Not Who I Used to Be
I was just about the last to go. Most of my friends retired before I did. And they all lamented in more or less good humor, “I’ve never been so busy in my life! Whatever became of that fiction of ‘the golden years of idle leisure’?” Some “retirement”, they would moan theatrically as they charged off to their next engagement.
Granted, my friends are not the sort who have found themselves perfectly content to retreat to Florida or some other warm clime to while away their mornings on the golf course and afternoons at the bridge table, with a nap in between. But even those who have not invested themselves in the healing of creation as our friends have done decry the inadequacy of the word “retirement”. Hey, Eliot, they say, you’re good with words. Can’t you come up with something to replace “retirement”?
I do love words, and I actually took up their challenge. I thought about it a fair amount. One by one, a dozen or more alternatives presented themselves, and then one by one each was dismissed or slid away, short on staying power, inadequate to the task. What could one call this period that, for so many, commences with profound and unwelcome disorientation, evolves into a wilderness of way-too-many options, and may eventually become a time of startling vitality, robust activity, and unexpected joy?
That is what I finally discovered after nearly three years “in retirement” myself. Back when I was managing consulting companies, I used to tell my colleagues that our first obligation was to improve the client’s request. And that’s just what I realized I had to do—ask a better question.
I hope that this tale of shifting my attention to an improved question can prompt as life-enhancing a transformation for readers as it has for me.
The Board of Directors room at our company was not fancy as board rooms go. No cherry paneled walls and deeply tufted leather chairs and ornately framed oil paintings of fox hunts in the English countryside, as I’d seen all too often in more pretentious companies. It was flanked on one long wall with metal casement windows with vertical Venetian blinds opening onto a busy thoroughfare of undistinguished commercial establishments—a dry cleaner, a florist, a frame shop, and a discount liquor store were directly across the street. The other long wall was paved with fabric-covered corkboard where flip charts were push-pinned in misaligned array. The room was anchored by a thirty-foot long wooden table encircled by two dozen office chairs.
On the table were the remains of a hastily called party, to celebrate a turn of events that would have very significant consequences for our company. What had happened earlier that day was destined to accelerate the sales of the company well beyond anyone’s expectations.
And I had made it happen. This was my baby. All mine—at least to appearances. To be sure, I never could have made it happen without the years and years of outstanding work that my colleagues had done to pioneer a new niche of medical science, create a superior product, and generate the clinical research that proved the product’s extraordinary value. But armed with those assets, I had taken it upon myself to secure an endorsement from the most powerful organization in our marketplace, and today it had come through—with a bang! Actually, with a far larger bang than any of us had ever hoped or imagined possible.
No wonder we were celebrating. I was on top of the world, and that’s just where the Company was headed, too.
That was when Rich sidled over to me as I was still standing next to our boardroom table, gazing into the middle distance, aglow with quiet satisfaction, while my colleagues drifted back to their offices and the staff began clearing away the remains of the hastily organized celebration. They slipped a couple of unopened, bright-yellow labeled bottles of Veuve Cliquot champagne back into the carton, swept away a few vagrant nuts and chips fallen on the table en route to someone’s mouth, crunched crackly bags now empty of chips into small noisy wads and rammed them into the trash basket, cleared away the glasses we had toasted with and drunk from, began rearranging the chairs to restore board-room orderliness.
He put his hand on my shoulder and leaned in close and spoke intimately, like a good friend would.
He told me it was time to go.
As in: Go away. Leave. For good.
Rehearsal for Retirement
I had kind of “retired” once about four or five years before, in my early sixties, but at that time Patti and I didn’t have money enough to provide sufficient income for us to maintain the way we liked to live. We liked our cottage on the shore of Quincy Bay with our little sailboat bobbing at anchor a few yards off shore, and we liked being able to retreat to our rustic cabin beside a small pond in the Maine woods, and we liked having enough discretionary money to savor a nice bottle of wine with dinner most evenings and to cozy into good restaurants several times a week and to take off for anywhere in the world whenever we felt like—well, at least once a year, anyhow. And we particularly liked having enough money to support the good works others around us were doing through churches and volunteer organizations and various causes devoted to the healing of creation.
But if I gave up earning money entirely back then, something would have to give. As a lifelong entrepreneur of sorts, I had never been part of a company that provided pensions for people like me. Patti’s very modest income as a Presbyterian pastor of a small urban congregation would continue but not suffice even if bolstered by the earnings from our nest egg. Absent some extra income from me, we just wouldn’t have been able to afford “having it all”.
And so, while no longer formally employed as a management consultant, I had rustled up some continuing work as a strategist and executive coach for a few favorite clients of longstanding. That was fine with me. They were glad for my continuing support, and I liked being an advisor, was pretty good at it, and had no hankering for a life of retirement indolence. Pretty soon, the money started tumbling in. I enjoyed an abundant income but still had lots of flexibility in my life, needing to work only five or ten days a month to meet my financial goals. Life was good.
But eventually business got too good. It spoiled my carefully crafted view. I had placed my desk in front of a second-floor window overlooking the waters of Quincy Bay and the islands beyond, situated so I could also see our Cape Dory Typhoon sailboat “Reverie” at its mooring. The too-good business spoiled my view because instead of spending twenty or thirty minutes of any given hour at the desk gazing delightedly at the scene outside and playing with ideas and words in my mind, as had briefly become my custom, I was now ruefully rummaging around in my deskside file cabinet pulling out documents to study or boring into my computer screen to produce a PowerPoint report for the next presentation to a client or juggling the phone and my calendar as the travel agent tried to figure out how I could possibly make it to a morning meeting next Monday in Philadelphia and an afternoon meeting in Detroit and still be back for a board meeting in Boston that same night.
I began to hate the work I loved. I needed either to drop it entirely, or get myself some help. Fortunately, a number of my former colleagues in the area were also recently “at liberty”, for reasons that will become clear later. Bad for them, but very, very good for me. One by one, I invited David and Julia and Sue and Thomas and a few others to collaborate with me on this assignment or that. Before long, I found the work was more manageable thanks to their excellent skills and enthusiasm. They were so good, in fact, that my clients began thinking in more ambitious terms about themselves and about using us. We stretched their vision, and they in turn pulled us deeper into guiding them toward it. We began to accumulate more and more add-on assignments. And since I now had the capacity to produce more work, thanks to their participation, I had no hesitation in welcoming the growing flow of work that came my way.
Business got really, really good. Soon I had a part-time CFO working for me to do payroll and Form 1099s and send out invoices and collect fees, and an administrative assistant to handle office details and coordination of tasks among my team and reorder the stationery and…
Wait a minute! What the heck are these people doing in a spare bedroom on the second floor of our cottage, anyhow? This is not what I had in mind at all.
I realized I was living a secular version of Paul Tillich’s theology of correlation. Tillich proposed a theory that no matter how advanced we become in our thinking about God, the depth of the mystery of God becomes precisely that much more mysterious and impenetrable. The gap can never, ever close.
That’s right where I was. The capabilities that my colleagues brought only meant that I was prey to taking on that much too much more work, keeping myself perennially in that no-man’s-land of not-quite-retired and not-quite-working. And I was back on airplanes again, too. The more our work expanded, my clients—large national and multi-national companies for the most part—began asking me to tend their affairs in far-flung locales, debasing my precious life with even more of the dismal airplane rides and desolate evenings in hotels that had already been a depressing feature of my life as a consultant for far too long.
So I said, “Enough already. I’m going to wind down all these assignments, and from here on out I’ll take only one client at a time—and only a client right here in Boston. One where I can do all the work myself. No more colleagues, no more virtual consulting company. And no more travel.”
I did it. Some assignments we simply wrapped up and deflected any add-on work. Others really needed extended support, and I was able to transfer the client’s principal connection from me over to a colleague who was more than willing to continue the work. I retained only one small engagement for myself, serving as executive coach to a longtime client who had become a good friend.
What about the grand plan for one single Boston client? Right on cue.
The Boston-based client that bubbled up to claim my exclusive attention was a small high-tech company that had invented a medical device with important benefits for patients. Sales had initially surged, but then hit the wall. They asked me if I could help them re-think their strategy, to stimulate more widespread appreciation and acceptance of their technology.
I loved the challenge. Having done most of my consulting and executive work during the preceding thirty years or so with hospitals and physicians, and the corporations who sell to them, I knew the territory all too well. From the first day of their training, doctors are taught to find fault—to diagnose what is wrong, not celebrate what is right. That same approach carries over to their consideration of new products intended for them. Under the best of circumstances, they are initially skeptical. But this was much worse—in this particular case, they got the wrong impression of the product’s purpose and were actually hostile. This was going to be tough. This was going to be fun. I was itching to get at it.
I recruited a couple of former colleagues to work with me on the project, and for six months we analyzed the market for the Company’s machine and then created a strategy which we thought could change the market response for the better.
The Company’s management and Board of Directors agreed that the new strategy seemed promising and enthusiastically adopted it.
That should have ended things.
But it didn’t.
My wife Patti and I had been living in Boston for about seven years at that point, having moved there for a spell after nearly thirty years in Princeton where we had raised our children and enjoyed the unspeakably deep and wonderful friendship of a circle of friends who were truly an extended family for us and our kids. And so, despite the delights of our life in a small cottage on the shores of Quincy Bay just south of Boston, we had recently decided that it was time to move back home to Princeton for the rest of our years.
Well, why would that complicate things? I had just finished the project, hadn’t I?
True. But the CEO of the Company and his colleagues were considerably smarter than typical clients, who think they can buy a brand new strategy and then implement it by a wave of the wand and an authoritative command to make it happen. The thirty-something and early-forty-ish management team at the Company reckoned that they needed some expert coaching (“adult supervision”, they called it) to lead them through the years-long process of realigning the company around a different strategy.
So they asked me to join their management team—to be the executive responsible for strategy and implementation.
This was the last thing in the world that I wanted or needed. We had already sold our seaside house, bought a new home in Princeton, and were literally on our way out of town.
Sorry, I said, but that’s just not in the cards. Let me find you someone here in Boston who can help you.
Well, I guess I hadn’t reckoned on either their determination and persuasiveness, or my own surprising affection for this group of colleagues and the mission they were pursuing.
But I wasn’t about to abort our move home to Princeton. So, I said, how about a compromise. I will agree to join the management team on a half-time basis for a couple of years. Knowing how “part-time” jobs can morph into full-time jobs, we’ll have to put some boundaries around it. So let’s do this: I’ll come up to Boston every other week. I’ll be here Monday through Friday, and then head home for the following week. When I’m here, I’ll be all yours. When I’m in Princeton on alternate weeks, don’t call me and I won’t call you. I want to write more books, and I need to protect the time to concentrate on that. Okay? Okay.
Being away from Patti and our family and other friends in Princeton half the time wasn’t a charming thought to me, but I had by that time already spent massive amounts of time away during my career, week upon week, and in comparison this seemed relatively manageable. Boston and Princeton were at least on the same continent—even in the same time zone.
And so we all agreed on that. I got started, and it was all just as I hoped. The half-time arrangement worked wonderfully.
For about fifteen minutes.
It turns out there was one more thing I hadn’t reckoned on: I don’t do “halfway” very well. Within a couple of months, it was clear that the work was claiming my complete attention, imagination, commitment, and energy. Oh, and time, too.
With a sense of cheerful resignation, I bought an apartment in Boston and ratcheted up to full-time at the Company. Again, this was not unprecedented for me—previous work engagements over the years had necessitated my maintaining apartments at various times in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Santa Monica, and Annapolis. Boston was just one more in the string. So for the next three years I flew to Boston Monday mornings and returned home Thursday night.
I loved every minute of it.
Week by week, month by month, year by year, we began laying down the foundation for the new strategy and creating the activities that would achieve our goals. And it was working. Sales began growing steadily. Then, a bit faster. And finally, toward the end of my third year, one signal event that I was personally managing put a turbo charge into the sales that resulted in nearly doubling the new monitoring systems shipped the following year. A genuine breakthrough. High fives abounded. Champagne was poured. Visions of sugarplums danced in our heads.
“It’s time for you to go,” Rich said. Right in the afterglow of the euphoria. Right while the room was still being put back in order. Right while you could still catch the aroma of the fine champagne scenting the room. Had the man no decency? No sense of timing?
I did a quick double-take and then instantly recognized the truth of his statement. Sure, there was more that I could do there at the company, but making this particular event happen was certain to be the zenith of my contribution to their fortunes. I had unwittingly made myself a tough act for me to follow. And Rich had just nipped in the bud my predictable urge to get right at figuring out how to score an even bigger win.
Just the way a good friend would.
Besides, there were dreams I had deferred in agreeing to work with the Company those last four years, dreams of spending my life writing, dreams that Rich well knew were still calling to me, yearning to be realized in my life.
Everyone should have a friend like Rich. A clinical psychologist whom I had come to know fifteen years earlier when I was in the psychology business myself, he later became a management consultant helping work teams improve their results and satisfaction. I had introduced him into the Company so we could benefit from his talents, and he became our go-to guy for facilitating executive team workshops and coaching key staff. So he knew both this company and me very well when he made his pronouncement.
The truth is that I’m not sure I’d have had either the perspective or the gumption to take the leap without his shove. No, the real truth is that I most definitely wouldn’t have. At that moment, I was enjoying the applause I was getting from my colleagues, and I was enjoying a very comfortable income, and I was anticipating an appreciable rise in the value of my stock holdings in the Company. Even more, I was loathe to walk away from several years’ stock options that had not yet vested which would significantly bolster my retirement nest-egg. Sure, I have always wanted to spend more time writing. But no matter how alluring the prospect of being freed to spend all my future years writing appeared to me, my instinct was to hang on to what I had.
But even so, I knew he was right. It was time to go. It was time to let go.
I met with the CEO and told him of my intention to retire two months hence at the end of the year. Once he accepted the finality of my decision, he quickly countered with a generous plan that would enable me to continue to vest my unvested stock options and remain available to the company pretty much on my own terms, participating in board meetings and planning retreats where large issues are dealt with. The best of all worlds—sort of.
My fat monthly paychecks would vanish in two months. Oh my God.
And with that, I was suddenly looking into the abyss—in just two months, I would be out of there. Naked. Free-floating. Adrift amid my fears and dreams, awash with uncertainty.
Fears, Dreams, and Uncertainty
I have worked continually since I began delivering newspapers at age eight. My parents were very cultured but didn’t have much money—at peak household income, we were solidly middle class, but there were plenty of low points when my father’s architecture practice was skimpy and unpaid bills brought worrisome phone calls and knocks on the door, the milkman seeking even partial payment of “something on the account”. We kids didn’t get allowances. For sixty years, I had known but one formula: if you want any money, you work to get it. For sixty years, I worked non-stop. If I stopped working, would I run out of money?
I felt money-deprived most of my life. As a kid, I was always working, always earning at least a little money. Then, as a teenager, we lived on the fringe of a quite well-to-do neighborhood, and pleasures got costlier. My friends’ parents always seemed to have the ability to do for their kids what mine couldn’t—plenty of pocket money, cars, vacation homes. When outings were planned that cost serious money, I always managed to invent an excuse not to go, in hopes of masking the fact that I simply couldn’t afford it. I always felt one-down on that score.
When Patti and I got married, we were low on dough. She was a teacher of the deaf, and I resumed graduate studies. The budget was tight, but the glow of our new love largely obscured the realities of a few bounced checks and pretty modest cuisine. Fortunately, the leisurely banking system of the era enabled us to escape our lowest moment not only intact but with a kind of triumphant glee that owed as much to having successfully gamed the system as to our delight with the feast we laid for ourselves.
We had moved to the tiny village of Solvang, California, during the summer to take up our work as teachers there in the fall. I would be at the high school, Patti at the elementary school. The locale was Shangri-La itself—charming shops tended by first- and second-generation Danes nestled in a verdant valley high above Santa Barbara sheltered by lush mountains east and west and carpeted with calendar-art-quality meadows and glades, with a perfect river threading itself the length of the picture. Our little apartment was on the bluff next to the river, and life could not have been more promising.
The move didn’t cost much—we had nothing to our names but the wedding gifts we had collected and a mattress and some bedding, all of which fit nicely in a small U-Haul trailer—but when we left our jobs in June, our income stopped. We lived frugally during the move and summer, but still we ran out of money by the end of summer just as school started. Oh, oh. That was when it dawned on us that the Santa Ynez Valley Union School System paid its teachers monthly, at the end of the month. We would not see any money until October.
During the month of September we were almost penniless, delighting in the meals prepared by welcoming colleagues, eating heartily at the PTA reception, vacuuming up the snacks at a bridge party, spending down our last couple of dollars on food that felt filling, like potatoes and rice. With exactly one week left to go before our paychecks would arrive, we were dead broke. Not one cent left.
That night, we sat down to a dinner of potatoes and rice. We had pepper but no salt. Butter? Out of the question. Potatoes and rice. That was it.
Now here is where I must admit to a trace of food snobbery. As we sat at our little table for two by the front window of our apartment picking unenthusiastically at our peppered potatoes and rice, there reposed on the shelf in our kitchen a giant can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli. Like so many things in our early married life, this was a gift from Patti’s parents who never failed to bring food when they came to visit.
But somehow neither of us could stomach the thought of canned ravioli. Who knows why? What kind of proud fools would sit dispiritedly poking the tines of their forks at potatoes and rice when they could have been smacking away at tomato-saucy ravioli? Our kind of fools, I guess. So we left the can there in the pantry where it belonged. (We kept that can for about ten years, carrying it with us from home to home as a smug, defiant symbol: we will never, ever be so poor that we have to eat this, we kept saying. One hot summer day a decade after it came into our lives, we discovered the can burst open on the pantry shelf, slimy red sauce oozing from the split seam. We shuddered to think about what dismal fermentation process had been festering inside all those years.)
But the next day after our peppered-potatoes-and-rice repast, we realized we had to do something clever, or maybe we’d be rationing out a few ravioli a day for the rest of the week. So I called the local bank to find out how many days it took a locally cashed paper check to be mailed to the inter-bank clearing center, then be forwarded by the clearing center to our old bank in Fresno where we still had an account. Then we did some calculation. Bingo! If we were to write a check today on our totally depleted bank account in Fresno, we could buy food! Once we got our paychecks six days later, we could scurry to the local bank and wire a deposit to the bank in Fresno which should arrive exactly one day before the ready-to-bounce check did, to cover it.
That night we feasted on lamb chops and asparagus and French bread with butter and bowls of butter pecan ice cream sloshed with hot fudge sauce. No food before or since ever tasted better.
There is a rather pesky connection between paychecks and eating, and between paychecks and working. When my friend Rich called the question of my retirement there in the board room, I was working. I was making plenty of money. I liked the work. And I liked the money. And the food and everything else it bought.
Why would anybody in their right mind ever mess that up, I wondered. Why would anybody ever want to risk falling back into the bad old days when somebody comes to the house asking for something on the account, or there’s nothing but potatoes and rice on the plate. Why would anybody volunteer for financial peril. Why, why, why?
My friend and former colleague Roger would know why I was feeling that way. He is a brilliant psychiatrist who created a computer-based process for doing brief psychotherapy—a few sessions in which the client interacts with the computer to figure out what is stressing them out and how to change things for the better. Each session at the computer prompts a chain if reflection that enables the client to gain deeper and deeper insight into the source of their stress, the action they could take to relieve the stress, and—most importantly—why they find it so difficult to take that stress-relieving action. It is an extraordinary process, and it really works.
One of the human instincts that Roger helps clients contend with is the urge to take past experience and project it forward, as though it were a prediction of the future. And, of course, that is exactly what I was doing. No work = no income = humiliation at the hands of bill collectors.
Now, I’m not stupid. I could do the math. If I took the value of our investments at that point, and assumed a modest rate of investment return, that return would equal the amount of money we were living on—and a bit more to ensure that our nest-egg stayed ahead of inflation. This I knew, in my head.
I knew it because about ten times a day I’d log onto one website or another and run the numbers on some retirement-income calculator. No matter how many “what if” scenarios I ran, I couldn’t make the numbers come out badly for us short of a total collapse of the stock market.
And even then—even if we lost all our nest egg—we could still retreat to our little cabin in the Maine woods and live there in serenity and security. Much-reduced security, to be sure, but it was a place where I always felt utterly safe from any threat. And it was paid for, just like everything else we had. No mortgages, no car payments, nothing owed to anybody. Worst case, we could hunker down there and live on our social security checks and Patti’s eventual pension from the Presbyterian church. Her pension wouldn’t be much—about a thousand dollars a month—but as always, the steady income she provided over the years was a powerful safety net that had enabled me to take the risks I had taken.
As for me, there was no pension in sight. The little companies I had founded or co-founded never grew to the size where they might offer lifetime pensions of the sort that friends enjoyed after working their entire careers for major corporations nearby. These lucky ones could relax and enjoy very large incomes and comprehensive healthcare benefits from the day they retired until the day they died, and I always felt a twinge of envy about that.
But it was never much more than a twinge. I had cherished the risk-taking that Patti’s income and my own derring-do made possible. I guess it was just part of my DNA, even if it did ultimately cost me the security of a pension. Whenever my work life began to lose its sizzle, I started getting itchy. In the contest between adventure and security, the outcome was never in doubt.
That I was able to indulge my vocational wanderlust is testament to Patti’s unfailing support despite a personal inclination that was more oriented toward predictability—a pattern her father modeled as a 35-year employee of a public utility company. (Patti also had to contend with the futility of fulfilling to my mother’s forlorn hope expressed to her the day before our marriage: “I hope you’ll be able to give Eliot roots.” Yeah. Right. Good luck. Within a few years, Patti realized she just had to lay that one to rest.)
My children also acknowledged that idiosyncrasy in me, even though it no doubt caused them more insecurity than they might have hoped. One evening we were all sitting around in front of the fire and decided to come up with a metaphor for each of us that would capture the essence of the person. They decided that the right metaphor for me was “bungee jumper”.
That fit. I was indeed always clambering up to places from where I had a pretty good view and then, inexplicably, leaping off into the void. But why not? Whenever I got up to one of those places, I couldn’t imagine just, sort of, well, just standing there forever. I mean, what was the point of having gotten up there if not to take advantage of the freedom to plunge into space? It’s sort of like cross-country skiing. Once you’ve overcome gravity by your arduous climb up the mountain, why not use it to power a thrilling plunge back down so you can feel the wind in your face and see what happens.
For a long while, I felt guilty about my cycle of starting something new and then bailing out when it started to feel routine. But the truth is that I only enjoyed the leaps, not the jiggling around afterward. My joy sparked off imagining something new and trying to make it real, not in tending it afterward. Once I realized that there are others who love the tending and hate the leaping, I felt better about it.
Now the truth is that neither my leaps nor those of a bungee jumper are nearly as daring as they seem to onlookers. Yes, you initially scream with fright—aloud or inside—but you have a pretty good idea that just before you go Splat! something is going to save you. It may be an elastic cord tied to your ankles, or, in my case, the knowledge that you’ve been here before, dropping like a stone through economic space, but then creating a cushion of income just before you go totally busted.
