Turning 50 was not the most painful birthday I ever had. At 50, the odometer
rolled over smoothly and I still felt unremoved from my 40s. Now, fifty-five...
Fifty-five hurt. That was the point at which I realized there was no looking
back. I could still deny my age while in my early 50s, but 55 entrenched
me deep within my age bracket. Fifty-five is the number that, if you're
looking at a price tag, you mentally round up to 60. My first AARPA brochure
would doubtless arrive in my mailbox any day.
I began the slow-motion slide into my first real mid-life crisis. It was
not my first. My first had occured when I was 41. It was not the conventional
mid-life crisis in the sense of re-examining one's life, but it did include
a 20-year-old blonde. (Yes, this would be the same 20-year-old blonde which
provoked my wife's desertion. Of the young women who would later pass through
my bedroom, she had perhaps the greatest impact.) She had been a student
of mine, this particular 20-year-old. The same student, in fact, who had
proclaimed in class upon the occasion of my 41st birthday that I was officially
old enough to be her father. Perhaps the affair a little later on had something
to do with that. Maybe I felt the need to prove something to her; I don't
know. Regardless, it was a mistake. My ensuing clumsiness at hiding my
very first extra-marital affair resulted in several changes: a change of
marital status, a change of address, and a change of University campuses,
though thankfully not a change in jobs. You'd think that as a history professor
I would have seen it coming. Ah, sweet irony, may you rest in peace.
After my wife left me, I found myself frequently strolling the parking
lots of Chevy dealerships--along the front rows where they display the
Corvettes. I have secretly been in love with Corvettes since "Route 66".
If only I owned a Corvette, I thought, I, too, could be a carefree young
man traveling America with the top down and a theme song playing in the
background. Over the years, its design evolved from the cutesy, bug-eyed
roadster of of my television fantasies to something leaner, longer, and
meaner--just as I evolved into something thicker and meeker. I came within
a hair's breadth of buying one once, prevented from doing so only by the
large void in my wallet.
So I had done the young blonde routine, and I had almost done the sports
car routine. However, nowhere within that first fumbling mid-life crisis
did I bother to evaluate my life. I have never been one to look in the
rearview mirror of life and review where I have been (again, if only irony
weren't dead), and it was not until I realized that my age matched the
speed at which my '93 Mazda got the best gas milage that I began to contemplate
what lay ahead. I consulted my crystal ball of experience and concluded:
not much. For the first time in my happily blundering existence, I felt
fear. Fear that one false move on the unstable substrate of my life would
leave me alone and impoverished in my two-bedroom apartment. I feared becoming
one of those old people you hear about who lived on cat food and died unnoticed,
their mummified corpse laying undiscovered for six months. I have no children
to look after me when I am older. I have no retirement savings to speak
of other than the 401(k) provided by the University. I would liked to have
panicked, but I didn't have time.
The dean of my department chose me to travel to the World Chess Organization's
annual meeting and deliver a paper I had written. It wasn't even anything
I'd written for the U. It had been a side project born from a study I did
on ancient trade routes. I noticed that over time almost every country
imported chess sets from their neighbors. The design of the chess pieces
evolved gradually as they followed the trade routes. I pursued the discovery
more out of my interests in chess and architecture than from any scientific
curiosity. I hadn't even planned on pubishing it until a colleague suggested
I submit it to ______ magazine. I did, and they accepted it. (I suppose
a niche market like that has to accept pretty much everything it gets.)
I suspected that President Turner was still pissed at me for drawing attention
to myself with the student affair thing, and that this was my punishment.
To deliver a paper for which I had no prepared materials other than the
original manuscript and slides that I submitted to the magazine. Before
a group of people who even I find intellectually mind-numbing. Two weeks
before the start of the fall semester. In Georgia. In August. To make matters
worse, Turner had signed me as a last-minute addition to the conference,
and I had only two weeks to put everything together.
The dean's name was, coincidentally, Dean Ryan, and he was a friend of
mine. I went to his office.
"Please, Dean," I said. "Don't make me do this."
"Sorry, Les. This was arranged high up in the adminisphere. I was just
told to tell you."
"Ah, you know this is bullshit, Dean."
He nodded. "I know. But Turner is cloaking it in all this 'We have to increase
the university's exposure in other fields' spin. I know as well as you
that what he really wants is to burn your ass, but there's nothing I can
do about it."
"I've got a class syllabus to finish. I've got orders for three textbooks
lost somewhere out there that I need to track down. I don't have time for
"I'll have Susan clear up the thing with the textbooks." Susan was Dean's
secretary, but she was as multi-functioned as a Swiss Army knife, and could
probably have taken over Dean's job if she wanted to. "Your TA from last
year, what was his name...?"
"Josh. Can he complete your syllabus based on last year's?"
"Okay, then. I'll have Susan make the flight arrangements, and--"
"I can't fly, Dean."
"I hate flying. You know that."
"Atlanta's 1,200 miles away. You going to drive?"
I shifted in my seat. "I guess, yeah."
Dean looked at me over his glasses. "That's at least a two-day drive--if
you push it. The plane ride is two hours. You could get in the night before,
deliver your paper, and be back here that evening. Take some Dramamine,
you'll be fine."
"It's not air-sickness, it's..."
"It's the crashing and burning, ok?"
"Look, I'll drive, I'll take my time. I'll be ok."
