Thursday, June 20, 2024

Surviving Act IV

             I wrote “Surviving Act IV” twenty-five years ago, following my 35th college reunion. Now that we are clearly in Act V (see below), it might be a good time for us to look back a bit. Apologies to non-English majors, for all the Shakespeare, and apologies to my non-classmate readers, for my making it so Amherst-centric.

 

Surviving Act IV

 

A personal reflection on retirements and reunions:

“Either you’re in transition or you’re in denial.”

 

According to my high school students, there are six stages in a person’s life: Before you get your driver’s license, 16, 18, 21, Senility, and Death. They showed little doubt where their teachers fell in the continuum.

 

Of course, there are other theories: Jung’s idea of the Athlete, the Warrior, the Statesman, and the final more Spiritual stage—the one that seemed so elusive as I tried to stay in shape, learn how to teach Hamlet to high school seniors, and negotiate the roles of husband and father. And others have their theories, from Erik Erikson to Gail Sheehy.

 

As I looked over the program on my way to my 35th reunion at Amherst, I could see that the stage of retirement (from Latin for “drawing back”) was a recurrent theme. Topics included “Surviving Retirement—An Insider’s View,” “Managing Life Transitions in Your 50s and 60s” and “When I Retire, Will I Go Crazy? (Preventing the King Lear Effect).” And a related threat: “Memories Are Made of This: How Memories Are Formed, Why We Forget, and How Aging and Disease Affect Our Ability to Form Memories.” Also, “New Directions in Medicine and How They Affect the Mature Population.” I decided not to attend “What We Should Think About Euthanasia?” sponsored by a very young-seeming class of ’79.

 

All of which encouraged me to develop my own theory, one based on the five acts of Shakespearean tragedy, keyed especially to Hamlet, a play I had taught for 32 years. I call it the Act IV Syndrome. Our lives are divided into five acts, each approximately 15 years in length. In Act I, we grow to our adult bodies, and we are introduced to a central conflict: the difficulty of living an engaged life. The Ghost introduces Hamlet to this when, encouraging him to get revenge, he says, “Oh, grow up!” Then in Act II, ages 16-30, we complete our formal education, launch our career and family. This coincides with Hamlet’s pretending to be insane, an apt parallel if we can remember what it was like to be in our 20s.

 

We intensify our commitments to career and family in Act III, ages 31-45. This is when our young kids sap all our time and energy while we are trying to devote the same to climbing some professional ladder, and making money. It’s when our spouse wonders what happened to the charming person he or she married, and when Hamlet puts on “the play within a play,” becoming fully immersed in the deceptions of the world. He also tells off his mother and kills the wrong man by mistake. It’s a time of achievement and energy—much of it misdirected.

 

Let’s wait a moment on Act IV. Act V—ages 61-75 (and beyond, given our extended life expectancies) is when we acknowledge our mortality, accept our fate, and take on an identity that is both noble and humble. This is Hamlet in the Graveyard (“Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,/ Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.”) and later, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/  Rough-hew them how we will.” Our rough-hewing days are over.

 

Act IV? That’s the transition to Act V—the difficult letting go of what seemed so important to us in Act III. It’s where Hamlet allows himself to be sent into exile, and where his girlfriend floats off into suicide. It’s a time of turmoil—yes, ages 46-60—when people divorce and remarry, when we start to question the career that seemed so important to us. It’s a time of reflection—not the tranquil reflection of Act V, but the soul wrenching re-evaluation of core values and whether we are living up to them. It’s frequently a short act in the play, fortunately, and it can be awkward, even badly written, but it is essential on the path to Act V.

 

The reordering of priorities comes in part from the awareness that we have a finite time on earth. The illness or death of parents creates this awareness, as do, for many, our own illnesses—cancer, heart attacks, brain aneurysms, alcoholism, and staring dumbfounded at the jars of pills we know we will be taking for the rest of our lives. It also springs from an awareness that we don’t have the energy/waistline/hair/memory that we used to have, or that we no longer have the agility at work that seems more valued than the wisdom we think we have accumulated.

