Call It What It Is

Yesterday, while reading the news, I was amused by a story about the various names that have been hurled at the President. Cheeto and CheezWiz about his tan, titles involving hair, and the one that made me sputter at last week, when a PA state representative called him a loofa-faced shit gibbon. I have laughed at Alec Baldwin on SNL and I am entertained daily by the humor late night comedians find in the behavior of the current administration. Humor has often been the only source of stress relief in the past few weeks. But I am about to call it quits, though not because I have been converted to respect for the antics of this administration. Rather, the humor that has pushed me up to the edge is framed around age.

Just this week I’ve seen two comedic skits intended to turn the President into a laughing stock, including one by Trevor Noah on the Daily Show. Both feature age as the source of distain for Donald Trump. In one he appears  as an addle-brained old man dressed in the white bathrobe and asking questions meant to suggest he suffers from dementia. Then today a news article suggests that as our leaders age we should consider instituting annual mental evaluations along with those annual physicals since loss of mental facilities characterizes the elderly. “Old” has to encapsulate the belief that this President is unfit to govern, govern either himself or the nation. And I’m beginning find unacceptable the use of age as humorous code for incompetence.

For sure, at age 70 this president has lived a long life. He could have been one of my high school classmates, and many of them have already passed on. While some are clearly not in the best of health, others of us are working and feeling like spring chickens, to quote my grandmother’s favorite description of the active elderly. Trump has had a long life, for sure, but I do not think age is the reason we should challenge his fitness to govern. Using age to demean this President, is, I fear, not far different from using race to call into question the intelligence of #44. And, it makes me uncomfortable – uncomfortable because I’m quite sure Trevor Noah would be incensed by racist or sexist characterizations, and I know we were appalled during the campaign by the candidate’s mocking of a reporter with a disability. Yet somehow, ageism remains fair game. It was, to be sure, fair game for this president in his name-calling of Hillary Clinton. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. And, turnaround should not be fair play when it comes to name-calling. A Cheeto, perhaps, tiny fingered, maybe, an autocrat, quite likely, but I will not use age to define and condemn this President. Because, I do not want to be defined only by the number of birthdays I’ve celebrated and neither, I suspect, do most in my generation. Age is not the problem we confront in this President; mocking his age demeans us as a resistance. To represent the values of tolerance and inclusion, it behooves us to challenge ageism in all its guises, even if it means limiting our name-calling to shit gibbon.

Rage

This is a post about trying to process impending retirement when up is down and right is wrong and in is out and there are even fewer guarantees than before. My words written on the day of the inauguration – anticipation and trepidation – need updating. I can no longer anticipate any joy in retirement. Instead I foresee a protracted battle to protect Constitutional rights and protest the atrocities coming out daily as Executive Orders. A horrible bargain has been forged between Congressional Republicans hell bent on rolling back the meager semblance of a security net the United States once provided its vulnerable citizens, including its elderly, retired citizens, in the name of establishing a theocracy and an administration intent on creating what more and more looks like the beginnings of a fascist dictatorship.

I wonder exactly what path a transitioner can follow in this chaos. When I marched in a sister march on the 21st, my sign read “One Pissed Off Grandma Marching for her Grandkids’ Future.” I thought then (foolishly as it turns out) we were all playing by the same rules. That is clearly not the case when Departments are gutted and silenced, when government is by fiat, and when Russian and German historians point daily to the signs of history repeating itself. More and more,I despair as I look forward and search for a way to answer “what is to be done.”
In this despair, I am drawing comfort and guidance from the words of
the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I can, and I must rage in old age, not against dying, but against the dying of the light that should shine brightly for all our children and grandchildren. This is not the 1960s all over again…it is far, far worse. I hope millions in retirement will “rage” with me and our rage should definitely not be “gentle.”

(I looked for a link to this poem – there are several, but they seem to come with ads for fighting belly fat, etc, etc, etc. So I”ll just advise you to look it up, read the poem, pretend poetry didn’t come with advertisements, and appreciate.)

