I Am Not A Liability

balanceIt’s a joint account, but all my transactions are in red. I buy groceries, gas up the car, grab the occasional coffee, burger, and a pint. Never does the account tip positive for an action I’ve taken, and sometimes I get trapped thinking: I’m a liability.

When I’m “trapped,” I’m over-focused. I can’t stop thinking about those red entries on the balance sheet, and I have a hard time recovering positive thoughts of my days in the black. Will they come back? Have they really vanished? Or am I just over-emphasizing all the wrong things?

You’ve been here, perhaps, wondering seriously about your place in your own world and the world at large. From the outside, it looks like you’re in a mood, and from the inside it feels like a mood. It’s more: it’s a way of being and thinking and existing that you wish you could wish away or sleep off, but the next morning there’s nothing more than a day of consumption ahead and interrupted dreams behind.

This is my unchecked feeling of liability. I am an unemployed educator, a stranger in a strange land, and perhaps most importantly and most difficultly, a parent. This is my struggle to view myself as asset – to shed my negative image and assure myself I am not a liability.

1. I Have Noticed

fishing-graf“There is more than one kind of capital, and few kinds you lock away in a vault.”

I wrote this sentence weeks ago and I’ve struggled to make sense of where it came from. To me, it takes the form of a sinking feeling, and that’s not a feeling I expect while I bubble through late spring and into summer adjacent to my favorite beach in the world with a healthy happy little boy bouncing along beside me. I made other notes around this sentence, drew arrows to other pages. But I found myself avoiding it, because I knew that to address it would be to address myself head on, without the backdrop of the beach or playground or the boy zooming his bicycle and yelling to his friends to brighten the mood.

A couple pages prior, I made a related note: “Humans are the only creatures on the planet who commute to work.” Surely a biologist or sociologist would find simple examples to dispute this claim, but the claim itself has a spirit, and that spirit interests me more than its status as universal truth.

I have to remind myself, often, that I have a job. There are menial aspects of my job: keeping the toilet clean, the kitchen tidy, and poop from soaking into the carpet. There are chronic responsibilities: grocery shopping, cooking, monitoring the whereabouts of the perpetual-motion-little-man. There are projects: teaching Noodle to ride a bike, to read, to sing and dance and always wear his hat when he jumps on the trampoline in the sun.

The big picture is simple: keep the household running smoothly and the boy playing safely.

But I don’t commute to work. I don’t prepare for work. I get up, and I’m working because I’m up. And I push myself to work work work because lurking in my consciousness is the simple fact that all my transactions are in red. The ongoing nag: I am a liability.

It’s difficult enough that my job is my home and is my boy. A tough day at work is a tough day at home, and it’s difficult to convey to anyone who doesn’t do a job such as this how deeply one can sink in this situation. There is no escape. Off-duty you want to go home, but home is where the work is, so off-duty you have to go out. I don’t know about you, but I rarely rest easily battling crowds and parking and other people’s foibles when all I really want is a little privacy and quiet inside my head.

If you’ve not spent a full day with a child, let me assure you, it’s not all coffees and pastries with the park mums. It’s ongoing noise and distracted conversation. A few fellow stay-at-homes tried to have happy hour at our local playground last Friday. The lot of us spent more time chasing kids than socializing, because they move constantly. Get a gaggle of them together and you’ll come quickly to understand why we use dogs to herd geese.

You have no space. I spend absurdly long parts of my day planning bathroom breaks, setting a scene in the living room where all the dangers have been removed, the child is settled, occupied with slices of apple and an infomercial. Still I have to parent-from-a-distance, listening closely for the refrigerator door, or the unmistakeable clatter-splash of tumbling juice glasses. A din of moderate destruction comforts me because at least he’s still in the house and I expect to have to clean up every afternoon anyway. Of course, if anything sounds wrong, I’ve got to be at the ready to jump wipe and take swift action because that’s my job.

To be honest, I’m jealous of anyone who can simply go take a shit unmolested. And feeling like a liability is the last thing I need to drag me further.