 

With this theory in mind, I approached my ’64 classmates and people from ’59, back for their 40th. The usual response to my theory was, “That’s a good theory—but it doesn’t quite apply to me.” That didn’t deter me because I knew that Shakespeare didn’t divide his plays into acts. And besides, what can one expect from Amherst alums if not critical evaluation?

 

Few really wanted to talk about “retirement” or to call it by that name. A classmate admits, “I’m scornful of people who say they are retired.” My attitude toward my own recent retirement from high school teaching generated my own self-scorn because it meant a lack of identity. Once I was a teacher, and now I am not. At a session sponsored by the class of ’59, someone made the point that we are often identified by how we answer the question, “What do you do?” and the answer is usually in terms of occupation—attorney, medical researcher, investment banker, or the like. Not very often is the answer “I’m a father” or “I drink breakfast coffee and study the birds at the feeder.” Or even “I attend meetings, talk on the telephone, and ride on airplanes.” No, we take identity from our productive jobs. And when I retired from teaching, I often felt more unemployed than retired. But now, when asked on my 1040 or my mortgage application or at my Amherst reunion, I can say I’m a writer, and I feel I have a center. It’s an illusion, of course. Robert Frost claimed on his 1040 that he was a “farmer.”

 

Retirement can be frightening. A recently retired classmate quoted a friend who “thought he needed to experience some career silence.” The silence was painful, largely because of the way he experienced time. He works out longer and is reading the Bible and works in philosophy and religion, but he finds his day consumed by errands and looking after his six-year-old son. It’s enjoyable, but not, at the end of the day, enough. In fact, recently retired John Cooper (’64) is writing a book dealing with the fears and difficulties of retirement, especially the psychological ones. The title: Surviving Retirement, and the first chapter, “Not Necessarily Nirvana.” Just so.

 

The trick, as many of my classmates in their mid-50s have found, is not to retire but simply to change. A writer of mysteries is starting a publishing company. Several people are leaving large business or law firms where they feel overwhelmed and underappreciated to start their own smaller and more humane companies. Some are making more radical career changes, from dentistry to financial consulting, or from the regularities of teaching to the uncertainties of writing. And in some ways the most difficult of all—some stay in the same roles, high school teacher or newspaper editor, and struggle to make the adjustments needed to remain fresh.

 

Others are creating change by starting new families. A classmate, divorced after a 30-year marriage, is building a new house for himself. Another, married a few years ago, showed up with twin daughters the age of my granddaughter—a change that meant anything but retirement. Psychiatrist Ben Oko (’59) saw the new family in a different light—the change in marital relationship that resulted from a change in job. If you are home more often with your spouse, you are forced into increased discussion and negotiation: a new sense of family. My wife responded to my retirement and consequent working at home by taking a part-time job outside our home. Go figure.

 

Many in the class of ’59 mentioned a need to step back, “to make proper use of our lives.” Some found ways to reduce hours, working part time while devoting more time to philanthropic work, to family and friends, or to building a new home. “The secret,” one explained, “is not to retire from something, but to retire to something.” We need a project, a vision, to provide the focus that generates energy.

 

On Saturday night of Reunion Weekend I retired (drew back) early to my room on the third floor of Mayo-Smith. There, as the noise from the younger parties started to fade, I thought about the word “transition.” I remembered from a Lamaze class ages ago that transition was the most difficult, the most painful part of birth. And though I took some comfort in saying that I was not really “retired” but “a writer,” I knew about the pain—and not just the pain of being elected Class Secretary earlier that evening. Transitions are difficult in part because of the ambiguity: the need to let go, and the need to stay engaged.