Anticipation and Trepidation: Synthesizing the Transitioner’s Emotions

That tingly feeling you sometimes get when about to open a special present. Excitement, glee, expectation – the emotions of anticipation were circling around me as I approached the start of a new, and my last semester. The process was the same – syllabus to create, classes to plan, students to contact. Yet, this week is the last time I will have to complete these tasks. I know I will miss the students…I don’t think I will not miss the administrative work associated with teaching them!

As I engage with this final semester, change is in the wind at Virginia Tech: new ways to teach and evaluate students, new majors that cross and erase disciplinary boundaries, new record-keeping programs, new standards for faculty productivity, and a new generation of colleagues for whom these changes will structure their work life for many years. At times it seems as though I’m escaping at just the right time, before I have to adapt to a new university culture. And the prospect of avoiding adaptation is surely part of my glee.

But emotions are never entirely straightforward experiences, are they? If glee is my thesis then trepidation is the antithesis. Because, in shedding the university’s culture of new policies and procedures I’m also about to join and participate in the culture of retirement – a step necessitating its own accommodations to change.

While the university’s new culture seems too much to absorb, too much to accommodate, the impending new culture of retirement still has a wrapped-birthday-present feel. I wonder what I will find when in May I tear off the paper and bows and open the box. Yesterday I heard an old, familiar tune . . . “Que Sera Sera.” As I hummed along, I realized the complacency of the song was not as compelling as it once was. What will be in retirement, will be what I work to create. Though partial to “the familiar” I do not want retirement to generate a resistance to change, an inability to adapt, respond to, and create “the new.”

I can’t end this post on January 20 without a comment on the anxiety about retiring that’s been produced by the recent election and the likely changes the new administration is likely to bring to the support system that should be the birthright of all. Here is another place where “Que Sera Sera” is an intolerable philosophy. The emerging politics of retirement and old age are going to necessitate constant vigilance. And not just retirement politics. With the possibility of calamity on so many fronts, the final stages of life are not likely to be peaceful for many of us now anticipating retirement. As I bring this work life to a close, I want to reclaim, as part of my retirement, an identity forged in youth during a time of anti-war protest, civil rights marches, and feminist outrage, and add to it now a greater awareness of age as a barrier to unity. When I unwrap my retirement package may it contain a gift of remembrance as well as a present of future opportunities.

Finding My Way to Retirement: The Journey of a Transitioner

Last month the Chronicle of Higher Education asked me to reflect on the retirement process.  Below is my essay, appearing along with several other pieces on this subject,  in the Dec. 2,2016 issue of “Commentary.”

On my 65th birthday I began to ponder the prospect of a future without the academic identity that had taken decades to construct. It was a disconcerting moment. I had watched my parents pass into retirement and observed colleagues leaving my department, some reappearing occasionally over the next few years, others never to be seen again. Until that birthday, however, I had given little thought to life beyond work and what “career culmination” would entail. I knew I was not yet ready to give up the academic life, yet I also knew that, despite the absence of a mandatory retirement age, I had reached the point at which I should take seriously a future in retirement – to professionals in the field, I had become a “transitioner.”

Turning 65 also coincided with my interest in using blogs as tools for teaching. Partly to model a web presence for a class of students, partly to evaluate the value in blogging, I set up “The Retiring Professor” to record my passage out of work and into retirement. My angst is apparent in early entries; my questions seemed endless. For a historian attuned to the social construction of the stages of life, someone who had built a career researching and writing about the identities adults create for children, I found I knew very little about the identity associated with retirement, or how it was constructed. For sure I’d given little thought to designing a retirement identity for myself.