Knowing you can invent your own source of income is a very powerful comfort. I compare it to knowing how to build a house, which is something I learned involuntarily when I was fourteen, serving as conscripted labor for my father who decided that my older brother and I would help him build a house for his mother. We did it all—dug trenches for the foundations, built the plywood forms and oiled them, then mixed and poured the cement for the concrete floor, laid cast iron sewer pipe and melted the lead we tamped into the seams over pungent hemp caulking that smoked acridly under the hot lead, framed the walls and roof, stuffed itchy rock wool insulation in the walls and ceiling, hand-drilled the studs and rafters to string the electrical wires and installed the junction boxes, threaded and cranked the network of water pipes together, laid the flooring, paneled the walls, tarred the roof.
I hated every second of it. Fresno, California, is hotter than hell in summer, when we did most of it. Meanwhile my friends were high up in the cool Sierras at lakeside cottages, waterskiing and partying, or languishing on the seaside beaches of the Monterey peninsula swept by breezes flowing across the breaking combers of the Pacific Ocean, where their more affluent parents had summer homes they retreated to, places where motorboats or surfing were the order of the day, not wrestling in torrid heat with splintery 2X4s and pebbly black sewer pipe too hot to handle without gloves. Actually, too hot to handle with gloves.
Hate it I did. But ever since, I have carried with me the knowledge that nothing could ever go too wrong in my life. I could, if I ever had to, actually build myself and my family the shelter needed to survive in this world. That is a truly profound comfort, strange as it may sound.
But all those pep talks to myself—the retirement-income calculations, the self-sufficiency experiences—didn’t lay a glove on my free-floating anxiety about whether we’d have enough to live on. I proved impervious to any lasting comfort at all from the financial calculations. No matter how many times I ran the numbers, the answers it gave penetrated only my brain, not my gut. And those two seemed not to be communicating with each other. Sure you have enough money to maintain your current lifestyle, declared my head. How are you going to like it when you can’t afford to do what all your friends are doing, whispered my gut.
I was not feeling any other fears. One fear I specifically did not experience was the oft-touted “loss of identity” that reportedly afflicts many retirees. I could see how that might affect someone who had spent their entire career at J&J or GE or IBM and had the 25-year pin and the gold watch and all that. Or what if somebody had run the same ice cream shop or haberdashery on Palmer Square or the hardware store on Witherspoon Street for a whole working lifetime, maybe even having taken it over from their own parents. Now there I could see an identity problem in the offing. Who are you, once you pry yourself away from that kind of lifelong association with a particular company or role in the community? Yes, these kinds of single-career folks might indeed have an identity problem.
Not me, however.
My “career”, such as it was, resembled a dog’s breakfast—scraps of this and that carried forward from prior feasts, all jumbled together in a fifty-year long span of work: teaching, chaplaincy, parish ministry, TV and records and publishing, philanthropic management, healthcare strategy, computerized psychotherapy, corporate productivity, organizational development and learning, high-tech medical devices.
I occasionally compose axioms that I post near my desk. Early in my work life one read: “Never stop changing until you can say, ‘Now I am doing what I was born to do.'” If I had an “identity” at all, it was as someone who followed that dictum pretty relentlessly. In the course of following it, I had come to realize that there was no one thing to be doing that would be the permanent answer. Rather, that many would rise to intrigue me, lure me, challenge me, and then either bore me or disappoint me or suddenly pale in comparison with a new brainstorm. Whichever eventuated, I was a person whose identity was rooted in perpetual change. So this was just one more of those thresholds into the unknown—or so it seemed.
I learned about my somewhat fickle tastes in vocation early on. When I was twenty, I was offered an opportunity to do a leveraged buyout of a charcoal company in the San Joaquin Valley. A local agribusiness tycoon I knew through sailing had acquired it almost inadvertently as part of a group of companies he bought that would expand his agricultural-fertilizer empire. It didn’t fit, and he somehow felt that I might be the right guy to take it off his hands. To that end, he made me an exceptionally attractive offer to buy it from him out of the well-established profit stream of the company. Pretty appealing. Twenty years old. Two million dollars in revenues. Own it outright in about six or seven years. Okay, let’s go.
But there was one little problem in leaving school to manage a charcoal company: at the time, young men like me were being drafted into the military unless they were enrolled in college or had already served in the service. Would he keep the offer open until I could take care of that problem? Yes.
So by mutual agreement I dropped out of college to go into the army for six months of active duty, which would protect me from being drafted into the military at a later point that would disrupt my management of the company.
But the army seemed to be more interested in keeping my body busy than keeping my mind occupied, and I had a lot of time to think during those six months. And I thought that I didn’t want to abandon my college education to become a businessman. There was still too much to explore, and I feared channeling myself into a mundane box from which I might never emerge. So shortly before my discharge, I said “Thanks, but no, thanks” and re-enrolled in college.
Okay, I’ve already got two big changes under my belt. Trading college for charcoal-fueled prosperity, and trading that for a chance to keep my mind and options charged up. I could get used to this kind of gymnastics.
So it felt pretty natural, seven months later, to bail out of the promising job in outdoor advertising I had taken right out of college in June, in order to return to graduate school in February to secure a teaching credential—a direct result of the deep and extensive meaning-of-life conversations I was having with Patti en route to our marriage. (We had met in early November, talked ’round the clock for eight days, and decided then and there to get married, which we did three months later.)
And two years later, it was even easier to leave my job as a high school teacher and counselor to enter theological seminary for three years where I could simultaneously pursue my interests in theology and psychology.
More change, just two years after graduating from seminary. Declining an invitation to continue for a third year my role as a chaplain and teacher in the department of religion of a small New England college, I opted for becoming a staff minister at a robust church in Princeton where it seemed I might be able to play a more influential role in the shaping of American society then undergoing profound and traumatic revolution rife with assassinations, urban riots, drugs, Vietnam-war protests, and inter-generational mistrust.
Three years later I knew that I had to change some more—that the life of a parish pastor was not going to accommodate the range and recklessness of ambition that was festering in me. Most importantly, it did not seem likely to afford the opportunity to express myself through writing and television-based contributions to society. And so I packed up once more and moved to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”.
By now, the inevitability of change was not a problem for me. It was in fact at the very core of my identity. Far from thinking of myself as part of any particular organization, I guess I thought of myself as a kind of pilgrim willing to quest after whatever seemed worth pursuing next. That mindset persisted for another forty years—and counting.
Of course I realized and occasionally paid passing tribute to the worrisome potential—jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none, Quixotic dilettante, ne’er do well, and all the rest. But those were transient flashes I dismissed, perhaps all too easily.
So there it was. “Identity”? No big deal. Certainly it was not going to be an issue in my retirement at any rate, and definitely not something I was going to waste any time on.
If cause for other fears existed, they’d have been hard-pressed to shoulder their way into my fretful consciousness anyway. I was too busy calculating how to mollify the bill collectors sure to descend on us, and how to mask our destitution from the judgmental scrutiny Princeton society. (I knew that our circle of dear friends would be highly sympathetic and not revise their assessment of us as we became poverty-stricken, but—my lifelong feelings of second-class financial status still being operative somewhere deep inside—I was far less certain how charitable others would be in their regard of the now-fallen Daleys.)
When the fears felt corrosive, I’d comfort myself with the dream of writing. Writing books, writing OpEds, writing letters to the editor, maybe even writing a play or a novel. I have loved words and loved writing for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I have loved creative expression a bit too much. The first time I submitted my Masters’ degree thesis, it was rejected with a terse condemnation scribbled across the title page: “This has literary merit.” Meaning: strip out the expressive language and replace it with academic jargon, buster. Apart from that little misstep, writing has always served me well in my continuing quest to understand what my life is about. I even managed to scrape together enough pre-dawn solitary hours during the ’70s and ’80s to write two books of autobiography that gave me immense satisfaction.
Satisfaction not in their being published, but in the writing of them. It’s always nice to “be in print”, and my books were published by first-rank houses. But nice as that was, it paled beside what happens when I do what I’m doing right now. Apart from interactions with my family and other friends, the act of writing is the most precious realization of life that I experience. When writing, I am discovering my very life in the process. I discover what I am thinking and what I am feeling and what I am yearning for. I learn what I need to understand about people around me and about the way the world is working (or not). I marvel at this tumbling free-fall into realms of memory and mystery and insight I could never hope to enter any other way.
When we moved back to Princeton, we bought a place that had a detached garage out back. There was a small, many-windowed room appended to the garage extending into the garden. The previous owner had used it as a repair shop for the motorcycles he raced. I turned it into a comfortable place where I could write. Patti dubbed it my “studio”, and after I had installed my computer on the desk there, the first words I wrote on it were these: “I am writing these words as the first-ever in this space to remind me what the real purpose of this room is—a place for my writing—and so that I won’t have gotten it (and me) off onto the wrong foot by doing something utilitarian here instead.”
I would later learn, first in melancholy and then in anger, how flimsy these hopeful words proved to be as a barrier to insidious, self-inflicted incursions on my dream of a life spent writing, writing, writing.
But at that moment, the dream of writing, writing, writing was unquestionably the most forceful lure of being retired. The truth is that I had dreamed of being a writer most of my adult life. As a young man, I had written some articles for major consumer magazines like TV Guide and Look, had my letters to editor published in Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, and managed to cobble together the two books which a superb literary agent and a couple of major publishers found worthy of taking to print. Every time I changed careers (some half-dozen times anyhow) I had a fresh surge of passion for writing and each time again considered making that my primary occupation.
But the powerful undercurrent of pessimism about making a living—”everybody knows” you can’t make a living as a writer—was always sufficient to shunt me away. And because I always had a few new ideas about how to make a living, and because they always seemed worth pursuing, I had became a kind of serial entrepreneur instead. From those earliest changes every two or three years, my lifelong work had evolved as a series of relatively brief lunges into something I knew nothing about, a year or two of struggle before establishing sound footing and achieving some modicum of viability, and then that curve-of-diminishing-return period where the income remained okay but my interest waned.
I came close to basing my life on writing once. Early in my career, I was a parish minister. I was writing on the side in the pre-dawn hours, having developed a special interest in the impact of TV on family life and children’s lives. I did a number of articles about the subject, conducted some workshops, and began to think that I could transition from the ministry to writing as my primary vocation. I presented an overture to the ruling body of the congregation I served, asking to reduce my commitment to half time so that I could write the other half of my time. I felt that this would provide me with some stability of income to augment Patti’s income, but free me to devote the vast majority of my time to writing.
Alas, they said “No”.
But then a miracle happened. One of the articles I had written a year before was about a young minister in Pittsburgh who had created an extraordinary TV program for children. I had secured a videotape of it at the urging of friends who had visited Pittsburgh and seen it there. I was stunned. It was the most subtle, sophisticated, quietly dramatic use of the medium of TV I had ever seen. As one who had studied quite a bit of child psychology, I found myself just dazzled by the power of this insipid-appearing half hour visit between a very gentle man and (seemingly) one single child somewhere in front of a TV.
The man was Fred Rogers and the program, of course, was “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. After I had seen the videotape and realized I just had to write an article about him, I called him. The following weekend, Patti and our kids and I had driven to Pittsburgh to meet Fred. During our weekend with him and his family, Fred and I pretty much fell in love with each other and, afterward, developed a phone-pal relationship in which we would spend long hours thinking and dreaming about all the ways young children could be better served through the medium of television.
Then on one of those calls he opened a door to Paradise: “Eliot,” he said, “it looks like we’re going to get some major funding from Sears, Roebuck. Enough to enable us to expand the production of the program by a great deal. As you know, we’re making seventeen programs a year now. I think we can expand that to sixty-five programs every year, and be in just about all the public television stations around the country.”
Wow, I said. Congratulations!
“But,” Fred continued, “I’d need a lot of help. We’d need to create our own independent production company. And of course, it would mean writing more than three times as many scripts.”
“So I was wondering if you would like to join me in our work here. I was thinking that maybe you could help me out on the creative side of the program, with the scripts, and then could help manage the company, too.”
Talk about a dream come true! What could be more perfect? My intense concern for the impact of TV on children, my passionate love for writing, my limitless admiration for Fred’s pioneering use of the medium to be present for children as a genuine catalyst of their development—all converged in that instant and came out “Yes!” We moved to Pittsburgh a few months later.
And my first couple of years with Fred were all that dreamlike and more. I was writing scripts in the morning and tending to the affairs of the company in the afternoon.
The writing was magical. Once I had an idea for a week’s programs (all five programs in each week were designed to develop a single theme such as sibling rivalry, or separation anxiety, or controlling impulses, or whatever), I would meet with our principal psychological adviser, Dr. Margaret McFarland. Director of a renowned child-development study center, Margaret was perhaps the most insightful student of preschool children’s inner life and behavior in the world. Fortunately for Fred and me, she lived in Pittsburgh and had become his mentor—and soon became mine, too.
Margaret’s expertise went beyond her understanding of the young child; she was also a master at making that child’s inner life vivid and dramatic to others. Once presented with the intended theme for the week, Margaret would weave a rich tapestry of the dynamics of an infant’s evolving sense of the world and self, illustrating exactly how that particular phenomenon I wanted to address emerges and eventually plays itself out in the life of a preschooler. I would leave those two-hour, one-on-one poetic tutorials with her bursting with information and inspiration to pour out through the week’s scripts.
Typically, I would be awakened the following morning about 4AM by the muse shaking me gently. Arise, she seemed to say. I have something you need to deliver for me.
And I would dutifully walk to my study, slip a fresh piece of paper into my typewriter, and let my fingers fly around unconsciously on the keyboard as she dictated. I was in an out-of-body state, watching with amazement, amusement, and delight as words appeared on the paper. They surprised me, impressed me, sometimes actually prompted a laugh out loud as I typed a line of dialogue for one puppet character or another that pinged my funny bone.
When I finished a script, typically around late morning, I always felt euphoric. I would head for the kitchen to say share my excitement with Patti and brew up a cup of coffee.
“Wow!” I’d exclaim. “That is a great script! I love it!”
Wonderful, she’d reply, and ask what it was about.
“Uh, uh, hmmmmm, ah…,” I’d stammer around, stalling for time. But I quickly learned that it was hopeless. The whole process had been unconscious. I hadn’t a clue. Then I’d head out of kitchen aimed for my study, calling back over my shoulder, “I can’t remember. Let me go check.”
I never talked much about that strange experience, because I always feared that it would sound either totally wacko or unspeakably pretentious, as though I were ascribing to myself writerly qualities that I didn’t have the right to claim.
(I guess I secretly knew I was a writer because of the way the scripts happened for me, but it wasn’t until years later that I accepted the label, as authorized by a “real” writer—a Princeton friend who is world-famous for his work. He listened to me describe, with some embarrassment, my silly little rituals of arranging things in my studio to get them “just right” before I could write. His instant, matter-of-fact response: “Okay. That’s it. You’re a writer.”)
I suppose my being a writer was true long before he validated me, on the basis of both my behavior and his generous reading of my manuscripts. But something like that is true only to the extent that one makes it true, by persistent devotion to doing it. And at “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, I eventually sacrificed my writing to addressing the challenges of management which also captured my imagination. In due course I found myself leading the creation of a sister company which required a good deal of my time. Soon I was president of the parent company, and executive vice-president of the sister company. And soon thereafter we decided that Princeton was our true home and relocated back to there, bringing one of the two companies with me.
Suddenly, I was primarily an executive running a corporation in Princeton and sufficiently far out of the loop in Pittsburgh where the programs were being produced to make my continued writing of scripts an impossibility. To truly reflect the essence of Fred and the spirit of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, they needed to grow out of my daily, organic interaction with Fred and Margaret, and I had severed that link.
Yes, I had been a writer, part-time anyhow, once long ago, but I let it slip away.
Now, as I anticipated retirement, I had a clear vision: I could write to my heart’s content, every day—in prime-time daylight, instead of in the pre-dawn hours I had previously scrounged to scratch out my occasional pieces. Suddenly I stood on the threshold of reclaiming a dream long deferred. The very thought of it brought tears to my eyes.
So my toxic fear about impending poverty and humiliation was still corrosively present, but my intense dream of writing to my heart’s content was there as salve. They dueled incessantly, sometimes one ascendant, sometimes the other. They proved not quite evenly matched, since my fear was stronger than my confidence that the writing would ever really happen. I could live with the near-balance, however. Not perfect, but very tolerable.
The duel between fears of poverty and dreams of writing continued unabated. But there was more noise in my head, too—plenty of other things about retirement that seemed uncertain, or even inadvisable. For starters, what was I to do with the treasury of expertise I had amassed over the past three or four decades after I concluded my work with Fred Rogers? I had gone on to co-found some consulting companies, the most important of which provided strategic counsel for healthcare organizations. Along the way, I had developed a pretty sophisticated understanding of how the world of health care functioned—and malfunctioned. I had organized and participated in many top-level conferences. I had accumulated a network of friends throughout the industry who were movers and shakers, and who routinely connected me with other movers and shakers when that was called for. I had some genuine capacity to make things happen for the better.
If I retired, what was to become of all that? Abandon it? Just shove my whole professional life into the trash basket? Ridiculous! I was at the height of my powers. Every single day at work I was leveraging decades of experience and insight and relationships. I could make things happen with relative ease that, early in my career, I would have killed to be able to do. Walk away? Consign all these precious assets to the dustbin? No! What a waste! Makes no sense whatsoever.
I also wondered about losing my support system at the Company. How would I fare without Susan who made my travel arrangements, who pleasantly badgered me to file my expense reports before the deadline, who knew me well enough to know to remind me about all the stuff I typically forget, who told me which room my meeting was in, who wised me up to all manner of goings-on. And the computer-support guys, who were just a couple of steps or a phone call away to bail me out when I did something confounding on my machine that needed rectifying or when I couldn’t figure out how to make something happen.
What about the flow of stimulation? I absolutely love seeing new problems or possibilities rumbling down the conveyor belt toward me. This is my favorite way to use my brain—snatching up something that’s headed this way and dealing with it. The world of healthcare has been fraught with problems in recent decades that were constantly exhilarating to contend with. Would I be drifting off into a vacuous wasteland where there wasn’t much to do, where there wouldn’t be such a stream of stimuli to respond to? I recalled the effect when our youngest child went off to college, when the house grew eerily quiet and we suddenly realized how much we had come to depend on the kids to import new things into our lives—new music, new fashions, new opinions, new outrages. No more. Patti and I had had to make a conscious effort to develop new sources of innovative thinking and surprising experiences to keep us from sliding into a sorry life of re-treading golden oldies. Was I easing myself off into a sensory deprivation tank called retirement?
And what about the noble cause? Not only the cause of healthcare, but the cause of patient safety in which I had become especially active. What about that? This stuff really matters! Was I going to just quit on it? Leave a hole in the phalanx of beleaguered troops trying to stave off incompetence and incoherence in the world of healthcare? Rumbles of disloyalty were heard roiling in my gut.
Questions about my dedication to societal wellbeing surfaced from other nether regions within me as well. Images of my mother materialized to shame me—she who at age 79 was managing thirty-odd professionals who staffed the victim and witness assistance program in San Francisco, then headed off after work to spend another twenty hours a week doing political organizing.
Worse, those images morphed into visions of Patti’s relentless devotion to her ministry, her tireless caring for parishioners and strangers alike, her utterly selfless giving of her love and her life. Dubbed “Public Energy #1” by her high school classmates, she had just completed yet another blessedly successful tenure as the pastor of an urban congregation. Now she was unobtrusively spending fifty or sixty hours a week catalyzing the success of non-profit boards and church committees she chaired while still finding opportunities to tend the sick and dying, lead the lost toward the light at the end of the tunnel, create sermons and worship experiences that revealed the presence of God in people’s lives.
The face in the mirror began an inquisition: How about you, Eliot? What are you going to do now? Play tennis and golf all day, for crying out loud? Fritter away your energy and talent and time on nonsensical claptrap? Welch on your commitment to leaving the world better than you found it? Yuk! You make me sick.
Wait a minute! Wait a minute, I pleaded with myself. I’m not going to just dope off. I have things I’m going to do. Valuable things. Really, I do!
Yeah, sure, tell me about it.
Thanksgiving came and went. I sold the Boston apartment in late November. The Christmas holidays approached. My transition to retirement was happening whether I completely wanted it or not.
The fears and uncertainties went underground in the flurry of holiday activities and the arrangements for my resettling my workday life in Princeton. But while they may have disappeared, they didn’t die. They just lay dormant until I had time to pay more attention to them.
Or until they could unexpectedly rise up to play a spoiler role, just in case I got too happy in retirement.
Relief and Unbelief
I became a free man on January 1, 2005. But January 1, 2005, was much like any other New Year’s Day—sleeping late after much sedate revelry, flipping on the TV to see the latest extravagant floats in the Rose Parade, laying a fire for late afternoon watching of the Rose Bowl game. And the following day was a Sunday, so my freedom didn’t show up until Monday, January 3.
I slept late that day, too.
Doesn’t sound like much of a wake-up call to freedom, but it felt that way to me. Until that Monday, I had set an alarm just about every Monday of my adult life except for vacation days, rolling out of bed to hit the highway for a dawn flight somewhere, or if I was already where I’d be working that day, to head out early for a run or a workout or some tennis before showing up for work around 8:30AM. Plenty of mornings my alarm had gone off at 4AM or shortly thereafter, so I could be on a plane a couple of hours later. (Many years ago I learned about wrist watches with alarms that vibrate rather than ring, so I was able to be awakened and slip out of bed without waking Patti on the ridiculously early mornings.)
But that day a beam of sunlight fell through our bedroom window onto the bed and woke me around 7AM. It hadn’t occurred to me to close the louvers on our bedroom windows Sunday night to block the next morning’s sun, because on Mondays I had always been up long before it streamed onto our bed. The first hint of adjustments to come.
I lay in bed that morning of January 3, 2005, for long, long time. I read the paper a bit. I rolled over and cat-napped for a few extra minutes. I stretched under the quilt and luxuriated in the warmth of the bed and the seemingly timelessness of the quiet morning. I lay there for several hours, actually.
Then I slipped into my workout gear and went to the gym. I have never loved going to the gym, but I do love how much better I feel after I work out. And I really dislike how I feel when I don’t stay fit. (I have been overweight all my life, but I have also maintained a pretty fair level of athletic conditioning by staying fairly active.) So my gym workouts have always been rather perfunctory: get there, do the minimum required to break a sweat and maintain some fitness, get the hell out of there and take a shower.
Not this time. I spent two and a half hours at the gym that day. I did every single workout activity my trainer had prescribed for me months before—most of which I had usually skipped or did with only minimum effort. And I stretched before, between, and after each exercise. (What is less rewarding than stretching, anyhow?) As I dug farther and farther into my exercise routine that day, I began to think: Hey, this is pretty important. And it feels pretty good. Maybe your number one job these days is to keep your body healthy and fit. So maybe you need to plan on a couple of hours a day here every day, doing just that. What the heck, why not? You’ve got the time.
And with that, my new calendar of activities-in-retirement was inscribed with a couple of hours a day, five days a week, for gym workouts.
When I eventually rolled out of bed the following morning, I felt curiously disoriented, as though I was looking at familiar surroundings but through a mirror. Something was askew, or missing, or… It was like I had gotten up from somewhere else, come into the bedroom, and when I got there realized I had totally forgotten why I had come in there in the first place. Something’s just right there, on the tip of my mind, but I can’t quite grasp it.
