Not Quite Dead Yet
Back in 2014, I learned a new lesson. It’s often important to learn the lessons that others already have, though I’ve often wanted to opt out of some, such as needing reading glasses or having to give up red wine. With 20/15 vision for about forty years, I scoffed at the tales my older friends told me about declining eyesight.
Ha! I laughed. Yet, there I was at age forty-six being fitted for a swell little pair of wireless rims. And that red wine? Well, after that last migraine, I turned in my last bottle, succumbing to the facts of wildly swinging hormones.
So when my fifty-nine-year-old husband lost his job in 2014, I thought, okay, I can fix this, never mind that I’ve heard my friends tell me that it is harder to find a job in middle age. Sure I’d read Facebook and newspapers and understood age discrimination as a theory. I was clear — I believed — on the concept that a fifty-three-year-old woman was likely as marketable as a Laura Ashley dress from the 1980s. But hey! It’s me!
So it was my mission to find a swell new job in a town with a lower cost of living. We’d sell our gigantic house in Oakland at a stunning peak in the market, cash in, and buy a house for cash. No mortgage, my pension, and my new salary as a professor at the college located in a small, charming town. We’d downsize for maybe the last time, both of still active but ready for that nice flat house
And yes, me. The author of fourteen novels, hundreds of stories, poems, and essays, the teacher to the multitudes at the college and university level, I was a pro. I’d put on writing festivals and taught at them. I’d crafted creative writing certificates, organized fund raisers for our creative writing contests, and yearly put on readings. I’d worked with New York publishers and small independent presses. I’d written around the genres and could teach people how to write most of them. My student evaluations were fabulous as were my recommendations from national recognized writers and teachers. Also, I was just about done with a brand new MFA degree. My thesis had been accepted for publication. I was ready to apply and take the job offer that would surely come as soon as, well, soon.
So I wasn’t quite as cocky as all this. Really. Actually, I was petrified. While I was going through the above gyrations, my husband was stuck in the calamity of trying to find a job while nearing 60. He was facing his own demons with his paper shield crafted of old resumes as I went about my plan to single-handedly save us both. Our office was a war room, and somehow we ended up at war with each other, both of us blaming the other for the failures that started to pile up like the dead.
The truth was — and is — I’m not all that and change. I’m a middle-aged woman, a mid-list writer, with a modicum of success and cred. I’ve been teaching at the college level since 1988. I’ve worked with writers whose names you will all know, and learned a lot from each. For my entire writing and teaching career, I’ve been engaged in active learning, and at the time of my application frenzy, I was obtaining another graduate degree. I was and am still publishing. But the truth was, I sent out probably twenty applications. Maybe more. And I didn’t have one call, call back, phone call, interview. Nothing. Some colleges didn’t even send me a rejection letter. All was silence.
But as I learned from Monty Python years ago, I’m not dead yet. Really. I’m not. I now intend — my husband ended up getting a great job, yay! — to retire from my teaching job at age 58. And I would love to work for a low residency MFA program or a writing center or small college where I will teach 2–3 classes a semester. It would be my distinct preference to not grade anymore freshman comp papers, but I could. As I said, I’m not dead yet. I may want a little less than I did when I was hired full-time at age 28. But I have a lot to give.
From what I learned during the year from flipping hell was that having a lot to give is not where it’s at. One person on a hiring committee at a college I applied to later told me that her cohort wouldn’t even look at anyone not of a certain demographic. A demographic — in so many ways — not mine. No one was sitting around that hiring table saying, “Oh, we want someone seasoned! And very experienced in the classroom. Must be able to work with administration. Maybe a bit traditional with structure and form. None of this mixed genre, media business. Someone old-school and certainly not political. No edge. And not really very sexy. Not so much damn hair. God, not another year like that.”
I’m passable and still holding it together, but edgy, sexy, and all the y words aren’t in my wheelhouse anymore.
The good news, too, is that unless I start doing the dance of the seven veils (shield your eyes) or other untoward or untenable acts, I won’t lose my job the way my husband did. I could teach my way into my sixties. I’m sure it would be fine, sitting here in the office I’ve occupied for decades. In fact, I know a lot of people who would be thrilled right now to take my spot.
But here’s my thesis, finally (I know you were waiting for it). We are living a very long time, most of us, if we are lucky. But we are living under older rules, the kind created when folks were expected to graduate in their early twenties, find a job, work thirty years and then retire. Then it was time to move to Florida or Phoenix and buy the motor home.
At fifty-eight, the same age I want to retire, my grandmother moved to Naples, Florida with my grandfather, and she lived there in retirement for another thirty years. Yacht club, bridge club, club club. Dinners, friends, and then assisted living and death. But for most of that time, she was going and moving and doing.
A lot of us want to have those thirty years and not go to the towns cordoned off for the elderly. We want to be engaged in our lives. We want livelihoods. Of course, this is a privileged perspective, having retirement thoughts at all. the fact of my long employment and actual pension a miracle.
But still. We are still here. We aren’t dead yet. Not even close.