In the middle of December of last year, The BeZine reprinted a “Skeptic’s Collection” column of mine, “Sailing with Ulysses”, in which I discussed the life-changing influence my first exposure to college had on me, and its parallel to my first reading of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses”. Shortly before I read “Ulysses,” and as a junior-high-school student, I had adopted the habit of simply reading voraciously – independently, outside of school, and on my own time – on any topic that piqued my curiosity. In fact, the summer after junior-high school, for reasons I cannot now recall, I set a goal of seeing just how much math and physics I could teach myself before I started my first (sophomore) year of high school. To cut to the chase, I learned so much so fast that, after completing some standard school-district assessment tests, I was allowed to quiz out of high school entirely after a couple of weeks, and enter college as a freshman … where I repeated the pattern of learning on my own. As I said in “Sailing with Ulysses,” I learned how exhilarating it can be to set sail from one’s own personal Ithaca and launch out into “the dark, broad seas” where “the deep moans round with many voices”. What I did not say in “Sailing with Ulysses” is that this can be a rather lonely enterprise. This is part of the price to be paid by people who maintain their curiosity intact despite the ambient culture’s insistence that, after formal education is over and after one has retired from professional life, one’s intellect may likewise be safely mothballed: one’s brain is expected to quietly die before one’s body gets the Twitter feed.


Such is the downside for someone who insists on being – to employ today’s vaguely patronizing term – a “life-long learner”. (Why is there never any reference to being a “life-long breather” or a “life-long heart-beater” or a “life-long food-digester” or a “life-long excreter”? Is continuing to learn in life’s post-professional early twilight really so very much more exceptional? And why do we think so, anyway? Well … quite possibly because it is true. Which begs another question: why? OK … I digress … apologies for the mini-rant.) There are many times when being such more closely resembles sailing with the Ancient Mariner, post-albatross, than sailing with Ulysses. Of course, the latter metaphor is much more apt when one is “officially” a student. When he sailed for Troy and throughout his peregrinations back to hearth and home and Ithaca and Penelope, Ulysses enjoyed the company of the men he calls, in Tennyson’s great poem,

           … my mariners, souls that have toiled and wrought and thought with me, that ever          

           with a frolic welcome took the thunder and the sunshine …

That was my experience, also, as a student. Even in these days of “monetized” higher education, that is what is expected.

But when I stopped being a student, and even more so after I retired, I found I was much more like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner after he killed the albatross. I suppose you could say I killed my own personal albatross when I, without really thinking about it or planning to do so, neglected to pack my curiosity and passion for learning away with my bell-bottom jeans, peace medallions, and Nehru shirts:


And a good south wind sprung up behind;

The Albatross did follow,

And every day, for food or play,

Came to the mariner’s hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,

It perched for vespers nine;

Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,

Glimmered the white Moon-shine.’

‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—

Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow

I shot the ALBATROSS.

Eventually, of course, the Ancient Mariner’s fellow shipmates leave him alone on the vessel, because his killing of the albatross renders him persona non grata to his erstwhile friends. With me, the solitude resulted, not from any animus on others’ part, but from the fact that I was still curious, intensely curious … and curious about matters utterly foreign to most people. There was almost no common ground. Unlike Coleridge’s Mariner, I was not a menace. But I was a curiosity.


What made – and still often makes – me a curiosity is that I refuse to make a choice that the culture insists I make between being a retired ex-professional (mathematician and web developer) and a student. To shift the literary metaphor, I am in much the same position as Matthew Arnold when he visited the monastery of the Grand Chartreuse: “wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born”. This was impressed on me vividly when, in pursuit of my seven-years-and-counting-long interest in constitutional law, I audited three classes in “con law” at the University of Washington’s Law School, taught by (now retired) Prof. Stewart Jay, a gifted attorney, First Amendment scholar, and teacher. For reasons too convoluted to enter into now, the experience was life-changing.

