Once in a while, you have a rare kind of sobering moment that makes you pause and consider your career and trajectory. I had one today as I helped remove everything from the office of a recently retired professor.
As background, this professor had been in our department for over 30 years. In his prime, he was one of the top researchers in the field and had published dozens of articles in our premier journals (most professors will never publish once in these journals). He did some groundbreaking cross-disciplinary research. By most accounts, he had an impressive career as an academic. And at the end, he left a roomful of artifacts from that career for others to dispose of.
Bookcases full of books. More stacks of books. Drawers and cabinets full of papers. Stacks on top of cabinets, papers on top of books. Year upon year of conference proceedings. A large stack containing dozens of copies of that award-winning paper he co-authored over 20 years ago. Some plaques and research awards. All placed methodically into a big, blue, sterile recycling container.
At first, it’s fun looking around, hoping to spot some new book worth adding to your own collection. And then you realize there’s nothing here published after 2000. And you realize just how many authors like to include the word “new” in their book titles. Now those books look ancient under a heavy layer of office dust.
And you see the old desk and the old CRT monitor and the old stapler and the old brown chairs and they all look like they must have been hot stuff for an academic back in 1989. But today, you feel like you’re in a time capsule.
And you find piles of continuous-feed paper (the kind with holes running along both sides). And you find little troves of floppy disks, hidden in odd corners, and an Iomega Zip drive, still in the box.
And you keep looking and you find a brown office fridge that has been frozen shut for ages.
And you find an unopened flagon of malt liquor. And a collection of beer mugs. And an ashtray with a pile of ashes. And you recall stories about a bygone period when the professor was free to smoke in his office.
And you find some old family photos wedged under one of the stacks of papers. And you see pictures of a little girl — the daughter you know died tragically young. And you find an empty bottle of anti-depressants.
And you realize this is what your life looks like when you keep coming to work long after the flame goes out. Unsettling.