Then it hit me: I don’t owe anybody anything.
Once it hit me, I said it to myself over and over in my head—I don’t owe anybody anything—and then I just said it quietly out loud: “I don’t owe anybody anything.”
I wasn’t talking about money, of course, although that was true, too. We had no mortgages or car payments or anything, having paid cash for everything we bought in recent years. This was much, much more important than not owing money.
I did not have to produce anything. I did not have to satisfy any expectation of anybody anywhere any time. I did not have to prove anything. I could not possibly disappoint anyone. There was nothing I had to do. No problem to solve. No contacts to make. No strategy to develop. No presentation to create. No mistake to rectify. No client or colleague to persuade. Nobody. Nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada.
I was truly free.
It felt like the first day of the rest of my life. Or, more accurately, like the first day of an entirely new life, because I couldn’t remember and couldn’t conceive of life without obligations, without deliverables. From the earliest working days delivering newspapers in the hills of Montclair to the final working days of delivering a carefully prepared presentation to a Board of Directors, I had never known a time when I wasn’t thinking about what I had to produce next. Even on vacations, impending deliverables were always humming away at the root of my brain impatiently urging me to hoist myself up out of my sloping Adirondack chair and get back to my desk.
But that morning? Not a blip of incoming expectations anywhere on my radar screen. I was free. Truly free.
Dealing with Money
Those first few months were also heavily preoccupied with money. Some of my preoccupation—the emotional part, the fear of penury—was totally unnecessary, from a rational perspective. But since when has rationality played any role at all in my life with money. Rather, this felt like another bungee jump, but one that I really didn’t want. Here I was in free fall, my financial life flashing before my eyes, all my financial missteps whirling into view as prophets bespeaking a bleak future, with no confidence this time that the fall would be broken before the Splat!
The only antidote to this morbid preoccupation with financial disaster was to become highly pragmatic, to employ myself full-time in making the necessary arrangements to secure our monthly income, and for the management of our retirement nest egg.
This was in many respects foreign territory for me. With the exception of the first year or two of my entrepreneurial start-ups, I’ve usually produced a fair amount of income. And Patti’s income has been rock-steady throughout, which was a major reason I have felt free to take some of the risks I did with my own income stream. But I’ve never been “good with money” as they say. Quite the contrary.
I had been a spender. I always had a wish-list festering in my brain, always scanning the horizon for the next car, for the next gadget, for the next remodeling project, for a summer cottage somewhere, for a boat, for a bigger TV—the whole lamentable litany of consumerism. I was a first-string player in the American game of spend-up-to-your-gills-and-then-work-your-butt-off-to-stay-even.
And then, of course, we had kids whose needs were not inconsequential. One by one all three peeled off and went to college—to the same very expensive college. As fate would have it, our income was too high for them to quality for any financial aid—but wasn’t nearly high enough to enable us to pay twelve years of Ivy League tuitions that overlapped into a ten-year span. Oh, and then there were a couple of years of prep school tuitions in there somewhere along the line.
We regularly raided our home equity to stay even, and toward the end of that time we sold our beloved summer cottage on an island on the coast of Maine when I was in one of my first-years-of-a-new-venture income dips, to cover tuitions and provide start-up funding for my then-current leap into the unknown. That hurt.
As a result of my urge to spend, I never saved anything. I didn’t have any investments. I was cruising along on the careless assumption that at some magic moment I would produce a copious amount of money which would pile up faster than I could spend it, and that would be our retirement fund.
Thank God Mitch felt differently. He was my business partner and soul mate for more than ten years when, in the late ’70s and through the ’80s, we built a reasonably successful consulting company together. It addition to our taking home comfortable incomes, Mitch was insistent that we create a retirement program. He was “good with money”. And so we parked some money each year in personal investment funds earmarked for retirement. I’m sure I’d rather have boosted my spendable income by that amount instead—there was always the next as-yet-unbought thing on my wish-list, you know—but he was adamant about our banking something for the long term.
So we parked our retirement monies with a presumably astute investment manager in Princeton and went about our business. I for one paid little attention to what our advisor was doing with the money. He seemed a very bright sort, and since my own understanding of finance and investing was rather pathetic, I had little to bring to any serious discussion of what should be done with the money. Besides, I’ve always been inclined—too inclined, as it turns out—to defer to putative experts in fields that I feel totally ignorant about it. (One of those little “life lessons” that validate the old axiom: “Experience is what you get just after you needed it.”)
Anyhow, it was a darned good thing we did what Mitch insisted, because my next three ventures were very costly.
At some point I tired of the consulting work we were doing and felt it was time for me to move on to a new chapter in my life. Mitch and I agreed on a buy-out of my interest in the firm, and I gradually extricated myself from the company over the course of the next year. With a five-year flow of money due to come my way from the buy-out, I felt no panic about replacing my regular income. I had the luxury of taking my time to consider what to do next.
Someone wiser than me about money—that would be almost anybody—might have taken a different attitude toward the buy-out money. They would have seen that as one of those rare lumps of dough that should be laid away untouched to be a major cornerstone of one’s retirement fund. Left to grow at a decent rate, and with the hyper-growth of the go-go ’90s, it would have been a pretty significant nest egg some fifteen or twenty years later. Certainly such a wiser person would not have been so leisurely about securing a new source of income.
Nor would they have used the pay-out money to supplement and subsidize the too-paltry income I was willing and seemingly able to accept in my next venture. But at the time, it seemed like a good idea. After all, the new company was a can’t-miss blockbuster-in-the-making, wasn’t it?
The company had been started ten years before, with funds I had made available to the founder through a philanthropic foundation I was advising at the time. During the ’80s, Roger (the brilliant psychiatrist) had created and refined and proven the efficacy of a computer-based program of psychotherapy. The computer served up a series of one-hour sessions for the client, leading the client through a series of simple-appearing questions and choices. Simple appearing, perhaps, but like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, built on a highly sophisticated web of interlacing dynamics that would lead the client to clarity about their life and how to change for the better. Each of these questions and steps helped the computer weave a profile of the client’s situation and enable the client to identify where they were “stuck”, recognize what action they needed to take to get un-stuck, understand what inhibited their taking that action, and transcend their inner resistance to taking that step.
After ten years of research and development his program was ready for prime time. During that time, Roger and I had stayed in close touch and had become really good friends. Now he asked me if I’d be willing to become president of his company and help build a business based on the process.
What could be more natural? I felt like a kind of godfather to the company anyhow, I loved Roger, I knew how to create winning strategies for new products, and I had a longstanding passion for psychology. (In my 20s, I was on the verge of entering a program for a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Instead, I went to a seminary and majored in psychology there, while simultaneously earning a master’s degree heavy in educational psychology at another school.) What is more, I knew that the emergence of “managed care” in the health industry was sure to impose new strictures of cost-efficiency on mental health services at some point, just as they were already doing with medical and surgical costs. Roger’s process would be well positioned to satisfy those demands.
Sure, I said to Roger. I’d love to make a business out of this with you. But just one proviso: my home is in Princeton, and you and your team are in Santa Monica. I’m not moving. So if you’re willing to keep on developing the process and product with your team in California while I build a corporate marketing team in Princeton and run the business from here, let’s do it.
And so we did.
Shortly thereafter, Roger and I traded coasts.
As the Princeton office started to drum up some interest, Roger and his wife decided to buy an apartment in New York City from which base she could continue her career as a television reporter and he could participate more in the business affairs here. They began spending large amounts of time in the east.
Meanwhile, we secured a contract with a managed-care company that arranged mental health services for the employees of their large corporate client—and both the managed-care company and the corporate employees just happened to be located in southern California. We were to be a primary source of clinical services. So I wound up taking an apartment in Santa Monica to oversee the development of a chain of clinics where we would offer our computer-based psychotherapy (which included brief pre- and post-computer consultations with licensed therapists). Shortly, I was spending two-thirds of my time there.
That’s why commuting to Boston didn’t seem like such a big deal.
Within a few years, we had five clinics running, and the internet was visible over the horizon as a vehicle for dramatically expanding the delivery of our program. Now it was time to go get some big bucks to roll this thing out.
All the while, both Roger and I had been taking very modest salaries, relying on our wives’ incomes—and, in my case, using my buy-out payments—to round out our households’ income needs. We were both expecting a big payday when, after the roll-out, the company would “go public” and create an impressive capitalization that would set us up pretty handsomely.
It didn’t exactly work out that way.
The financing arrangements that were offered to us didn’t quite cut it, and so the decision was made to continue the business “as is” for a while.
I’ve never been very good at “as is”, and so I took this occasion to move on. But I wasn’t very well prepared for the journey. For five years, I had been using much of my buy-out payments to augment my token salary at the company and, worse, I had invested some hard cash in the company itself. In the end, all that money went away and never came back. I was depleted, in more ways than one.
For the first time in my adult life, I felt like I needed to find a job. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have either the financial resources or the sheer energy to simply invent a new business and wait for a new income stream to materialize. I was going to have to abandon—for the moment, at least—the thrill of founding or co-founding a new enterprise, and settle for a paycheck.
I was going to have to go to work for somebody else.
I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect. But on the other hand some interesting options emerged. Alas, the most interesting one was in Boston and would require us to give up our much-loved life in Princeton, at least for a while. And so we sold the big house in which we had raised our kids, spun off a dumpster’s worth of family castoffs that had accumulated in closets, attics, basements and porches, packed up the rest, and headed for Boston which was, fortunately, always on our short list of cities we thought it might be fun to live in. Besides, I had some roots there, having been born in a suburb of Boston before our family moved to California in the early ’40s.
So I joined a curious band of excessively bright people who ran a combination think-tank/consultancy dedicated to understanding the dynamics of organizations and how to heal their dysfunctionality en route to facilitating realization of their fondest aspirations. I was put in charge of roughly half the business and set out to master, to the best of my ability, the intellectual property the company had developed and was both employing in its consulting work and teaching others through public training programs—the part of the company I was responsible for.
The work was okay on two important fronts: intellectual stimulation and steady income. Most of the fifty or so colleagues were truly delightful.
A few others, only to themselves.
For me, the worst part of joining a pre-existing company was being in a position where my stock-in-trade to sell was somebody else’s thinking. In every other position I had ever held, from teacher to chaplain to parish minister to television producer to philanthropic advisor to consultant to psychotherapy entrepreneur, I pretty much followed my own instincts and my own insights and innovations. Of course I collaborated eagerly with the bright partners I had everywhere along the line, but I was always at least a co-author of whatever solutions were offered, and I always followed my own instincts (sometimes with regret, of course).
Now I felt like a shill for used thoughts, a carnival barker braying second-hand shibboleths. This was somebody else’s baby, and I was supposed to tell the world how cute it was. But my options were limited, and I did my best to play the game.
In due course, I recognized that the intellectual property of the company was becoming highly prized. Representatives of very large consulting companies were showing up at our public training courses, eager to learn our stuff and then compete with us. (You could always tell when a ringer was in the room to steal our material—they never wrote in the workbooks we used in the courses, making their notes on separate pads so they could take the unblemished workbook materials back to their own place and copy them.)
So I concluded that either our small company must formally establish a strategic alliance with a big company—that is, become their partner or become acquired by them—or risk being trampled by the major companies who were absorbing our understandings and techniques to build their own business on the turf we had pioneered.
I became a champion of our searching for a big brother, and we found one close at hand. Just down the road from us were the headquarters of the venerable, 125-year-old firm of Arthur D. Little, Inc. (ADL)—the first-ever consulting company in America—and we were in fact already partnered with them in a major consulting project with NASA. We admired their brains and their values, and as other major consulting firms made overtures to acquire us it seemed more and more natural to join up with ADL. And so we did.
It turned out to be a disastrous choice. I don’t use the word “disastrous” lightly. It was a flat-out, unmitigated, utterly total economic calamity. Think Enron. But worse. Actually, worse.
For starters, I had not been sufficiently aggressive about initially securing stock in the company I first joined in Boston. The founder and I agreed to do it at some point, but we never got around to it. As a result, when we were acquired, I got nothing from the transaction but a new employer.
Worse, this new employer ADL—a privately held company—insisted that people at senior levels in the company have some skin in the game—namely, that we own ADL stock worth at least twice our total annual compensation. Of course our annual compensation included salary and bonus and some stock options and some actual shares of ADL stock, too, but that ADL stock didn’t count. I needed to ante up some real cash to buy some real ADL stock, and so I did. Fortunately I was making enough that I could make some sizeable payments for ADL stock and still have enough to live on, but it was painful.
Not nearly so painful as it was about to become, however.
Not by a long shot.
It turns out that venerable-looking old ADL was but a shell of its formerly pioneering and widely admired self. Nobody in senior management had a clue about how to lead a successful business. No strategic thinking. No ambitions or goals. No pathway to success. No thought of success, really. Life at ADL was just a meandering worldwide band of individual consultants ginning up interesting assignments and doing them. The whole of ADL was much less than the sum of the parts. Once the first, and for generations the largest, ADL’s rank in U.S. consulting companies fell out of the top 25 the first year we were part of it. Many of the largest were newly formed upstarts that had blown past ADL from nowhere in the last decade. ADL, a business icon, no longer even in the top 25!
Nobody at ADL seemed to care.
I hated it.
Fortunately, I got fired.
Unfortunately, I thought the guys who fired me knew what they were doing.
After a decade of somnolence, the hapless board of directors of ADL finally bestirred themselves to replace the CEO. They found a troika of turnaround specialists who had done time together at GE and then headed off as a team to repair foundering companies. They came into ADL and swept clean. They wiped out hordes of marginal divisions, such as the one I was running, and focused on ADL’s historic strengths in high technology. They prepared to spin off some valuable elements of it in public offerings that would dramatically boost the value of the entire enterprise.
I thought they were doing exactly the right thing. So much so that, when offered the option of selling all my ADL stock back to the company for cash at the time of my separation, or selling it back in twenty-percent chunks over each of the next five years, I chose the latter.
That decision cost me a bundle.
If the slash-and-burn troika had arrived a couple of years sooner, they’d have been geniuses and everybody connected with ADL would have been rich instead of flat busted. Unfortunately, timing really is everything. And their timing couldn’t have been worse. To prepare for the spin-offs, they borrowed a zillion dollars at usurious terms and under draconian provisions. In retrospect, a terrible move. But in 1999, at the height of the bubble famously dubbed “irrational exuberance” by Alan Greenspan, every bold dream seemed reasonable. Anything with a dot-com attached to it made millionaires (on paper, anyhow) of their founders, and so there seemed little reason to believe that the truly substantive offerings of ADL would fare any less well—especially its dot-com-savvy computer services consulting group.
Well, the euphoric bubble did burst. New investment in IPOs came to a screeching halt. And the not-quite-ready for IPO offerings of ADL were stillborn. D.O.A. Never saw the light of day.
ADL’s hope of reaping massive rewards from the sale of IPOs went Pop! They couldn’t repay the borrowed money. The lenders of the zillion dollars had first claim on the assets of the company, and suddenly the company was bankrupt. Kaput. Busted. The lenders foreclosed on the company, and all of us who were shareholders got totally, completely wiped out. Never realized one cent for our holdings. There went almost all of the money I had.
Well, actually, ADL didn’t wipe out all of it. My financial adviser in Princeton took care of wiping out the rest of it.
This is a guy who regularly appears in the list of “best advisers” in Money magazine. He must have one hell of a PR agency, because everyone I know who put money with him has had a miserable time of it. Including me.
During the ’90s, I was consulting with many leading corporations in the U.S. and some abroad. I could see firsthand, up close, what was happening, how things were changing. In the mid-nineties, I was particularly aware of the emergence of the internet and net-related businesses. Not the retail dot-coms, which I knew were vulnerable, but the infrastructure businesses like Cisco and Sun and Yahoo! and Google. Repeatedly, I suggested to my advisor that we take a position in some of these.
He wasn’t so sure. Running a small boutique, he had no capacity as it turns out to do independent assessment of these companies. He was a cautious fellow. He said he’d rather not invest in something he didn’t understand too well. And so he missed the biggest run-up of stock prices in a generation. Well, he didn’t miss it entirely.
He got into it with his clients’ money, finally, in 1999, at the peak of internet-maniacal reckless investing—the eleventh hour before the bubble went Pop! Just in time to reduce the value of my portfolio by 70%.
What can I say? It’s my own damned fault. I knew he was a fool. I had known it for a long time. But as I said, I’ve always been a sucker for sticking with people who know something in an area where I know nothing. Or feel like I know nothing.
Some years before, I had made one of my rare recommendations to him. I don’t ordinarily indulge in stock picking, because I know I have neither the time nor interest nor expertise to be good at it. But every once in a while I become aware through my own consulting work of an opportunity and suggest that it might be worth exploring. There was one company I had seen emerge as a spin-out from a client organization. Over a number of years, I watched it and the market for its services ripen simultaneously. Finally it seemed like all the stars were in alignment. Let’s buy some Access Health, I told him.
We did. Bought some at $5. Some more at $7. Sat back and watched the fun. Within about two years, it was at $60. And at $60, it represented a huge proportion of my portfolio—more than half, actually—and far, far more than was prudent to have in a single equity. So I said we should sell some or all of it.
No, no, he said. It’s still a good company, right? Do you know of any reason it’s likely to go down in price? Market softening? Management going bad?
I didn’t have any news about the company, but I had a bad feeling in my gut. I tried again a while later. Let’s sell some of that Access Health. Over the course of a year, I probably raised the question with him five or six times.
Today I know the difference between a suggestion and an order. Back then I didn’t.
One morning I checked the paper. Access Health was selling for $12/share.
Well, at least I didn’t have to worry about its representing too preponderant a chunk of the value of my portfolio any more.
Time to Grow Up
Needless to say, my confidence in financial advisors was not exactly robust. And I had no one to blame but myself, for decades of excessive trust born of willful ignorance.
Now here I was in my first month of retirement trying to figure out whom to trust with my investments. If the income Patti and I would have to live on for the rest of our lives was going to come from this portfolio, I wasn’t going to be passive about it any more. Now that I didn’t have a job, maybe my old lifelong equation of work = income was now irrelevant.
But maybe not. Maybe it was just a matter of my shifting the definition of “work”—perhaps now my work was to oversee the preservation of my investments and their productivity in yielding income.
I knew for certain that I was not going to personally manage my own investments, investigating stocks, making trades. I have zero interest in spending one second of my life thinking about how to tinker with money to make it jump through hoops. I simply could care less about following companies and trends and figuring out how to time the market or game the system or whatever.
Several years before I formally retired, I had begun to clean up my act. The first order of business was to insincerely thank my then-current advisor for his years of utterly incompetent service and dismiss him. I then conferred with friends whom I believed were “good with money” and asked how they managed their money and asked them to recommend financial advisors. The same few names were put forward by several of them, and that made my choice easy. As it turned out, two exceptionally well regarded financial advisors were friends of longstanding, and so I split my investments between them. I wasn’t sure at the time whether my ultimate decision would be to always have my portfolio split between two (or more) advisors or whether this would turn out to be a bake-off in which, after a year or two, one would emerge as clearly superior and inherit the portion being managed by the other.
But I also knew for sure I was never again going to let myself become abjectly dependent on anyone else—a company, or a person—to seemingly take care of me. At the very least, I needed to know enough about the field to be able to evaluate money managers and know when to hire and fire them. If I was going to be a client rather than a manager, largely dependent on someone else’s day-to-day management of our retirement funds, I was certainly going to be a well educated client who knew when they were doing a good job and when they were not, and who would never again fear to dump someone when I knew in my gut they weren’t cutting it. So I went out and bought “Investing for Dummies”, a title uniquely apt for me. And eventually quite a few other books, too. I became a student not of the stock market per se but of the world of investments and investment advisers and managers—how to be a skilled consumer of their services.
And I began evaluating the performance of the two friends who were managing our money. One was doing pretty well. The other, not. The pain of the latter was more than financial. Yes, my holdings under his management had actually managed to shrink during the last two years—not a promising trend, for sure—but the old loyalty-to-friends issue, which had played a big part in my failure to fire the guy who lost so much money for us for so long, came creeping forward. This friend was someone whom we had known for nearly forty years, socialized with quite a few times a year, valued as dear companions with whom we shared many, many of life’s deepest values and experiences. We worshipped in an adjacent pew with them every Sunday morning, we supported common charities and each others’ charities, traveled together.
And now I had to fire him.
Supreme gentleman that he is, there was never a doubt in his mind that I was doing what I had to, irrespective of his continuing confidence in the eventual turnaround of the carefully chosen portfolio of investments he had established for me.
I fired the other guy, too.
Yes, the guy who was performing very well indeed. I dismissed him as well.
What is that all about, anyhow.
The more I realized how much of my life in retirement was going to be concerned with the management of our nest egg, the more I realized how much I needed some help in the management of all matters financial—not just income production, but stuff like doing estate planning, and keeping our wills updated, and choosing health plans, and deciding about long-term disability insurance, and financing major purchases, and, and, and…
One of my two or three closest friends is a man who is my opposite in every conceivable way when it comes to money. He is parsimonious to the Nth degree. The thermostat in their house is set at, oh, I don’t know, maybe 62? There is nothing he would ever buy if he could possibly make it with his own hands. Built a beautiful boat in his garage. Reupholstered his own vintage MG (his only seeming extravagance—but then he has owned it for forty years and probably paid a couple of hundred dollars for it way back when). Restaurants? Those are some kind of retail store, he supposes…isn’t completely sure…that line the streets he walks or drives. He dimly remembers having been in one during college. Still wearing the same clothes I recall seeing him wear in the ’70s.
But, damn! Nick is “good with money”. For as long as I had known him, he managed his own investments and apparently averaged a return for himself over many decades in excess of 20%. As a result, he’s the kind of guy I now had a fresh appreciation for. Not for the way he doesn’t spend money, but for the way he acquires it from well-managed investments. His goal might be just to grow it—my interest was more on the order of ensuring that Patti and I would still be able to visit our favorite restaurants several times a week.
Back when I first sought counsel from friends who were “good with money”, Nick surprised me by saying that while, yes, he had done all his own investing over many decades, about ten years prior he had stopped it. Lost interest in spending all that time researching possible investments. Instead, he had found an investment advisor who, Nick reported, was very conservative but steady in all financial weather. This advisor had consistently underperformed the market during periods of heady upswings but way outperformed the market during the tailspins and hangovers that always follow such binges. As a result, Nick had not lost one single dollar when the bubble burst—the same explosive exhale that blew away 70% of my worldly wealth. Over that decade, he had averaged about 10% growth and that was fine with him. It would be fine with me, too.
But what was equally appealing to me was the fact that this small firm regards itself and conducts itself as a “family office” for its clients. In the costs of their standard fees they include expert consultation on, well, anything in your life that has a dollar sign attached to it. Estate planning, insurance, major purchases, special disbursements, budgeting, charitable contributions—let us review all that stuff for you, they say. That’s what we’re here for.
There was nothing not to like about that deal.
But, alas, the firm had established a minimum amount of money for such client accounts. And at the time my total portfolio failed to meet their minimums. Keep them in mind for the future, Nick advised sympathetically, if you ever get over that threshold.