Intuitively I subtitled my blog “transitioning” to retirement, perhaps to postpone the identity project. Only later did I become aware of the significance of the subtitle I adopted. Retiring is, indeed, a journey, not a calendar date. I’ve found it to be a process that involves preparation on many levels and one that could be eased somewhat if university policies were easily accessible. For transitioning through different academic levels, from tenure to full professor, policies are publicized and mentoring workshops are taught by those who have gone through the process. In contrast, identifying information about how to provide my department chair with a formal announcement of the date for my retirement required some determined sleuthing, since even the faculty handbook does not contain a section dedicated to the process of retiring.

Sleuthing eventually led me to the university’s Office of Human Relations where HR professionals support workshops and webpages about retirement. HR’s workshops emphasize financial planning and aim to address the savings concerns of younger employees. Only the workshop on “emotional readiness” is directed toward those of us thinking about retirement in the immediate future. “Retirees Corner,” HR’s retirement website, offers links to advice on Medicare and a video about Social Security. And, it lists the amenities I’ll be entitled to as a retired employee. I am glad to know that I will have free parking, can continue to use my .edu email address, and will have library privileges; I am saddened there is no mention of office space, library carrels, or even a campus lounge for former employees. More to the point, the “Retirees Corner” does not address the transitioner’s need for information about policies and procedures. Nor does “Retirees Corner” give transitioners a place for virtual interaction with HR staff or a space to engage virtually with other transitioners. To address this transitioner’s myriad concerns, I would have found useful something as simple as a virtual bibliography of recommended readings and websites.

If information accessibility has been one source of frustration for “The Retiring Professor,” a second has been my heightened awareness of the cultural meanings of retirement and the attitudes that shape interactions between generations. Often I experience these attitudes as condescension, a benign, but emotionally painful discrimination that marginalizes faculty of a certain age. I see it in the HR workshop leaders who tell us what our experiences should be. This approach leaves me wondering why a workshop on “emotional readiness” is not led by someone for whom finding emotional readiness was once a quest. I see it in published columns about the future of the discipline where the unemployment of young scholars is linked to the failure of seasoned scholars to retire. I see it in the subtle use of infantilizing language – “Retirees Corner” for example. Are the readers consulting this page about to be punished, or simply pushed out of the way? And, in the use of “retiree” as an all-encompassing identifier. I see it too, in a widespread tendency to conflate retirement and the infirmity that often accompanies “old age.” The process of aging and the path to retirement may coincide but require different accommodations and hinge on different public and private identities. My career may be culminating but my life – not yet.

One solution to condescension could well be a policy of flexible or “phased” retirement. If my university offers such an option it is not publicized. Lacking an official option, I found myself designing an ad hoc five-year plan. Creating and maintaining the blog was certainly a part of my design for a phased retirement. As I wrote about my concerns and my research to address financing, knowing when to go, making the decision public, and coping throughout with the social construction of retirement, I was also announcing the intention to retire. As I blogged I also made decisions to scale back on teaching new courses, to ignore myriad university funding opportunities for new initiatives, to downsize my office library, to take on only the work that gave me pleasure, and to avoid discussions about the future of the department. Phasing was right for me; it has made retirement at the end this academic year, after 5 years of transitioning, a step I no longer approach with trepidation. And yet, the decision to phase into retirement is one I fear my junior colleagues do not view with such equanimity. What I see as a way to address energy limits while I do the emotional work that should precede retirement they may perceive as disinterest and lowered productivity. Without a university acknowledgement that faculty need to let go in stages, my colleagues are not able to both include transitioners and find ways to support the process of retiring.

The problems I’ve encountered while transitioning to retirement have been both cultural and structural. I have drawn a very personal map to help me navigate the journey; other professors will do likewise. The process could be simplified, the road made less bumpy, if universities acknowledge that culminating a career can be as difficult as starting one.

 

Book Baggage

A few days ago I was chatting with a prospective graduate student. She would be applying in the fall of 2017, not this year. And as she rose to leave my office I said (automatically, as I do to every possible recruit), “Be sure to stay in touch and come by again when you are ready to apply.” This time, however, I had to pause, caught be surprise, then add, “but there will be a new graduate director to talk with next year.”