 

It was on the way home from Amherst that I saw a way out of the pain. The solution is in the reunion itself. We stay engaged by keeping in touch with the people who are important to us. As Mark Sandler (’64) said in his presentation on surviving retirement, one way to make it meaningful is to meet and talk with interesting or even unlikely people—in contrast with the occasionally unpleasant people whom your worklife had forced you to deal with. You know who I mean. For many—for me—these deep friendships involve people met at Amherst. And interestingly, for many—for me—it means making new friends from the pool of classmates who I never really knew on campus years ago. The chemistry of the reunion sometimes makes that happen. And that’s why I took on the burdens of writing Class of ’64 Notes.

 

In one of the sessions sponsored by the class of ’59, a person not on the panel pointed out that in the Southeast, where he comes from, the key to establishing a person’s identity is not in the answer to “What do you do?” but “Who is your family?” And while I am distorting the meaning a bit when I say it, we do have a measure of control over who we include as our “family”—the friends we choose to embrace with love and forgiveness. Let me put it another way: One of the things we learned at Amherst is to question underlying assumptions. In English 1-2, Roger Sale stated it more baldly when he explained his grading scale: If you fulfill the assignment, you get a C. If you reject the assignment, you get a B. Only if you redefine the terms of the assignment do you earn an A (which I never got). So we can reject and redefine the terms of the question, “What do you do?” to mean “Who is your family?” And we can include work that does not give us power in the old ways through income, status, or leverage over other people, but instead through the blessings of connection itself. Volunteering at a hospital or elementary school, sharing yourself with grandchildren or with your grown children who may be even more confused than we are—this is all holy work, empowering work.

 

Put another way (quoting here another from ’59): “Retirement is an issue of loss of control—moving away from an area where we had some control. We must find an area where we do have control over our life.” And while some of this control can be won through thoughtful planning for our retirement years, it can also be won by a process of redefinition. Bob Teare (’59) quoted King Lear’s words to Cordelia after he fully gave up both his power and his struggle to reclaim it:

 

No, no! Come let’s away to prison.

We two will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.

When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,

And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too:

Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out;

And take upon’s the mystery of things,

As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,

In a wall’d prison, pack and sects of great ones

That ebb and flow by th’ moon.

 

The wisdom here lies in Lear’s realization that what was once so important to him (“Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out”) is now nothing more than an amusing game for “poor rogues,” a spectator sport enjoyed by the repeated “we” and “us”—Lear connected (tragically, too late) with his family.

 

But that is Act V, and we are, many of us, in Act IV. Remember all of the conversations that were part of our Amherst education—in the classrooms, the dorms, Valentine, and even the fraternities. Remember the disquieting and argumentative nature of most of those conversations—so much so, that some choose not to return to the college. These conversations, continuing in the formal programs during Reunion Weekend as well as in the informal talk all over campus, reveal a fundamental restlessness. We called it “intellectual curiosity” back in the ‘60s, but it’s more than that. Our restlessness strikes me, in my mid-fifties, as more spiritual than intellectual, and it needs to be honored. The restlessness is a hunger for meaning and connection—the opposite of Lear’s retirement. It’s why Rabbi Peter Rubinstein (’64) went to Albania and Hungary to meet with refugees: to bear witness, and to challenge us by asking how we will respond when our grandchildren ask, “Did you know? And what did you do about it?” It’s why pre-geezers my age take on new families, new businesses, new roles. It’s why we struggle with our transitions, why we need to talk about them with friends we love.

 

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Things

 

            “It’s only things.”

 

            As we are starting the process of downsizing to move out of our beloved Bark House into the Ann Arbor co-op, we try to reassure ourselves that the process will not take an emotional toll on us. So far we have been unsuccessful. “Things” can be important, emotionally, and in getting rid of them we pay a price.

 

            I say “we,” but it is Kim who is paying the biggest emotional price, for her “things” represent her artistic, loving, and very personal connection to the world. Her things include objects that belonged to her family – parents and grandparents. They include raw materials that she might someday use in her artistic creations. To name just a few – feathers, bark, fibers to make bird nests. They include an array of tools that she uses to create her art. They include collections that are part of who she is: collections of shells from Florida, Petoskey stones from here, bones, antlers, shark teeth, game pieces, clothes pins. They include files full of old photos and documents for use in the scrapbooks that are underway. She also has her box full of old scissors, for example, or wooden shoe lasts – we are keeping those, of course.

