, Windy, or my mom’s favorite, Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter (Since her mother was actually named Mrs. Brown, she must have felt that Herman’s Hermits were singing the song directly to her). In between songs I’d venture a guess as to where we might be going. Even at 6 or 7 years old, I knew my directions pretty well, so if we seemed to be heading toward Providence, I’d guess that we were going for a pony ride at Roger Williams Park. If we headed south, that could mean that we were going for clam cakes at Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island or for ice cream at Gray’s in Tiverton, and if we headed north or east it might be to visit a Cape Cod beach or Plymouth, Massachusetts. It didn’t really matter where we’d end up; the old cliché about the journey being more important than the destination definitely held true in this case.
Recently I‘ve decided to make a major change in my life, and in some strange way it’s brought back memories of the mystery rides of my childhood. I’m about to embark on perhaps the longest and most mysterious ride of my life. This time I am doing all the driving and I have no idea where the ultimate destination will be; I’m just going to have to see where the road takes me. After 28 years at my first and only full-time position as a university professor, I’ve resigned and am on “phased retirement,” teaching half-time for one last year. In May, I’ll be leaving both my university and California for a destination still undecided. Some people think I am insane to walk away from a stable, well-paid position three to four years earlier than a typical retirement age. Others have cheered me on, saying that they applaud my adventurous spirit and wish they could do the same thing. As for me, I alternate every other day between the excitement of, “This is going to be a whole new chapter in my life! Who knows where I’ll end up!” – to the stark terror of, “What in the hell have I done?” I assume it’s going to be that sort of roller coaster ride for the next several months.
This isn’t the first time I’ve ever made what might seem to be a rash decision. Though I was accepted into two Ph.D. programs very close to home when I applied to graduate school programs, I opted for a Master’s program 600 miles away in Williamsburg, Virginia, partly because the school (William & Mary) appealed to me more and partly because I felt the need to stretch my wings and get away from New England to experience a new place. It was a great decision and not only did I get a wonderful education there, but I made several friends who are still part of my life today. After that, with approximately $200 to my name and a car that leaked a trail of transmission fluid and required “transfusions” every couple hundred miles, I drove to southern California and started a Ph.D. program there, thousands of miles from anyone or anything familiar to me. For the first two years I rented a room in a house with three other students in the exclusive community of Newport Beach, directly on the Balboa Peninsula’s beach and boardwalk. My address was 302 Oceanfront, and when people asked if that was an avenue or a boulevard, I would grin and say, “just Oceanfront!’ It was a dream come true for a New England boy to be living on the beach in southern California, and though I was not wild about the graduate program I was in, I am glad I earned my doctorate from a prestigious school. I had a group of friends who served as a surrogate family, and got my first part-time teaching jobs, giving me experience to add to my resume as I searched for a full-time position.
Perhaps the oddest choice I made was moving from southern California to San Francisco in June of 1991. I didn’t know a soul there. I didn’t have any job prospects there. But while in grad school I visited San Francisco often and fell in love with it, so when I finished my doctorate, I decided to pack it up and just move there. All of my friends were in southern California, Virginia and New England. I had been offered several part-time teaching positions in southern California for the Fall term. Nonetheless, off I moved to San Francisco, found an apartment at the top of Twin Peaks with a view of the city and the bay, slowly began to assemble a new group of friends, and did what I had to in order to make it all work. For the first year, I actually commuted 6.5 hours one way to Los Angeles every week to teach part time at three different schools. I would leave in the wee hours of Monday morning, teach classes Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, stay with my friends for a couple of nights and then head back to San Francisco after my last class on Wednesday night, arriving home at close to 2:00 AM on Thursday morning. It was an insane plan, and when I drive to L.A. these days, once or twice a year, I wonder how I did it every week back then. But it allowed me to continue to see my friends in southern California while I built new relationships up north, it gave me a paycheck, and it made it possible for me to fulfill my dream of living in San Francisco while I searched for a position closer to my new home.
Within a year everything seemed to quietly fall into place: I secured part time teaching gigs closer to home, one of which led to a full-time, tenure track position at a small, private liberal arts college where I have remained for the past 27 years. I’ve lived in a rent-controlled, quiet apartment on a mountaintop with a view of the city all of this time, currently paying thousands of dollars less than the current going rate for a two bedroom apartment anywhere within 100 miles of the city, which is how I’ve been able to afford all the traveling I’ve done. For a time, I was very content and had a comfortable life in my dream city.