The reaction of the other students in each class was fascinating. Because I was old enough to be their father, they all assumed I was a retired attorney, law-school faculty, maybe even a judge. Several of them asked me – in a very courteous, non-intrusive, tactful way – what firm I had partnered with, where I had taught con law, etc., etc. I always enjoyed their astonishment when I told them … no … I was not a lawyer, in fact, had never even been a law-school student – and was auditing con law (and later Prof. Jay’s First Amendment course) literally just for the fun of it. They were equally astonished, after Prof. Jay occasionally bent the no-participation rule for auditors by allowing me to briefly take part in a few class discussions, when I asked questions and  made remarks like “What is the relationship between the ‘privileges and immunities’ clause of Article IV, section 2 and the doctrine of reserved powers?” and “In 1803, Marbury v. Madison concerned the constitutionality of Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789”. Those few brief times, when I was actually a part of the class,  were like gasps of oxygen to a drowning man. (No criticism whatsoever of Prof. Jay or the University should be inferred:  I actually agree with and support the auditor non-participation rule. Auditors are not for-credit, paying “customers”.) Which raises the central question: how do you go about breathing the oxygen of community if you are a “life-long learner” (a term I have come to heartily loathe)?

My answer: you don’t.

Instead, you do the next-best thing: you go to strenuous lengths to develop an anaerobic intellectual metabolism. You bust various guts to become self-sufficient so that you do not need the company of fellow mariners. Yes, there are on-line / e-courses in various disciplines. These work fine if the subject matter is something that can be learned as well in solitude as in a classroom – with perhaps the option of submitting e-mail or Facebook-text questions to the instructor. But with subjects that are inherently communitarian – philosophy, literature, theology, art, etc., etc. – well … not so much. All disciplines benefit from physical, face-to-face community, but still others positively require it. Yes, there are non-credit classes for “life-long learners” … gag! choke! … that allow participation. But, having participated in such classes, I have found that the subject matter is always covered at a very superficial level in order for everyone to be able to participate. (Wide class participation is a worthy goal. Again, no criticism should be inferred.) A happy alternative would be classes where the subject matter is covered in graduate- or postgraduate-level depth, yet where participation is solicited from all and interaction is encouraged among class members. The good news is that there are are such venues. The bad news is that the technical term for them is “university classes,” and they usually cost well into four digits. You see the dilemma … right? …

So, in a strictly ad hoc manner and only in the case of people with whom I am on a very intimate basis – my wife and a few others — I shamelessly buttonhole people. To be brutally candid, I force them to listen and, to the extent I can, to respond to me. I call this tactic the “Ancient Mariner gambit”. Coleridge’s Mariner accosted the Wedding Guest:

0016He holds him with his skinny hand,

‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.

‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’

Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

He holds him with his glittering eye—

The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three years’ child:

The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:

He cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,

The bright-eyed Mariner.

Such is my advice: if you are cursed … or blessed … I will not presume to say which … with a persistent capacity for fascination and curiosity – if, purely for its own sake and quite apart from any pragmatic or professional advantage, you find life and the world seductively, irresistibly fascinating — make damn sure you have plenty of tolerant and patient friends, your spouse most of all. Either that, or don’t shoot the albatross in the first place.

– James R. Cowles

© 2016, essay, James R. Cowles, All rights reserved; illustrations: Odysseus, public domain; Albatross ns  With My Crossbow  by Gustave Doré, public domain; Ancient Mariner, Merline Peake, public domain photograph

2 thoughts on “Sailing With the Ancient Mariner

  1. What a delightful read! 🙂 As someone who spends five days a week on a university campus, I am familiar with your dilemma. I often tell my friends and family who are unacquainted with how universities operate, that each university campus community has a sort of “bubble” around it which insulates it from the “outside world”, so to speak. There is always the undercurrent of constant learning, the quest for knowledge and young minds that keeps the blood of the faculty and staff young (as if we were vampires – ha!).

    Can you teach post-retirement courses? I’m sure you have heard the expression “professional student” and you probably loathe it as much as “life-long learner”. I say why NOT be someone who continues to learn as much as possible? Curiosity or not, you have nothing to prove to anyone except yourself. Tolerant and patient friends and spouse notwithstanding, I suppose you could always put together a group or groups for those like yourself who are interested in pursuing learning. A “club” of sorts…you could even use an albatross as a mascot. 😉


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