I’ve long been fascinated by the question: How do you know when it’s time to move on?
For example, my dad spent over 20 years—my entire childhood and into my college years—working at a state university. When he decided to leave, I asked him how he knew it was the right time. There were several factors at play but mostly, he said, it was because he didn’t feel like there was anything new to learn there. Every year, there had been something new to do, something new to learn: a new position, a new committee or task force of some kind, a new challenge. But after 20+ years, he’d gone as far in the organization as he could go. There was nothing new.
I thought about this when I made the decision to leave theater. I’d gone to college with the goal of working professionally in theater in a big city. I did that for over a decade. But I knew when it was time to stop. There were several factors at play—the manual labor of tech work was taking a toll on my body, nonunion freelance work meant I had no health insurance or retirement plan—but mostly it was because I’d reached a point where I needed to take the next step on the career ladder, and move up into technical director and production management roles. But I didn’t want to. In truth, I was a few years past the point when I should have made this transition but those jobs had no appeal for me. In part, it was because TDs and PMs don’t typically run shows, and running shows was what I loved. But if I’m honest… The thought of taking on that much responsibility, the idea of being in charge, filled me with dread.
In the early afternoon on August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse traversed the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. In Kansas City, morning storms cleared and blue sky opened just in time to view the event, from the first sliver of moon shadow through totality. It’s the only total solar eclipse I’ve witnessed. I’m struggling to put the experience into words.
I started studying astronomy in 2nd and 3rd grade. In 3rd grade, we had to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up and the title of mine was “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cosmologist.” Space was my first fascination and my first love.
I’ve seen partial solar eclipses in person. I’ve seen images of total eclipses and they’re beautiful. Astronomically speaking, eclipses aren’t that rare or complex. They happen pretty often, simple mass body physics.
So I expected the total eclipse to be spectacular, gorgeous. I expected it to be cool and interesting. I expected to be fascinated by it and by the effect it had on insects and animals. I expected to completely geek out over it.
Some years ago, I was working on the overhire crew for a touring event gig in Chicago. One of the touring crew was an older guy who used to be a rock roadie. I got assigned to work with him and so we got to talking.
He mostly talked about his experiences of the Civil Rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and ’60s. He was in high school and college at the time, and he participated in the protests and sit-ins. He fought hard for equal rights. It remains a defining experience of his life.
This guy was raised by middle class white Republican parents in a solid middle class white Republican neighborhood. According to him, many of his fellows stood and protested with him in support of the Civil Rights movement. They supported equal rights because they believed in the importance of individual merit. A person’s success or failure in life should be determined by their own abilities and effort.
Systemic inequality is anathema to the doctrine of individual merit. If the system assigns unearned advantages or disadvantages to people, it renders individual ability and effort largely meaningless. They all wanted an equal playing field where individuals could prove themselves.
While this guy remained committed to continuing civil rights efforts over the years, he watched most of his fellows change their stance as they all grew older, many to the point where they now actively oppose current civil rights movements. He told me he was trying hard to understand how that happened.
Human beings are monotypic: we’re the only species within our taxonomic genus. Monotypic genera are relatively rare—it’s unusual for there to be no other species within a genus, especially among higher level complex organisms. (*)
In 2012, Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl and kick-started our current craze for unreliable narrator stories. 2015 saw the release of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and the unreliable narrator novel was firmly ensconced.
Rarely have I witnessed two books compared to each other more than these.
Not only was The Girl on the Train trumpeted as “this year’s Gone Girl,” not only did every critic and reviewer on the planet compare the two, but just about everyone I knew picked a favorite and took a side in the which-is-better debate.
Most people I know like both but have a clear preference for one or the other, and there are more than a few who love one and hate the other.
For most, their preference seems to boil down to which narrator appealed to them best. It’s not a matter of which you like best, as neither narrator is intended to be likeable. But both are meant to be intriguing.
I’m convinced that character appeal isn’t all that’s going on here. I think focusing on which narrator appeals the most is circling around a deeper issue.
I recently heard a story about a guy sitting in a public place, clearly wearing a wedding ring and clearly scrolling through a dating app. What’s disturbing wasn’t just the fact that he was cheating on his partner, but that he was doing it so obviously, right out in the open where anyone could see.
What a bastard.
It’s times like this when I’m reminded most powerfully of David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech (*). He challenges us to try and do better when we make assumptions, to think better. We have a choice whether to assume or not, and if we choose to make assumptions, we get to choose what we assume.