I will never forget the first time I met Austin Kessler. He was eating an apple in the cafeteria at University High School cafeteria in Norman, Oklahoma in 1971. He took a few big bites, crunching through the skin. But after he’d eaten around the middle he kept nibbling ever-smaller bites, digesting every bit of skin and pulp. In the end, all that was left was a filament connecting the stem to the core and a few raw seeds. The way Austin ate that apple encapsulated everything about him; respectful of all nature’s bounty, conservative in the essential sense: a prudent steward of our world.
More than forty years passed until I saw Austin again. In the interim he graduated from Grinnell College, got an MBA with a public administration focus at Cornell, spent four years working with David Stockman at Office of Management and Budget during the Reagan years, moved to Health and Human Services to develop a specialty in healthcare, married a DC attorney and had two sons, moved to his namesake city to be Director of Health Policy, Research, and Economics for the State of Texas, bought a house on the far side of town, got involved in the Unitarian Universalist church, had his position eliminated by a legislative pen swipe, started a consulting gig, got a divorce, spent fifteen years as contract administrator for diabetes programs, fell in love, married again, and retired from his state job as soon as he hit his pension mark. “I loved my first job at the State; I was very good at it. Contract administration was never more than a means to an end.”
Austin’s oldest son, Ben, joined the armed forces. “How do you protest hippie parents? Join the Marines.” Now Ben is a philosophy graduate student at North Texas University. He introduced Austin to a provocative concept. “We are in a post-argument society. There is no room for debate, no tolerance for other ways of thinking. My whole life I’ve been looking for common ground, the middle way. Agnostic pantheism is what I embrace.”
In the two years since he retired, Austin’s life has taken several unexpected turns. His dad, now 87, is failing fast. Austin is managing his care in an Oklahoma nursing home but the time will come for his Dad to relocate to Austin. He and his wife Connie are selling the house Austin bought 26 years ago; they purchased a smaller place further out. “It’s not the retirement I planned, but thank god I’m retired.” Among all their obligations, the couple enjoyed a 60-day camping trip to fifteen national parks last summer. The trip is still rich in Austin’s psyche. Sleeping in the back of their Pathfinder, hiking serene trails, feeling connected to nature, appreciating it to the core.
How will we live tomorrow?
“Our system is more broken than it’s ever been. I’ve always been an optimist, but I can’t find anything to be optimistic about. I’m just left with a cheerful countenance.
“We can’t have a debate on guns, healthcare, or religion. Domestic terrorism is more threatening than international threats.
“We’ll muddle through for 15 to 20 more years. But after that?