Let me make clear: my feelings are my own here. My wife and I decided on this lifestyle together, and she supports and encourages me every step of the way. In reality, I’m not a liability at home. But nobody faces reality every day, and when insecurities and uncertainties encroach, you need a map of where to turn. This is mine.

2. I Teach

classics-of-analytic-philosophyIt has been a couple of years since I’ve been in front of a classroom, and that disappoints me. The fact is there are few full-time teaching jobs in my field anymore. I’m a philosopher by trade – I know I know. What did I expect, right? Well, I specialized in Critical Thinking and writing, and I expected that those would be valued in the academy for all time. I misjudged. More and more these days, humanities are treated as liabilities.

These days it is more profitable to hire adjunct faculty to teach one-off classes. You don’t have to provide them full-time benefits. The base pay is low. And you can hire and fire them at will, or when their classes fail to show growth potential and profit within the metrics of the academy’s business model.

Simply: full-time teachers are liabilities; they cost money. Students are assets; they bring in money. On the balance sheet, fewer teachers who are paid less and more students who pay higher rates equals bigger black numbers. In an MBA-driven administration, that’s success.

On an annual timeline, it is difficult – nigh impossible – to measure the social value that educational institutions contribute. Long-term benefit is intangible, unquantifiable in number, and must be projected in narrative terms of social and cultural payoff. But investors and tax-payers are interested in bottom lines, not shadows.

One can imagine working – teaching – while haunted by the ghosts of investors past. Hyper-focus on cost blurs a longer view that teaching, much like farming as I think of it, pays out well after the hard work is done. But we keep farming because we’ll need another crop one year on. The analogy breaks down fast though: we harvest what teachers sow much later than we harvest peas and corn – so long that most tend to forget the effort that seeded what we reap a decade later. Certainly a speculator’s attention wanes within a fiscal year, well before a teacher’s labor blossoms and fruits.

These days, we try to measure what we perceive as immediate effects of teaching. By year’s end, a student should have progressed in skills X, Y, and Z, and we measure this by administering standardized tests – or we should say homogenized tests. We add up totals and review the annual bottom line and determine which teachers and techniques have grown our assets, dispensing with those that have not met pre-determined success metrics.

What a shame if we took the same approach to whiskey. The payoff of careful distillation and casking takes a decade or more to realize. Imagine we tasted the results at each year-end and dispensed with any product and process that hadn’t produced results to match our pre-determined expectations. Jim Beam would rule the world while Macallan suffered extinction. Spirits simply need time to develop character, but character has to matter in the market before metrics catch up with evaluative vocabularies. I fear that character does not color academic administrators’ views of success. It’s tough to put a number to it and numbers have superseded narrative when it comes to success stories. So much the worse for moral measures.

The evisceration of education continues unabated with teachers sacrificed on altars of paper and copper and nickel and dimes. To personalize this case: I want to teach but I can’t do so for sub-minimum wages. College lecturers are paid by the hour in the classroom, and in California, for me, that was between $40 – $60. But each hour in class expands to four or six (or more) outside of class because quality matters to me — I want to deliver engaging lectures, foster high-level discussions, and give reasonable and meaningful feedback on students’ writing. There simply isn’t time, given that class enrollment is set to the contractual maximum (49 students) and I would need to teach 5 classes to earn just below median income. The recommendation: multiple choice tests and preset curriculum. Protect yourself. Don’t bother with more. Besides, kids these days don’t even care.

And that right there is a justification that keeps too many revolutionaries settled — though it fires up the likes of me. The “kids these days” stories we tell in the popular media and at home around the dinner table justify a money-driven status quo bereft of creativity, slave to dollar signs. I sometimes wonder why there are so many anti-Millennial invectives these days. Makes us non-Millennials feel better I reckon. Shifts the burden from our conscience to Millennial class consciousness. Makes the other the problem. Education fails because kids these days fail, right?

