Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Harold Fry: Stepping Out of Oneself

Perhaps what people fear most about retirement is boredom. Day after day of sameness. And the silence between a couple who, after decades together, have little to say or who have chosen to paper over past grief and grievances.

Such was the (fictional) life of Harold Fry – until he gets a letter from Queenie Hennesey, a former co-worker, who says that she is in hospice, dying of cancer. He tries to write to Queenie, who lives at the other end of England, but what do you say?  He tries to call, but she can’t come to the phone. Instead, he starts walking and soon becomes convinced (by a young woman who microwaves him a burger at a gas station) that his journey to Queenie will keep her alive. The notion that determination can defeat death is an idea that captivates everyone he encounters.
But what is most intriguing about “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” by Rachel Joyce, is the transformation and self-discovery that Harold experiences as he steps out of his decades-long rut -- opening himself up to people he meets along the way, discovering a natural world he’s never known, and challenging his body as never  before.

Mile after mile on the road, he is consumed by memories that now appear in a fresh light, reshaped by newfound strengths.

In so many ways, he is starting over. And the starting over is not a one-time process. As Joyce writes:

“Harold believed his journey was truly beginning. He had thought it started the moment he decided to walk to Berwick, but he saw now that he had been naive. Beginnings could happen more than once, or in different ways. You could think you were starting something afresh, when actually what you were doing was carrying on as before. He had faced his shortcoming and overcome them, and so the real business of walking was happening only now.”

For that matter, Harold’s wife – left behind –discovers, to her surprise, her own resilience. She, too, takes a deep-dive into their shared history and makes startling discoveries of her own.

It’s a simple tale, with a profound reminder that at any age we can take steps to move in a new direction. That we can walk a path of discovery.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Man of the Purple Martins

Newborn purple martins at Cape May Lighthouse
Quick! Before the purple martins arrive in Brazil, I must write this. (How the summer has ‘flown’!)

Back in early July I was stunned to arrive at Cape May, N.J.’s lighthouse to find four really big birdhouses – bird hotels, actually -- being cranked from about 15 feet up down to eye level.  Inside each one were drawers. And inside the drawers were nests of tiny newborn purple martins.
 Naked in their featherlessness. Pink. Wrinkly. Vulnerable.
But cared for by more than their anxious parents, who kept arriving with the chicks’ favorite food – dragonflies – in their beaks.
Purple martins get human TLC
Also looking out for them were a couple of unretiring men who crank down the houses each day to shoo out other species like house sparrows and starlings, that commandeer the nests. They also order crickets to be sent overnight from Kentucky when the weather is so bad that the purple martins can’t find their favorite food, insects, on their own. (You fire the crickets toward the martins with a slingshot until they realize it’s food. Then they come flocking. Who knew?)
Such volunteers are called “landlords” in purple martin speak.
The day we were at the lighthouse in early July, the father of many landlords, Allen Jackson, 66, was there using special pliers to crimp tiny bands around the babies’ skinny legs.

 It’s a hobby – or rather, a mission – with roots in his childhood. As a youngster in Rhode Island, he and his father tried to nurture a purple martin colony, but failed because the management techniques now used were unknown. While working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in New Jersey, Jackson began setting up colonies on his own time – and then went full bore after retiring in 2002, the year he was also named “Purple Martin Landlord of the Year.”
 He’s set up 200 purple martin colonies in New Jersey and is a major force in the movement to rescue the species, which, east of the Rockies, depend on humans to create their housing. (Native Americans set out hollowed out gourds for them.)
Otherwise the bird, previously in a long decline, could be vanishing.

“I am one of those that stands by the fact that I am busier in retirement than I was doing work,” he said, as one after the other he gently held a chick in his fist and squeezed the band around its ankle, marked with a date and location.  “I’m going every single day. I love what I’m doing. My wife is ready to divorce me because I’m so involved in this.”
He came to bird banding naturally, he said, as he sat on a stool, a bucket filled with soft wood shavings between his knees.  “I grew up in the country in Rhode Island. When I was young, I used to milk a cow by hand. So this is very natural to me,” he said. “I’d rather work out of a bucket than anything else.”
This morning of banding was historic in a way. It was to be  Jackson’s banding marathon.

High tech has come to saving birds: banding is out,  geolocators are in.

With banding, if a human gets close enough to a bird, he or she can read where it was born and then wonder how it got to its arrival point.  With geolocators, which capture daily light records, analysts can retrieve the device and then use local sunrise and sunset times to pinpoint the bird’s migratory path.
So, now what will Jackson do? Is another transition in the offing?
“I will continue to do purple martins. I’ll probably start four or five purple martin colonies each year. It keeps me going all the time. I give talks, I have a slide program” and he motivates and mentors landlords for each colony.
In an interview in 2002, Jackson explained his love of the martins, saying, “It’s hard to believe a bird can have so much of an impact on a person, but it truly is a magnificent bird. I am fortunate to be in a perfect location for purple martins, not only to be able to have a martin colony, but to be able to work with so many other great people who also care.”
Caring. Making a difference to the world. Mentoring others.
 All ingredients for the next great thing.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Take a Guess: At What Age Are Professors Retiring?

Two stunning statistics: 

--60 percent of academics are staying on the job into their 70s.
--And 15 percent are into their 80s.
These numbers come from a study  done only about New York University faculty and published in the July issue of Educational Researcher. But they conclude that those same stats apply broadly.
No wonder it's tough for young academics to get jobs! And why tenure is going bye-bye.
Back in 1986 when Congress passed the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which made mandatory retirement at age 70 illegal, it exempted post-secondary schools. But in 1993, after the National Research Council said that allowing college profs to keep their posts would have "minimal impact"on higher ed, the government did just that. Before then, only 11 percent of faculty stayed on the job after age 70, perhaps because of special arrangements, the study says.
Here's another surprise ! (but maybe not to some of you.)
Even those who do leave their academic jobs aren't necessarily "retiring." It's the professors who can best continue to be intellectually engaged and financially rewarded, namely those in the fields of healthcare, business and the law who go off to set up shop as consultants.
So what to do? The researchers say there should be a rethink of how to use these professors-who-don't-leave. And it's much the kind of thing that Marc Friedman and his talk about -- using their wisdom to help younger generations. Here's the new study's suggestion:

Consideration should be given to developing programs to encourage senior faculty who are not otherwise as fully engaged in research and grant-writing as they were in earlier years to focus their activities on classroom teaching, advising undergraduates and graduates, and mentoring junior faculty...These efforts may not only serve to avoid or reduce the costs of pre-retirement packages but also may serve to meet the increased demands for improved teaching, advising, and mentoring without having to hire additional faculty or otherwise expend additional resources.
P.S. The above picture was my father's -- and it's been "under the bed" for decades. Finally, a use for it! It's titled "Portrait -- Artist Unknown" by Lawson Wood. It was done in 1919. Maybe professors didn't have to retire back then. Or they just looked older!