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Michael Agar @alcaldemike

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Tuneup May 17

Here come the 70s. Birthday crises have never been a problem, but Iím telling you, thatís a pretty large number. In dog years it rises to 490. Iíve been telling people that in five more years Iíll be at the New Mexico speed limit. On a crowded bus a couple of younger people actually offered me their seat. The hell of it was, I thought about taking it.

I think birthdays that end in zero only matter when they correlate with big life changes, and itís the latter Iím thinking about. Hereís a boring fact that a young person could use. My Depression-era mother started teaching me about an hour and a half after I was born to always put away just a little bit of money whenever I could and to put it where the rich people put theirs so it could ride along with the lackeys of the running dogs. Well, she didnít say that. She was a Republican. I did what she told me to do, and now I have enough filthy lucre, many decades later, to quit worrying about earning an income. The feds have a rule that after 70 you have to start using it. They want some of their tax on that tax-sheltered money. Iíve never been rich and never will be. But the savings grew enough to live comfortably up to even my most improbable sell-by date. Einstein called compound interest, tongue in cheek, the most powerful force in the universe. The financial markets have done even better than that.

Itís a tremendous gift, this savings, like a MacArthur without the paperwork or the meetings. But itís disorienting. Back in the day we all read Eric Frommís Escape From Freedom. Iím only remembering the title now. What do you do if youíre freed from wage slavery? Is that why people play golf when they retire, to escape from choices? Iíve never understood that game. Iíd rather shoot heroin. Should I march along with the army of elderly volunteers, most of them doing good things? Maybe I will do more of that, though I always have done what in the world of cash flow they call ďpro bonoĒ work.

No, I think of the change as a little like the glory days of my NIH Career Award, four years of salary and time to work on a broadly defined project. Now I can work on water governance without worrying about support. That topic has spread like an infectious disease epidemic. Thereís plenty to do. And I can focus in on language again, finally, especially the business of learning it in all its cultural and historical subtlety. Whatís not to like?

Itís the change in social networks that is the problem that needs solved. (ďneeds + pp" is an English dialect construction I recently learned). I think of it in two ways. In some ways it's a loss of a megaphone, something that amplifies voice in a noisy large space. Youíre not escaping from freedom, but you represent no organization when youíre free. Oh sure, you might be emeritus this or adjunct that or associate something or other, but really, who gives a shit. The tense changes from ďisĒ to ďwas.Ē Itís just obit material that doesnít provide much amplification of voice.

More important is the absence of colleagues. Once you have the luxury of leading an unsupported think-tank kind of life, you find out that most people are burdened with the details of their own organizational life, should they be lucky enough to have one in the current dismal climate. On the one hand, this adds even more responsibility to use time supported by retirement savings in a useful way, paying back, as they say, for the income and economy that made it possible. On the other hand, with what network can you link to move in that direction given that most people trying to move in directions you support are already overloaded with tasks, information, and economic demands.

In the Santa Fe area where I live, you canít cross the Plaza without tripping over a few emeriti. Iíve been part of the conversation, hereís a town full of smart old farts looking to collaborate and engage the social order. True, now and then an extended narrative about a new medication slows the conversation. But really, what a waste of available time and energy. I keep thinking of the film. Going in Style, where three old guys in New York played by Art Carney, George Burns and Lee Strasberg get bored and start a new career as bank robbers.

Iím thinking about it. Maybe I could organize a gang of former organizational consultants and figure out how to hack the Walmart computers to redistribute the revenue to their employees. Meanwhile Iíll just keep working, grateful for the freedom, and keep writing about it, grateful to the increasing number of outlets that allow me to write in the style for which an Irish kid of two journalists was destined.

Speaking of which, new at the top of the column to the left is a blog that a group of anthropologists who run an internet source called Savage Minds published, some thoughts about Baltimore where I worked for years. Along with that is a review I did of an edited book called The Social Life of Water with chapters by anthropologists working on the topic. It will appear in an e-journal called Water Alternatives. Iím thinking blogs and reviews are a good place to aim the writing, at least for now.

In the 90s and 00s when I worked independently, I used to tell people I had what I called the trinity test: Was a project intellectually interesting, did it have moral value, and did it pay the rent. Once in awhile Iíd get lucky and be able to answer all three questions with a ďyes.Ē Itís easier now because the last question is no longer relevant. And for that Iím grateful to my Depression era mother for her good advice.

Life continues to be interesting.

Selected Works

Wonder why studies you read about your world usually donít get who you are and how you really live? Frustrated that ďthe numbersĒ donít solve the problem? Does it bother you that policies and programs, more often than not, donít work like theyíre supposed to? People, organizations, countriesĖthey rely on information about real human social lives. Usually they donít have it because they only test what they think they already know in narrow situations of their own design. The results have value, some of the time, but itís not nearly enough. We need a human social science that begins and ends in the real worlds of the humans that it claims to be about. One has been around for a couple of hundred years. The Lively Science tells the story of its historical roots and the reasons for its neglect, blends in new intellectual tools, and argues that itís time to get on with a science that changes research objects into human subjects and learns who they are and what theyíre trying to do before conclusions are drawn.
Living in a world of linguistic and cultural differences
A personal story of decades of work in the substance abuse field, a story of how our ineffective drug policy came to be and stayed in place. Now available as an e-book at iBook on iTunes and on Barnes and Noble.
The story of the working world of independent truckers in a time of deregulation
Nonfiction, Introductory Text
An introduction to ethnography