Keep them in mind? I couldn’t get them out of my mind.
And now as I was retiring several years later, I re-calculated the value of our portfolio and the stock options I held, and it looked like we were well north of their minimums. Time to give them a try—with a cautionary note to myself not to get seduced into abject dependency once again. Given my fervent antipathy to managing this obnoxious stuff myself, it would be all too easy to expect and allow a “family office” to handle not only my financial affairs but also to do my thinking for me.
I met with Howard, the founder, and his friend Steve who was President of the firm. I liked them for all the reasons Nick had led me to expect, but my antennae were still scanning for reasons to worry. One little rumble fluttered across the floor of my gut when I learned that these two guys had been each other’s best friend since grade school. Grade school. Not grad school. With an “e”. Grade school. That bothered me. Surely in the ensuring years they had each encountered many other possible partners—super-bright whiz kids like themselves at their colleges or MBA programs or in their early employment, before this firm was founded, who would make excellent business partners. Why had they gravitated back toward each other instead? Did this betray a tendency toward loyalty over rationality? Of self-indulgence over discipline? Fine with me if they wanted to be lifelong best friends, but I’ve long since grown suspicious of any kind of nepotism—even platonic.
But I found nothing else to take exception to, and my friend Nick’s experience was certainly persuasive. So we shook hands all around and I became a client. The next day we swept over to them the prior investments I had with my two friends and I closed down those accounts. Fortunately both friendships emerged without a scratch and we see each other socially.
The first order of business was not to restructure the portfolios which had come over from my former advisors. It was to create a strategy for managing the stocks and the stock options I held in the Company.
Getting it Right for a Change
Life is teaching us lessons all the time, if only we have the wits to occasionally listen for them. For once, I did listen to my experience on the matter of managing my stock options. What I realized is that I have actually been pretty prescient about choosing stocks to buy—most have increased very significantly—but pretty incompetent about selling them at the right time. The Access Health story was but one of several investments I urged over the years on the basis of my understanding of the growth potential involved, but then went to sleep at the switch—or proved insufficiently confident and insistent—when it came time to sell it off.
For once, I had listened to myself and my lessons learned, and for once I acted on what I had learned. Over the course of my four years at the Company, I had seen the stock gyrate all over the map. The firm had gone public in January of 2000, eight or nine months before they initially asked me to consult with them. This was at the very absolute height of The Bubble. The stock went out at about $15/share on opening day and, as was typical of all new IPOs those days, closed the first day in the mid-$20s. This was ludicrously typical of those go-go years for a company with few sales that was losing $25,000,000 a year. A few months later, the irresistible updraft of a high-tech land grab had rocketed the price to a heavenly $60. That price, like those of similar stocks, was supported by nothing so much as the greedy fantasies of get-rich-quick day traders who were lucky passengers on an escalator suddenly gone wild, flinging its giddy riders into thin air instead of easing them off at the next landing.
A few months later, the music died. Just stopped. No more jitterbugging around the NASDAQ trading floor and day-traders bouncing in their chairs as they dialed for dollars on their home computers. Somebody somewhere noted that none of these companies were actually worth—by any rational calculation—anywhere near the prices people were paying for their shares. Not now, not soon, not even ever in many cases.
And the correction corrected with an indiscriminate vengeance, the sell-off as unthinking in its destruction of value as the idiotic buying had been in creating such fanciful prices in the first place. Anything that smelled of dot-com or high-tech suddenly seemed a menacing party-crasher to be escorted to the door with dispatch, before they looted the place. No time to separate the ones with some justified value from the pretenders. Off with all their heads. In the irresistible downdraft, the Company stock was sucked earthward at high velocity and smacked the ground with a $7 price tag on it.
That’s when my phone rang and they asked for a new strategy.
Fortunately, the Company truly did deserve a strong valuation, just not a maniacal one. They had invented an entirely new category of medical device. They had invested $150,000,000 in brilliantly conceived and carefully executed research and development before bringing it to market. During those years they had spent tens of millions to fund independent research by others whose findings supported the product when it worked well and pinpointed shortfalls for the Company to rectify when it didn’t. This patient process of withholding the product from the market until it was made as reliable as possible was wise and unusual. All too often, half-baked products get pushed out into the market because of poor management judgment or because impatient investors want a quick killing and a “flip” of their money. It takes maturity not to rush to market, and the young management team at the Company displayed an abundance it. The Company’s investors, too, understood that they and the management were in this for the long haul, and now it was paying off.
We were able to craft a new strategy that built on the more than 2,000 published reports of the product’s efficacy and safety. Gradually, more and more clinicians adopted it. Even more were prompted to adopt it when the FDA permitted the Company, on the basis of solid research evidence, to claim the machine’s capacity to help reduce an infrequent but much-feared risk in anesthesia. Shortly thereafter, the Joint Commission (which monitors hospitals and certified their fitness to be in business) put all U.S. hospitals on alert about both that risk, and about the capacity of this particular device to reduce the risk.
Sales took another healthy jump, and suddenly the Company turned profitable. After nearly fifteen years of losing money by the millions—no, by the tens of millions and scores of millions—the parentheses around the numbers on the bottom line vanished. The dollars reported there now were going into the bank, not being drained out of it. No more constant calculation about how much longer our capital would hold out before we’d need more capital, need someone to buy us, or need to close the doors. We were here for keeps, now, and on our own terms.
During all this time, the stock had been clawing itself back up from a low of less than $3/share—a dismal point to which it sank sometime about a year after I joined the Company and before our new strategy had yet gained traction. Although my compensation included generous annual grants of stock options, I couldn’t resist spending my own money to buy additional shares at that bargain price.
That was the day I learned about “insider trading”. I had never worked as part of a publicly traded company before, and was largely ignorant about the implications. It turns out that, as an officer of the Company and a member of its Executive Committee, I was regarded by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as an “insider” whose buying and selling of the Company’s stock was not only subject to certain restrictions but was also to be made public knowledge the instant it happened, so non-insiders could draw their own conclusions about what such trades might portend and respond accordingly—a mighty fine idea.
My purchase at $3/share hit the internet and within minutes, I later learned, the various stock-trading chat rooms were buzzing about the fact that the guy who was head of strategy for the Company was buying a sizeable block of their stock on the open market. They took this as an optimistic indicator, and the Company’s stock price “popped” as they say, gaining double-digit percentage points that day from which it never thereafter retreated.
A couple of years later, shortly after the Joint Commission issued its warning about the risk the company’s device mitigates for anesthestists and cited the usefulness of the Company’s device, the share price had marched steadily up to around $35, and that is where it was the day I retired. Everyone was thrilled.
Not me. I was afraid.
The Company had turned profitable just a year before. Now, I’m no genius about managing money—that much is well established—but I occasionally display some pretty good sense of how people think. I was acutely aware of what seemed to me an inevitable impending shift in the sentiment about our company on the part of those who buy and sell stocks. It seemed to me that the price of a share of the Company’s stock was pretty much arbitrary during the earlier years when the Company was losing $25,000,000 a year or more—the years when, under the brokers’ heading of Price/Earnings Ratio, it always said “N/A”. It felt like the price of a share of its stock was just a collective best guess as to the eventual profitability that might some day materialize.
In other words, investors priced the stock on promise.
As we got close to breaking even, I used to worry out loud in our management meetings about what would happen to the stock price in the aftermath of our turning profitable. It seemed inevitable that there would eventually be a day of reckoning, when the “N/A” would become an actual P/E ratio—and one that would initially look pretty ridiculous. A tiny initial profit would be compared with a well-priced stock, and the ratio would be astronomical—as much as 300:1 or more—and nowhere near the 25:1 or so that medical companies were typically at, let alone the 18:1 zone where the stock market as a whole frequently stands. That much was to be expected.
But if it didn’t stop looking ridiculous fairly soon—how long, I didn’t know, but my guess was 12-18 months—the stock price would inexorably be forced into compliance with whatever P/E ratios were then prevalent in our industry niche. It was hard to imagine how our profit could possibly accelerate fast enough in those 12-18 months, no matter how successful we were, to get us into the 30-50:1 zone that fast-growing medical companies could justify. And it seemed absolutely inevitable to me that the market would adjust our P to align with our E, and the price of our stock would crater.
During the money-losing years, people could fiddle with their own hope-filled imaginations about promise. But performance was pretty darned mathematical. And once people moved a stock in their own heads from one category of valuation to the other, there was no retreating. The company was either making the numbers, or it wasn’t. They’d price the shares accordingly.
In other words, we would no longer be priced on promise.
We would be priced on performance.
Now I found myself newly retired and sitting on a bunch of stock—and a whole lot more options—that were trading in the current market in the mid-30s. But even though the company was now on a track of producing increasingly robust profits, the P/E ratio was still sky-high—triple or quadruple the average in our industry niche. And we were nearing the end of the 12-18 month span my gut instinct told me was the grace period during which the crossover from promise to performance would take place.
Time to sell.
But I had the “insider trading” issue to deal with. While I was no longer an officer of the Company as of the first of the year, the SEC would continue to list me as an “insider”, and require public disclosure of my sales, for ninety days after my departure from the ranks of company officer. I was very mindful of the positive effect on the stock price that some attributed to my purchase of Company stock when it was down around $3. I certainly didn’t want to risk the opposite effect if I were to sell far larger amounts of my stock when it was at such a well-deserved peak ten times higher.
So we sat tight for a few months until I would be de-listed as an insider, during which I saw the price touch a peak of $38 and then slip back a couple of dollars. The day I became de-listed it was still solidly in the mid-thirties, and we pulled the trigger on a week-long campaign of liquidating all my holdings in the Company. Fortunately, there was a robust volume of trading in the Company stock at the time, and the sale of my shares spread out over a number of days had no detectable effect on the market.
Mission accomplished. My harvest from the Company was safely in the barn, the timing driven by nothing more than what felt like common sense.
With a fair amount available to re-invest, the next week was spent huddled around a conference table in Howard’s and Steve’s office, hashing out a portfolio strategy. Powered by a lifelong quest for more money, I found myself deeply yearning to go for more, to see my nest-egg double and triple, to put me into a formidable financial fortress where the walls could never, ever crumble. Where Patti and the future generations of our family would be well cared for. Where significant philanthropic benefactions could flow from us to the world at will. I privately ran the numbers, portraying the heady realm we might occupy if only we could average ten, twelve, fifteen, maybe even twenty percent a year. Look! Just look how much we’d have if we doubled and tripled this over the next few years, and then again. Wow. Now that would be real wealth. Think what we could do with that. Oh, how I wanted to go for broke!
Go for broke? Now there is a term that I hadn’t ever quite parsed out before. I had always liked the term, and it fit my up-and-down career. I had gone for broke pretty regularly. I always got jazzed by the energy, the derring-do, that the term conjured up. But I hadn’t ever focused on the possible outcome. Broke? Broke?! As in flat busted? Out of money? Go for broke?
Are you out of your mind, Eliot?
I suddenly realized I was in a new world. That was then; this is now. When I had risked everything earlier in my life, I never doubted for an instant that I could rebound and invent a fresh income stream whenever I wanted. I’d been doing it all my life, and I could certainly do it again. I had a lot of ideas, I had a lot of energy, and I had a lot of time. Back then.
I shut off my calculator. More importantly, I shut off my grasping and shut down my anxiety. I was able to fight off my recurring urge to ask for more aggressive growth and got comfortable with settling for preservation-above-all. We did have enough. We didn’t need more. We just needed not to lose what we did have.
Gradually the logic, the intellectual truth, worked its way all the way down to my gut. I began to realize that more risk would inevitably be accompanied by more doubt, more worry, more uncertainty. I really didn’t want to run the risk of having to start generating income again by selling my services or, God forbid, starting yet another enterprise. I was tired of that. More importantly, I really did want to devote myself to my long-delayed life of writing. If I chose a course of higher-risk investing of our nest-egg, the cancer-like knowledge that our financial security was at risk would not only eat away at me during a retirement when, supposedly, that corrosive worrying about money is supposed to be a thing of the past.
More intolerably, it would certainly destroy any chance to settle into the kind of serenity I would need in order to be able to enjoy writing.
The two were linked, of course. I had eschewed a life of writing precisely because it seemed so unreliable a way to produce the income I sought to fulfill my sense of obligation to my family—and to my own self-image. Writing had always been smuggled into my life in pre-dawn hours, an indulgence to be savored before setting off for the day to be “a good provider” and to earn my place as a peer-of-the-realm in our affluent community. I admired the famous writers who put their sanity on the line living without appreciable income, and I envied those whose inherited wealth enabled a life of letters. But I had long since determined that I would not put my sanity, such as it was, at risk, and it seemed much too late to be born to wealthy parents. If I were ever to write, it would be up to me to establish and accept a solid financial footing. In my mind, writing required financial security. Now I had that security, if only I could bring myself to trust it, to embrace it.
So I accepted the super-conservative strategy my advisors laid out. A blend of tax-free bonds, so-called “value” equities, and a buffer of CDs should readily yield enough to keep us ahead of inflation, pay my advisors’ commission, and throw off income for us to keep doing the things we’d been doing when my salary and bonus was still coming in—trying to live both well and generously in the perplexity so well stated by E. B. White: “I wake up every morning determined both to change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day a little difficult.” Absent some kind of global economic catastrophe, we were going to be okay as we continued to grapple with this challenge.
But even then, I still didn’t trust the numbers. I still didn’t really, deep down, trust that we’d be able to live on the return from our investments, and that they’d also stay ahead of inflation. This was a pure, clinical case of cognitive dissonance, of course. Somehow my brain couldn’t accommodate two disparate and theretofore seemingly incompatible facts: I am not working, and I have money enough. These two statements do not belong together in the same sentence, even a compound sentence. The comma doesn’t signify their utter incompatibility. Not working, yet money enough? Never happened before. Not likely to happen now.
The key to enjoyment of the theater or a movie or a novel is what they call “the willing suspension of disbelief”. Turn off your critical intellect and go along for the ride. But that was just too much to ask of me.
So I sort of un-retired.
Flunking Retirement Yet Again
It was a simple enough decision. I just couldn’t go cold turkey, unilaterally disarming myself in the battle to secure income. I couldn’t take that bungee jump without knowing for sure the ankle straps would ease my plunge and lift me back up just before I went splat! No, needed a safety net.
It seemed sensible enough. I just decided that for the first year of retirement, I would do enough consulting to produce all the income we’d require, when coupled with Patti’s income, to provide what we needed to live on. I wouldn’t do more than that—just enough to cover our living expenses.
I wanted to see for myself whether, at the end of that year, the money in our investment portfolio would really truly have grown enough to have provided both an equivalent income and some inflationary protection. After all, there was always a chance that it wouldn’t have. Better not risk turning off my capacity to generate income myself. Money enough from investments alone? Nah, I’d better not rely on that just yet. I needed to see the proof for myself.
Good God almighty, talk about paranoid!
So, no sooner had I settled my financial affairs than I let my financial paranoia ease me right back out of my retirement into work. Well, not work work. Not work as in reporting for duty somewhere every day. It was work on my own terms. But it was work enough to keep me from making time for my writing every day. Okay, enough to keep me for making time for any writing at all. And even if I had been able to schedule the time, my head would still have been in my work, not in my writing. So much for the zone of time and serenity when I could claim once and for all my dream of writing in prime time. Truth is, I sacrificed it to plain old, garden-variety fear.
The work came easily. I pretty quickly picked up a couple of executive coaching engagements, something I love to do. Then I agreed to some fly-by consulting with former clients who needed a sounding board as they refreshed their strategic thinking. And I had my continuing links with the Company, too. All this would be enough to provide me with all the income I needed to produce for the year. Because these kinds of engagements consist of intense but brief encounters, they didn’t swamp my calendar. Even after long stints at the gym every day, I still had plenty of time left over to get on with my writing.
But I didn’t. I was always thinking about the next encounter with one of my clients. Or failing to protect my remaining “free” time.
Turns out that among the many things I wasn’t very good at, high on the list was the art of saying “No”. So when people learned that I was now more or less at liberty, and recalled that I had certain skills they might be able to take advantage of in their various exceptionally worthy endeavors, they approached me oh so diplomatically and respectfully to inquire if I might possibly consent to spend just a few minutes with their leadership team to, you know, kind of review the organization’s direction, and future planning, and staffing structure, and management processes, and financial development program, and…, and…, and…, and…
Now if these requests had come from businesses, I’d have known exactly what to say. Either, “No thanks. I’m all booked up”, or “If you are willing to pay my exorbitant fee, let’s talk.” But these were the most admirable of enterprises—an independent school, a music-study center, a religious-education program—and, worse, they were led by friends of longstanding. Dear friends. Very dear friends. And, okay, in two instances, relatives.
And of course, each initial request was just the proverbial camel’s-head-in-the-tent. Almost all the engagements grew more complex and enduring, of course. One of the long-range planning projects for a school would eventually surpass in its demands on me a long-range strategic planning process I had done some years before for a Boston-area college at a fee in excess of $150,000. Soon I found myself fully employed, pro bono, on behalf of these oh-so-demonstrably-important causes, plus sitting on the boards of a couple of charitable organizations and a venerable old tennis club in town. If only “sitting” on a board were the right word—but as everyone knows it’s not, not by a long shot. Any such seat can become a full-time work station if you’re not careful.
I was back at work. All the way back.
My writing studio became more and more cluttered with the paraphernalia of these engagements, and virtually all the time I spent there was doing work on behalf of my new “clients”.
I do love language, and I care about using it honestly. And so I found myself uncomfortable continuing to calling this space my “studio”. That felt counterfeit. A studio is a place where an artist creates something. That definition no longer fit my racing-motorcycle-workshop-turned-personal-retreat-space. If I were not writing here, it was not a studio. I felt a tinge of resentment as I came to that realization, but not enough to be a wakeup call, not enough to prompt me to change my course.
I slid into calling it my “study”. That nomenclature at least kept alive a vestige of romance, of a place where important thoughts are considered and produced. I felt a silent pain at the death of “studio”, like losing a once-cherished friend to whom I owed an apology for some long-past affront or betrayal, knowing I would now forever carry with me my failure to reach out for reconciliation.
But duty called. So I was back in the saddle again, galloping along from one task to another for a few months when I heard “Whoa!”. It was Patti. As she has done repeatedly and gracefully ever since I first met her, she was once again unobtrusively rescuing me from a misspent life—albeit inadvertently this time.
After years of serving as the installed pastor of several different urban churches, she had decided when we moved back to Princeton to accept only “interim” appointments, guiding the transition for congregations who have lost their senior pastor and need to take stock of where they are and where they are headed and what they need to deal with in order to call a new pastor. And now in April, scarcely four months into my retirement, she was just completing her second such appointment, a two-year interim engagement, and was free.
What’s this? For the first time in 45 years of marriage, neither Patti nor I had to be any place in particular come Monday morning. We had commitments and obligations, to be sure, but not jobs. We had places to go and things to do and people to see, but not a fixed schedule for any of it. We had things to take care of this month, but not necessarily this week. We had things to take care of this week, but not necessarily today. The work that I had slid back into was plenty flexible enough to create big spaces for personal pursuits, and so was her continuing volunteer work. Until and unless she accepted another interim appointment, we were truly at liberty.
So we did the only sensible thing we could do.
We decided to run away from home.
Although for years we had traveled abroad every year or two, we both harbored yearnings for faraway places that had always seemed out of reach when the kids were at home and finances were tighter and vacation time was meted out in modest allotments. We traveled, but never often enough or far enough or for long enough. The trips we had yet to take lay awaiting us in bulging file folders. For decades, we had tucked away little brochures and handwritten notes and articles clipped or ripped from newspapers and magazines extolling the wonders of places we yearned to see. Now that first Monday morning in April we cleared away the remains of breakfast and spilled the folders out onto the dining room table, rummaging through the clippings to see which still held some magic for us, which still sent off that alluring come-hither scent.
The newspaper clippings and magazine pages about the Galapagos Islands fairly leapt off the table into our hands. Visiting the Galapagos had been a lifelong dream of my animal-crazy wife. I started hearing about this extraordinary wildlife sanctuary seemingly days after our marriage, and was clear from the outset of our life together that we would one day frolic among the giant tortoises paddling in coves and blue-footed boobies hopping about the brush and giant iguanas plodding along dusty pathways and tawny seals lazily yawning and sunning on the beach. Many years before, we had actually been booked on a trip to the Galapagos, but as fate would have it, fierce El Niňo winds and currents that year chased all the islands’ famous birds and turtles and other creatures scurrying for cover far inland or deep under water where tourists like us on the well beaten paths would never see them. The tour was canceled.
Now we had a second chance. Before the day was over, we were booked again and ready to pack our bags. In short order we packed our calendar, too—packed it full of other trips. A book-discussion cruise to Bermuda with a group of scintillating friends, a roots-type trip to Ireland, a long spell at our cabin in Maine, and extended weeks at the Chautauqua Institution, a summer colony we had frequented all too briefly for many years. Some of my pals at the Company organized a golfing getaway to Scotland for a week, and I eagerly did that, too.
For the balance of that year, we were away from home more than we were there. We returned to Princeton regularly, of course, to be with family and other friends and to tend the work obligations we had, but we were really free as a couple of kids at recess. We especially felt “retired” as we saw ourselves in the faces of other sixty-something couples in airports and on docks and in hotels where we frolicked. It was eerily like our trip to Fresno a few years ago for the 50th reunion of my graduating class, where I found myself surrounded by all these old people. I had a hard time identifying with them, since most were retired and I was fully in bloom at my work—in fact at the height of the triumph that had sparked the board-room celebration. I was playing tennis five or six times a week, felt vigorous of body and mind, felt like I was in my forties. And these people looked old to me.
Now as I encountered our generation traveling the world in retirement, I knew something had changed. Welcome to the party, Eliot. I realized we all looked alike—grey-haired guys with crinkled faces showing some wear and tear, a few of us with more padding around the middle than we wanted anyone to notice, with same-age lady companions whose hair was miraculously not grey (any more) who were reading novels or scanning tourist guides to Bermuda or Chile or The Ring of Kerry or wherever we happened to be, as we menfolk tended to tickets or room keys or luggage or whatever.
Losing my grip
By the end of our year of seeing the world, I began to relax just a wee bit about income. Sure enough, our new financial advisors had produced sufficient growth in our investments during the year that, had we been forced to draw income from them, we’d still have been ahead of the game. I realized that I could actually begin to back off my continuing pursuit of earned income and begin to trust that our portfolio was capable of supplying monthly infusions of money to live on, and was likely to be capable of continuing to do that more or less in perpetuity and still leave something for the kids when we were gone from the scene.
But the fading of my all-consuming concern about income was like the receding of a tide that reveals flotsam and jetsam on the beach—ugly stuff lying about I hadn’t noticed when so monomaniacally focused on income security. What I began to notice was another kind of insecurity, one that was far more distressing because it had no rational antidote.
I was losing confidence in myself.
In his fine book A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee described Bill Bradley as a person who had an uncanny ability on the basketball court to know exactly where he was in relation to the constantly changing positions of all his teammates and opponents on the court, to the fixed boundaries of the sidelines, to the basket and the backboard, to the competitive situation with respect to score and momentum, to every dimension of the game that might affect what he himself should do in the next instant. McPhee found that Bradley also displayed a similarly confident, sure-footed stance in his personal life.