 

            Our new place is, quite simply, smaller. With her typical generosity she steered our selection of a new place toward where I would live when her cancer returns (her oncologist assures her that it will). As a result, she has no art room – only a small desk for her computer in the guest bedroom. My office on the third floor is just too many stairs away, and she sees the point of this enterprise is getting me squared away for the future. In getting rid of her art supplies, part of her is preparing to die.

 

            How do we “get rid of” the things that are part of our downsizing? Family members and friends will be selecting what they want when we move out, but they don’t have room for much. A few things we are just throwing away – a raggedy pair of my shoes, for example, or some weird clothing that has accumulated in my dresser. Paint samples – no, we are keeping those. Some of Kim’s nests made it into the fire pit. 

 

            We do take some things out to our garage sale, which is running most weekends when we are home and working in the yard. Clothes are fairly easy to move into the garage sale – we still have plenty from our years as snowbirds, with closets full in Michigan and Florida.  Very little clothing is being sold, however, but we can always donate clothes. I have a box full of old cables from previous television hook-ups, some of which may be useful in the new place, so I have been reluctant to take them to the garage sale, though I’ve taken a dozen out there. We’ve hauled out books that we know we will not read again, though we are keeping some just because the cover reminds us of a good read. Artwork? Kim has sold some in galleries, and it is discouraging the way customers only want to pay garage-sale-prices for work that is worth much more. It’s insulting. Still, some of her photographs have sold, and a few of her other creations. And people have been complimentary, even when they don’t buy.

 

            Furniture is, in a way, simpler. We love our Stickley Craftsman pieces, but we may not have room for all of them. We are taking some to Ann Arbor, and we may sell some with the house – when and if the house sells. We have some valuable vintage furniture, and people buying it with the house or at what is called “a living estate sale” probably won’t be willing to pay what it is worth. When the house sells we may put some pieces into storage until we figure out what to do with them. It may be hard for some people to conceive of loving furniture, and thus the pain of losing it, but those people are insensitive. Like me.

 

            Yesterday I overheard Kim’s saying to a friend, “I know they are just things, but they have significance. They are part of me . . ..” Yes, it’s an expression of her loving connection to the world.

 

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Masting Year


 

            We are experiencing a masting year with our maple trees. This is what they call it when a population of trees decides to release a huge number of fruits, nuts, or seeds. (The word derives from an Old High German word for food.) This happens every few years, and nobody is sure how or why the trees decide to do this or, remarkably, how trees over a large swath of the country coordinate their behavior to do it at the same time. Whatever the trigger, or however they communicate, masting serves them well. During a normal year, most of the seeds that are dropped are eaten by squirrels, birds, mice and other critters, with few making it into the soil to grow into new trees. (With oak trees this happens with acorns.) In a masting year, so many seeds hit the ground that it becomes likely there will be plenty that will become trees. Pretty clever of them, in my opinion. (There is much more to say about masting years – so look it up.)

 

            So, here on our property we had thousands of those little helicopter maple seeds swirling down onto our woods and gardens, which soon became thousands of tiny maple trees peeking up out of the earth. Kim and I had to take the place of the squirrels. The tree starts are only an inch or so tall, at this point, and they are relatively easy to pull out. But there are so damn many of them! I usually get down on my knees to pull them out. Kim, with her bad knees, bends over to grab them, which is not good for her back. But we persist. We try to limit our efforts to an hour or two a day, but it’s often more. We resist using chemicals because the chemicals are bad for the environment, which includes our well water, and because the maple starts are usually right next to the violets and other flowers that we love. Kim has pointed out that for me, maple-pulling has a kind of meditative quality. Apparently, I like repetition.

