Life Well Achieved, Not Always Well Lived

We baby boomers are lucky if we can look back on a life well lived. But that’s not all of us. Writer RP Dennis looks back these days on a life well achieved, but not always well lived. Maybe there’s a lesson for others from this part of the prologue to her newest book, Meaner Streets.

RP Dennis

I have been a uniformed Catholic schoolgirl, a benign druggie, a slouching activist, world traveler, two-time marathoner, smoker, disco maven, and porn, romance, and novel writer, psychologist, professor, filmmaker, gay when it wasn’t cool, and now a dinosaur lurching with my Boomers toward life without the marching, chanting protests we were sure would change the world. There’s still that gnaw of naïve altruism that made burning draft cards and Dow Chemical files noble acts. But now there is what seems a sudden creaking limit on who I am. It shocks me stupid. I am a tie-dye thinker trapped in an Eileen Fisher wardrobe.

After turning fifty I ran away to California again, this time to LA instead of the hip San Francisco of the Sixties. With three Masters degrees in clinical, social, and environmental psychology, a Ph.D., and twelve published novels, I started from scratch in UCLA’s Masters of Fine Arts program in screenwriting. That was my dream in a life of doing everything and being everything I wanted. Privilege without a trust fund. That was the ideal of my liberal education tinged with weed, LSD and equality for all. The good old days.

But in the turn of the shallow century I live as a gunslinger. The twenty-first millennium’s overeducated, hired help: an adjunct professor with an armload of textbooks rambling daily from college to college, teaching the classes no one else wants at crack-of-dawn start times or scary 10:15 p.m. end-times through dark and empty parking lots. My students run from classrooms before I even begin my lonely pack-up. I have walked backwards down many hollow corridors expecting attack. My sense of balance now rivals Philippe Petit’s when he walked triumphantly between the tops of the World Trade Towers when they were still new.

In the Eighties and Nineties in New York I adjuncted while I wrote romances and finished my psych degree. I taught a writing class at New York Tech in central Manhattan that ended at 12:30 and an Environmental Psych class at the Fashion Institute of Technology down on Twenty-Fifth Street that started at 12:20. You learn how to give group assignments that begin and/or end in class so the professor doesn’t have to be there. No, you’re on the train sweating making it to your elasticized class times. But it was fun and, damn, I was good.

I have loved and sought this life. Actively avoiding real jobs left me free to write, to party, have affairs, make film, be irreverent, stubbornly but passively anti-establishment… a fool to staying young. A friend who is a judge in New York labeled me one of the voluntarily poor. But privileged. The product of a true liberal education of those golden Sixties days. But freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose, Janis. My most precious possession is my brain and I’m stupid enough to think it’s enough when I can barely buy my own lunch or pay my cell phone bills. Others of my generation own homes, have retirement plans, kids, stocks and bonds, and a security I have never planned for and thought was a sellout to pursue. Joke’s on me. I like to think I possess an economic purity, a perpetuation of Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out. If you get a pang in your stomach when you hear this, the ghost of that metallic taste of acid in your mouth, then you know exactly what I mean.

What have I done with a life filled with universities, writing romances, and some light work, and what do I want now? A job. I’m desperate. At over 50, I’m a woman alone. In the Low Countries of Belgium and France they called us femmes seules— “women alone”— in the Twelfth Century. At that time women escaped the Church’s wrath for this dishonored condition of independence and too much knowledge— also later known as witchery— and flew under Churchy radar by joining convents if they were rich enough or by pretending to be more religious than they really were. They did this in working collectives where they lived together as artisans, as goldsmiths, saddlers, soap-makers, leather-workers, cloth-dyers. They lived by the work of their hands, banned from the guilds, the unions of their day and so, alone. I’m alone because my partner of twelve years left me. OK, she died. I’m still angry on the days I lurch around needing an assessment of my makeup, how jeans fit, which detergent to buy, what movie to see, damn it, what to eat.

Copyright RP Dennis  2011


  1. From what little I’ve read I believe your odyssey may be one that touches comprehensively on critical elements of the Boomer zeitgeist — a metaphor, if you will, for the things we did and did not do as a generation. Given that our achievements have sometimes fallen short of our most noble aspirations, I believe we have extraordinary opportunities for redemption and realization over the next 20 – 30 years. I have to believe this. I cannot undo the past, revise my decisions, or hand my mature viewpoints to a young man convinced he had it all figured out. I can only apply what I’ve learned to make the changes that will benefit most of us going forward, whether successfully fighting ageism or changing this nation’s social narrative about the value and purpose of elderhood.

