"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 6, 2015

Retirement–A Long Pastime Or A Time To Figure Out What’s What?

Radley Packer stayed late at the office and had all his life.  He had been born to work as much as a dray horse, and in fact most of his colleagues expected him to drop in his traces just like an old plug pulling a plow on his last furrow.

But Radley was shortchanged.  His company changed the rules and set a maximum age limit of 65 on all employees.  Regardless of employment history, longevity, or performance, when you bumped up against that ceiling, you were out.

He had never planned on such an abrupt and unexpected departure.  There was no grandfathering in of older, loyal employees like himself; no exceptions, no special cases. His industry had to rejuvenate to keep up with the times and the younger generation of consumers, and there was no room for older workers like Radley.  While the company readily admitted that he was smart, diligent, and a hard worker; there was a natural and inevitable ossification process that occurred in all brains after a certain age.  One was simply not agile enough to think quickly in a fast-changing, rapid-paced environment.

“Now what?”, Radley asked his wife when he came home with his boxes of mementos, plants, plaques, and photographs. “What do I do now?”

Actuarial tables said that a person as fit as he with a good family history and a no-smoking profile would live for at least another twenty years.  “Twenty years”, he said. “That’s an eternity.”

Most people his age either look forward to retirement or quickly get used to the idea and are happy to leave métro, boulot, dodo in the rear view mirror.  Twenty years is not at all an eternity, but a relatively short time – a frighteningly short time if they were being honest, hardly enough time to shake out the boredom, purge the drudgery, and wake up some physical sensibilities that had for too long been dormant.  The more enterprising of Radley’s colleagues felt that retirement would the long-awaited time to “do something for myself” – finally learn how to throw a pot, take a course on gardening, or read about Napoleon.

Radley, however, opened the front door on the Monday after his retirement party and stared vacantly outside. There was his car which would sit there, the newspapers which he had all morning to read, the hedges which needed trimming and which he now had time to clip.  It was all so depressing.  He sat morosely over his coffee, still in his bathrobe, poking at the financial page.  “Now, don’t look so down, Radley”, his wife said as she cleared her breakfast dishes and headed to the bathroom for a final touch-up before she headed out to work. “You’ll figure something out.”

Yet he felt paralyzed, numb with anxiety bordering on panic.  The clock ticked slowly, the shadows cast by the holly tree never moved. The phone did not ring.

He went up to his office, cleared his desk of the few office papers that were still lying around, turned on the computer, but looked blankly at the screen. He used to look forward to the little Microsoft tones when his Dell fired up.  He would place his fingers on the keyboard and anxiously wait to log in to the company website.  He scanned the icons – Netflix, YouTube, Google Earth, and Picasa – and wondered what they did.  He never had time for cyberspace, had only the vaguest idea about Facebook and Instagram, and had used his computer exclusively for work and taxes

“Take a course”, suggested his wife. “You’d be surprised at what they offer at AU.”

Over the next nine months Radley Parker tried everything,  He took a course on Jacobean literature.  Now that he was older and more mature, The Spanish Tragedy and Ben Jonson might sing to him rather than fall on the deaf ears of an adolescent. However the found the poetry as numbingly boring and uninteresting now as then, and he dropped out after two classes.

“Perhaps I should study something I know nothing about”, he said to himself; and enrolled in a drawing class.  He had never gotten past stick figures and doodles, but had always admired his son, a first class artist and architect who, even as a child, could draw remarkable likenesses of animals.  It wasn’t so much that he drew birds accurately, but he captured that fidgetiness that makes them birds. His sharks had grace.  His dinosaurs ferocity.

Yet his son’s talent must have come from his wife’s side of the family - Uncle Herman, for example, painted seascapes of the Chesapeake that were sold on Kent Island for real money – because Radley never got past stick figures.  No matter how hard he tried or how attentive the teacher was, his drawings still looked like a pre-schooler’s.

He enrolled in a course on music appreciation.  Symphonic music had always left him wondering what all the fuss was about. He remembered the time his aunt had taken him to hear an all-Brahms concert and he fell sound asleep before the first movement was over. “There must be something I missed”, he thought. “Brahms is considered a great composer.” Ironically the first piece that the instructor had chosen for analysis was Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 considered by many to be one of the most boring pieces of music ever written; but a work of consummate genius according to the instructor who had grown up in Europe.

Radley tried every enterprise popular among his recently-retired friends – teaching English as a second language, volunteering at the hospital and at the Vassar Book Sale, and tutoring slow students at the neighborhood elementary school.  Nothing took hold. He felt he was wasting his time, spinning his wheels and, as most older people soon realize, time passes more quickly than when you’re young.  Before you know it a week has passed.