Wrong. Institutions and administrators fail, as well as all those complicit in the operation of profit-driven educational machines. The system, as they say, is broken. Standardized measuring tools we use are as suited to education as a hammer is suited to baking a birthday cake. Worse: schools continue to take on business models of for-profit corporations, introducing tier after tier of middle management who speciously reason their roles into the black at teachers’ expense. Teachers take money from the till, therefore they are liabilities. Students put money into the till, therefore they are assets. This is bullshit, and because of it, a huge reservoir of non-financial capital — of creative and artistic pursuits whose payoff doesn’t fit in a piggy bank — filled through generations of hard work and good will — that’s all quickly drying up. We need to alter our attitude toward educators and revert to a sense of reverence at those who choose to serve the public through teaching. And reward them as the assets they are.

We cannot continue hiring journeying adjuncts to teach, at some institutions, three out of four university courses, dividing their classroom-hourly rate by four or six (to get a more accurate measure of per-hour salary,) then subtracting a chunk to pay their own health care, then subtracting for expenses to travel from campus to campus because typically they’ll be teaching a couple of classes in a couple of locations. All of a sudden, a decade of higher education and apprenticeship to rise to the top of your field not only doesn’t pay off, but it’s killing you slowly, grinding you to dust because in the eyes of fiscal-year-focused administrators, teachers are liabilities. This must end.

This probably comes off as sour and as angry, and it’s precisely that. I won’t apologize. There’s a mixture of grief stirred in as well, and I figure I’m simply at that stage because the death of my dream is fresh. It’s over. It’s not coming back. And that’s a disappointment. But I’ve been cultivating bigger ideas now to reach a broader audience and I have a clearer, revolutionary purpose. I’m breaking cycles as best I can and telling my son stories of salvation. I am a still a teacher it turns out, and a pure asset to my class-of-one.

3. I Have A Child

noodle-lawnmowerIt occurred to me last week that one day soon Noodle will have his first day of school and I’ll be a proud papa, misty-eyed holding his hand, and he his lunchbox, down the path to his first classroom. The moment I let go and he walks through the door with his friends, everything changes. Mostly me. For as sublime a thought as this is, what really occurred to me is that one day I’ll live a prouder moment when I watch him mow his first lawn.

I was thirteen when my grandfather showed me around the lawnmower, older than me, a 1969 crank-start Briggs & Stratton with a Chevy-orange deck kicked up and scraped from a decade and a half of throwing rocks and sticks and soda cans and fishing lures that shouldn’t have been in the grass in the first place. It had a hinged handle you’d flip 180 degrees to reveal a knob you’d use to crank. Under the housing was a gear on a clock spring and a coil-spring loaded switch that would hold the gear in place until you released it with a flick of a lever next to the choke. When released, the potential energy stored in the clock spring would actualize in a clacking whirrrr that fired the engine, ideally to a smooth idle, though it typically took two tries at the crank. I didn’t mind. I loved the clicking and the attention.

There was a pattern to be followed on the lawn: a square with the side chute faced inward so you’d end up with one pile of clippings in the dead center of the yard. The first time out, Grampie watched me from the back step, arms folded across his chest, his dirty tan fishing hat shading his eyes, stern as a German, clean shaven but a gruff man all around. I always felt he was judging me.

At the time, I imagined he was glad to see someone else doing the lawn, even though he had little else to do but supervise. I simply mowed, happy to be trusted and occupied and growing up as fast as I could.

When I think back now, I’m not so sure he was glad to see me aging out of a complaining little kid into an angry adolescent. I think he was proud to have been part of a little boy operating a big lawnmower on a muggy summer afternoon, working out the pattern that’ll get the job done, as everyone in the family has done for generations past and will for generations to come, considering how well this is going.

I had not, in his eyes, shifted from liability to asset – from six-year-old lawn-destroyer to teenaged lawn-maintainer. Turns out he didn’t think that way. I hadn’t shifted columns on the family balance sheet. I had grown up, but was still the same the little boy he loved in his peculiar and brusque old fashioned way, teaching me lessons and showing me how to learn, just as my last summer before first grade, age five, when he taught me setback at the kitchen table. We kept a month-long score card and he always let me win, playing off his losses as bad luck meeting superior skill, because that’s the kind of man he wanted me to become.