 

            All of this makes me wonder what it would be like if I were to have a masting year. No, I won’t be distributing seeds any more, but could it be a metaphor for some sort of large productive enterprise? Perhaps, but what’s really interesting to me is not the fact that a tree, every few years, puts out a large number of seeds. No, what’s most fascinating is that a maple tree in Michigan can coordinate its masting with trees in Massachusetts. Are they all responding to the same stimulus, perhaps in the weather, or are they communicating through channels that we have not yet detected? Have trees come up with their own version of the internet?

 

            I look for evidence of human masting. At a cynical level, I look at the way political misinformation gets spread, almost instantly. But in a more benign way, I experienced a mast year last weekend. My college class celebrated our 60th reunion, and though I didn’t attend, I felt connected to it. Yes, I know, this may be a product of email and our class listserv, where I could read messages back and forth from classmates. But it was more than that, I think (and feel). I was sharing. I’m part of this because a number of classmates read my blog, but it goes deeper than a sharing of information and updates. I suspect that one of the consequences of class reunions is the dropping of seeds and nuts into the college’s Alumni Fund, but I got a real kick out of knowing and feeling that classmates all over the country and perhaps over much of the world were moved and participating.

 

            Wouldn’t it be nice if we could generate some sort of masting to preserve our planet? Instead of dropping seeds and nuts, how about clean energy, clean water, and native plants? Can you feel it? I can feel the potential when I see those little maple seeds helicoptering by. 

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Change

            Change can be exciting, a path to renewal. It can also be stressful.

            So, we are moving to Ann Arbor in the summer. We will live at the co-op called Hildene Manor for half the year, and if the place works out and the workload here at the Bark House is too much, we’ll move there full time in maybe a year or so. Exciting, right?

 

            Stress? I woke up at 5 a.m. a couple of days ago trying to figure out how to transfer our Spectrum cable account, plus the streaming services we use, to the account we will have in Ann Arbor with Xfinity, which I think is owned by Spectrum. How would all of this work? Would I need to pay for two accounts? Would I have to learn how to use a new remote after I finally solved the ones I have here? At breakfast Kim explained that we have a month or two to figure that out, and I should just phone Spectrum. Of course! My stress level dropped some, but I’m still thinking about it.

 

            A day later I woke up with a sore hip and wondered if I would need hip replacement. And if I did, how would that impact the move? And impact my life – when would I be able to drive? I told Kim about my sore hip, and she told me hers feels that way every day. By noon my hip felt fine, and I wondered how I got trapped in a Woody Allen movie.

 

            And how is Kim, with all her pain and fatigue, going to handle the move? How far can her determination take her? We have stacks of boxes in the basement, ready to haul out to the car when we drive to Ann Arbor for closing, and then to put away in the new place. And then we will have furniture to arrange when we get there. Kim’s hands and knees are bad, so how will that go? Stress. Kim reassures me she will outwork me, and she will be calling a doctor about her knee.

 

            I woke up at 5 on Sunday, thinking about the beds we are moving. They are new, and unassembled. Will I figure out how to assemble them? The plan is for us to sleep there the night the beds arrive. What tools, other than an adjustable wrench, should I have? Will I be up to the task? Kim says I can figure it out, and if not, help is available: friends, family, the movers.

 

            I spend a lot of time thinking about what we will move. Should we move the large pine dinner table – once in our Florida home – that’s been stored in our garage for a year? But the pine doesn’t go at all well with the wood in the new place, so should we try to sell it and move the Arts and Crafts table from the Bark House? Should we also sell, or attempt to sell, our antique French pine cabinet? Kim is encouraging me to make these decisions, and she gets annoyed when I am hesitant. This makes me more stressed and more hesitant. She has too many good suggestions.

 

            More stress: Where are we going to dry dishes with our sink not wide enough for side-by-side washing and drying? What will it be like to live there and do our daily tasks?

 

            Is there room to store anything in the garage? We neglected to inspect it during our brief visit. Could our antique work bench fit there? 