I knew what that felt like. On a tennis court, I don’t have to think about where I am. Drawing on fifty-five years of playing tennis matches, I rely on my instincts to tell me what shot to hit from where I am—or when not to hit one at all, to let an opponent’s shot go flying past me instead, knowing for certain that after traveling seventy or eighty feet it will land outside the line by perhaps as little as one inch. I am rarely wrong in making that instinctive judgment, nor are most experienced players. Yet no one could ever consciously compute a rational calculation of such dynamic factors as speed, spin, trajectory, and angle in that split second, with the ball whizzing toward you at one hundred feet per second. The confidence to take your shot, or to ignore his, has to come from knowing just where you are.
I could still feel that way on the tennis court. But nowhere else. Without the bearings of a work environment, where my role was clear, my agenda was clear, my place in the collegial management team was clear, I felt at sea. Not just at sea, but in a fog that obscured the markers and shorelines by which I had always taken my bearings. Even when I was stepping out of one venture and was transitioning into another, I knew where I was—I was en route to that next venture, even though it might feel scary for a moment. But I was never in a fog.
Fog is nasty stuff. It may be lovely in a Carl Sandburg poem, and it was certainly lovely to watch through my parents’ big window as summer fog poured like a pearlescent syrup through the Golden Gate bridge and spread itself across San Francisco Bay, gradually veiling the hills of Marin. But when you are in its midst, it produces a profoundly helpless feeling.
When our children were young and eagerly learning to handle boats, they had an excess of self confidence and a corresponding disdain for the use of safety gear and navigational aids. I welcomed their self confidence but knew they would live longer if they respected the dangers of the sea. In particular, I found a way to impress upon them the value of a compass.
As each child entered their early teens and yearned for recognition that they were competent to go out in the boat alone, I would wait for a very, very foggy day—not often a long wait on the Maine coast in August—and take that child out into the bay in our small boat. Fog obscured everything. Nothing was visible but ourselves cloaked within a dense grey mist. All the familiar landmarks were totally hidden behind shrouds of soft grey that silently absorbed the strained beams of searching we sent into them. We crept along, groping our way and listening hard for sounds of other boats and fog horns and, most of all, for the dreaded crashing of water on rocks which might signify that we were too close to the shore and could go aground. Even with the bright mid-day sun showering the crown of the fog bank with light, we could see little but each other and the cockpit of the boat. We were seemingly enclosed inside a dome composed of impenetrable gray walls curving and arching around us, over us. Our eyes could penetrate only a dozen feet in any direction—not quite to the bow of the boat, slightly past the stern and the outboard engine, and sideways into…into…into nothing.
At that point, I would put my child behind the wheel and invite him or her to take note of our current compass heading. That done, I would flop my hat over the compass and challenge the child to maintain that compass heading for the next three minutes. If at the end of the three minutes, she or he were still within twenty points of the original heading, I would give them $20—a sum still capable of getting a kid’s attention back in the ’70s.
Of course my money was safe. Everything conspired to change the course of the boat—the tidal currents, the wind, the torque of the engine propeller, and most of all, the mind-games the fog plays on the driver who is just certain that the wheel should be turned a bit more this way or that.
Besides, the twenty points allowable variation—forty all told, plus and minus of the original—were but one-ninth of the total of 360 on the compass, so I had 8:1 odds of their being somewhere else when I removed my hat three minutes later.
Now, wallowing in “retirement”, I myself was in a fog, without a compass. I no longer had a sense of where I was. I was not “my old self”, not who I used to be. Something had just slipped away when I wasn’t looking. Sure of myself? Quick to step up and dive into something? Always itching for the next venture? Once a fire in my belly, all that now seemed but a wisp of smoke drifting up from untended embers and twisting away to the vanishing point in a mild breeze.
I didn’t have it any more.
It didn’t even matter that I was still engaged in certain pursuits that kept my mind alive. My executive coaching and consulting work and my continuing engagement with the Company certainly provided me with plenty of opportunity to think hard and work hard, in spurts. But it wasn’t adding up to anything.
No, actually it wasn’t adding up to anybody. Not anybody I knew. Not anybody I wanted to be.
I like to think that at many previous points in my life I had in fact been pretty sure of myself. I had taken some risks and made some decisions and invested some money and handled some losses and taken some actions and exercised some leadership and made some things happen that were characteristic of a person who either knew where he was headed and expected to get there or, at least, gave a convincing impersonation thereof. Convincing enough, in my case, to persuade even myself.
And the daily give-and-take of my work at the Company had kept me constantly on my toes in recent years. Coasting was out of the question. My uncommonly bright colleagues demanded well-reasoned justification for bold initiatives. New data came in at random moments to signal we could seize a new opportunity—or must react to quickly to head off a dangerous situation. A pet idea I was pushing needed a fresh wave of arm-twisting to keep it alive. A key ally outside the company announced his retirement, and I had to scramble to establish a new contact within that organization. Nasty attacks from those who disdained our product needed to be blunted. Even the daily badinage among quick-witted colleagues passing in the hallways helped keep the mind from getting sluggish.
But stepping back from that incessant urgency, from that high-voltage sizzle in the air, and retreating into a languid zone of retirement was like entering a sensory deprivation tank. No stimuli or pressure to maintain a fighting edge. No interactions with task-oriented partners itching to make something happen. No deadlines for stretch goals popping up on the calendar. No preparing for critical process steps designed to achieve mission-critical targets.
How can you keep your game sharp if you’re sitting on the bench, riding the pines? If you can’t be on the floor and play the game while the clock is running, while victory and defeat hang in the balance, it doesn’t even matter if you don’t have a sense of where you are.
Worse, you know exactly where you are.
You are on the sidelines.
Well, actually, truth is—you’re out of the arena.
You’re not on the playing floor, not on the court, not even suited up for the game. Most of your interactions are social now. All the expertise you have gathered, all the knowledge, the know-how, the contacts, the ability to make things happen—mothballed. Now just personal memorabilia, of no more interest to anyone else than talking about that really, really, really fascinating dream you had last night. As though anybody else could possibly relate to it…
What a comeuppance. Everybody else’s thoughts and agendas are just as important as yours, and even more important to them! Imagine that! People routinely interrupted me while I was speaking. Wait a minute! What I was saying was important. Wise. Well-informed. Valuable. And then you just started talking about something else as though I weren’t even there. How dare you do that! How rude! Oh, oh. Worse than that. Not bad manners. I guess they weren’t even listening to what I was saying in the first place, and so they weren’t being rude—they were just oblivious to my presence.
That’s not the way it was at the Company, dammit! People listened to me! Or if not, they sure gave a mighty convincing show of listening. Hey, I know they listened, because time and again something I said or suggested turned up on their lips or agendas later on. I had their attention. They valued what I said. Or most of the time, anyhow.
And properly so. I actually knew quite a lot about strategy and marketing and other functions I was involved with. More, in many cases, than anyone else around, if only because of my age and not my smarts. With decades more experience than the rest of the management team, working in multiple industries, I had had opportunities to learn some things they seemed eager to take advantage of.
What went wrong, anyhow? Now I go to a social event and I hear myself spouting puerile, poorly-informed babble about politics and the culture wars and whatever else ain’t-it-awful issue may be up for discussion at the moment. No wonder my opinion doesn’t hold anyone in thrall. No wonder they interrupt me.
No wonder I feel like a much-diminished man.
No wonder I hesitate now about making trivial decisions I used to make without even thinking. Should I match the beams of the pergola with a faux set of beams to frame the door of my studio or not try to tie the two structures architecturally? Should I get the organic broth or just the regular? Should I fly to the next meeting at the Company or drive, to save them some money now that I’m not really essential? If I order a room service breakfast, will that get approved on my expense report? Should I read the paper some more or get on the phone to set up a tennis date? Should I take these pictures to the framer or make some frames myself? Should I take my car to the dealership and have them fix the backlight for the radio or just tune it by Braille when driving at night? Should I complain to the waiter about the tepid temperature of my entrée or just swallow both the food and my gumption?
Who the hell is this wimp, anyhow? Certainly not anyone I was familiar with from the past, and certainly not anyone I wanted for a friend.
Another kind of timidity had emerged, too—this in relation to other people. I used to feel entitled to make requests of others that I now hesitate to put forward. The family is gathered around the fire at Christmas time, and the pile of firewood I had stacked in the rack next to the fireplace has been consumed. I think about asking someone—one of my daughters or sons-in-law or grandchildren to go out and get some more to refill the rack. But I don’t. I go get it myself while they sit and chat.
Time to open another bottle of wine. I wouldn’t ask someone standing right next to the unopened bottles and the corkscrew on the counter to do it. I’d get up and do it myself.
Are there more bags of groceries in the car that need to be brought in? Some heavy cartons? I’ll get them myself, strangely too shy to ask another for help.
What’s this all about, anyhow?
The same hesitation infected and disabled my “do it now” instinct. I used to be all instant action in matters that mattered to me. While a procrastinator on many things that I wasn’t interested in, for most of my prior life I didn’t hesitate when it came to important, mission-critical activities. The minute something came to my attention, I took care of it—partly out of fear that I’d forget it later, and partly out of the sheer fun of taking action. Back in the ’70s when I made many trips to New York City to make deals for marketing “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” products, I prided myself on the way I followed up on business meetings. I would walk out of a meeting, go straight to a pay phone, call my secretary and dictate a follow-up letter to her with instructions to have it in the mail by five p.m. The letters would inevitably arrive on the addressee’s desk the next morning, to their astonishment. It set the tone for the rest of our dealings together, as they picked up on my style of getting things done now.
I felt smart and strong when I handled matters with dispatch. The more I did it, the better I got at it. And the better I got at it, the more I did it. I was on the make, and I wanted success in a hurry. The clock was ticking.
But now that instinct was fading away. There was no ticking. Many days I didn’t even wear a watch.
I began to wonder whether I had permanently lost the drive I felt, the drive I reveled in exercising, when I was younger. I am now just an old man, going through the motions? Where is the energetic Eliot of yore? Back when I was a student at Fresno State College, I took many more courses than required for graduation. Sometimes I would enroll in as many as eight courses and do all the work, then drop out of one or two just before finals so I could concentrate on getting superior grades in the remaining ones. I had been a very indifferent student in high school, and I was out to make up for that. I wanted to cram as much learning as I could into those four years of college. In fact, two different times I “stopped out”—voluntarily took a semester off—just because it was flying by too fast. I felt that I wanted to slow the process down, gain some non-campus, non-student, adult-like experience, and become better able to bring some informed perspective to my classes and reading. I worked for the City of Fresno during one such venture, and spent time as a soldier in the U.S. Army during another.
I learned back then how poorly I perform when I have too much time on my hands. Some semesters I took as many as 21 or 24 units (seven or eight classes) vs. a normal 15 units, and I did well enough to eventually graduate magna cum laude. But any shot I might have had at summa cum laude was dragged down by the lousy grades I got one semester when I took only nine units and, presumably, had all the time in the world to do superior work in each class.
Late in the summer, I had been in a severe automobile accident, destroying my beloved MG roadster. That car was the treasure of my life purchased at high cost—not necessarily in dollars, but in the grueling work I did in severe summer heat to earn the money to buy it. My MG was totally “hopped up” for racing with a reworked high-revving engine, motorcycle fenders over the front wheels to reduce drag, and holes cut in the chassis to reduce weight. Unfortunately, I was making like a race-car driver at the time I crashed it, whizzing down a twisty mountain pass over the coastal range en route from Fresno to the Pebble Beach Road Races.
I was in bad shape after that accident, patched up with a thirty or forty stitches (including the six they lashed through my tongue—the single most excruciatingly painful experience of my life) and a few broken bones, but I had a lot of time on my hands. For most of that semester, I was too disabled to hold a job, and I enrolled for only three classes so I could limit my commute to campus to just two days a week.
The rest of the time I was at home, with ten or fifteen hours a day available when I might do my reading and homework and write the papers I needed for my class assignments. Before, when I was taking six or seven courses, there was never any doubt about exactly when I would do my school work. When? Now! Right this instant! Any time a free moment hove into view, I snatched it and used it to keep from falling behind. There was no question about now or later. Everything was now.
But hey, just three courses? I’ve got only a few hours of coursework to do today. Later. Later will be fine. No need to do it now. Maybe I’ll watch some TV or read a book for pleasure or get on the phone with a buddy. There’ll be plenty of time later.
And so the day would disappear, and by bedtime none of my work was done. In the end, my hastily cobbled together papers and faulty understanding of scarcely read textbooks sank me, and properly so.
Now my seemingly endless retirement time was just as seductive, luring me into inconsequential frittering away of this hour and that, puttering around on God-only-knows-what trivial nonsense that had managed to escape my attention for forty years or more. It was the human equivalent of Stupid Pet Tricks. Sorting my socks by color groups. Re-painting a door frame. Transplanting a bush. Reorganizing my desk drawers. Reading the all-important AAA monthly magazine. Whiling away hour after hour at the computer, surfing new websites and creating oh-so-wonderful e-mails to intrude on the lives of my friends who were otherwise trying to live productive lives and, no doubt, silently wondering when Eliot was going to quit spamming them and get a life.
I took an unnatural interest in the rationale behind the pattern of storage in our kitchen. This was important. Anyone could see that. Poor Patti. The woman needs some help here. No sense of logic to this place whatsoever. Shouldn’t all pots and pans and utensils and fodder be arrayed according to their frequency of use? Why are these little wire racks for steaming artichokes occupying prime space on the front of the glide-out shelf here when the Cuisinart, much more often employed, is wedged behind them. Here, let me take a day or two to reorganize these cabinets so we’ll feel better about them. Oh, oh. How about that spice rack over there—why they’re not even alphabetized, for heaven’s sake. Say, haven’t you noticed that the canisters with the decaf and the high-test coffee are lacking labels. A mix-up waiting to happen. I’ll just take care of that. Oh, wait! How about putting the cookbooks on the upper shelf of that cabinet rather than the middle shelf. That would clear a space where we could put some Post-it pads and pens right there close to the phone but out of sight. Ach! What is that plastic saucer doing under the clay pot of begonias on plant ledge in our garden room? Can’t stand that. Must find a clay saucer. Now, where’s my tape measure? Don’t want to get all the way out to the nursery center and bring back the wrong size…
And on it went.
Hours, mornings, afternoons, days, weeks, months, and so it seemed a lifetime—a dwindling lifetime—was devoted to massaging the irrelevant minutiae of my world.
When you are adrift on a sea of timelessness, any time is no time and one time is just as good as any other and if not now then some other time and if not then well maybe sometime else and, say, what day is today anyhow? Only the weekends had any timeliness to them. Saturday morning held a long-standing tennis game. Sunday morning was for worship. But Monday through Friday were like a vast rolling Midwestern wheatfield with nothing to differentiate one swell in the terrain from another, and nothing on the horizon to draw the eye or lure the footstep. Day followed night and night followed day but so what?
The Greeks had a fine word for everything. And sometimes two. They had two words for “time”. One of them, chronos, is familiar to us as the root of such words as chronology, chronometer, chronological. Chronos takes its bearings from the juxtaposition of inanimate objects like the sun and the earth. As they silently meander through their well-fixed courses in the universe, endlessly shifting relative relationships among them in cycles of predictable duration, we give numbers to the process. One cycle we call twenty-four hours. We break that down by sixties, into minutes and seconds. And we fiddle with it quadrennially by adding a twenty-four hour correction during leap year. Chronos would theoretically exist if the earth were barren of life.
The other word is kairos, and it takes its bearing from a far different set of relationships. Kairos refers to the relative interplay between human events and conditions. When a situation is ripe, we call it “timely”. That’s kairos. When a festering condition is long overdue for action, we say it is “high time” someone do something about it. That’s kairos. When two people are in love, they are having “the time of their lives”. That’s kairos.
And when you are adrift on a barren sea, with neither wind in your sails or a strong current to move you, that is chronos devoid of kairos. The clock is ticking, but nothing is happening. A sailor would call it the doldrums. And that is where I was. In the doldrums.
Perfect term, the doldrums. It refers to an intertropical convergence zone along the equator where prevailing weather systems cancel each other out, so there’s no prevailing wind at all—just a random meandering of listless zephyrs interspersed with complete calms where no air stirs at all.
Perfect in another sense, too. The word is a combination of “dolt”, as in stupid (which is how I felt) and “tantrum” (which is what I felt like throwing).
In time, larger and deeper issues presented themselves to test my character. The calmer days of retirement seemed to be dissipating my taste for adventure and risk in my personal life. Not that I’ve ever been a daredevil, but I do like the charge of adrenaline that comes with occasionally putting myself into situations that call for fast thinking and fast acting.
It was just shortly before I retired, for example, that I had the time of my life at the Skip Barber driving school where we practiced some high-performance driving skills. One minute I was behind the wheel of a pickup truck spinning wildly out of control on a wetted-down skid pad, with the instructor beside me who had intentionally caused the spin yelling instructions for how to regain control of the vehicle. The next minute, I was screaming around a short track in a 500 horsepower V-10 Viper with the rear wheels shrieking and smoking as I bent that beast sideways through every corner, logging the fastest time of the day among my seventeen classmates. Panic braking, high-speed emergency lane-changing, slalom courses—I loved every second of it, and I hope to go back for a session in open-wheel racers some day. I love the drama and danger in flying around a race track to the wild roar of the engine and howl of smoking tires burning the pavement as I accelerate fiercely away from each track-out point around the course.
Was that bungee-jumper spirit dying in me? It felt like it, and I knew I had to do something to rekindle it. I still had my love of sailing that brought a tingle to my spirit, and so to keep the bungee-jumper alive, I plunged into reinvigorating my life as a sailor. I began by looking for a boat to buy—a boat that would be the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream.
From my earliest days as a young boy sailing dinghies and day-sailers on Lake Millerton in the brown foothills east of the San Joaquin Valley, and later crewing the foredecks of more robust racing boats bashing around windy, choppy San Francisco Bay, and later still beating about in chartered cruising boats for so many years on the wild coast of Maine, I dreamed of owning my own cruising boat that I could take out any time I wanted and stay on for as long as I wished.
I began shopping for just the right one. When my monthly issue of “Sail” arrived, I began at the back of the magazine, where the boat ads are located. But I didn’t linger long there, as most of the boats that command a picture and descriptive paragraph in a national magazine also command a price well into six figures—more than I intended to spend. More hours—many, many hours, actually—were spent happily surfing the web where I could tailor my search to the very boats and price ranges I had in mind, and I found quite a few. Because the web ads carry eight or ten pictures of each boat and comprehensive listings of equipment, it’s really the next best thing to visiting boatyards in person. But next best isn’t the same as best, and so I also drove around the region visiting dealers to review firsthand the charms and abilities of many different models that appeared to suit our needs.
Eventually, I concluded that the right boat for us was a thirty-foot Cape Dory cutter. I have always admired Cape Dory boats for their lovely proportions and legendary quality of construction. “CD”s are classic-looking boats, designed by naval architects who revere the historic hull shapes they have inherited from their predecessors and lay down lines for today’s Cape Dory hulls that make them timeless. And they are built to take a person to sea and back again in good shape, ready to withstand whatever the conditions may hold in store. Their hulls are heavy fiberglass, studded with heavy-duty, custom-forged bronze fittings and strong rigging. On deck and below, in the cabin, Cape Dorys are graced by beautifully crafted cherry and teak woodwork.
When Patti and I lived in Boston we owned a smaller boat made by Cape Dory, an eighteen foot daysailer that we sailed in Boston Harbor when we lived in a high-rise apartment downtown and, later, from its mooring on Quincy Bay just in front of our shorefront cottage there. So I knew I wanted another Cape Dory, just a bigger one we could take to sea and could sleep aboard when snugly anchored in a harbor. As a concession to our age and sometimes easily-strained muscles, I decided to find one with a cutter rig—an arrangement where instead of having only one large jib in front of the mast, there is also a smaller, “self-tending” staysail pretty much handles itself all day long. This eliminates the hard work of tugging on flailing lines to manage a larger jib in heavy winds every few minutes when changing direction or “tacking”.
One happy day my phone rang. It was a yacht broker in Maine who knew I was in the market for a Cape Dory cutter, and he had just taken one under commission to sell. From his description of its pristine condition, I knew it was my boat and booked myself a seat on the next plane out. Once I clambered aboard, I could see why he told me to get there fast. It was perfect, and I bought it on the spot.
When I took possession of this perfect boat I bestowed on it the name I have long harbored in my mind as the perfect name for just the right boat—”Concinnity”. The word means “an unusually harmonious joining together of disparate parts”, the perfect name not for any old boat but certainly for one whose graceful lines and sailing rig justified it. But to me, the concept of “concinnity” went well beyond appearance of a boat.
In fact, I had long envisioned three levels of meaning to “concinnity”. On one level, of course, appearance did matter: the harmoniously joined parts might be the elements of the boat itself—the shape of the hull, the design of the deckhouse, the triangular proportions of the rig, the colors, the cockpit, the wheel. On another level, the elements in harmony would be the boat, the water, the wind, the seascape, the crew, even the hissing sound of the bow wave against the bow as it cut through the water—the interplay among them all that produces the inexpressible bliss of sailing. And on yet another level, the name “Concinnity” described the interplay among the people on board—family and other friends who had worked smoothly to provision the boat, decide on the course, cast off, hoist sail, get underway, and then nestle in the cockpit or the cabin or sprawl on the deck, everyone there to make each other’s lives more sublime that day.
The thrill of taking delivery of Concinnity was tempered by a chill of intimidation, though. I began to realize that it had been almost twenty years since our last major cruise, and that I needed a refresher course in—well, in just about everything. So I hired a licensed captain for a day to sail with us and review everything we needed to know about the boat, about safety issues, about navigation, and about boat-handling for a craft of this size.
Everything was now in order, it seemed. Our life of sailing was on the verge of an ecstatic renaissance.
It didn’t happen.
What did happen was that I got scared. I started thinking about hypothermia—dying of cold-water exposure. On the coast of Maine, the water is so frigid that if you fall in you could be unconscious in ten minutes and dead in an hour. I have been a sailor all my life, and I have sailed the Maine waters for thirty years, in day-sailers and chartered cruisers. I have taken our children out on those waters year after year, since they were very young. Before, when I was younger, I always considered the quiet menace of the chill waters, the hidden rocks, the crashing surf, the tumbling about on high seas, the sudden squalls, the swirling tidal currents as part of the adventure, part of what made the coast the coast.
Now I began thinking more—well, actually, thinking for the first time—about my safety out there, and that of our grandchildren. I am not as agile as I once was. Never a gymnast type, in former days I could nevertheless scramble around on boats, hopping in and out of cockpits and cabins, and clamber around deck gear with a surety that I just can’t muster now. Nor do I still have the unerring sense of balance that I once had to keep myself steady on a bouncy, sloping, wet-slick deck. And one more chilling thought: I no longer have the upper body strength to hoist myself back aboard a high-freeboard boat if my life literally depended on it.