It is coming at me, in small ways, like in the exchange with this student. As Dr. Seuss told Marvin K., “the time has come. . . .” Next September I will not only not be the department’s graduate director, I will not be the department. And that is beginning to feel like the right choice.

So, what are the next steps as I phase into retirement? At the top of the “leaving the department” to-do list: I must find a home for the office library. It can’t move to my house, where there is already a library. No point in offering it to the VT library. Our library is dispensing with books altogether – they have begun to move almost all books to an off-campus storage facility from which we can “order” books and have them brought to our offices in a day or so (browsing is not an option). The library is being renovated as a huge meeting space and study hall. Desks and comfy chairs and lounges replace shelves lined with wisdom and knowledge (a curmudgeonly comment, for sure).

But getting back to the problem of how to clear out twenty-some years of the office collection. The advice of retired friends and colleagues: open the door and invite grad students to rummage and leave with armloads of treasures; use the department’s “free books” hall shelf; give what’s left to the public library and Literacy Volunteers book sales. As I think through this plan I hear my mother’s horrified voice, honed in the years of the Great Depression, “You will just give them away?!” Yes Mom, because books are no longer the valuable assets they once were, to be passed from generation to generation (just as, and the sarcasm kicks in, your extensive collection of glassware picked up at flea markets and garage sales, was not a secure retirement investment, it was just your hobby). The books and Marvin K. have to “go” and “go now.”

Soon after my exchange with the MA recruit, I unloaded the first office shelf to reload on the hallway “free books” shelf. No regrets when some of them left the office—they represented courses once taught, projects that never came to fruition, and impulse buys that should have stayed in the store. Others, however . . . gave me pause. Like lost loves rediscovered, those books engulfed me in memories. Where was I when I read this one? What was I doing when that one crossed my path? Can I part with a book that once brought such intellectual excitement even if it hasn’t come off the shelf in two decades? Or must I hold on for a few more years to these reminders of the life once led?

Perhaps letting go of books is a metaphor for retirement, a process rather than a project, something that will happen over time, many times and not just once. With that thought, today I will weed through another shelf, indulging myself in memories, and holding on to the best.

The Long Reach of the Teacher: Remembering Mr. Shaeberle

Once again I’ve been drawn to the past as I reflect on retirement from teaching. He was my third-grade teacher at Hartley Elementary School. He was a grown-up authority figure in my eyes, but in retrospect I see a young, very green teacher, fresh out of college. More important for the third-graders that year, Mr. Shaeberle was …a man. I am sure men had taught at Hartley Elementary before Mr. Shaeberle arrived, but he was the first one I’d encountered. And even more novel for the third-graders in his class, we were in a room with students a grade ahead of us. It was an exciting year! Nothing like the previous two spent with Miss Spotts, though that’s when I learned to read and had my first traumatic experience with academic failure (I didn’t follow the directions for coloring the picture!)

I don’t know why the classes were combined the year Mr. Schaeberle joined the Hartley teaching staff, because the following year, half-way through 4th grade we were once again assigned to single-grade classrooms. Louise, my very best friend in the whole wide world, and I moved across the hall to scary, mean Mrs. Bierbower’s room. Other 4th graders went to learn from Mr. Ness…yes, we now had a 2nd male in the teaching ranks! And then, oh joy, after enduring a long year with “Mrs. Beer Bottle” once again Mr. Shaeberle was teaching my 5th grade class. Of the many teachers who left marks on my life, I think none was more influential than Mr. Schaeberle.

There was the 1956 Presidential election. Not many Democrats among my classmates, but Mr. Schaeberle made it OK to buck the crowd. Fascinated with rocks, I took “samples” to school to ask for help identifying them. I’m sure Mr. Schaeberle knew as much about geology as I did but as we discussed the stone’s properties I learned it was OK to ask for help figuring out a problem. And then there were the social studies lessons. It was the year our lessons followed a family on a road trip across the country, starting in New England and stopping to explore geography and history along the way. Why am I a historian? I am sure Mr. Schaeberle was instrumental in planting that seed as his class mapped the route from coast to coast.