Dean sighed. He stared at the ceiling for a little while. "Do me a favor,
then? Bring somebody along, to share the driving. I don't need one of my
profs falling asleep at the wheel and dying right before the fall semester.
Will you at least do that for me?"
I couldn't think of a single person who I would want to camp with in a
car for several days, apart from several of the Sophomore girls. Given
the circumstances, I didn't think that would be a very good idea. But I
wanted the conversation over, so I said, "Yeah, sure."
I worked on my presentation for the better part of the next week. A few
days before I was scheduled to leave, I got a phone call from Dean.
"You find someone to ride with you yet?" Dean always was good at seeing
through my bullshit. I thought about lying for a moment. Instead, I said,
There was a short hesitation on the phone, as though Dean were reluctant
to say what was on his mind.
"In that case, I wondered if you could do me a favor, Les?"
"I thought I was already doing you a favor."
"Not exactly. It's more like your doing the President a favor. Not even
that; you're paying penance. But this is a personal favor, for me."
There was a pleading in his tone, so I closed my eyes and asked, "What
"You know Mark." Yes, I knew Mark. Mark was Dean's 19-year-old son. He
was a liberal arts major, so I didn't see much of him; in fact, I'd only
really spoken to him on social occasions at Dean's home. Over the last
couple of years, Mark had developed something of a reputation as...well,
not a troublemaker, but he made people nervous. He had pierced his head
(and perhaps other parts) in several places and had begun pulling practical
jokes around campus. Not unscrew-the-salt-shaker-lid jokes. Things like
tossing flaming paper airplanes at people from the rooftops of buildings.
He had once lived for a week in the computer drop-in center, curling up
in a sleeping bag beneath the desk at night. He looked like one of those
skateboard kids who try to knock you over on the sidewalk. But I had always
seen him with kids I knew to be part of the Goth crowd, always looking
slightly out of place in his knit cap and olive-green army jacket among
their overlong black shirts, black jeans, spray-painted black sneakers,
and black-dyed hair. The place I saw him the most was the library. I'd
find him sitting cross-legged in the aisles deep into some book on his
lap. I don't know if he ever checked anything out, or if he just read them
there. Appearances and friends aside, the kid wasn't illiterate, and he
continued to get good grades. Nonetheless, his father was very concerned
about his evolving personality.
"Mark has gotten himself into a bit of trouble," Dean continued.
"Oh, yeah. The mouse incident." The mouse incident. Mark had borrowed,
lifted, or somehow obtained a card key which accessed the veterinary studies
building. Managing to elude the security guard, he removed many, many mice
from their cages and stuffed them into the colorfully-striped hemp-woven
sachel which he carried with him everywhere. It turns out that you can
stuff approximately three-hundred mice into one of those things. He then
proceeded to one of the girls' dormitories, chosen apparently because it
is the oldest of the girls' dorms, having been built around 1880. Everything
inside is still original; original woodwork, original crown molding, original
brass light fixtures--original vent grates. Mark released all three-hundred
mice into the ventilation system from the uppermost floor, and chaos quickly
spread top-down as the tiny brown mice filtered downward, emerging into
the girls' rooms through the wide-mouthed grates. Unfortunately, many of
the mice did not survive, and most of them being specially-bred mice, it
represented a great financial loss for the university. Whoever pulled the
stunt was in hot water. Despite evading the security guard, Mark had not
evaded the security camera. The black-and-white images did not show a clear
face, but his sachel was unmistakable. He denied having any part in the
incident, claiming that someone either stole his sachel or that it was
another similar to his own. The administration was hell-bent for proof
of Mark's involvement, and his future at the school was in serious jeopardy
if they could produce some. And now Dean was asking me, already on bad
standing with the President, to do a favor regarding this self-same kid.
"I'm almost afraid to ask, Dean. What can I do for you?"
"Mark needs... Hell, I don't know _what_ he needs, but he needs to have
some sense knocked into him. I think getting out of here for a time might
be good for him, get some exposure to new ideas. Grown-up stuff."
"Like strip clubs?" I asked unhelpfully, grinning into the phone.
"No! You know what I mean. He needs to get away from here, from whatever
is causing him to behave this way, and get some adult influence."
I didn't want to tell Dean that what was making Mark behave this way was
probably what he perceived as crushing repression by his parents.
"And you want to send him packing with me."
"Aw, I wouldn't put it that way, Les. You need someone to come with you.
He needs to spend time around a mature person." Mature person. That sounded
like a phrase they use in retirement homes.
"Yeah, I'm a shining example of maturity, Dean."
"Please? I'll assign an extra TA to you, cut your workload in half."
"Is that supposed to help or hinder me?" I thought for a moment. "Tell
you what. Hire yourself a temp secretary, and assign Susan as my TA. Then
I'll do it."
There was a long silence. "You know I can't give up Susan. The office would
collapse without her."
"That's too bad. Gee, I hope they don't find mouse droppings at the bottom
of Mark's bag."
"Listen, I've got a lot left to do here before my trip. I'd better go."
"Wait! Wait. Okay, Susan's assigned to you. But Mark had better come back
"That's up to him," I said. I hung up the phone with a pang of guilt. I
could not help but feel that somehow my bargaining had done irreparable
damage to our friendship. A small nick, but something that would always
be there whenever we talked from now on. The way I saw it, though, Dean
had pushed me into a corner, not the other way around. Somehow, that weak
rationalization didn't make me feel any better.