Unfortunately, the city that I once loved and the job that once excited and fulfilled me changed. And I changed as well. Over the past 10 or 15 years I’ve watched what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world devolve into a place I barely recognize anymore. Streets are littered with unconscious people, human waste, discarded syringes, and broken glass from the record number of car break-ins that are occurring. I rarely venture from my hilltop sanctuary into the surrounding neighborhoods anymore because it’s too stressful to deal with the chaos of the city. Drivers in the Bay Area have become more nasty and aggressive than I have seen almost anywhere else in the world (and I was raised near Boston!). I often chuckle about the line from the Scott McKenzie song, San Francisco, because the “gentle people with flowers in their hair” now drive expensive cars with “Coexist” or “Whirled Peas” (world peace) bumper stickers as they run red lights and stop signs, cut me off with inches to spare, and give me the finger if I dare beep in protest. The city I was so drawn to because it promised tolerance, diversity and the possibility to simply be myself has gradually adopted a surprisingly closed–minded mentality; if you do not go along with the “hive mind” or if you even dare to question the generally accepted values that the city has adopted, you are shunned in much the same way as the Amish punish their errant citizens: total isolation from the group. I’ve lost about a dozen long term friends within the past 10 years simply due to disagreements over how certain social and political issues should be handled. There is no room for debate or discussion here. Conform – or else.
Meanwhile, I’ve witnessed the academic world changing around me as well. Thirty years ago when I was teaching, I would say that 40% of my students were very good, 40% were less successful but really tried, and 20% were frighteningly poor. These days, I am lucky if 20% of my students excel, and I heap so much praise on those students that I probably scare them, but I’m so grateful to have a handful of students who are truly interested and seem to be learning. Grammar and spelling are horrendous, despite “modern” conveniences like spell check and grammar check, and grade inflation has become so bad that students come to my office either in an angry rage or in tears if they get something as “low” as a B+ on a paper or exam.
While I try to navigate these difficult issues in the classroom and wonder how to motivate my students to do better, it seems that all we talk about in meetings and workshops are buzzwords like “social justice”, “toxic masculinity”, and “trigger warnings”. At a memorable faculty meeting it was explained to me that whenever I intend to talk about “threatening” or “controversial” topics in my classes that might “trigger” sensitive students, I should warn them in advance, and if anyone is upset by such topics, I should allow them to skip the classes where I discuss these issues and provide alternate readings and assignments. I actually shared this recommendation with students in my Human Sexuality class. Almost every week we explore controversial issues in that course, and when I told them about trigger warnings they first thought I was making it up, and then laughed uproariously for a full five minutes, with several remarking that “If someone doesn’t want to hear about controversial topics in sexuality, then why even take the class?” That did give me some hope for our future. On another occasion, an excellent student that I was very fond of sighed and said, “I miss the OLD Liberal Arts.” When I asked him to elaborate, he said, “I love music, history, art, and literature… but these days all the Liberal Arts do is teach people how to be angry and try to get them to go to protests.”
I still love being in the classroom, but increasingly that has almost taken a back seat to the million and one other things that the job requires that seem to take me away from teaching. It’s time to make some changes.
And so the mystery ride is in full swing. This year I will begin exploring other career possibilities, perhaps trying to become more involved in the travel and tour industry. Some friends have suggested that I get certified to teach English in other countries, which I have to admit sounds really fun and exciting. Perhaps with my expertise in the study of natural disasters, I could do some sort of consulting. Or perhaps I can continue to teach on either a part time basis or as a visiting professor, which would allow me to continue being in the classroom, but with less pressure. I honestly don’t know which direction I will take, and a lot will depend on what positions are out there and whether I can actually land one.
The other part of my mystery ride is wondering where I will end up living. New England has been calling me back for a long time now, and I dream of living in a smaller, quieter place like New Hampshire where the cost of living is so much lower and where I’d be couple hours’ drive from lifelong friends and family. The adventurous part of me would love to really shake things up and move to Italy or Greece, even if for only a year or two to see how I’d like it. Other days I think about buying an RV and simply traveling around the country for a while, writing, working on photography or painting, visiting friends and going where the road takes me. Of course the bottom line is that I will need to continue to earn some money for at least the next few years, so where I go will be dictated by where I’m actually able to support myself. I often dream of living in Hawaii, but the dream is usually crushed by the reality of Hawaii’s high cost of living, but if the right job came along, I’d hop on the next westbound flight.
My mom has now been gone for 44 years, which is mind-boggling to me. I sometimes wish I could ask her for advice, even though I’m now 16 years older than she was when she died – a strange trick of time and life. But I have the distinct feeling that she’s riding along with me on this very adult mystery ride as a passenger, while I’m the one doing the driving now. And while she probably always had a destination in mind when she would take me on my childhood mystery rides, I honestly don’t have the slightest idea where I’m going. Still, I intend to forge ahead and see where this road will take me, making turns and taking forks as needed. I am a bit nervous about where I might end up, but ultimately, I plan to enjoy this ride because, after all, as I learned from my mom so many years ago, it really is all about the journey.