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

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

So, What Do You Do? Are We Afraid Of Leisure Time?

After my father retired, he wandered about the house all day, always underfoot, staring at the bird feeder, taking out bits of trash, and finding excuses to run down to the corner store.  He never should have quit medicine so early (he was in his mid-70s), but he said he didn’t want to make a mistake – miss an appendicitis, ignore a pre-cancerous growth, or dismiss a serious complaint from yet another hypochondriac whiner.  I never believed that this was the real reason for early retirement; but I am certain that he had no idea that he would be spending his later years puttering around the yard.

He made a few attempts at keeping busy. He tried to teach English as a second language to the many Polish immigrants in our city, but after years of treating them as patients, he concluded that they didn’t have the brains to speak their own language let alone English; and he quit.  Later he offered his services gratis to the hospital where he was on staff, but because of liability risks ended up in Medical Records not far from the boiler room; and he quit that too.

After a while he gave up, resigned himself to doing nothing except watching sports on TV, falling asleep in the Barcalounger, and putzing around the garden.  He never liked this life of leisure.  He just accepted it.

He was consigned to a life of enforced leisure.  Everyone in his immigrant family had either dropped dead on the factory floor or simply wore out.  He was lucky because he never had to work a night shift or sweat in a machine shop.  In fact, many of his patients in our working class town had lost fingers to the lathe or were stone deaf at 45 from the banging of metal presses.  They indeed had something to look forward to in retirement – no more lunch pail days on the assembly line – and happily spent years on lawn chairs in the backyard.

My father was caught in the middle of the American transition from deserved leisure – doing nothing after decades of drilling, sod-busting, and bus driving – to bored leisure. The second career Type A retirement of my generation was a long way off.

There is now a competition among former professionals or corporate managers to see whose retirement can be the most productive, engaging, and impressive.  Putzing in the garden is not an option, but landscaping it is. Reading by the fire is out, but writing a book is in.  Taking an adult education course is fogey-business, only serving to stem the ebbing tide of brain cells; but teaching a course shows vigor, enterprise, and imagination.  Visiting grandchildren is passĂ© unless they live in Paris and you can visit the Louvre.

Turning leisure time into work is a very American thing. It is hard to imagine a retired Frenchman leaving his office and volunteering in the Arab suburbs; or providing tax advice to the poor; or joining an advocacy group to stop global warming. They must certainly be enjoying themselves on the beach at St. Tropez, sailing the Mediterranean, or riding to hounds.

Jenny Diski, writing in the New Statesman (8.28.13) comments on this phenomenon and recalls the panic many retired people feel when asked the question, “What do you do?”:

But what if as you use the phrase “I used to [. . .]” your own heart sinks, or your psyche panics at the idea that you might not be what you think yourself to be? Or that what you think yourself to be crumbles into nameless dread at the thought that you are not being what you are doing? The party questioner is only you (or me) on another day, wondering how on earth we are to get through the rest of our time as conscious beings without the reassurance that we are a writer [or] a teacher…

If you are what you do, what are you when you stop doing it and you still are? There are people who don’t find this a problem, who have not entirely or even at all identified existence with what they do and how they make a living, but they are evidently a great problem to those – the majority –who do.

A friend of mine who worked for a large corporation in Washington told me how he and his colleagues feted a co-worker who had just retired.  They wished him well, said they were sorry to see him go, and hoped that they would see him again soon.

Their wishes were granted, for he returned the very next week to take up residence in his new ‘ex-officio’ quarters set aside for retired executives and managers.  Apparently he came into the office every morning at 8am and stayed until 5 until one day the cleaning lady found him slumped over his keyboard, dead as a doornail.  He had died in his traces as he had always wished.  He never did anything meaningful or important as an unofficial member of the team.  Although he cranked out white papers, memos, and idea-notes, no one paid any attention to them or to him.  As time went on the younger members of the firm wondered what this old fossil was doing wandering the halls, but in time they too ceased to notice.

Jenny Diski says that a similar fate befell her grandfather:

My father often used to tell me how my immigrant grandfather declined in health and spirit once he gave up the café he ran from dawn to late into the night in Petticoat Lane to retire to a leafy suburb. It was only a matter of time, my father said of the man I never met and knew almost nothing else about, before he died of having stopped work. I think this story is the equivalent of an urban myth of that generation. The decent man who worked all the hours that God sent and more, provided what he could (which was never lavish) for his family, toiled unceasingly in order to make sure his son went to a good school and got a profession, collapsed and died once he stepped off the treadmill.

He in many ways was like my father and others of his generation who had no options of opera, theatre, or summers at the Vineyard to give them the foundations of a varied and productive retirement.  Work, family, and responsibility were the only parameters of their lives.

It is strange to see, therefore, that retirees of my generation who have had all the benefits of wealth, education, and modest privilege still work until they topple over or one day look at the computer screen and have no idea what it is.

Diski writes that primitive settlements were the first leisure societies.  They operated on the margins, had little, and when survival was at least extended (killing a wildebeest, gathering nuts, thatching the hut), they could relax.  There was absolutely nothing to distract them from their leisure.

Only when you worship the idea of accumulation and status based on its perceived wealth-giving properties do you have to work hard all the time. Accumulation was hampering; you had to carry it about with you when you moved from camp to camp, or find ways of storing and securing it if you were sedentary. Without the idea of surplus as a value beyond its use value, when you needed/wanted something you got it, and when you had it, you enjoyed it until it was time to get some more.

This doesn’t sound very appealing to me – running hundred of miles across the veldt to kill your prey, hauling it back to camp, gorging on raw meat, then doing nothing for a week – but I suppose it had its moments.

Diski then turns capitalist-basher.  It is greed, she says, which forces older folks to work longer, a distorted economy which erodes their pensions and savings, and contributes to the misery of the old.  They bought a capitalist dream and were cheated.

This is nonsense, of course.  The same people who have some of their savings compromised voted in lock-step with their unions for big benefits; supported venal politicians who gave away the store for patronage; and who spent unwisely on ‘things’.

People with money will always have an easier time of life and retirement than those without.  My generation and those to follow will have many retirement options – lie in the hammock and read trashy novels, or teach Shakespeare at a local university; while those before were conditioned by their immigrant origins and the Depression to keep on the treadmill. Capitalism cannot be blamed for the travails of the working poor.  The system simply deals the cards in a fair game.  Some people are winners and others are losers.

Diski closes with the dark, pessimistic conclusion:

Leisure, not doing, is so terrifying in our culture that we cut it up into small, manageable chunks throughout our working year in case an excess of it will drive us mad, and leave the greatest amount of it to the very end, in the half-conscious hope that we might be saved from its horrors by an early death.

I don’t think leisure is that terrifying at all.  For those of us with options, we can choose to be idle – simply lying on a beach or toddling about with the grandkids; or engaging in ‘productive’ activities.  If we see a great, gaping, dark chasm ahead of us as we leave the office the last time, that’s our problem, and it is easy to avoid.

For those millions working hard for a living, retirement – however it is defined – is a break from the toils of labor.  I cannot imagine a long-distance trucker, kidneys banged to shit, slipped disks and lumbago, bunions, and  rancid stomach, staring vacantly out at the birdfeeder like my father did.  Leisure and retirement means no work, and that is enough.

There are relatively few of us who are so paralyzed and terrified by the thought of retirement that we hope for an early death.  That is the fate of the diminished, sick, and broken.

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