Sunday, March 19, 2006


Ronni's Retirement Blues post and its comments at Time Goes By provides good insight to some issues I identify with. Most of us look forward to having more control over how we spend our time. And many of us are doing better things with that time than when we were committed to paying jobs. But there's something wrong with the words retire and retirement that somehow implies going to sleep.

In my youth, I was a nudist. (I was bolder, and thinner, then.) But in the sixties, taking pleasure in being naked in social situations was taboo enough that nudists were inclined to protect their anonymity. I found it interesting to learn to make small talk without asking "Where are you from?" or "What do you do?" --the two quickest and least meaningful ways to start a conversation.

Then there was an unemployed interlude between grad school and marriage when I found myself stumped by the question "What do you do?" I was happily busy helping care for Bill's family and property. I was learning tons about botany, ornithology, self-sufficiency and life. But there was just no easy answer to "What do you do?"

Now, having been pushed out of the nest of my last job, and my unemployment benefits having long since expired, I'm retired. I didn't plan it that way. I'm too young for it. But there it is. Once again, there's no easy answer to "What do you do?" And, like Ronni and others, I'm vaguely embarassed by that fact. I'm a blogger, a writer, a designer, a decorator, an advisor, a gardener, a reader - not necessarily in that order. If I were paid for any of those activities, they'd be perfectly respectable. I was all those things (except blogger) when I was still working for the theater. Yet, when asked, I said I was Business Director of the theater. I was proud of the job and it occupied, by far, most of my time. Was it the most important part of my life? No. But it paid, and people could understand that.

Why is developing my own garden, part time for free, less important that developing someone else's garden for pay? Maybe it's not just the absence of pay that makes retirement hard to describe. Maybe it's the involvement in several, more or less equal, occupations. When I was involved with Leadership Tompkins, we met with a woman whose career was volunteer service. Her husband was CEO of the community bank, so I imagine she didn't need a salary. Her volunteer work was incredibly valuable. She wasn't stuffing envelopes, mind you (tho' that's fine, too.) She was on the Board of Directors of several not-for-profits contributing her "wealth, wisdom and work" to the growth and success of those organizations. I wonder if the "What do you do?" question plagued her.

1 comment:

Ronni Bennett said...

Wow. I missed this post when you first wrote it, Mary Ann. So glad you linked to it today.

We share the circumstance of having been pushed into retirement by a workplace that doesn't value the experience of elders. Kind of a letdown. I had expected (if I'd thought of it at all) to make a decision one day to stop working full time; for it to be a considered choice that I planned for. So, I suppose, part of me is resentful that I couldn't do it on my terms.

Another problem, which you allude to in the story of the banker's wife, is that the culture of the U.S. (don't know about other western countries), considers unpaid work to be less valuable. High income executives use the amount of their salaries to "keep score" among themselves and the media follows that belief.

We need a shift in attitude. I haven't a clue how to do that...

Thank you so much for the birthday greetings.