I often find myself at the end of the road when riding the Vespa. Continuing on isn’t possible or desirable. A change in direction is necessary for the journey to continue. It’s uncommon to arrive at the end of the road and think of it as a happy ending. Remembering miles and miles of gravel strewn dirt forest roads only to come to an impassible gate is something other than a happy ending. But that doesn’t happen often.
On a recent, meandering ride to work on a foggy morning I came to a place where I didn’t want to push on through the tall, wet grass replete with ticks and ground hog holes. Besides, it was time to get to work where I was nearing another end of the road.
A few minutes with a calculator revealed I’ve walked well over a million steps down this hallway in the Agricultural Administration Building at Penn State. I’ve worked in this building for most of my adult life through seven different positions and nine different offices. And standing there yesterday morning as my career comes to an end I was startled by the memories of this austere passage. I felt the young me, the angry me, the excited me, and the old me. All alive, all evaporating.
There’s two parts of this journey — the excitement of what is beyond the door of retirement, and the bittersweet recognition of a life lived that will never come again.
There’s evidence of my passage through this place. A series of magazine ads I photographed are displayed in the main lobby of the building. I remember each assignment, the people on the shoot, the equipment hauled on location, the special jabbering I engaged to disarm the subjects. For a moment, I’m at those locations. And then I’m somewhere else, having my cameras disinfected after a depopulation of a poultry house in the 1980s, starting a generator in the woods to light Christmas lights on an evergreen tree for a cover shoot, and sitting in a vineyard at sunset, drinking wine as I waited for the light to be perfect for a photograph.
Walking through the familiar spaces of my office building is suddenly full of ghosts and I don’t feel a happy ending.
I don’t remember exactly what drove the construction of the time capsule. What I do remember is a colleague at work drove the design, construction and content collection. After conversations about how buried capsules are often lost or forgotten after 100 years, a decision was made to create a sculpture that could be continually displayed for that period of time. Either option provides no guarantees.
This capsule is big — perhaps seven feet tall, and heavy with a steel base, stainless steel tubes, and a heavy glass dome. NASA engineers were consulted to identify a sealant that would allow for the air in the dome to be replaced with an inert gas to minimize oxidation and last for 100 years. I won’t be around to see if it worked. Or what people think of the contents.
I’ve walked by this monument for decades without notice. It’s suddenly come to life.
The last of my nine offices. It’s been the second best space to work. Quiet, in the corner of the building near the door, off the beaten path. And only a few dozen steps to the Vespa parked outside. Now it’s being emptied out to make way for someone else as I slip away into the past.
When faculty retire, their presence often persists as they retain offices and labs. They participate in faculty meetings and serve on graduate student committees. There is no parallel experience for staff. We just go away. Some run. But others must feel the weight of the change and how unnatural it all seems to just stop.
It’s not a happy ending.
For most of my career I’ve not always conducted myself in a conventional manner. When pressed for job requirements I often express no dress code and no regular hours. I’ve spoken when I should have shut up and I’ve passed on opportunities that others sought out. I’ve done what I was told and I’ve done what I wanted.
So now, as the last of the sand drains through the hourglass, I’m trying to discern my happy ending. And perhaps more importantly, the path moving forward.
I’m certain the path will lead through this place. And a Vespa scooter will be involved as well.