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Thoughts and Hallucinations

The old birthday blog

Tuneup May 17

Here come the 70s. Birthday crises have never been a problem, but I’m telling you, that’s a pretty large number. In dog years it rises to 490. I’ve been telling people that in five more years I’ll be at the New Mexico speed limit. On a crowded bus a couple of younger people actually offered me their seat. The hell of it was, I thought about taking it.

I think birthdays that end in zero only matter when they correlate with big life changes, and it’s the latter I’m thinking about. Here’s a boring fact that a young person could use. My Depression-era mother started teaching me about an hour and a half after I was born to always put away just a little bit of money whenever I could and to put it where the rich people put theirs so it could ride along with the lackeys of the running dogs. Well, she didn’t say that. She was a Republican. I did what she told me to do, and now I have enough filthy lucre, many decades later, to quit worrying about earning an income. The feds have a rule that after 70 you have to start using it. They want some of their tax on that tax-sheltered money. I’ve never been rich and never will be. But the savings grew enough to live comfortably up to even my most improbable sell-by date. Einstein called compound interest, tongue in cheek, the most powerful force in the universe. The financial markets have done even better than that.

It’s a tremendous gift, this savings, like a MacArthur without the paperwork or the meetings. But it’s disorienting. Back in the day we all read Eric Fromm’s Escape From Freedom. I’m only remembering the title now. What do you do if you’re freed from wage slavery? Is that why people play golf when they retire, to escape from choices? I’ve never understood that game. I’d rather shoot heroin. Should I march along with the army of elderly volunteers, most of them doing good things? Maybe I will do more of that, though I always have done what in the world of cash flow they call “pro bono” work.

No, I think of the change as a little like the glory days of my NIH Career Award, four years of salary and time to work on a broadly defined project. Now I can work on water governance without worrying about support. That topic has spread like an infectious disease epidemic. There’s plenty to do. And I can focus in on language again, finally, especially the business of learning it in all its cultural and historical subtlety. What’s not to like?

It’s the change in social networks that is the problem that needs solved. (“needs + pp" is an English dialect construction I recently learned). I think of it in two ways. In some ways it's a loss of a megaphone, something that amplifies voice in a noisy large space. You’re not escaping from freedom, but you represent no organization when you’re free. Oh sure, you might be emeritus this or adjunct that or associate something or other, but really, who gives a shit. The tense changes from “is” to “was.” It’s just obit material that doesn’t provide much amplification of voice.

More important is the absence of colleagues. Once you have the luxury of leading an unsupported think-tank kind of life, you find out that most people are burdened with the details of their own organizational life, should they be lucky enough to have one in the current dismal climate. On the one hand, this adds even more responsibility to use time supported by retirement savings in a useful way, paying back, as they say, for the income and economy that made it possible. On the other hand, with what network can you link to move in that direction given that most people trying to move in directions you support are already overloaded with tasks, information, and economic demands.

In the Santa Fe area where I live, you can’t cross the Plaza without tripping over a few emeriti. I’ve been part of the conversation, here’s a town full of smart old farts looking to collaborate and engage the social order. True, now and then an extended narrative about a new medication slows the conversation. But really, what a waste of available time and energy. I keep thinking of the film. Going in Style, where three old guys in New York played by Art Carney, George Burns and Lee Strasberg get bored and start a new career as bank robbers.

I’m thinking about it. Maybe I could organize a gang of former organizational consultants and figure out how to hack the Walmart computers to redistribute the revenue to their employees. Meanwhile I’ll just keep working, grateful for the freedom, and keep writing about it, grateful to the increasing number of outlets that allow me to write in the style for which an Irish kid of two journalists was destined.
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