And I found myself concerned about taking our grandchildren out there. I had thought nothing of taking our own children out time and again, way back when, and showing them the ropes. But taking their children—our grandchildren—out into a situation where there was danger, and where my ability to cope with danger wasn’t what it used to be, gave me pause. A day on the water which used to be sheer joy was now tinged with stress. Whatever became of the sheer joy of it all? Each time we sailed, I found anxiety muscling aboard like a well-mannered but menacing pirate and refusing to disembark when asked. The fun was being compromised, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to make the gnawing fears go away.
Wouldn’t it be wiser, I began to ask myself, to switch to a nice inland lake, where instead of the turmoil and lethality of the ocean we could enjoy the tranquil calm of warm waters flat enough to skip a stone on? Instead of the sharp cry of gulls, wouldn’t it be so much more soothing to hear the crooning of loons across the moonlit, mirror-like, black sheen of some pristine pond? The grandchildren could swim to their hearts delight all day, and whenever we felt like it we could hop into a little sailboat and skim across the temperate waters to our heart’s delight, to our oh-so-calm heart’s delight?
And so at the end of that season, I put our ocean-going sailboat up for sale. I put our coastal cabin up for sale, too, and began looking for that lakefront place elsewhere in Maine.
What was going on here, anyhow? Is this a truly lamentable retreat from life itself, a wimping-out of the first order, a sad example of what happens when a person loses either his courage or his will to live with gusto, or both? Are we going from somebody who rocks, to somebody who just sits and rocks? Or is it a simple, uncomplicated recognition that nothing is forever—things change, times change, people change. I grew up sailing on a lake, and maybe I’m looking to recapture some of those sweet days. Oh, this is a fork in the road, for certain. This is a life choice of the highest order. The question must be recognized and answered unequivocally.
Do I fight against this quiet pull, this gentle slide toward tranquility, and drive myself through whatever waves of unease rise to break against me on the coast? Or do I ease into the flow that calls me away from that, to the serenity of a quiet lakeshore??
For now, I am going inland, allowing myself to respond to this invitation to life with less stress. There is loss in this, to be sure. Letting go of the ocean with its drama and challenge is poignant. No, it’s more than that. It is painful. This is a major turnaround in my life, but I am comfortable with the decision, even if it does hurt.
Meanwhile, back at the end of my first year in retirement, I was beset not only by a hemorrhage of confidence but an overload of activity that wasn’t adding up to anything.
Too much. It was all too much. I finally understood what my friends who had retired before I did meant when they said, “I’ve never been so busy in my life!” I had heard that from all of them, and each time I nodded in specious sympathy while an inner voice muttered skeptically, “Yeah, sure, tell me about it. I just got back from a three day business trip, am leaving again tomorrow morning, have 371 unread e-mails in my in-box, am several days overdue on an analysis I need to write, have to create a 15-slide Power Point presentation for the meeting on Friday—yeah, whine to me about how busy you are.”
But now I knew what they meant.
It’s not a matter of literally being busier than before. After all, there are only so many hours in a day, and during our years of employment many of us were used to working for at least ten or twelve of those hours Monday through Friday and spending lots of time at the computer over the weekend, too. (Patti once sent me a message about that by posting a New Yorker cartoon on our refrigerator. It showed a couple sitting in their living room easy chairs, him focused on a laptop computer balanced on his knees. She announces, “Honey, you’re home!”)
Busier than ever? Not likely. Not in the era of the laptop and the Blackberry and internet access through six different gadgets in your pants pockets and holsters laced to your belt, all poised to buzz you to attention and zip you right back into the realm of work at the press of a button.
So what was this “never been so busy in my life” really about, anyhow? Clearly, it’s not a fact, it’s a feeling.
For me, it was a feeling that everything was out of control. Now, I am not a control freak, having to be in charge of all kinds of things both within and beyond my legitimate sphere of influence. I probably was like that early in my career, but I shucked that habit decades ago, thanks to a helpful distinction I learned in a Twelve-Step program. Back then I discovered that it was permissible to declare something NMP—Not My Problem. This mantra is a wonderful antidote for becoming seasick on the swells of poorly managed tumult all about, my chronic condition when still in the throes of trying to function as General Manager of the Universe and solve everyone’s problems—no, actually, design everyone’s life—for them. I retired from that job a long time ago. As a result, I have been able to maintain a fairly casual approach even when embroiled in matters of some import.
But when I was busy, busy, busy in my prior life, the things I was busy with were my things. I’d always been a pretty self-directed person. I had been busy doing whatever I was doing largely because I myself thought of doing it, decided to do it, and would do it primarily to satisfy my purposes at the moment. There were times in my life when, technically, I had a boss—but I never felt like I had a boss. I felt like my own person. Always.
No longer. For the first time in my life I felt pushed around by the initiatives of others, rather than following my own inner drive and direction every day. I was not acting, I was reacting. It was open season on Eliot’s calendar, and it seemed like everyone on the eastern seaboard had a hunting license. And no limit on how many hours of my time they could bag.
Even the glorious travel I enjoyed was more reactive than proactive much of the time. Friends would invite us to join them in this irresistible place or that, and we’d just up and go. Mostly, I suppose, because we could. After all, for years we’d watched enviously as our friends who were long since retired zipped off to one exotic locale after another—Greece today, Tibet tomorrow, Peru the next day. It all sounded so…so…giddy with freedom and adventure. Why shouldn’t we jump into the party ourselves, now that we could.
And so we found ourselves on the vibrant streets of Bangkok—a phantasmagorical hybrid of New York City/Las Vegas/Bejing, noisily modern and rustic all at once, sidewalk wok-chefs churning out pad thai noodles on propane-tank cookers right under multi-million dollar digital displays straight out of a Hollywood special-effects festival. And later, out in the countryside, rattling along in a rickety wooden-wheeled cart drawn by lumbering oxen along a rutted dirt track linking two rural villages four miles apart where each spoke a different language and had no intercourse between them. Not a single metal tool visible in one of the villages—a thousand-year time warp.
Home to do laundry, then off again, and again, and again. Over time, we played ring around the Ring of Kerry in Ireland, patio-perched in Puerta Vallarta, dawdled in France, even rode off to western Pennsylvania for a weekend—fine places all, and with the dearest people in our lives—but not a single one of them a place I would have put at the top of my list of places to be or things I wanted to do at that moment. That just wasn’t what I had in mind. The problem was, I didn’t seem to have anything else in mind that was sufficiently compelling to prompt me to say “Let’s not.” Calendars, like nature, abhor a vacuum. And so the overtures came, and we unhesitatingly went along because we did want to be with those particular people, and because we had the flexibility in our calendars to make it work.
That’s the key. The wonderful—and accursed—flexibility. Absent a clear alternative to which I might have been committed, it’s so easy to rationalize it all with, “Well, isn’t this what these years are supposed to be for? To be able to pick up and go spontaneously? To be with the people we love the most? To be adventurous and explore new places?”
Well, yes, but.
But something’s getting lost in all this, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s confusing. It’s slippery. Sure, all this is undeniably fun. But it’s not fun, either. I’m enjoying what we’re doing (sort of, most of the time). But I’m missing something, too. How come I’m not throwing myself more into this? Seems to be working for Patti. Seems to be working for our friends. What’s wrong with me, anyhow?
And so passed a year of delights and distress. We traveled all over the place. I made business trips to Boston for meetings and planning retreats every month or so, and spent a few more days a month at my desk handling Company matters. I conducted workshops and deliberations for the various organizations I was trying to help, burning three or four days in preparation and another day or two after facilitating these events writing up my recommendations for their follow-on actions. I did what I thought I was supposed to do as member of a few boards, never knowing when to shut up at meetings and consequently getting assigned to follow through on whatever brainstorm had blurted from my lips before I could quench it.
I was busier than I had ever been, or so it truly seemed.
Why did it seem so ridiculously, disproportionately hectic, anyhow? I suppose it was because I had less sense of direction than ever before in my life. If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. In fact, all the roads will get you there. So go ahead, just take them all.
And I had no sense of priorities—whatsoever. And absolutely no boundaries—no way to defend myself. Got more for me to do? Sure, okay. Just put it on the pile over there. I’ll get to it somehow. (Grimace.) Chair that committee? Nobody else you think can do it? Yes, I’ll be happy to do it. (Lie.)
What had once been my “studio” and morphed into my “study” was now undeniably my “office”, and I began calling it that—not unmindful every time I used the word of the melancholy loss I was acknowledging. Certainly, it was the farthest thing from a studio. Clutter everywhere. Binders and piles of files teetered on tables, mounded up on chairs and littered the floor, many containing plans and permits and bids I was working on while chairing the facilities committee for the tennis club.
This pile right here’s a mountain of stuff for the overhaul of the four clay courts at the club. Five or six alternative courses of action. Just refinish the ones we have? Remove and replace them with the same? Convert them to hard courts? Dig them up and install new Hydro-courts, kept moist by underground irrigation pipes rather than overhead sprinklers like the ones we have now? Re-do them now, or wait a while? And what about Court #5, our hard court? Poorly resurfaced a year before, the repairs to the poor resurfacing made it less than wonderful. Should we completely re-do it at the same time as the four clay courts? Otherwise, wouldn’t we have to truck heavy equipment across our new clay courts at a later date to re-do #5, damaging them? Hey, why not make #5 a Hydro-court, too? But if we did that, what would people play on outside during the winter? And what about replacing the 75-year-old fences? Or should we just repair them? If we replace them, keep the same ten-foot height? Or lower them, like more modern courts? Same number of gates in the fences? Same locations?
That pile over there? That stuff is for the handicapped access project. Questions, and answers. And more questions generated by the answers. Shall we build an exterior ramp? If so, how to protect it from the elements in winter? Or an exterior lift, from the parking lot? But wouldn’t that require removing our precious old lilacs all along that wall there? Maybe we need an interior elevator. Would we have to remove the cast-iron spiral stairs and put it there? But that hall’s too narrow for a wheelchair. What about a folding-seat lift up the main staircase? Oh, the stairs are too narrow, and curving, too. That won’t work. Actually, shouldn’t we do a long-range vision for the club and a master plan of the facility before doing anything about this, so we’ll avoid possibly having to undo whatever we’re going now—or avoid working around it, to our detriment? Now, who has jurisdiction over the specifications? The Township? The State? OSHA? If we call it a handicapped ramp, does that mean we have to bring the rest of the building into compliance with a whole raft of handicap-code requirements? What kinds of drawings and permits do we need to do this? What? We need a whole new site plan drawn up just to get a permit for a small ramp?
Here’s a folder marked “Urgent”—let’s see now. Oh, yes. Water is dripping onto the floor of our brand new indoor squash courts. Ruining the very expensive floors. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were just a roof leak from the new rubberized roof we put on (after debating metal, tar, shingles, fiberglass, and everything but thatch.) But no, we have water that’s dripping onto the floor in summertime from condensation that gathers on the air conditioning ducts that run just across the rear of the courts. If only they had been built three feet back off the courts, this would not be a problem. Ah, but that’s only the summer problem. In winter, we get water on the floors from…from…from…where the heck is that coming from, anyhow? Oh. Ice dams in the gutter along the back side of the building. Melting snow backs up under the roofing, drips on the court. The architect says just pull off the gutter and let the rain and snow run right off onto the ground, just the way it does off the adjacent indoor tennis court roof. No, others protest, what if water pools up against the building and infiltrates under the floor? That would be worse!
I was not born to deal with this crap.
I found myself really angry. All the time. I knew why I was angry at the pile of tennis-club crap. I had agreed to go on the board because, after some thirty years as a member, I’d never done a darned thing to help out. I had just paid my dues and played my games. It was time to give something back. It just turned out that the role I assumed was, for me and my personal makeup, the worst possible use of my mind and time. I am a “big picture” person, not a detail person, and this was a job riddled with the most aggravating and incessant detail known to humankind. My anger at that work was pretty understandable. But it was by no mean all I was angry about.
I was also angry at my failure to be writing. Angry at having become so passive, so reactive, so easily led. Angry at my inability to prioritize my time and say “no” to things I didn’t want to be spending my time on.
And I was—irrationally—angry at the legitimacy of all the other people’s requests for my help. After all, they were only asking me to do things I was quite expert at doing and seemingly had the time to do, in support of the undeniably wonderful causes they themselves were laboring as volunteers to help improve the world. How could I fail to support them? How could I possibly deny my capabilities and withhold them? These were devoted people doing wonderful things to alleviate suffering in the world and bring new life to people. They clearly believed in what they were doing. Certainly they believed in what they were doing with far more certitude and passion than I believed in anything that I might otherwise be doing with my time and energy—so why in the world would I ever say “no” to them?
I was at their mercy.
And I never gave them any reason to bestow mercy, in the form of leaving me alone, because I kept on being available and saying “yes”. Lacking a compelling reason to say “no”—a reason that in my value system would have to be a lot better than “Sorry, I have a 2:20PM tee time at the golf course”—I was my own worst enemy. I was dead in the water. Easy pickin’s. After a lifetime of pretty stimulating risk-taking and feeling largely like my own boss, even when I wasn’t, I had become accustomed to the feeling of wind in my hair and adventure at hand. For more than thirty years, I have had a quote from Andre Gide wedged into the frame of a nautical map hanging on my wall. It says, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
Another maritime quote, this one from Shakespeare, began to nag at me: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to victory.” Many quote this much and fail to continue with the next line, the coup de grace: “Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
A lifelong sailor and seemingly alert reader of opportunity, I hated the thought that I was squandering this favorable tide of retirement. Was I? Was I blowing it?
No comforting answer came. Instead, I was now haunted by yet another quote long resident in my mind, this one from Henry Thoreau: “Most men live lives of quiet desperation…”
Those words were haunting enough. But the rest of the quotation, again rarely cited, struck even deeper into my sinking heart: “…and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
Oh, God. What a doleful image. I knew I had been born with a song in my heart, and that writing was the only way I would ever sing it. I had known this forever. And now I realized that I truly might die stillborn. This was no joke, no theoretical passing notion. I get just one chance at this life. And now I knew that I might indeed be living into the years when I could make writing the primary part of my life, but failing to do so. Failing to live that most precious part of my life for which I felt I had been born.
I recalled wistfully the hours I had spent thirty years earlier writing my first book, Father Feelings. I always listened to music when writing that book, and of the many songs I played repeatedly, none spoke more movingly to me as I wrote about my life with our children than Elton John’s “Your Song”:
If I was a sculptor, but then again, no
Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show
I know it’s not much but it’s the best I can do
My gift is my song and this one’s for you
And you can tell everybody this is your song
It may be quite simple but now that it’s done
I hope you don’t mind
I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you’re in the world
I knew, and I know, that writing is my song. And it had fallen silent. I had to do something.
I considered severing my ties with the Company. Perhaps if I could quit gnawing on the remaining challenges there and get them off my mind, it would open up some mental elbow room I could fill with writing. Yes, that’s it: get my mind clear—that, plus the extra hours that would open up, then maybe I’d really get on with my writing.
Who was I kidding? I was painfully aware I was diddling away many more hours a month on nonsense activities than I was putting into the Company. And I had zero confidence that clearing my calendar and mind of that work would automatically mean I was spending those extra hours writing.
I was feeling stupider by the minute.
My baleful passivity was not terminal. Yet. I still had a pulse, but I knew that if I didn’t take action I was a goner. I’d soon be in the grave with my song still in me. Still in me. And still in me.
So I shook myself awake and began to get my act together. I started by practicing “No” and “No more”. This was not easy. I am a fairly amiable guy. All else being equal I’d rather be liked than disliked. And I suppose that one way to be liked is to be responsive to people’s requests. I knew they would continue to come, that there was no way to change other people. I had to change myself into someone who felt okay about saying “No.” So I took a deep breath and tried it out. I used the “No” with new requests for my help, saying that I was already overcommitted. The more I said it, the easier it became. And it was certifiably a true statement.
I used the “No more” with the engagements I already had. I let it be known that whatever project or phase we were currently doing would be the last I’d be able to do, as emerging commitments were going to be taking my time in the future.
What emerging commitments? I didn’t owe them an explanation, and I never gave one. But I felt the need of having one myself, and so I told myself that my commitment was to writing. That’s all I needed, as I had learned many years before. I remembered a simple but powerful little technique I was given by a professor of psychology at the theological seminary where I had studied. He had formerly been a parish minister, and I asked him how he protected himself from the incessant and insatiable demands that hundreds of parishioners inflict on their pastors. He said that he routinely flipped ahead in his pocket calendar to the weeks that were clear and wrote in, on several evenings a week, the one word “Family”.
“See,” he said, “if somebody asks you to do something on such and such a date, and you look at your calendar and see that the time is wide open, you’re pretty helpless. To say ‘no’ is too arbitrary for nice guys like us, so you’ll say ‘yes’. And that could happen for every night of the week. But if there is something—anything at all—already there, the answer is easy and true: ‘I’m sorry, but I see that I have a prior commitment for that date. I’m afraid I can’t do it.” Or, if you’re actually interested, you can counter with ‘Can we find another time to do it?’ That’s all it takes.”
Shortly after graduating from seminary more than forty years ago, I had employed his little tactic when I served a parish of 1,800 members whose requests could have filled several lifetimes, not to mention inflicting subtle damage on our family relationships. Now here I was about to employ it again, to protect time for writing. So I blocked time on my calendar every weekday morning from 8:30AM until noon and vowed to use that time for writing and only writing.
What is more, I vowed that I would complete the book I was working on at the time—something I had started ten years before—by the end of the year. I had a hundred pages already done. Four months, to write another two hundred fifty or three hundred. Write every morning? September, October, November, December. Every morning? Could I? Would I?
On December 31st, I finished the last page, page 375. “No” and “No more” had worked. So had “I will.” I had successfully fended off big distractions—involvements that would have meant serious commitment to others’ causes—and was able to complete the remaining tasks related to the tennis club facilities improvements. Meanwhile, I was reasonably successful at dispatching the smaller distractions, like e-mails that popped up on my screen and lured me away from what I was writing to jump temporarily back in the world of the Company or to respond to a friend’s question or joke or request. But I had not yet brought myself to the simple but curiously difficult step of simply turning off my e-mail while I was writing. Still clinging to something.
The most painful consequence of my fresh commitment came from the most unexpected quarter—my relationship with Patti. The concept of “unintended consequences” took on flesh and blood as a curious tension hummed, vibrated, and then crackled. My hard-won feat of isolating myself in my office, incommunicado, for a hunk of the day was aggravating her. There is a tired old joke about retirement which has the wife saying, “I married him for better or for worse but not for lunch.”
Our problem was the exact opposite.
Patti and I are profoundly in love with each other and, beyond that, we feel deeply bonded as each other’s best friend. We really treasure time together, and almost nothing is as satisfying to us as getting in the car for the eight-hour drive to Maine when we know that we are exclusively there for each other alone that entire time on the road, no matter how many people may await us at the cabin. And given the fact that my work over previous decades took me far afield and separated us for intolerably long periods of time, these retirement days seemed destined to make up for lost time.
So Patti found it very difficult to accept the fact that I was around, but not available. I was there, but not for her. She felt shut out by my isolating myself right in her midst, like I was turning my back on her. When I walked out of the house to my little office that is an appendage to our detached garage at the rear of the property, it was for me like going to an island, a distant country, a faraway place where I immediately became amnesic for her and home. I ignored the ringing phone, learned to ignore the bing-bong of my e-mail alerts, didn’t hear the incessant barking of our dog asking to come into the house, was irritably uncooperative with Patti when she appeared at my door with any urgent requests that happened to fall between 8:30AM and noon. If someone dropped by the house—someone it might have been cordial and polite of me to go greet—I pretended not to notice their arrival.
Now, Patti is the most spontaneously engaging person in the world, always ready to reach out to anyone around her, always alertly sensitive to people’s moods and needs, always ready to drop whatever she is doing to be attentive to them. Hospitality, charity, caring are rooted profoundly and deeply in her DNA. So quick to respond unselfishly herself, she doesn’t find it easy to understand how someone else might be intentionally unresponsive, arbitrarily unavailable.
Not that she exactly pestered me. She did her level best to protect my time for writing, because she fully understands how precious it is to me. Her trips out to my office were infrequent and truly couldn’t wait until noon. But I nonetheless had difficulty masking my irritation. And a little rejection goes a long way. I was hurting her.
Unfortunately, a prior experience with writing many years before had left a residue of painful rejection. I had bailed out of a co-authoring project with her, and now I was proceeding alone—once again. And that prior project had been close to her heart.
At the height of the women’s liberation movement in the ’70s, Patti and I had some mutual insights about the plight of women in the workplace. Specifically, we realized how important it is in business to have a mentor who can show you the ropes and guide you in your climb to success. And we realized that young women in business rarely had such mentors, as the available ones were all male at that point in our history, and the man/woman dynamic was too fraught with sexual energy to make that a safe heterosexual process. As a consequence, young women were being deprived of this advantage.
We began work on the book together to explore the phenomenon and seek ways to mitigate the disadvantage for women. We interviewed the leading experts in the field and drew some conclusions and laid out our premises and began writing. It was going to be an important book.
Scarcely minutes into it, I lost interest. I realized right away that I am not a reporter of others’ situations or of phenomena that do not touch me. For better or for worse, I’m really only interested in what occurs in my life and what I make of it. And so to Patti’s great disappointment, I abandoned the project, depriving both her and its intended readers of much possible gratification.
This conclusion about what kind of writing interests me got reinforced shortly afterward, when I began a book on how men—and in particular how I personally—experienced “women’s liberation”, which was (or so it felt) a unilateral restructuring of the social contract between men and women in the ’60s and ’70s. I say “unilateral” because men certainly did not ask for all the changes brought about by this movement, many bitterly resisted it, and even those of us who actively supported it with our minds and our money found it disorienting (to say the least) to have all our expectations of male dominance rent asunder.
The truth, or so it seemed to me, is that men largely experienced women’s liberation as loss. Certainly the women in our lives benefited as did women everywhere, and no one but a churl or a misogynist could fail to cheer their gains. But that didn’t invalidate the reality of men’s loss. Loss of primacy, loss of power, loss of status. At the very least, men’s self-importance was challenged if not eclipsed.
I also thought I was detecting a silent backlash—a passive-aggressive reaction—against women that was quite pernicious, and I wanted to expose it. I suspected that unless we men named, and actually grieved for, whatever loss we felt in “women’s liberation”, the undertow of male resistance would persist far longer than necessary, and far longer than was good for either women or men.
But of course I also recognized that the book would likely be held up to scathing ridicule. In the foreword that I wrote, I acknowledged that it was somewhat akin to asking people to understand the plight of the slave-owners who experienced emancipation as loss. See emancipation from their viewpoint? What a sick joke! Have empathy for them? Never! Acknowledge their “loss”? Ridiculous! Help them through a “grief process”? What a repulsive idea!
(I still wonder, however, if a somewhat more empathic approach, rather than Reconstruction, might not have yielded a far more harmonious relationship between the races than the slightly-masked fear and hostility that besets the U.S. even to this very day.)
