Dropping out — the agony and the ecstasy

2012-04-23 00:00

THE last time I was here it cost 35 cents for a beer. Some things have changed.

Some things haven’t. What comes to mind amid flashes of déjà vu, is a fellow student from the early eighties who has flitted nostalgically into memory from time to time in these intervening years. He was 36, also a first-year. But he was a dentist by profession who had decided that he’d had enough of looking down gullets and so he’d signed up to study fine art. I can’t say that he was an inspiration at the time, because my own life was ahead of me and so questions of what I wanted to do, to be, were for the future. Career was a quaint, bourgeois anachronism. Money was just so much stuff. But I must have realised the epic implications of a dutiful Jewish boy chucking it all up for the sake of, what, knowledge?

And so, after all these years, here I am, somewhat older than he was, but similarly having chucked the security of a job and a measure of social status to become a full-time student again, learning my ABCs with Generation X or Y or Z … I never know which letter of the alphabet applies.

I could say that I’d simply got tired of entrapment in the mechanics of living, to borrow Joan Didion’s hippie take on what she called the consumption ethic of happiness. There is that. But that’s an existential byway that took a bucolic turn long ago, leading to years of bliss, but also to the realisation that farming’s best left to hardier breeds than metropolitan dilettantes. Besides, that was a lifestyle subsidised by the luxury of a good income in the city, so it was hardly a question of opting out of the rat race.

Let’s just say that a daily barrage of dum-dum bulletins of news while working in the boiler room of a paper had blasted my short-term memory to oblivion. Amnesia may be a balm to those running from the past, but if anything, I’m running away from a future in which newspapers have become extinct. I had feared that courage would fail, that prudence would trump survival, and that there would never be another chance to chart a new course from middle age to old age. Contemplating leaving the trade nevertheless felt like I was about to kill myself, like what was at stake was not a salary but my existence. Work was my life-support system. Pulling the plug would be a plunge into the abyss. I had a friend once who’d lament that he could no longer pack his life into his rucksack. Getting back to that point had to be the secret to surviving the jump, and it was. Scaling down radically and cutting out all the indispensables made for a light landing. And by the way, telling the medical aid to get stuffed was a liberation all of its own. As it turns out, half of those tubes I thought were keeping me alive were just there to draw blood.

Having washed up as flotsam on the shores of The Witness in George Orwell’s 1984 when blacks were “plurals” and police-speak for “kill” was “remove”, it’s now as jetsam that I’ve floated back through the portals of academia.

Studying jumbles your thinking terribly, but in a nice way. I’d figured that to head off decrepitude my brain needed some serious re-education. Not “reskilling”, as they say in HR-speak when you’re about to be retrenched, but Ivory Tower stuff. An adventure in abstractions; reading as white-water rafting. I must confess that whatever I may or may not be learning, I love being on campus. It is another country and I like travel. It lifts my spirits just being here, with its eternal promise of order and enlightenment.

That’s probably very old-fashioned though: there is an air of irony around which feels new, but then the postmodern tide has passed through in the meantime, and moreover, the corporate takeover has made a Quixotic folly of anything other than getting “job-skills”.

Rushing at windmills does feel somewhat chaotic, as if fumbling around in a blackout. Cracking concepts of ontology and epistemology is taxing for an early onset Alzheimer’s. Reality crumbles as I try to understand things I never knew didn’t exist. Last time I explored other paradigms all it took was a joint. Turns out being a dropout can be hard work. Who knew?


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