The students at J.Hardy Elementary were not just slow but stone dumb. They didn’t need the remedial reading he offered them.  Only rewinding the tape back to the beginning and starting over in a different place and time might have worked. Volunteering at the hospital because of liability concerns turned out to be no more than a modified Walmart Greeter job.  He manned the Information Desk and sent people to C-4, X-Ray, Radiology, or Physical Therapy.  He was too old to flirt with attractive women, and too young to find anything at all rewarding in this tedious and monotonous exercise.

Three years passed like this.  Radley had found nothing of interest to hold his attention; and more importantly nothing of any meaning whatsoever. Neither his life nor those around him was being influenced in the slightest by his retirement activities.

“Maybe we should go away”, he suggested to his wife. “Go to Florida, play golf, sit on the beach.” Another retirement option still popular with many in his generation. This too did not pan out. The only advantage to Florida was that his now cripplingly boring life was spent in a warm climate.

By sheer coincidence a friend gave him a volume of Tolstoy’s short stories and told him that he thought he would find The Death of Ivan Ilyich interesting and ‘relevant’.  He couldn’t put the book down.  Tolstoy’s story of a man who has built a compartmentalized, ordered, and risk-free life suddenly learns that he has a terminal disease.  He at first doesn’t believe it and only after his symptoms get worse does he finally admit to himself that he is seriously ill. “What did I do wrong?”, Ivan asks himself. “Or what didn’t I do right?”.  He cannot come to grips with the fact that death is not only possible, but certain; and he is not ready. He is paralyzed with the fear of death and the unknown.  Finally in the last moment of his life he understands. It isn’t so much death that he was afraid of.  It was the fear of death.

Tolstoy was a genius in his chilling depictions of death and dying, near-death epiphanies, and explorations of religious insight.  Radley read everything that Tolstoy had ever written. He was stunned at the power of the passages where Alexei Levin visits his dying brother and must come to grips with death.  He was amazed at the simple insights of Andrei Bolkonsky who looked up from the mud where he was dying on the battlefield of Austerlitz, saw Napoleon, and whispered, “He’s a man like me.”

“Where have I been all these years?”, Radley thought. Retirement was not just a pastime, years to be filled with incidental or idle knowledge, torpid afternoons on a Florida beach. “Too soon old, too late schmart”, a Jewish friend said to him; and as he watched Radley become more and more obsessed with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, and the Bible, he said,  “It took you a while, but you finally got the picture”.

The more he grappled with existential issues, the less tolerant he became of his colleagues who were still twiddling their thumbs passing the time until the candle went out.  He knew that there was nothing in what he learned from the Russians, St. Paul, Job, or Hamlet that was going to take the sting out of dying; but at the very least he would be more prepared.

“Evangelicals have it easy”, he said to his wife. “A life of belief, death and dying is an open-and-shut case, Biblical certainty and intellectual absolutism. As for the rest of us….”

So indeed there was so little time; and if there was such a thing as sin, it would be in the negligent disregard for its passage.

He became a near recluse.  He discharged friends and acquaintances, seldom went out, and whether at the gym, on long walks through the neighborhoods, or on drives to see his children, his mind was more active than it had ever been.  He was constantly sorting, filtering, and organizing his thoughts around one unique and sole principle. “Before I die”, he said to his Jewish friend, “I want to know what’s what.”

Radley’s wife said that he was being a bit harsh on all his retired friends who were trying to make their way as best they could. “Not everyone has to figure things out”, she said.  Well, of course they do, he thought to himself. It is a shame that we all don’t catch on to God’s ironic plan earlier, but better late than never.  Levin in Anna Karenina wonders about this irony. We were created with intelligence, wit, talent, and insight, he thinks; and after a few short years of life we spend an eternity in the cold mud of the steppes.

The last words of the book are Levin’s:

I shall continue to be vexed with Ivan the coach- 
man, and get into useless discussions, and express 
my thoughts blunderingly. I shall always be blaming 
my wife for what annoys me, and repenting at once. I 
shall always feel a certain barrier between the Holy of Holies of my inmost soul, and the souls of others, even my wife's. I shall continue to pray without being able to explain to myself why. But my whole life, every moment of my life, independently of whatever may happen to me, will be, not meaningless as before, but full of the deep meaning which I shall have the power to impress upon it. 
“My hero”, said Radley Parker. “My hero.”

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