 

            Kim suggested getting a small sleeping couch to put in my study, which will be located on the third floor, many steps away from our first-floor unit. (One of the charming peculiarities of Hildene Manor is that each of the eight units has a bedroom on the third floor, along with the shared bathroom.) Should we move all of my office furniture there, in anticipation of our living there full-time?

 

            Of course, part of the stress is due to the realistic planning that assures us that one of us will probably die first, leaving the other . . .. I choose not to think about it in detail. Too stressful.

 

            My stress was not helped when I received an email from the very helpful owner of the unit we are buying. She answered a number of my questions, and noted what my share of the summer taxes would be. (One feature of the co-op is that the Manor gets one property tax fill, which the members divide up.) Wow! And what about the winter taxes? This was about double what I thought I would be paying, and our budget is fairly tight! I stressed about this for a couple of hours. Are we going to lose another sale? Could that just be a typo in her email? It was what we who are involved in real estate call an “Oh shit! moment.” (As it turns out, she told me the tax bill for the whole year.)

 

            There’s more, but no need to tell you about it. Yes, I’m trapped in a Woody Allen movie.

 

            Kim reminds me, from time to time, “This is supposed to be fun.”

 

            In her blog, My Wobbly Bicycle, our friend Fleda, an award-winning poet, quoted Maria Popova: “Changing — your mind, your life — is …painfully difficult because it is a form of renunciation. . .it requires giving something up — a way of seeing, a way of being — in order for something new to come abloom along the vector of the endless unfolding that is a life fully lived.” Watching our garden emerge reminds me of the wisdom in what Fleda pointed out.

 

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Sunrise


            Of course, as soon as we decided to move to Ann Arbor, we deepened our appreciation of what we have here in our Bark House on Torch Lake. Every morning starts with appreciation – not simply that we are alive, but that the day greets us with beauty. Below is a collection of Kim’s early morning photos, all looking east over the lake. She has hundreds. This is our world.




















        Yes, we have our bad days, too, but it helps if we focus on the kind of appreciation that Kim's photography brings us. 


Thursday, May 16, 2024

At Last


            We have found our next place to live, after about a year of fairly intense looking. It’s a co-op in Ann Arbor called Hildene Manor. More on that place later . . ..

 

            Our goal was and is to find a place for when we get old. The amount of work required to maintain our home, woods and garden is significant, and we have some health issues that are not likely to improve. So we have been looking for a condo


            Our process included a daily second cup of coffee looking at listings in the Traverse City area, Gainesville, Atlanta, as well as Howell, Milford, and a number of towns in Southeast Michigan. We were discouraged by the rather generic look of most condos, suggesting cheap construction paired with high prices. We did make offers on five places, and four times we forwarded substantial earnest money to seal the deal, only to have it fall apart. The most painful was when we realized some problems after signing off on the contractor’s inspection contingency, a mistake that cost us our earnest money when the owner would not refund it – or even half of it. In response, I put a curse on the property, which is working because it’s still on the market.

 

            Hildene Manor is a co-op, which means that we will be 1/8th owner of the building and property. It was constructed as an apartment building in 1925. Most of the current residents, I believe, are active or retired professors from the University of Michigan, so we will drag the academic level down. I will learn more about the place from a resident who is researching the place, and I would like to work with her to write a piece about it for The Ann Arbor Observer for its 100th anniversary. Here’s a photo:

 

            

 

            Why do we want to live there? Here’s a letter we submitted with our offer:

 

Hildene Manor Cooperative

            

            We are both from Ann Arbor, and we miss it!

 

            I had a 30+ year career teaching English at Ann Arbor Huron, where I would ride my bike to work from my home on Brockman Blvd. When I retired we moved around as snowbirds for about 15 years, chasing kids and grandkids between Saline and Gainesville, Florida, and now we are living in a cottage on Torch Lake. We love it on Torch, but we miss our many Ann Arbor friends and the distinctive Ann Arbor vibe. I’m a writer, and I published a number of articles in The Ann Arbor Observer, mainly about the Ann Arbor Art Fair, where Kim helped select the featured artists.

