Now that I have all the time (well, not quite all) in the world at my disposal, I've been spending it improving everyone I meet, whether or not those I minister to welcome my efforts.
I've come to think of myself as the last angry man, on the model of Dr. Sam Abelman, the title figure in the novel by Gerald Green that was made (in l959) into an OK-but-not-great movie starring the always-great Paul Muni. Abelman, in his late 60s, has been practicing medicine for 45 years and finds himself increasingly angered by a medical profession that has lost touch with its patients, by a youth culture that embraces and promotes irresponsibility, by a media world that substitutes manufactured values for real values, by a general slackness in the way people comport themselves and pretend to do their jobs.
His word for all these good-for-nothings is "galoots," and as far as he can tell, everyone except him is enrolled in the galoot army. His response to this situation is to harangue everyone he encounters: the old friend who has sold out to Park Avenue medicine, the nephew who always is working on a get-rich-and-famous scheme, the youth who doesn't take his hat off in the presence of elders, the television producer who wants to make him into a commodity.
At one point his best friend cries out in exasperation, "Stop fighting the whole world!" But he just can't stop.
Neither can I, and I take my opportunities wherever I find them. The building next door to mine has been bought by a developer. No development has occurred, and the lawn and bushes have been allowed to grow wild. The developer, however, has made the mistake of putting his telephone number on an overlarge sign, and as a reward he receives a series of dyspeptic phone calls from me accusing him of being a bad neighbor, an irresponsible landlord, and an all-around no-goodnik.
I go into a store or stand in a ticket line and am greeted by someone who asks, "And how are you today, young man?" That is my least-favorite salutation, and I quickly deliver a lecture and, I trust, a bit of improvement: "When you call someone who is obviously not young "young man," what you are doing is calling attention to his age and making him feel even older than he is; don't do it again!"
An even longer lecture is delivered to the hapless (and blameless) fast-food worker who hands me a bagel along with a small container of cream cheese and a plastic knife that couldn't cut butter. I say to him (or her), "Look, if I wanted to put my own bagel together, I would have bought the ingredients and taken them home; when I go to a restaurant I expect service; I don't expect to be asked to do your job; and besides there's not enough cream cheese here to cover the bagel's surface; what's the matter with you guys?"
But those are just my weekend activities. Although I'm no longer a dean, I can't shake the habit of being at the office every day, all day. Because I have nothing particular to do, I roam the halls looking for things that are wrong, and I find them.
Stray pieces of furniture you couldn't give away sit (or sprawl) in front of an office door. I stick my head in and inform the occupant (why does he or she listen to me?) that the offending items must be removed by the end of the day.
The panels separating two elevators are festooned with announcements of lectures that took place two years ago. I proceed to rip the leaflets down. Halfway through I decide that no one should be posting anything here anyway; so I remove every announcement, no matter how current, and, for good measure, I tear away the surface the announcements adhere to and throw all the thumbtacks and push-pins into the trash.
I notice that someone has a left a small carton of books, intended no doubt for impecunious graduate students who might make good use of them. I don't care; into the trash they go, too.
I go into the new cafe in University Hall and see that the rug on the floor is full of crumbs and looks as if it hasn't been vacuumed in days. No one knows whose job it is, and I take it as my job to find out. I go back to my office and make phone calls until I find someone who answers her phone, although in a short time she wishes she hadn't.
But then it's time to go to class, where, in an enclosed space, my students receive the full force of my reforming zeal. I tell them that I haven't the slightest interest in whatever opinions they might have and don't want to hear any. I tell them that while they may have been taught that the purpose of writing is to express oneself, the selves they now have are not worth expressing, and it would be good if they actually learned something. I tell them that on the basis of their performance so far they should sue their previous teachers for malpractice. I tell them that anyone who says "I know it, but I can't explain it" will flunk the course.
After an hour and a half they escape, except for one of them who comes to my office for further instruction. Although it is now the end of the third week she is still not quite sure about the structure of the basic English sentence. (This is of course a reflection on me, not her.) I take her through the subject and predicate slots and she seems to understand who or what an actor is and the relationship of the actor to the action performed, but she can't quite get the concept of the object of the action.
We are working with a sentence she has composed, and it contains the clause, "I threw the book into the garbage." I ask her, In that sentence what is the relationship between "throw" and "book"? She doesn't know. I try again: What is the impact on the object of the action? She doesn't understand the question.
I decide that an illustration might do the trick; so I pick up a book on my desk and throw it. It hits a shelf of books a few feet away. She says nothing for a few seconds and then asks in a voice calmer than mine would have been, "Can I drop this course?" I answer "yes," and she leaves -- the one person in the entire week who manages to get away.
What is this all about? I wondered. What's driving me to do these things? I got part of the answer by looking up obsessive-compulsive disorder on the Internet and running down the list of symptoms. (Checking to see whether you have OCD is a form of OCD.)
I find the following matches: fear of dirt; a need to have things just so; preoccupation with rules and schedules; rigidity; inflexibility; concern with order and symmetry; and saving containers when they are no longer needed. A perfect score.
And then it occurred to me that those are the very characteristics that make a dean effective. All deans who are any good at it are obsessive-compulsives; and, conversely, it's good for an obsessive-compulsive to be a dean (or the principal of a high school or the warden of a prison or an army drill sergeant), for then the energies you would otherwise bestow on unsuspecting strangers or on your family are channeled into the responsibilities of office.
After all, what is administration if not a focused attention to the details of everyone else's life -- the lives of faculty members, the lives of departments, the lives of students, the lives of accountants, the lives of fund raisers, the lives of advisers?
Every day as dean is structured by an obsessive need "to have things just so," and every day brings new things that are not right and must be put right. If you do the job well you are applauded and thanked; but if you don't have a job to do and the impulse to bring order into the world still rages within you, people start to run and hide when they see you coming.
It's time either to let the world be or find some form of employment where ordering people around is what you're paid for.