"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: American Dream

“Stoner” . . .


“Stoner” is the name of a novel (1965) by a writer named John Williams who taught English literature at University of Denver and who is not very well known among the pantheon of famous novelists. It came to my attention by reading a review of it in last Sunday’s New York Times which you can read for yourself here.

It arrived via my Amazon Prime account and I’m almost finished reading it. As noted in the review, it’s the life story of a man named William Stoner who teaches English literature at the University of Missouri and what happens in his life. What is engaging about reading and thinking about it is that some people in our culture would ask why it’s worth spending time reading about a “loser.” While others see it as a “perfect novel” about an ordinary person’s life, illuminating for readers that things do not always end up well and people do not always end up living “happily ever after” as our Walt Disney culture is wont to press upon us.

In fact, it is this counter-culture kind of attitude and tone that I relished reading about in this handbook of a novel. The writer describes the excruciating viciousness of academia politics which many know firsthand and which illustrates how petty people can be about power. Undoubtedly, these struggles occur everyday in politics everywhere and even in small town civic groups of volunteers which I have some knowledge about myself.

William Stoner was fortunate. He was able to pursue his love of English and literature and make it into a lifelong profession rather than being forced to be a farmer living out a hardscrabble life like his father’s. He loved his wife even though she turned her back on him shortly after they married, keeping his only daughter from being close to him. He cleaned the house, took care of the baby, did the chores and prepared his lessons. His spouse chose to be distant from him while living off him until he died.

He also loved and was truly loved by someone other than his wife. They had a brief time together, one of personal integrity, a triumph over the odds of people bent on destroying them because they were happy. He was full of dogged fortitude in standing up for his beliefs even when it inured his enemy to become even more vindictive than thought possible over a long period of time. And then he dies.

Many of us subscribe to the “happily ever after” model of the American Dream. We think that if we only hope and work hard towards our dreams that eventually they will come true. Along the way are pitfalls, things that happen that become water under the dam that we don’t speak about and sooner or later, we look back to see if we feel good about how our life turned out or not.

If we have been lucky, we will accept what we see in the dry way that William Stoner did. He realized when things did not turn out the way he wanted them to and he kept going. Most of all, he did what he really wanted to do–which was to be a teacher even if he was not the most popular or highly regarded professor. And he was deeply loved by another person even if they were not able to be together for very long.

Life is full of people who take a dislike to us for reasons we don’t understand. It also introduces us to people who love us even when we are difficult to get along with. When I look around at the people who struggle to make ends meet and who look to find some solace in their everyday schedules, I wonder about how many stories like “Stoner” there are or might have been.

If you want to ruminate about what life is all about, you wouldn’t do badly to pick up this book at the library or read it on an airplane when you’re on your way from here to there.


‘prime’. . .

K & G

I came across this photograph a little awhile ago and was struck by how relaxed and happy G. and I looked when we first met. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.

It occurred to me to say that we were in our prime then. I headed up strategic and operational planning at a biotech start-up company in Central Massachusetts at the time. G. expanded his piano business to mostly Steinway and Mason-Hamlin grand pianos from restored antique uprights while continuing to service academic institutions in the area.

On second thought, I hesitate to make that call because I think the notion of being in one’s prime at some arbitrary point in time is shortsighted while one is still breathing. What I know now about life compared to those younger days has been hard-won. More important, what I know about myself from those halcyon days is so different that I might venture to say, it’s like night and day.

When I think back to that period of time, I remember that I was still optimistic and ambitious too. With the world what it is now, the economic vicissitudes that have occurred worldwide have set everyone scrambling, changing habits of easy expectation. Another thing that has shifted for lots of people is the loss of “the American Dream,” the idea that fairy tales do come true, people will succeed if they just work hard and children will love their parents even after they grow up and leave home.

It’s been hard. We have been fortunate because we had good work. Now, I don’t have to work as hard but the drive to learn and be productive is still there. I haven’t lost my memory although I rely less and less on memory anymore as a way of life. Thinking back doesn’t really do much good except to wonder how I managed to do all that stuff. There are many things I wouldn’t do again because I am now more clear about what I want my life to be: peaceable. Synonyms for peaceable include: harmonious, mellow, calm, tranquil, amiable and kindly.

Being able to provide what we need for ourselves is good fortune. Having a peaceable life is priceless. It’s hard to get there and we’re still working on it. But if there’s a prime time in life, perhaps it’s getting to a place where we realize we don’t need as much and that we’re lucky to be together. I wonder why it’s taken so long to get here.

K&G closeup

“acceptance” . . .

You know how people talk about “just accept it,” as though if you acquiesce and accept whatever, that it will make it okay? The zen book I am reading, “Being Zen,” handily counters this notion by saying it’s much deeper than acceptance. That living your life as your practice means that it would help if you realize what your expectations might be and that they are the real root of the problem of being unhappy. A real no-no. Because if you don’t have whatever expectations you might have about how life ought to be, then there’s nothing to accept, per se.

To put it another way, we, in our American culture, have a lot of expectations. Some might even say that they’re part of an “entitled” world view: every man and woman is able to pursue his or her American Dream and succeed to some degree, find the love of your life, bear beautiful, inspiring children, live in homes with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, huge flatscreen TVs, and have enough money to do and wear what you want.

If these are our widely held expectations, then there’s a lot of acceptance to be had when we’re missing some or many parts of that American dream. A Zen approach is basically to have no expectations at all and to experience the present moment for what it is, without judgment nor opinion, even. Otherwise, the book says, we are just living a “substitute life,” not a real one in a universe where we are not constantly feeling hemmed in with what’s working or not working for us.

Seems easy to describe. Harder to live by.

trust . . .

Lately, I’ve been thinking that trust, or lack of trust, is one of the main ingredients to our recipe for life. Especially in times like this when the world outside is full of bully politics and internecine battles about what we should believe and what we should do. The American Dream is definitely gone, having disappeared “in sixty seconds.”

What’s left? Belief and trust in our marriages? In our family relationships? I tend to go overboard in being generous towards those I care about. And then withdraw when I feel it may have given the wrong impression. There is not one of us who doesn’t have some kind of personality quirk (or disorder as some are prone to believe,) learning disability (dyslexia or more) or other qualities that might be captured as “narcissistic” or self-involved. In fact, it seems to me that the constant exposure and reiteration of personality descriptions has rendered us all into pie charts of inadequate behavior in one form or other.

Which then lends us to have trouble trusting others. After all, if we’re all so needy in character or integrity ourselves, how can we then trust others not to be the same way? Maybe trust is not where it’s at, after all. Maybe it’s faith. A kind of loyalty that transcends what our rational mind tells us. Yes, maybe that’s it: faith in ourselves and in others.