Mr. Schaeberle died a few weeks ago. I had not seen him in decades, had not thought of him in many years. His obituary noted his career in educational administration and the doctorate he earned well after those first years at Hartley. I remember, in contrast, a young teacher who made me want to learn, and for his enthusiasm and encouragement I will always be grateful.

Those of us who teach should all be so fortunate if somewhere there is a former student for whom we might have been a Mr. Schaeberle.

“Mem’ries”

“Mem’ries”…..cue Barbra Streisand…. “Light the corners of my mind.” I’ve been drawn to the past lately, and not just because I’m still teaching history to graduate students and writing about the history of childhood. As the future grows shorter (and impending retirement is surely playing a part in this observation) the past seems to have assumed a more lively role in this drama called life. More and more I catch myself recalling snippets of my past, triggered by, often I’m not sure what – a word, a tune, a smell, or just a misfiring synapse. Whatever the trigger, I’m drawn to see glimpses people, places, situations, feelings long, long buried. Sometimes the images are fleeting. They evoke no feeling and they are easily pushed back to the corner they came from. Other times….a brief snapshot is followed by a flood of emotion-laden memories. Listening to a Dolly Parton-Kenny Rogers duet was a recent trigger. Their “Old Friends” performance led to “Islands in the Stream” and that snapped me back to the 1980s and a few weeks spent with a very dear old friend in a small, very rural town in Alberta after the snow season had settled in

I cast different eyes now on the why of my escape to northern Alberta that winter. Though my understanding today is not the meaning I would have assigned three decades ago, it surely isn’t fiction. As I examine these snapshot memories I’m compressing nearly three decades of experiences into the review. My discipline teaches me that the present shapes the meanings found in the past; I recognize that my memories are both uniquely mine and not “unvarnished truths.” Instead they remind me of the connection between past and present, between who I am now and who I once was and there is a truth in that discovery.

These lighted corners don’t invite me to linger in the past. I’m always returned to here and now, walking toward and confronting whatever happens next. Perhaps the “lights” are there to help chart the road ahead, to the destination we all share but all arrive at differently.

Are these glimpses of the past a common phenomenon? It’s not an experience I associate with a younger me. I wish now that my parents had talked more about the experience of aging and their relationships with memories. Beyond, that is, telling me growing old was not for the faint of heart – their word was “sissies” (it was another generation).   I observed the changes in their lives and the memories they tried to share. But I did not understand them and never questioned them. And now I cannot. That thought is a trigger for regret. And perhaps it also opens a route for sharing with my daughter.

As I was ending this post, I pulled a book from the retirement bookshelf, just curious to see what I’d find by searching the index for “memories.” The book, Learning to be Old (2009) by Margaret Cruikshank, is one I’ve mentioned before and one whose critical stance toward the social construction of age I find quite thought provoking. Curiously, “memory” doesn’t show up in the index, though I am led to a few pages on “memoirs” and “life review.”

There Cruickshank describes the act of “re-membering” (coined by another gerontologist, Barbara Myerhoff). Re-membering, particularly through storytelling, is a process that gerontologists, like the “life review” scholar Robert Butler, believe can lead to “resolution, reconciliation, atonement, integration, and serenity” (49). Re-membering, therefore, is a deliberate choice with far greater significance than “ordinary recollection.” Are my snapshot memories easily dismissed as “ordinary recollections,” commonplace occurrences unconnected to the “re-membering” that constitutes life review? I think perhaps not. More likely they are the first stages of the research project, steps without which a “life review” will never be written.   For the moment, I’m going to enjoy occasionally discovering what’s in the lighted corner without the demands of “re-membering.” Later, when I am an old woman, I’ll “re-member.”