By: Kevin Gordon
For most of us, I mean those of us who were publicly schooled and didn’t suffer the reality of a boarding school, the Julian calendar life had a rhythm. Study for twelve or sixteen weeks, stress over tests, then take time off. Massive time off – especially at the end of the school year which meant nearly three months away from from the sensory deprivation of a 1970’s era window-less “new” school. In the summer I worked at the county airport, played tennis in the evening and cruised top-down in the midwestern night air.
Also, for me, the school year had another low-bar rhythmic reward. I was a good student, only because my then untainted adolescent brain made great memory chemicals. The local bowling alley gave free games for every “A” on the report card. I bowled a lot. Forty years and some 30,000 martinis later, I’m lucky I can find my way home.
Here’s the deal. In the 18 years between kindergarten and a Master’s degree, fully now over a third of my life, that life had a rhythm of work-reward-relax, work-reward-relax, work-reward-relax over 36 cycles. When I graduated and was weaned off both my parents money and a full-ride scholarship, I joined the work force ( like the armed forces) for what will probably be the remainder of my pre-Depends life. That first year, when I was working as an urban designer in Cincinnati, I felt like a crash-test dummy that had face-plowed into the yellow and black striped barrier. The comforting rhythm of school was gone, replaced with rolling DEADLINES that had NO RESPECT for the seasons or Christian holidays.
Here’s the deal. The word Deadline has a dreadful and portent etymology. It seems to have originated in the Confederate prison of Andersonville, Georgia. Appropriately one of the greatest hell-holes of all time. The Dead Line was a line 10 yards inside the stockade fence. Any Union prisoner crossing the Dead Line was shot from the guard towers. It wasn’t as though the Union prisoners hoped to get through the stockade fence, or make it across the hostile landscape of South Georgia. Most all of the prisoners just wanted to end the near starvation and maggot-infested misery of Andersonville, so they hobbled toward the fence.
Again, here’s where it hits home. Somewhere down the family tree, where the branches are nearer the trunk, one of the Gordons did time at Andersonville.
Hence my genetic aversion to the tyranny of the Dead-line.
Ok, I get it. Commerce isn’t hitched to the academic or Christian calendar, except maybe in France. Global commerce, especially in China where I’ve spent yet another third of my life in practice, certainly isn’t. The Chinese Lunar New Year, drifting around in late winter, prompts them to impose year end deadlines that conveniently collide with western Christmas and Julian New Years holidays. I’ve worked through our holiday season for the last twenty years, wistfully recalling time off from college lounging on my parent’s sofa.
Last fall, I made another pilgrimage north to Ohio, before it became depressingly bleak through the winter months. Over dinner with my good friend Kim, the family lawyer who is the county’s go-to guy for estate settlement, I outlined my thesis about the shift from seasonal reward to the tyranny of the deadline. Kim, who is a good listener like all lawyers, smilingly suffered through this rant and said, “ look Kevin, you should walk in my moccasins for awhile. My life is an endless stream of 8 1/2 x 11 complaints – writs and torts. I’d do anything to have the drama of design.”
He was right, of course. In addition to being the nicest guy on the planet he’s also the most sensible.
The cycle of deadlines make us confront our inner couch potato selves. In the response to the challenge of designing an innovative, heartfelt solution to a client’s needs, wishes and budgets, we remake ourselves over and over in a rhythm that might not be celestial, but certainly is authentically human.
I bet I’ll miss it when I retire.