Archive for Sunday, September 10, 2000

Work holds new allure in retirement

September 10, 2000


Retirement was supposed to be a return to the sandbox, to the simple, neglected pleasures, to the unstructured life of an endless summer vacation. It was supposed to mean liberation from clocks and schedules. Time to sit on the porch in a rocker swatting flies.

But I'm finding it difficult to slip the harness after a long, though checkered history of showing up for work. If I don't report to my desk in the morning I feel a stab of guilt. If I fail to bring some task to completion every day, panic and self-loathing begin to peck at my soul. I may not punch the clock, but I still keep an eye on it.

One of my goals for retirement was to wake up without a plan for the day and do things on the spur of the moment. The idea of actually doing that still makes me dizzy with terror. The truth is that there's some comfort to the yoke.

Now would be the time to fulfill some dream which I deferred because of the demands of breadwinning. But delusions of grandeur have faded, and Michael Jordan's own retirement makes me suspect that a career in the NBA is probably beyond my grasp. And pleas from my family for mercy over the years have convinced me that my voice is not of operatic quality. As far as playing in a rock band, I realize that a man my age would look ridiculous leaping around a stage.

So I'm trying to justify my existence by doing the kind of chores I used to despise. Taking out the trash and emptying the dishwasher have taken on a new urgency and nobility for me. When things are particularly slow, even taking my vitamins counts as an accomplishment. Watching paint dry is not so tedious as you might suppose. Anything to avoid the pit of indolence.

Keeping thoughts about hammocks, palm trees and beaches at bay has become a new kind of labor. When I'm completely idle, I think about work. There's a paradox about it. Work is supposed to be a punishment for original sin. But it's also the key to self-esteem. "Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with thy might," says the Bible. "For there is no work in the grave."

But how do you square that with the exhortation, "Take time to smell the roses?" And what if what the hand findeth is the handle of a slot machine? The truth is that the roses smell the sweetest just after you've been working yourself to the bone. "We will die in harness," said MacBeth.

Bach on his deathbed asked to hear one of his pieces played. He thought it could be improved and dictated some changes. That's the epitome of the work ethic. Heroic devotion to perfection in geniuses makes masterpieces. In lesser mortals it makes workaholics and customers for the headshrinker.

The CEO of a fast track, high-tech company I read about had disciplined himself not to blow up at his colleagues. But when he got home from work in the middle of the night he'd wake up his wife and order her to clean out the gutters. The work ethic can create monsters as well as masterpieces.

At what point should we be satisfied that we've done enough? No less than Leonardo da Vinci when he neared death asked "Was anything done?" For those of us who won't leave Mona Lisa or a Last Supper behind, there's a kind of comfort in Humphrey Bogart's words in Casablanca: "Our lives don't amount to a hill of beans."

Still we must work or wither. As a recent retiree, I have a scrap of wisdom to impart to those who are new to the treadmill. One thing stands in the way of your success and fulfillment your boss, a dangerous, mongrel mix of egotism and insecurity. A boss's ego requires that he get all the credit and constant affirmation of his superior status. His insecurity means he will feel threatened by an initiative, creativity or independence on the part of his subordinates.

You must learn how to manage your boss. Never argue with him. Cower when he criticizes you to signal your abject acceptance of his authority. When he offers one of his lame ideas, let your jaw drop and your eyes glisten as if you've just been stunned by revealed Truth. Strike the side of your head and exclaim, "Why didn't I think of that?" Once you've convinced your boss that you're a "team player," you can ignore his ideas and return to business as usual. He'll be too busy practicing the arts of bootlicking and backstabbing to follow up. Observation of those pointers doesn't guarantee that you'll prosper, but at least you may survive.

One final insight may be of use to other recent retirees. It's best not to follow your wife around in your robe and slippers when she's cleaning house, notifying her that she's missed a little dust on the window sill or that there are a few dog hairs on the couch. Be helpful or be out of sight.

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