The how-I-am-experiencing-women’s-liberation book went all too well. I tumbled headlong into a volcano of fiery feelings about how Patti’s professional aspirations and career visited occasional burdens on me that (in my demented, monomaniacal mind) might be obstacles to my frantic, single-minded pursuit of success on my own terms. I poured out page after page of accurate, but un-lamentable, examples of the now-dashed expectations with which I had been raised and socialized and even heard sung romantically. Irving Berlin told guys of my generation what to expect:
The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and as pink as a nursery
The girl I call my own
Will wear satins and laces and smell of cologne
Her nails will be polished and, in her hair,
She’ll wear a gardenia and I’ll be there
`stead of flittin’, I’ll be sittin’
Next to her and she’ll purr like a kitten
A doll I can carry, the girl that I marry must be
So, how come this vibrant teacher and speech therapist and educator of the deaf and learning disabled I married is roaring around fifty or sixty hours a week doing wonderful work and expecting me—important me, about-to-be-rich-and-famous me, assured-by-my-mother-of-my-impending-great-ness me—to share in these grubby household duties and parental chores? Isn’t that what wives are for? What the hell was going on here, anyhow? Sure, she was already a teacher when we met and married, but, hey, wasn’t her ultimate role to drop out of that and, besides tending the children, be the great little woman behind the great man she was married to?
I never had a single such conscious thought. But my predictable aggravation at any incursion on my pursuit of success certainly revealed that I must have been harboring a full load of resentment somewhere down inside the reaches of my twisted psyche.
The farther I dove into my writing on the subject, the more ferocious the reactions I felt whipping up in me. Writing has always been the most effective way for me to get in touch with my feelings, and my feelings about this stuff were going off like a Roman candle, sparks flying every which way, some flaring toward the whole stash of fireworks over there. Soon it simply got way too hot to handle, and so I decided this could never be a first-person-singular book if I wanted my marriage to survive, which I clearly did.
So I looked for a cooler approach to the subject, some way to dilute and even to mask my own dangerous feelings. Okay, I thought, I’ll make this a kind of collective story, a survey of the different ways men are experiencing and dealing with it. I began interviewing friends and acquaintances, to capture on tape their own stories of how they the revolution was going in their households and in their own psyches. I got a lot good stuff.
But again, when I went to write it, my energy sagged and buckled like a kicked tent. Sure, I was reasonably interested in how my buddies Nick and Harry and Dudley and Mitch were finding things, but I had passion only for understanding the reality I myself was living.
I abandoned that book, too.
Now, decades later, I found myself in retirement and faced with an opportunity to claim abundant time and space for writing, but found that claiming it reactivated palpable tension between Patti and me that went way back, and way deep. No wonder my new determination to put writing front and center in my life was stirring up some turmoil that neither of us welcomed. We had faced such tensions before of course—they go with the territory in marriage—and knew we’d resolve this one, too. I was just sorry that I had to be the one who was stimulating the challenge.
But whether out of admirable discipline or lamentable meanness, I stayed the course and managed to protect enough time to finish a first draft of that book I was working on, and I felt proud of myself. I had driven myself hard and enjoyed the drive. As always, the act of writing my own experiences revealed to me previously unnoticed—or long buried—feelings about the way I was living my life. No wonder I love this process so much.
Now I was eager to see about getting my book published.
That would be a lot tougher, unfortunately, than it had been to get my previous two books published. Back in the ’70s when I realized that what I had been writing about my being a father could actually become a book, I knew that I would need a literary agent to represent me. Otherwise, my manuscript would wind up in the “slush pile” of unsolicited material that deluges publishers every day and may remain interred there, un-read, forever. They rely on reputable agents to pre-screen manuscripts for them and welcome overtures by those with track records of having presented works that sold very well when published.
At the time, I had business relationships with some major publishers who were producing “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” children’s books for us. I spoke with the senior editors there who handled adult books and asked which literary agents brought them the manuscripts they were most likely to publish. Several names came up again and again, and I set out to meet with each of them. I was fortunate enough to get the attention of Claire Smith, a well-known and highly respected agent with a clientele that included many household-name writers. To my delight, she was enthusiastic about my manuscript and agreed to represent me, “But only,” she said, “if you’ll promise me that this isn’t your only book, that you’ll keep writing lots more books.”
No promise was ever easier to make.
Or, as it has turned out, harder to keep. Writing as sporadically as I have, it would be ten years before I presented her with my next manuscript. And she would never see this latest one, coming nearly twenty years after that.
Claire contracted cancer in her early sixties and died a few years ago—a huge loss for many.
Her death was an especially problematic loss for me—trivial in comparison with the transcendent tragedy of the world losing a loving and well-loved companion and compatriot, but problematic to me nonetheless. The fact is that, except for the occasional miracle, one simply doesn’t get published by major houses without the services of a good agent, and I had just lost mine. Unlike most of the writers in her stable who were well known and putting out best-selling books with some regularity, I had published but two books in nearly thirty years. Neither were best sellers. I was not a card-carrying member of the literary tribe. I had no connections in the trade. I was a nobody. Her other clients would have prospective new agents pounding on their doors they morning her obituary appeared, eager to sign up proven talent.
I was pretty sure those same agents were highly unlikely even to take my phone calls or respond to my correspondence.
I was right.
A famous-writer friend here in Princeton was kind enough to give me the names of a dozen top-flight agents he knew. But he was not kind enough to give me (or anyone else) permission to use his name in approaching them. He just doesn’t practice the use of his name, which is why he also refuses to write “blurbs” for the book jackets of other authors.
So I was pretty much out in the cold, starting from scratch.
I began to work the list, but I couldn’t get anyone to respond to my cold calls or over-the-transom correspondence. After half a dozen non-responses, I realized this was a fool’s errand. It was time to get some help, to do some networking. So I turned to my financial advisor who had previously shown interest in my writing and who had indicated that he had other clients who were tied to the world of books. He read my manuscript, which is a collection of true stories recounting events in my life that are a bit out of the ordinary and reveal something of the way the world works. He said that he liked the stories a lot but felt that the book needed an overarching theme. This made sense to me. It was but a loosely structured series of pieces—something a celebrity could get away with publishing, but not an unknown.
Then he gave the manuscript to another client of his who had recently retired as CEO of a major retail bookstore chain. He expressed exactly the same verdict.
They both graciously offered suggestions for ways to organize the material thematically. I was grateful for the suggestions, but was not at all comfortable with following any of them. The unifying concepts they proposed felt either too self-aggrandizing or too blatantly commercial. I am fairly certain that had I been willing to do as they suggested, the material might be in print today, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that.
My father never enjoyed the degree of success that he might have, as an architect, because he was reputedly too persnickety about the purity of their work. He was not a man to compromise his principles and internal gyroscopic sense of integrity, and so he instinctively and often abrasively condemned what he took to be aesthetic corner-cutting or pandering to client’s inferior tastes.
Was I reflecting some of that same mindset, refusing to shape my material into something “the market” would love? Was I engaged in chronic suicide of my writing “career”?
I was losing heart fast.
Soon thereafter, I lost focus, as well. The hard-won time I had set aside each morning for writing gradually slipped off my calendar. I canceled a day here, a week there, as I felt less and less confident about the productivity of time spent pursuing it. Why protect time that’s not accomplishing anything, that’s only frustrating me?
Then the time blocks on my calendar disappeared completely. We embarked on a month-long trip to Burma, and that took me worlds away in more ways than one. I was captivated by how utterly “foreign” a place it was. Images of the humble and generous Burmese people, anguish at their life in a military dictatorship, surges of respect for their modest and resourceful way of life all swept in to displace any thought about that tenuously-held, inadequately-themed manuscript. It disappeared somewhere into the nether regions of my mind and would not surface again for many, many months—not until Burma and a long summer in Maine and my own discouragement had long since smothered it nearly to death.
But like the proverbial blade of grass insisting its way through cracks in the concrete, the unfinished manuscript would not lie quiet. Resurface it did, giving me a chance to return to it with fresh determination. Come fall, I felt intent on either bringing that book to fulfillment or consigning it to the realm of Xeroxed family memoir, for the amusement of my children and grandchildren.
I told my famous-writer friend about my floundering book—about the readily acknowledged need for a thematic organization to the material but my inability either to dream up one for myself or to accept the suggestions that had been proffered to date. A non-fiction writer himself, he instantly understood my dilemma and suggested that I hire an experienced editor to help me out. Normally, this kind of editorial work is commissioned and paid for by a publishing house after they have seen the promise in a manuscript and bought the rights to it. But it seemed clear to me that I needed to improve it before any first-rank agent would be interested in representing me and presenting the work.
He offered me the name of his own editor of longstanding, now doing some freelance work. “That’s what she does for me all the time—bring some order out of the chaos I generate,” he said, and gave me permission this time to use his name. Masking my naïve surprise that someone who is considered the ultimate master of his craft would ever need help that way, I hustled off to get in touch with her.
She could not have been sweeter as she begged off, owing to a major new project she had just undertaken, but she gave me the name of someone else she felt could be just the right person for me. I called him.
I had a good feeling about Russ from the first minutes of our conversation. Quiet, thoughtful, inquisitive, caring, smart—all that came through right away. He asked me to send my manuscript by e-mail and said he would read it promptly. I did. He did. Our next conversation, San Francisco to Princeton, lasted two hours as we explored the possibilities for sculpting my material. I liked his deft touch, feeling around for what enduring themes or dynamics would be most natural for me to produce from this material which was, after all, my life. This was a far cry from thinking first about what would sell, about what the market shows an appetite for. While being market-driven is an good formula for financial success, it was off-target for me. Russ seemed to understand that I was less interested in producing a best seller than in crafting a cogent and meaningful depiction of what I had learned over the years.
I eagerly loped to my studio the next morning, itching to put all this good thinking into action. I would revise the overarching concept of the book, rearrange chapters and pieces within chapters, and add some significant new material that would make the whole dramatically greater than the sum of the parts. Day by day in the weeks ahead, I would see my somewhat aimless manuscript magically evolve, as in stop-action photography of a flower blooming, into a dramatic, full-blown, glorious blossom of incandescent hues and noble posture.
Or so I thought.
Instead, I sat down at my desk, stared at my manuscript on the screen, and was instantly stymied. A chill of panic ran down my skull and neck, flashed between my shoulder blades, then swung into my gut. I snatched at the notes I had taken when talking with Russ.
They were gobbledygook to me.
Suddenly I was back in algebra and geometry at Fresno High School, cowering at my desk in fear of being called on by the teacher. A wretched math student, I would at one instant understand exactly what concept or formula the teacher was propounding—it was oh-so-brilliantly obvious—and the next instant be utterly stupefied about how to do that again on my own. Gone. Gone. Gone. My frantic brain would claw the air, hoping to comb some lingering shard of the fast-receding mathematical concept out of the ether from which I might jump-start a reconstruction of the process that seemed so obvious when the teacher laid it out. I always came up empty, which is why my FHS transcript shows that I earned—if that’s the right word—a “D” in both courses.
Ironically, in later years I would take aptitude tests at various checkpoints in my academic career and score clear off the charts in “mathematical aptitude”. I was always in the 98th or 99th percentile—on the high side, that is. Perhaps in another life I’ll figure out how someone who allegedly had such lofty aptitude could have proved so inapt at the actual practice.
Same deal here. What seemed so clear, so luminous, so right for me in my conversation with Russ was now swallowed up in a putrid murk of confusion, frustration, and irritation over which my mind hovered in a cosmic swirl of panic. I plunged myself into the murk, flailing and sloshing through the billows of elusive thought, trying desperately to grasp something substantive I could pluck out, grasp tightly, and set firmly before me to work on. I groped around, but nothing materialized. And then that Hades-like vision faded and disappeared completely. I couldn’t even remember what Russ and I had talked about. Looking again at the oh-so-careful notes I had made during our conversation scarcely stirred a scintilla of recognition. I didn’t throw them away, but I nearly did, and might as well have.
After stewing for months in embarrassed frustration, I swallowed my pride and called Russ back. I described my misery and asked him if he could please reconstruct what we had discussed and put his suggestions in writing for me, which he willingly did. But the e-mail bearing his counsel arrived just before we were to head off to spend the entire summer in at our cabin in Maine. This summer in Maine was to be the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. We had been spending time in Maine every summer for over thirty years, but when working at real jobs had always had to ration our time there to fit the demands of work. While we’d been able to spend a month or six weeks at a crack, we’d never done the whole deal—Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now, though, we were the masters of our calendars, a new addition expanding our cabin was completed, and we had “Concinnity” beckoning us to explore the Maine coastal waters under sail. Best of all, our daughters and their families would be able to be with us for most of our time there.
A sweet prospect, but not a very promising time to concentrate on writing, with so many attractive distractions at every turn. I knew myself well enough to know that I would never be able to isolate myself sufficiently amidst the whole clan to accomplish any real writing, so I just ruled out the possibility of making any attempt. I didn’t even open Russ’ e-mail. I did not want to take the edge off the fresh start I could get from it. I knew that if I preserved it until it had my full attention and energy come September, it would launch me to the moon. My fear was that a premature and cursory read through would dissipate that turbo-charge of clarity and energy. I was afraid that subjecting his ideas to a summer-long bouncing about my inattentive mind, like river rocks being polished in a tumbler, would chip off the sharp edges of clarity and risk my misapplying them when I returned to my writing in the fall.
The summer fulfilled all my dreams of what such a span of time in Maine could be, and it was buoyed in subtle ways too by my anticipated return to my manuscript when we returned home after Labor Day. Like the vague and dimly defined expectation that precedes a longed-for reunion, I felt a quiet confidence that the months back home would be profoundly gratifying as I completed the book at last, securely guided by Ross’ undoubtedly sure-handed, step-by-step instructions on how to fulfill the promise of what I had begun.
The morning after we returned home and cleared out a summer’s worth of detritus from our car, I brewed a big mug of coffee, dosed it with light cream, and headed out the back door toward my studio with a smile on my face. This was it.
Sometimes when a person sends an attachment with an e-mail, the computer spits the bit and says it doesn’t recognize the format of the attachment and, therefore, doesn’t know what kind of program to use to open it. It shows me a list of incomprehensible options and asks me which I want to use to open it.
Now, how the hell would I know what program to use to open it? I am not a computer. I couldn’t even have compiled the list of alternatives, let alone have a clue about which one could decode the bloody thing. I thought that was the computer’s job, to figure out which one to use. But what the heck, I play its silly little game. So I pick one at random, watch the computer fuss and fiddle and eventually fail to open it using my choice, inviting me to select another option. At that point I either decide that I don’t care enough about what’s in the attachment to mess with it any more and just delete the whole message, or I send a reply asking the sender to re-send it in a different format or pasted into the body of the e-mail itself.
I hate my computer when it comes up dumb like that. But after turning to Russ’ long-anticipated e-mail, I now know how the computer itself must feel.
I opened Russ’ e-mail that morning. And my computer indeed correctly recognized the format of his attachment and was able to display it for me. The computer did just fine. And so did Russ. The words that blossomed on the pages of the attachment were in English, my native tongue, my mother language. The thoughts, however, were in some foreign language. Urdu? Swahili? Coptic? Farsi? Esperanto? Martian? I had no idea what program to launch in my own brain to comprehend them. Once again, words and phrases and whole sentences silently lifted themselves off the page, wafted up toward my eyes, eased into my mind—and quietly died there.
That was it. My brain had proved utterly incapable of grasping and holding and working with even the most clearly formulated and well presented concepts with regard to overhauling this manuscript. I felt another “D” coming on. Maybe an “F”.
After that crushing morning, September might have turned terminally sour, but there was a glow of light still on the western horizon. I was scheduled to go to San Francisco on business in October, so I seized the opportunity for one last time to gain durable clarity about what to do with my manuscript. I called Russ and arranged a face-to-face meeting, hoping that a flesh-and-blood transfusion of his perspectives would accomplish what electronic and telephonic transmission of them had not.
We met and settled into comfy chairs in the serene cocktail lounge at the St. Francis hotel on Union Square. Drinks ordered, we spent a few minutes on nice-to-meet-you-in-person and getting-to-know-you and who-do-you-know chat, then got down to business. Russ gently led me once again to the promised land of clarity about what to do with my 375 pages of life chronicle in order to transform it into a real book. Waves of relief swept over me. Now I had it. The face-to-face discussion was just what I needed. Finally, I could actually inhale, absorb, digest, feel the dynamic he was proposing for the book. At last! Thank God I had that trip to San Francisco, or I’d have never gotten it.
Unfortunately, I also had a return trip back to Princeton, at the completion of which it was gone again, perhaps forever. I’m not a science whiz, but I keep hearing about this concept of half-life—the amount of time it takes for something to reduce itself by half, all on its own. I experienced it. Morbidly, I even tried to calculate it. Figuring that my flight home from San Francisco lasted five-hours, the half-life of my 100% comprehension upon exiting the St. Francis seems to be in the neighborhood of eleven minutes—but then again, I’m no math whiz, either. That much has been established beyond all doubt. Anyhow, whatever it was, it took five hours to drain 100% down to imperceptible.
Now I was teetering on the precipice of a pit, wobbly with consternation, looking way, way down into a deep darkness that rumbled ominously. I could make out that the rumble felt like a beckoning, an invitation to just lean over a bit more, let it happen, come tumbling on down into the noxious world of lethal conclusions—the conclusion that I’m no writing whiz, either. Not a whiz, maybe not even a passable hack.
Depression is often occasioned by loss. And I was now facing the possibility that I had lost my capacity to write.
That loss would be depressing beyond belief. I had lived most of my adult life waiting for the day when I could—when I would—spend these mornings at the keyboard diving headfirst into my life and surfacing, like a pearl diver, with lovely jewels of insight and delight, beaming with quiet glee even when what I had grasped down in the deep was painful to discover or to recall.
Perhaps to blunt the pain of loss, I began to reassess whether I had ever “had it”. Maybe I never did, and if so, somehow the loss might be more tolerable, might in fact be no loss at all except for a fantasy.
But the evidence, scanty though it was, strongly supported the proposition that, at least at one point in my life, I had some writing ability. I recalled how quickly Claire had agreed to represent me. And I have repeated to myself a thousand times or more, like a toddler sucking on a pacifier, the words of Leo Black, then editor-in-chief of William Morrow & Company, in his letter to Claire upon reading the manuscript for Father Feelings: “In my opinion, Eliot Daley has the writer’s gift, and that only gives me pleasure.” And I remembered how universally warm and appreciative were the reviews for Father Feelings—all, that is, except for a slightly snide one in the New York Times that chose to focus critically on my apparent affluence, as though someone with a little money had no right to puzzle out loud about perplexing challenges in life.
No, I had to acknowledge, if it was good enough for William Morrow & Company, and a Pocketbooks paperback, and excerpts in Reader’s Digest and elsewhere, that had to mean something. And my pseudonymous second book, Sick and Tired of Being Fat, was jointly published by Harper Collins and by Hazelden—guys who clearly know what they are doing. I’d published articles in national magazines, too. It was pretty obvious that I couldn’t weasel out of my impending depression by pretending the whole vision of myself as a writer was never anything more than an illusion.
In “Islands in the Stream” Ernest Hemingway disdains without sympathy a character who has let his undeniable gift for writing lie largely unclaimed, unpracticed, undeveloped over the years while pursuing other amusements. Hemingway mocks the character’s surprise that on the sporadic occasions he exercises his gift that the results are mediocre. He had no right to expect otherwise, Hemingway sternly and rightly insists.
When I read that passage twenty years ago, I knew he was talking about me.
Just as I felt impaled by the implacable truth in the final line of a New Yorker poem reflecting on the difference between those who are writers and those who yearn to be writers. The final line:
“A writer writes.”
Now I was mired in a morass of confusion about whether I was a writer at all, about whether the material I had written was a book at all, about whether I had any right to claim the dream I had dreamed all those years.
I began to feel depression seeping in. I am not a person prone to depression. Most people who know me would probably say that I’m a reasonably upbeat person. I am not afflicted with the particularly unfortunate brain chemistry that organically plunges many helpless victims into clinical depression. And as for circumstantial depression, the kind triggered by loss, I either have suffered few losses in my life or am successfully in denial about the ones I have suffered, so that is not a source of depression for me either. My family and other friends pour out such a treasure of unmerited blessings on me daily that depression would seem outlandish, obtuse, ungrateful.
But I could feel it coming on nonetheless. On the relatively rare occasions in my life when I’ve felt somewhat depressed, there were two words I would hear forming in my mind or on my lips that told me I was headed down: “Who cares?”
Now I was feeling that way about my writing, and a lot of other things, too. Who cares? I don’t. Just tell me what to do next. I’ll do it. Who cares. So I’m not writing. Who cares. So I’m not getting to the gym regularly. Who cares. So I’m not eating sensibly. Who cares. So I’m developing some shoulder problems that keep me off the tennis court. Who cares. I’m ignoring the therapy for my shoulder? Who cares. I’m still functioning and sociable when I have to be. So what if I’m not happy. Who cares.
I’ll just finish up all this stuff I have to do for the tennis club. At least I’m rotating off the board in a couple of months and won’t be bedeviled by that any more. And I’ve succeeded in shutting down the flow of requests for me to help this group and that organization. I’m still getting a kick out of working with the guys at the Company, and time with my family and other friends is still enormously satisfying.
I meandered through my days without care for what was next. Watch an hour of ESPN. Raise money for Trenton Children’s Chorus. Play a game of tennis. Read the paper. Shoot off a letter to the editor of the paper. Hang out with friends. Grope through a hundred e-mails. Go to lunch. Go to dinner. Sip some wine. Take a trip. Make one more revision in the damned contract for reconstructing the tennis courts.
Slow motion. Flat vista. Dead spirit. No song to be heard.
My life was becoming an ADD dream—just a train of myriad little things flowing by, each one snagging my attention for a few minutes, until another eased into my peripheral vision and drew me over to it for a spell, and then again, and again. Soon enough—or maybe not—the whole day had passed by all macerated into witless little bits that didn’t fit together, didn’t add up to anything, certainly didn’t add up to a whole greater than the sum of those bits and pieces.
Rapid changes of interest had never felt like a problem before. Quite the contrary. I had spent my adult life eager to get onto whatever was next, had had many different careers in fields I had no preparation for and no business lunging into. But I couldn’t resist and didn’t want to. Giving in to my own ADD-like proclivities had always been kind of scary/thrilling, a lifelong roller-coaster ride, and it kept my adrenaline pumping for decades. But now, bereft of the adventures that had felt like career leaps into the unknown, that kind of buffet-cruising through my day left me feeling kind of sick—both overfed and undernourished.
No exhortations to myself could stem this aimlessness. My free-fall into a miasma of trivia was unstoppable. Nothing mattered. There was no urgency, no differentiation, no insistence. It was like being on vacation too long, when all of a sudden you want nothing more than to get back to the structure of your home surroundings, to deal with the stream of challenges at work, to do what you do best, to restore your known place in the world.
In a previous chapter of my life I had co-founded a consulting company that advised super-rich people about their philanthropic activities. I always found the creators of fortunes quite energetic and easy to guide toward superior ways to use their wealth for societally beneficial purposes. But those who had inherited rather than created fortunes—I came to think of them as “the victims of inherited wealth”—were often totally lost in the world. They had no idea about how to spend either their money or their lives, other than to shop for things and for titillation. I truly felt very sorry for them, because they were woefully ill-trained for the job of filling their days with what, at best, were arbitrarily selected activities.
