JH: In “Wingman”, Sam R is an eye surgeon and our guy is a house painter who finds a memorable way to quit his job; what’s the best/worst job you’ve ever quit?
GP: I made Sam R an eye surgeon in this story because I’m interested in the inner life of doctors, especially surgeons, who sit at the top of the heap in the medical profession. I am fascinated by surgeons. What do they do? They cut things. They saw and sever and burn and laser human flesh and condition themselves to not feel the pain they inflict on others, because, ironically, to feel the pain and damage they inflict would make them poor at what they do. Thus, they put themselves at risk every day of becoming unfeeling for the sake of the “greater good,” even as their profession tears at their own humanity. They are beasts, in a way. The same qualities that make them “the good doctor” make them poor at being human. Wives of surgeons deserve their own Pantheon of Honor. Ann Beattie is a good friend and I love the story she published in The New Yorker a while back called “Coping Stones”. The story is about an aging Dr. Cahill who is clueless about his own life and marriage, though it is continually signifying. I loved the idea of Sam R as an eye surgeon who is blind (a trope as old as Oedipus Rex or the gospel of John), particularly when it comes to women.
As for me and great jobs I have left, I walked away from a tenured position as a professor of philosophy. Philosophers occupy the top floor of the academic ivory tower (up there with the theoretical physicists), and in my case I was teaching social & political philosophy, waxing eloquent daily on the inherent contradictions and legitimation crises of late capitalism, and I kind of talked myself out of the academy, and went out onto the streets. I became a community organizer and a peace and justice activist, headed up an international peace organization, worked as a social justice minister in a progressive church supporting marriage equality and feeding the hungry–all things that I had talked a good game about, but had somehow neglected to do when I was an academic. I don’t miss the terrible academic infighting and stultifying department meetings, but I sure as hell miss the students, and the way, sometimes, we would get launched into a conversation that opened up the room, lifted the roof and seemed to soar into the stratosphere, as questions were asked that opened onto the meanings of our lives, that put us into question, and that lull that came, the space of awe and silence, when we realized how far we had traveled, and how strange the familiar had become. Teaching was sexy. I’m saying I miss the students every day.