  2. I am taken with the honesty, reflection and craft in this fine prologue. And although your story is your own, the themes of this story reach wide and deep.

    Don’t stop, thinking about tomorrow,
    Don’t stop, it will soon be here,
    It’ll be, better than before,
    Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.

    Why not think about times to come,
    And not about the things that you’ve done,
    If your life was bad to you,
    Think about what tomorrow will do.

    — Fleetwood Mac

    What if, just what if all the mélange of your life thus far is pointing to what you’re about to do? There’s much to be done, and you’re living in the gap between what is and what should be. Let us change aging and put our wisdom to work.

  3. RP Dennis says, “…there’s real fun in still questioning the authoritarians who say shut up and do as I do.” Didn’t I hear Sarah Palin say the very same thing recently? LOL Perhaps both these women are standing along the edge of the same circle to which Ms. Dennis alludes in her comment above.
    All things considered, I think the title of this article spells it out pretty clearly.

  4. To Chan–
    Hit a nerve? Or are you asking me out?
    Perception is a slippery thing. Some might call it missing the point, and making mine. The world has changed: So we should all grow up and follow the traditional path of family and a solid job? Comfortable, sanctioned. While you may ridicule dealing with the insights of riskier choices, others of us know there’s real fun in still questioning the authoritarians who say shut up and do as I do.
    Having buyer’s remorse on that rutted road of unchanged tradition? Some of us love living on the edge, doesn’t mean we can’t reflect on it–to keep growing in more ways than years.
    To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan: The only way to really see a circle is by standing on it’s edge, not being inside it.
    Too many university degrees? Mea culpa! Get those bales of hay, light the match, burn that witch… And the degrees you get to solidify your circle of perception are 451, Fahrenheit.

  5. Such a relentlessly mournful crid de coeur. This piece reads like James Dean in drag. Cal Trask against the world. Such total angst as I’ve not been bombarded with since my teenage son got dumped by his girlfriend last year. I was hoping to go a bit longer before being exposed to such emoting again. I hope this rant helped you, because it did little for me. Sorry. You can’t please everybody, I guess. Also sorry for the loss of your partner. But partners, spouses, parents, even children die. It’s something we mere mortals must somehow deal with.

    As so many boomers have, I’ve been there & done much of what you’ve done: Catholic schoolboy, a slothful druggie, an involved activist, certainly a world traveler, four-time marathoner, disco dandy, and professor. Still, three Masters degrees and a Ph.D surely trumps my solitary MBA, so what do I know? But it also sorely smacks of educational overdosing. Immersed in the metier of schooling and the fictional universe of novels for so many years … and now a dose of aging in the real world makes you conflicted? Go figure. A humanist who must watch over her inner light, preserve her authenticity, and thus hold the disturbing, polluting, and contaminating influences of the outside world at bay. What you failed to notice was that, over time, the Boomers obsession with sex, drugs and causes slid imperceptibly into an obsession with children, careers and food. The world changed.

    You write: At over 50, I’m a woman alone. Aging is insuperable. But hey, if you are lamenting days of burning draft cards and Dow Chemical as the bad guy, you’re likely a woman over 60! Same as my age. But it is not the twenty-first millennium as opined, it is merely the third millennium … and the 21st century. So, rather than let it devour you, get with it, Grok it, live it, enjoy it … devour IT. You’ll likely not pass this way again.

  6. To Renee Fisher–
    What a targeted observation. Vision is indeed what has evolved from this beginning of my latest, long-term wrestling match with life, and is not in this piece. It comes later and I plan on adding pieces at my site that trace the path.
    The end, or at least more comfortable current place, are my revels in solitary travels and accepting the courage to just be…and have fun.

  7. A great piece. At some level, many of us, no matter what our achievements, regret not having taken another path in life. Your credentials are stunning. Your talent is huge. Your grief is obvious. The only thing missing from this piece was your vision. That is what I’d love to hear from you.

  8. To Kevin S–
    Thank you! Yes, when I don’t let depressing moments hang on I appreciate my long and speckled life. And you’re right on, no thank you, to a “normal” life…

    To LDR–
    Thank you! Life is indeed choices we make: I’ve discovered I’d rather brave the puddles of loneliness than bob safely with a life preserver in the deep pond of boredom.
    My good friend Steven used to yell at me when I was too tired to go out, “Come on, you can rest when you’re dead.” He died last year. Now I listen to him.

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