For Work-Life Balance, Loaf and Invite the Soul

Zachary Michael Jack remembers a colleague who taught him life lessons that were as valuable -- and then some -- as the merely strategic advice of how to impress superiors, win tenure and climb the academic ladder.

September 12, 2019
 
 
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Never a traditional academic, the man I'll call Rodriguez spent much of his time volunteering in the community instead of attending obligatory departmental events. His views on institutional efficacy were something less than conventional.

More than once in discussions of faculty workload, he quoted the Walt Whitman poem "Song of Myself," enjoining colleagues to reduce committee creep in order to "loaf and invite the soul." At another meeting, he suggested that we cancel all meetings for a period of one year to see which were truly essential and which were not. Colleagues openly laughed, but Rodriguez wasn't kidding. His was a Tao of Winnie the Pooh -- true wisdom cloaked in a veil of the inane.

Rodriguez understood early on the secret sauce of a rich and varied life. The lessons he taught, in his inimitable way, were every bit as valuable as the merely strategic advice -- how to impress superiors, win tenure and climb the academic ladder -- that masquerades as mentorship. In the time he might have spent buried in committee and taskforce meetings, he successfully raised four sons and multiple grandchildren. He edited one university press anthology, then another.

In more free-wheeling days, he easily made tenure, though of late he had fallen out of institutional favor, he liked to claim. The department had also forbidden him to take job candidates into the city on their campus visits, as he was wont to spirit them away to jazz clubs until the wee hours of the morning. The departmental ban was a soft one, accomplished with affection and good humor. But after it went into place, Rodriquez pulled away from searches, save for an occasional appearance at a candidate dinner where his presence always lifted morale.

Each and every time faculty members now meet in an attempt to address workload issues, I think of Rodriguez's call for a year-long sabbatical from any and all meetings. When I am feeling bold, I quote him quoting Whitman, exhorting us to loaf. At other times, I think of my father, who counseled against the workaholic's tendency to "ride the horse hard and put it away wet" -- an agrarian version of the familiar admonition against burning the candle on both ends.

And yet like most people who advocate ease, Rodriguez never stopped moving, doing and accomplishing -- embodying a view of citizenship and service whereby each person serves according to their talent and their calling. On Fridays, he served dinner at the local homeless shelter. On Sundays, he sometimes served as a church elder, delivering the occasional lay sermon. In between, he shepherded a sequence of graduate courses on social change. Each spring, he hosted a silent auction that became a fixture in the community social calendar and a productive fundraiser.

Rodriguez embodied the Winnie the Poohism, "Doing nothing often leads to the very best something." And what he stayed busy at was nothing and everything. He was a mensch of work-life balance. Not surprisingly, he preferred to teach at night, where his communitarian bent resonated with the graduate and continuing-education population. Teaching at night kept his days free for community service and passion projects.

He had a Ph.D. in taking lemons and making lemonade. After an accident took his only car out of commission, he opted not to replace it, riding home each evening on the bus. And when a tragedy struck his family, he turned his loss into the community's gain, founding a nonprofit to assist new emigres with transitional housing. Even as his stock seemed to fall among his academic supervisors, it rose in the community, illustrating that success depends largely on one's audience.

While Rodriguez aged beautifully in place, his teaching schedule and his outreach to external audiences inevitably drew him away from the department until one weekday afternoon, standing at the podium where we was introducing a guest speaker, he announced that he would be retiring. His years had been good ones, he told us, but he wanted to devote more time to his other interests, including a new granddaughter.

On the day of the institutional service awards when the college honors its retiring faculty members with plaques and speeches, I scanned the auditorium for Rodriguez. He typically donned his academic regalia for events like these, wearing a Cheshire grin that intimated his appreciation for the irony -- he in the midst of such pomp and circumstance! One after another, the esteemed members of his professorial cohort were called to the stage to be celebrated and roasted. When Rodriguez's name was called, he did not run breathlessly into the auditorium still putting on his cape, as I half expected he might. Instead, the calling of his name was followed by an awkward silence at his absence and the playing of a short video that touched briefly on the high points of his academic career.

I couldn't resist needling Rodriguez a bit when next I saw him nibbling Turkish apricots and drinking kombucha in his office. Only he could miss his own retirement celebration, I joked, assuming he had planned his absence to make a point. But in true Rodriguez fashion, he reported that he had merely forgotten the ceremony, and even if he had remembered, he would have been too busy to attend. Friday was his day to serve at the homeless shelter.

In due time, Rodriguez sent an email apologizing for his absence. He thanked the institution and his fellow faculty members for many wonderful years together. A week or so later, he appeared in full regalia at the commencement ceremony to be conferred with his new professor emeritus status in a joyous occasion. A few days after that, he boxed up the books in his office for donation to the library and was gone.

I still see Rodriguez on those rare nights when he returns to teach graduate and continuing-education courses on his own terms. I miss him more than I can say, but retirement seems to suit, as it's grown harder than ever to book face time with him. He has no time, and yet he has all the time in the world.

I intend to visit him soon in his new home, the Victorian he and his partner have lovingly restored. When we meet beside the basil plants in the garden I imagine behind the carriage house, I don't expect to find a horse stabled there. But if I do, I know that, like its owner, it will be well rested.

This fall, Rodriguez and I will commune over some of the homemade pesto pasta he's been cooking up in his retirement. I'll thank him personally for modeling what academic work-life balance looks like and honor his legacy by loafing and inviting the soul in a season known for such slow and graceful metamorphosis.

Bio

Zachary Michael Jack is a professor of English at North Central College where he serves on the faculty of the Leadership, Ethics, and Values program.

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