 

            For the last nine months we would spend an hour or more every morning, looking online for a place to live in the city we love. We wanted a place with character, which usually meant an older home with quality carpentry and design. Our Saline house was a charming 1927 craftsman bungalow, a place I wrote about for American Bungalow magazine. We love the craftsman details in Hildene Manor, we love how well taken care of it is by people who care, and we love what we have heard about your sense of community. Every other house we have looked at, online or in person, made us think what we would have to renovate, but here we love it just the way it is.

 

            We plan to keep our summer cottage for a couple of years, to see how it goes as we are getting older, and then move to Ann Arbor full time. We feel like we belong at Hildene Manor Cooperative.

 

            We are thinking that when we sell our Bark House we will ask prospective buyers what they like about it, and what their plans are. We have been discussing when we might want to sell our home and move to Ann Arbor full time. We have not reached a conclusion, but this morning’s beautiful sunrise over Torch Lake makes it hard to leave.

 

            One of the interesting features of buying into a co-op is that we have to be approved – not simply that we can come up with the money, but approved as members of the small co-op community. We were asked to submit two support letters – like what I used to write for my students applying to colleges. We are also to be interviewed, a process that we are doing with a Zoom Meeting because we live 5 or 6 hours away. Wouldn’t it be nice to be selective about your neighbors?

 

            Closing is tentatively set for mid-July, provided, of course, that we are judged to be acceptable.

 

  

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Unfair

 

            When I think of someone saying, “That’s not fair,” I first think of a teen-ager complaining about some rule or restriction being imposed by a parent. (This scene may be out of date, as a contemporary teen might just tell their parents to go screw themselves – or worse.) But when a person says, “That’s not fair,” what do they really mean?

 

            At its core, the words might be driven by a feeling: “I don’t like it.” But the appeal to fairness takes it to a higher level, something like divine justice, where right and wrong are clear. It’s not quite the same as our earthly justice, where an action or decision is weighed against a written law or set of rules.

 

            No, it’s comforting to think there is some sort of universal internal fairness compass, something everyone shares. (Ignore the news, please.) We all can feel when something is just not fair. We just know it, in our hearts. I remember when I was teaching Humanities and we were discussing Plato’s Absolutes. We considered Absolute Beauty, against which we measure all our specific worldly attempts. And we considered Absolute Justice, and we felt it is possible to evaluate laws and practices against Justice. (I called it “real Justice “– my students disagreed.) The difficulty, we concluded (agreeing with Plato), is to set aside partiality and self-interest. We don’t judge the beauty of another person on the basis of whether or not they are attractive to us, and we don’t judge the justice or fairness of a law or decision on the basis of whether it benefits us. Hard to do that, I know.

 

            Interesting (to me, anyway) that when I looked up the origins of the word “fair,” I learned that it’s “akin to Old High German fagar,” which means beautiful. I like the convergence of Fairness and Beauty – though I know, of course, that the word “fair” has many other meanings, e.g., the term “fair maiden” probably is not usually a reference to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Can you think of a beautiful law? A beautiful decision made in this world? I think we can get close – though perhaps not in our current political environment.

 

            We think that the outcome of a game is “fair” if the winning team played by the rules. Sounds simple, but what if the rules are not fair? For examples, only think of the racial history of this country, where many of the “rules” were made by people pursuing their own self-interest rather than anything resembling fairness.

 

            What’s the opposite of “fair,” other than, you know, “unfair”? Is it “foul,” or does that just apply in baseball? I think it would be interesting to have the Supreme Court rule that a law or action is “foul” – though I’m not comfortable with how the current court might apply the term. Do courts look to “fairness” in making judgments? Do they ever use the term in rendering their opinion? Do they simply say, “That’s not fair”? If so, are they dealing with a gut-level feeling that a law or action was selfish rather than beautifully impartial? Or doesn’t fairness enter into their thinking?

 

            I yield the floor to the attorneys.