He only got to watch me mow the lawn three years before he died. He usually stood at the kitchen window, partly covered by the sheer and faded yellow curtain that my grandmother had picked out before she died and I was born. He wasn’t hiding. There was no mystery. There was always a cold glass of water at my spot on the kitchen table and a freshly shuffled pack of cards between us. I had never been a family liability.

I’d give it all if he could see me now, 25 years since he’s gone. And he could see his great-grandson, maybe watch him from the front porch, arms still folded, still grumpy as ever, rarely speaking anything but correction. His silence was his kindness, I know now. And I figure if I’d have asked him for advice when we found out Noodle was due, he’d have told me plain and simple “make sure you show him how to mow a good lawn.”


The expectant-parent inquisition takes an oddly budgetary tone, as if that‘s the naturally primary concern. Have you started a college fund? Will he do soccer or piano lessons or both? Start saving. Have you picked out a car seat, a stroller, and the diaper genie is such a must as it’s simply divine, cloth or disposable, high chair, crib, swings and trikes and educational toys and flickering tablets and insurance and a trust. Daycare or nanny and what year will he start private school because you can’t trust the public curriculum these days, and food choices determine future healthcare expense so it’s best to go organic early….

But then I think back to twelve, thirteen, fourteen, at the kitchen table on those sweaty summer days stinking of exhaust and rye grass, and I realize that too often we ask ourselves the wrong things when we wonder about our own value, and we trap ourselves into structuring our lives like balance sheets. Maybe it’s just that my family was so poor back then that dollar talk made little sense; we were staying poor. Period. Our old lawnmower and a deck of cards were enough asset to balance out whatever else came along.

4. We Are Family

ithof-dad-noodleAsset and liability talk peppers discussions of  popular politics, budget woes, soaring debt ceilings and social safety nets and healthcare and who gets to pick the truths taught in public schools. Dollar signs dangle off the end of every sentence and sentiment in every stump speech and party platform statement. We become what we see and what we hear, and the constant bottom-line drumming to which politicians and pundits dance sound the backbeat of our popular value systems.

On a long enough timeline, there are no assets, if history and thermodynamics are any measure. The world’s formerly richest resident dinosaurs now fuel the Maybachs and the Lears of the privileged and opulent who, on an astronomical scale, along with the rest of us, are doomed to a fiery disintegration in the Sun’s ultimate nova.

These stretched observations are not meant to render us immaterial or to trivialize the problems and celebrations of our existence. Rather, I point out that evaluations of value, of asset and liability, gather their force from the quirks of our divisive strategies – from the ways we decide to carve history into epochs and eras and generations and decades and seasons and per diem expense accounts and whether whiskey or wine suits our meal and where did our garçon scamper off anyway….

On the timeline of my little boy’s life, we are each other’s assets. And we are yours. All of yours. Right now, I am his confidence, his vocabulary — for better and worse, his balance and his agility, his humor, his appetites, his motivations and obsessions, and the dreams we crafted together in sleeping and waking hours from the characters in and around town and our world. We’ll mow lawns and play card games and eat apple slices and ride bicycles and stuff beach sand in our pockets for mama’s geologic collections. I’ll write the words to his life for now and I’ll be his primary teacher. But one day he will take over as biographer and shout our stories into the quiet ether. Some will hear. Some will listen and read. Some might even be moved. To some, this project will matter more than they spent on yesterday’s coffee and convenience. They’ll perhaps share the value I assign this chronicle. All the while, I’ll have trucked along without remuneration because it’s the expressive act that motivates me, and my circumstances still allow this luxury — these publicly scrap-booked histories of a son and his father. This is its own payout, along with everything else that dadding full time brings. No account structure can possibly measure such intangible benefits in a way that would satisfy investors and administrators and their almighty balance sheets. But goddamnit, I am not a liability.

The Lawnmower
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