People who have always had to hustle for work and money are pretty resourceful at thinking up new things to do. But those who have always had life handed to them are far less apt to be good at that. As a result, all too many use their wealth to create a protected cocoon in which they live their own lives of quiet desperation—the fortress apartment, the gated community, the limo, the private club, the personal jet. Set apart, cosseted by comfort and elegance and mind-altering substances of one kind or another, but removed from the essential drama of human commerce.
That was when I came to understand and appreciate how the rest of us are undergirded by a strong web of support for how we design our lives, a web woven of necessity. The warp of the web is time, and the woof of the web is money. We live our lives from early days knowing that we will continually be trading off time to acquire money. Much of life’s energy is given over to finding the most satisfying formula within that immutable trade-off: how much time, for how much money, at what cost or reward in terms of personal gratification derived from exactly how we spend that time. We cannot escape that relentless process of trading-off until…until…oh!…until the day we retire.
And now all of a sudden here I was myself a victim of, well, sufficient wealth. Not great wealth, heaven knows, but enough. Just as anyone with a solid pension from the government or a business has enough. Enough to take a tumble out of the time/money safety net, like a fledgling bird tipped from the nest, suddenly free-falling until it discovers what those wings are for.
To an observer, it seemed absolutely dreamy. When anyone asked me what I was up to these days, I had a well rehearsed answer that may well have sounded too good to be true: “Well, I still have some ties to the Company—I go up there five or six times a year for board meetings and planning retreats, and handle a few other things from here. I probably spend about four or five days a month on their business. Plenty of challenges left, and I love the ongoing contact with those guys. And I’m doing some board work for the children’s chorus and the tennis club. And I’m trying to finish up a book I’ve been working on for a while. And Patti and I have been traveling quite a lot, mostly out of the country. Playing a lot of tennis and a little golf.”
What’s not to like about that? Sounds okay to most people.
But all this doing just wasn’t doing it for me.
Sure, I supposed, I’m okay.
But not great.
But not happy.
But not fulfilled.
Really? Really okay? Maybe not. Maybe, really, on the precipice of a serious depression—a depression the likes of which I have never known before and sure as hell don’t want to experience now.
I’ve dug myself out of some holes before. But damned if I know how to bootstrap myself out of this one. I had pruned away most of the commitments—the actual obligations to others that seemed to be distracting me from writing—but still it wasn’t happening for me. Maybe it was time to consider cutting off my ties to the Company. I hated the thought. I had left on a very high note, but the ultimate success was yet to be culminated. I loved the interactions with the management team, where mutual respect and affection ran deep throughout the group. I was stimulated like crazy by the discussions about problems and by coming up with wacky thinking about new solutions. People there still seemed to care about my opinion on things, still seemed to want me around.
And the world of healthcare was a place where I really knew what I was talking about, where I really knew my way around, where I was an expert.
Any place else, I realized, I’m a rookie. A seventy-year-old rookie.
No wonder I wanted to keep my ties there.
When the Pupil is Ready
“When the pupil is ready to learn, the teacher will appear”
Charlie owns and operates one of the most restless minds I’ve ever witnessed. After MIT where he dealt with things he could measure and calculate, he slid into the slippery world of human thinking and behavior. Over several decades of nurturing his congenital dissatisfaction with the way things are, he developed a sophisticated understanding of how people working in groups unwittingly conspire to destroy their own collective productivity and satisfaction. The field he helped create is called “organizational learning”, and he founded a consulting company to help corporations learn how to learn from their experience and focus their energy where it counted. I was a partner in that company for a time, reveling in the new realms of understanding they had developed. Many of his clients over the years found their productivity and satisfaction soaring after coming to understand both their patterns of chronic self-sabotage and the corrective pathways to realize their highest aspirations.
Alas, Charlie sold his organization to Arthur D. Little, Inc., the very large consulting company that proceeded, several years later, to commit suicide—the same company and same lethal event that took down a significant portion of my nest-egg. Charlie’s loss was dramatically more devastating, as he had become the largest individual shareholder in the now-worthless company.
So Charlie found himself involuntarily “retired”. Fortunately his previous years of prosperity had enabled him to invest and protect enough money to sustain most of his lifestyle despite the devastation of his holdings from the sale. He sold the twin-engined plane and the beach house in Florida, but beyond that there was little evidence that he was doing anything other than scanning the horizon for the next target—the next failure of human performance to repair.
With lots of time on his hands and boundless intellectual energy, Charlie began to experiment with new models of thinking, and models of consulting that would improve the quality of clients’ thinking. Over the course of four or five years, he dreamed up one concoction after another, experimenting on family and friends. Every few months, I’d get an e-mail from him inviting me to a workshop where he wanted to try out some new mental exercise or another. My calendar was always filled with what seemed like better things to do.
Then one day recently I got an e-mail from Julia, another former partner in Charlie’s original firm and a good buddy. “I did Charlie’s new workshop last week—the one on how to increase your capacity to generate insight—and it’s terrific! I found it really helpful. You’ve got to go!”
Julia is nobody’s fool. Super-smart and willing to be witheringly critical when the occasion calls for it, her compliments don’t come cheaply. Besides, the last course she recommended to me on the basis of her own experience did wonders for my golf game, such as it is. Like Charlie’s course, it was all about what goes on in your head, not how you swing a club. Spent three days there. Dropped about six or eight strokes off my score.
If Julia says “Go!” I go.
Charlie and his partners in this new venture had scheduled another workshop for early December, and fortunately they had room for both Patti and me to participate.
Trying to help people fiddle with their thinking is classic Charlie. God would have been well advised to consult with Charlie before finalizing the wiring of our brains. Could have saved humankind a lot of woe.
And for his latest patch on our defective thinking, Charlie had targeted “insight”. What is insight? How does it happen? Why is it so rare and so random? How could we make it happen more often, on demand, when we most need it?
As with most of Charlie’s quests, this one conjured up images of Don Quixote at full gallop, flogging Rocinante down some forlorn byway in search of higher truth or purer love. Geez, Charlie, why don’t you just chill out. I’m afraid you’re just setting yourself up for some serious disappointment. Don’t hurt yourself. Just spend more time at your piano.
Take another trip to Provence—you loved it there. Get to New York for the theater more often.
Geez, Eliot, why don’t you just drop this forlorn quest to do more writing?
Okay, I get it. Charlie is a born innovator. He has no choice in this matter. And, as it turned out, I’m glad he didn’t.
Prior to the actual workshop, Patti and I got some forms to fill out and bit of pre-work. We were asked to list a few instances from our lives where we felt lacking in insight. Could be anything where we were dissatisfied with the clarity of our understanding. Issues in a relationship. Challenges at work. The purpose of our lives. Big stuff, small stuff, anything in between.
It wasn’t hard. One came instantly leaping to the fore for me: “If I really love writing as much as I say I do and think I do, how come I spend so little time doing it?”
Another, safer question followed. “How come anesthetists don’t use our brain monitor more than they do?”
On a frigid December Wednesday, we drove up a long, curving, snow-covered drive that brought us to an elegant old stone mansion atop a wooded hill, a private castle now become a small conference center. The massive wooden door, so heavy on its enormous iron hinges, took two hands to push open. Once inside, we found ourselves gazing about a soaring entry hall the size of a small ballroom. A fire crackled in the huge fireplace flanked by cozy seats in an alcove across from twin spiral staircases looking like something from a Busby Berkeley movie set. But Christmas decorations everywhere softened the formal elegance of the interior, making even so expansive a mansion feel homey and welcoming.
Soon we met and chatted with the other sixteen participants. An eclectic bunch. Patti and I were the oldest. The others were all still working. An about-to-retire executive from DuPont. A couple of psychotherapists. A real-estate developer. A hedge-fund manager. A physical therapist. An insurance guy.
We began our first session in late afternoon. Charlie and his partners presented a summary of the beliefs and theories about insight that they had come up with. Much of what they had begun to understand had to do with clearing the space for new thought to emerge—the necessity to clear the space, and the ways to actually do it. As they noted, we humans are creatures of habit and repetition. Given our druthers, we routinely return to familiar surroundings, whether in our homes or in our brains. Thoughts and answers that have served us well in the past become irresistible magnets for our minds when a new problem emerges. I guess you could call it path of least resistance or, probably more accurately, mental laziness. We immediately head for these used answers and stick with them even when it becomes apparent that they don’t fit the new question. They have long-since proved that they don’t merit any more consideration, but we have a perverse instinct to squeeze them just one more time in hopes that this time they’ll yield something they are demonstrably incapable of yielding.
So we practiced thought-euthanasia. Charlie and his gang had devised some exercises in which our principal task was to kill off used thoughts when they flashed into our minds, the better to leave space for something new—for insight, in fact.
Wait a minute, I thought, finding space for something new might really be a problem. I began to sense that my brain is already well-rehearsed on most things, fully loaded with fondly familiar opinions about all subjects poised to spill forth at the push of a button, and far more sealed up than I might have guessed. Sealed up? Settled? I began to reflect on our snug home, which we dearly love, and the homes of our best friends. All of us are in our seventies now, and have been in our homes for a long, long time. The structures need no further remodeling. The furniture doesn’t change much. The art on the walls has been there for decades, and there’s no space for any more.
In fact, most of us own dozens of other framed pieces of artwork that formerly graced our walls, now stacked in dusty sloping clusters in attics, basements, garages. In our earlier years, we bought new ones every few years and swapped out older ones as we toyed with various trends in art and home décor and self-discovery. Then we sort of settled into a comfortable groove. Now these discards are doomed, with no hope of ever seeing the light of day, awaiting only whatever disposition our heirs will make of them decades from now.
This seemed a fit metaphor for the problem of insight: if all the visible space is already filled with well-seasoned and fondly regarded stuff, it’s tough for anything new to make itself seen or heard.
After the workshop leaders concluded their presentation of the conceptual framework, they closed the afternoon presentation with the promise that tomorrow we’d go to work on the issues and questions we had prepared before our arrival.
Thursday morning, we broke ourselves into groups of three for the first of several rounds of insight-generating. The design of our exercise was fiendishly simple. One of us would have exactly one minute to present a question or issue that bedeviled us, for which we sought greater insight. After that minute-long presentation, the other two people would engage in a seven-minute conversation with each other about the problem that had just been presented. But they would totally ignore the presenter, as though he or she were not even there. When they were done, the original presenter would have two minutes in which to talk about what he or she had experienced during the seven-minute conversation between the other two.
Restricting the presenter to one minute was a stroke of genius (or, more likely, painful trial and error as Charlie and his partners perfected this workshop over several years of effort). I had gone first in my group, and I began with my safe question: how come more anesthetists don’t use our brain monitor? Now, as it happens, I am pretty much a world-class authority on why they don’t. Understanding their behavior had been the focus of my work for my tenure at the Company and has continued to be the focus of my continuing consultation with them. I could easily have spent two or three hours—or more—explaining the dozen or more reasons I already knew of.
And if I had done that, I’d have so inundated the minds of my two discussion partners with my own “used thoughts” that it would have brainwashed them, wrecking any chances for them to think freely about the subject. They’d have spent all their time dabbling around in the myriad reasons I had cluttered their minds with, trying to sort out the ones that made sense to them and reject the ones that didn’t. Despite, of course, the fact that if any of them were the magic answer, I wouldn’t have been raising the issue in the first place.
Plus, it would have reloaded my own brain with a full inventory of used thoughts leaving no space for insight to emerge through the clutter of familiar failures.
So I presented the issue very succinctly. After a brief description of the brain monitor itself—what it is, what it does—I said that despite it’s being available in the vast majority of operating rooms, it is used on only about 17% of general anesthetics, whereas it ought to be used on about 90%.
Then my job was to be quiet. To be quiet in more ways than one. First, to keep my mouth shut and pretend I wasn’t even there. And second, to quiet my mind. To kill off stray thoughts not germane to the subject, to kill off used thoughts that leapt up to rebut anything they might say, to kill off the urge to take credit for already having thought of something they were saying long before they said it just now.
Harder than one might think.
It was not their job to solve my problem or answer my question. Their job was just to muse out loud about whatever I had said. Perhaps they would say something that was fresh and unexpected, an idea I could take and run with. That wouldn’t necessarily be my insight, but rather new thinking by others that had the power of insight for me. That would be fine, albeit a short-lived solution to the challenge of gaining insight. After all, they wouldn’t always be around to consult.
Better, in the course of listening or half-listening to them my own mind would begin to spin off somewhere unexpected, somewhere previously unexplored, somewhere an “Aha!” was waiting for me. I was reminded of the phenomenon of night vision, where the clarity of one’s sight is enhanced by looking slightly away from the specific object you want to see. Staring directly at it actually diminishes your ability to make it out.
And so for seven minutes I let myself slide into a state of suspended animation beside them, floating in quiet eddies of half-thought, listening a little and wondering a little.
When they finished, I remembered only two vivid lines of inquiry they had pursued. The first had to do with the marketing challenge.
“Eliot says the clinicians ought to be using it 90% of the time,” one began. “Says who? Of course that’s what Eliot would think, because his company would be five times as successful if they did. But maybe 17% is actually exactly the right number. Maybe the clinicians have figured that out for themselves.”
I knew for certain that this was a new thought—or at least an unthinkable one for any of us on the executive team at the Company. That thought would never have been expressed there, but it was damnably worthy of consideration.
His partner added on to the line of thought: “Or, maybe, 90% is the right number, but it’s going to take another ten years to get there no matter what the company does. We all know how slow doctors are to adopt new things.” The sober voice of experience speaking, from a man who had labored long in the healthcare field.
I was grateful for their perspective, even if it failed to present—or to stimulate in my own mind—an immediately applicable solution to the problem as I had presented it. These were undeniably fresh thoughts, however aggravating and indigestible they might be.
But I was totally unprepared for the other unforgettable avenue they pursued. From my contemplative, receptive pose with my head hanging comfortably over my folded hands, I jolted visibly and sprang upright when I heard: “Why is Eliot messing around with this question, anyhow? Doesn’t he have better things to do with his time? They’ve got hundreds of people back at the company who can worry about this. He’s retired. He doesn’t need this. What’s going on here?”
It was like a slap upside the head. Hey, wait a minute, I wanted to shout. That’s not what I asked you to talk about! I’m trying to…you know…don’t you understand…this is a big problem that we’re…it’s, really, it’s… Oh, how I wanted to argue my case!
But mute in my role and committed to the process, I couldn’t force the stark question to go away. So I parked my debating instinct and became contemplative again. I calmed down. I refolded my hands, closed my eyes, and got very quiet inside. For the rest of the seven minutes, I simply absorbed that question, letting it take root deep within me: what is going on here, anyhow?
During my two-minute feedback to them, I thanked them for knocking me off stride in my accustomed thoughts on the subject and promised that I’d be working on what they had stirred up in me by their comments. In due course, each of my two companions in the triad had his turn, and the process seemed to be equally fruitful for them, too.
Then we had a break between rounds, and I seized the moment to better prepare myself for the next one. Paradoxically, I had been gradually generating an insight about how to generate valuable insights. Namely, it was becoming very clear to me that everything depends on the quality of the question—rooting it in the most fundamental issue possible, as best one can identify it. That’s the critical element in getting to an insight that can truly satisfy. And I realized I might be able to improve my line of inquiry by framing a new, better question. So I sat myself down on a seat in the alcove by the big fireplace in the entry hall and pondered a while, until I felt it come clearer, and clearer.
Then I added a new one to my list: “What is my primary identity at this point in my life?”
I returned to the upstairs conference room to find that the players had been shuffled, and I settled myself into a new triad, partnered with a fifty-something physical therapist and a thirty-something financier. For this round, I decided to trot out my new and improved question: what is my identity now?
When it was my turn, I posed the question just that simply. And they began considering my brief, blunt query. Of their seven minutes of dialogue together, I heard only one thing—ten seconds’ worth. The young financier drew his right index finger across the left side of his chest as he quietly observed, “It sounds as if Eliot hasn’t decided what he wants on his name tag.”
My God! Oh, my God! An insight flared in my head like a sunburst, fierce and hot, searing itself into my mind: I have to decide! This isn’t something that just happens to me. I have to decide!
I never thought of that before. I’ve been waiting, but nothing was happening. I was going nuts, and on the verge of getting depressed, but still nothing changed. It never, ever dawned on me that it was just as simple as deciding on my identity. This is not a matter of fate—this is a free choice: Who do I choose to be?
Well, who do I choose to be?
The answer was instantaneous, unequivocal, certain. A writer. The answer leapt up from forever in my life. A writer. That is who I am, and that is who I choose to be. That is my identity, from this instant onward and ever.
Oh, my God! Everything in the universe became clear in that moment. If I am a writer—not an unemployed jack of all trades who also “does some writing” or “is working on a book”, but a writer—then I just need to start acting like a writer, living like a writer, being a writer.
It was all so clear. The difference between what I do, and who I am. If I am a writer, then that will deter-mine what I do, not the other way around. If I am a writer, then I organize my life, shape my priorities, spend my time, protect my space the way a writer would.
Now a robust agenda of transformational actions bloomed in my mind. Being that I am a writer, I need to create a proper space for writing. That means purging what had become my “office” of everything that dilutes or contaminates its new role as my “studio”. No more a dumping ground for whatever matters might claim my attention. No more a cluttered tumble of distracting and distressing diversions from what matters in my life. No more anything but a serene environment dedicated to delivering whatever was within me. I’d find new space in the house to transform into a “home office” and cart over there everything not related to my writing. From now on, I would never use my studio for anything but writing. Fait accompli. Sure, I hadn’t yet stirred from the conference room to actually take any of these actions, but they were as good as done. And I knew it.
What else? Scheduling time on my calendar for writing, of course. Been there, done that—unsuccessfully. But now it was all different. Yes, I had done that before, but not with the matter-of-fact resolve I now felt. Before, blocking that time was hopeful, almost wishful, and was vulnerable to being overridden by whatever other activity might hove into my peripheral vision or be placed in view by someone else. But now blocking time for writing—and seizing it—was just simply what a writer does. This is my work. This is my life. This is me. Not to block that time, protect it, and use it for writing would be unthinkable, would be tantamount to abandoning my identity. And that had suddenly become impossible. In the instant of that insight, I had claimed it forever.
I wanted to go home. I was not interested in the rest of the workshop. I was itching to drive home as a writer headed for his studio to write, and write, and write. And write.
Curiously, the workshop actually did end ahead of schedule the next afternoon. It wasn’t just because of the blizzard that was headed our way. Everyone else in the group also felt fully satisfied with what they had gained by way of personal insights and seemed ready to head to their homes as changed people.
Patti and I stayed overnight with Charlie and his wife, enjoying dinner by their fire while the blizzard howled outside, and then headed back home to Princeton on Saturday after the roads were cleared.
The half-life of clarity can be woefully short, and monumentally exasperating. I had experienced it all too often. But this time it was different. Unlike my futile efforts to capture people’s suggestions for the theme of my needs-to-be-rewritten book, the insight deep inside me—the true-forever choice that I had affirmed—did not consist of a slippery conceptual proposition or a sequential structure to be snatched at with desperation and frantically brought to life on paper, quick, before it withered and disappeared yet again.
No, what I had seen and felt was something already real. It had been real for most of my life. It had been a part of me for most of my life. I just had never known that I needed to name it, reach out for it, grasp it, claim it, be it. So it arrived home with me intact, full strength. Solid, quiescent, permanent.
I slept well Saturday night.
At five AM, I was gently awakened by a stirring in my mind. I lay there in the dark and let it move around, quietly, softly, casually. Gradually the ghostlike drifting of ideas began to settle into waltzing patterns that dimly emerged. Years before, on October, 9, 1991, I had arisen about three AM in Santa Monica and had driven an hour north up the freeway into the Tehachapi Mountains near the tiny ranching town of Gorman. Over the previous weeks Christo had planted 1,760 bright yellow patio umbrellas in graceful array over grassy meadows and knolls and barrancas there. Workers had opened them during the night before, and I wanted to be there to see them bloom in first light of day.
When I arrived, all was still in deep darkness and nothing was visible from the hilltop where I sat myself down. Then, with infinite precision of pace, the darkness seemed gradually to be absorbed by the hills, as though drawn softly into earth like a falling mist. In time, broad shapes began to emerge with a steady but imperceptible inevitability. The smooth crown of a rounded hill. The dark cloud of an oak tree. A flat triangle of darkness here, now there…ah, over there, too. More and more of them. First one by one, then arrayed in widespread clusters and streaks, the deep gray umbrella shapes were revealed as the darkness was increasingly drawn into the earth. Soon a lacework of the small pyramids came clear, but still frozen in monochrome tones of night and pre-dawn gray. The scene became a silvertone Ansel Adams: “Dawnrise over Gorman, California”.
Then the sun.
The first rays sparked above the horizon and struck a sole umbrella atop the highest hill. In seconds, the golden fabric flamed brilliant yellow, shimmering, like the one candle lit in the darkness that carries the hope of all to come. Then another caught the rays and fired up. And another. And another. Soon whole courses of umbrellas were snatching sunbeams and clamoring to be seen one right after the other, as though a switch had been thrown to trigger a cascade of solar brilliance along their entire row.
From that early darkness had emerged first the gray shapes, and then one by one the torch-like umbrellas as each arose to claim its place in the sunlight and, once fully illuminated, reveal the artist’s vision for the entire work.
And now that was happening in my head.
I knew what was going on. I had experienced the same phenomenon when I was writing scripts for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” more than thirty-five years before. I knew this movement in me. I knew it was the Muse at work. I knew she was inviting me to arise and deliver something new.
I slipped out of bed. It was dark, but I kept my eyes closed. I did not want to break whatever spell was upon me. I eased into the bathroom, lifted my robe from the hook and slipped it on, and headed out to my studio, opening my eyes just enough to navigate the pathway. As soon as I arrived, I settled into my chair, closed my eyes again, and delivered.
For an hour, I wrote. When I was done, the entire outline for this book was in front of me on the computer screen.
Patti had been urging me for several years to make my next book about “retirement” since I was in the midst of the experience, but I had rejected the idea. Now I knew why I had been rejecting it—I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand what would be required to redeem this chapter of one’s life from witlessness, from desuetude, from amiable meandering.
Once I understood it was all about identity—about deliberately choosing a new identity once employment was ended—I believed I had something worth sharing.
The phrase that came to me was “And now I am a writer”. The “now” is critically important. At earlier stages of my life—a life of many varied occupations—I might have said, “Now I am a chaplain” or “Now I am a teacher” or “Now I am a consultant” or “Now I am an executive”. Those were what I was primarily doing at that moment, my primary identity. That primary identity was not exhaustive, of course. I was simultaneously, at all those times, a husband, a father, a churchgoer, a tennis player, a friend. But that was my primary identity, my gyroscopic center and face to the world at that moment.
Whenever I made such a statement—”Now I am a __________”—I did not ever have to make reference to something that I had done before. I didn’t have to explain that this followed something else. All that mattered to me and to the listener (even if I was the only listener) was what my life was about now.
That’s why the reframing of my question was so critical: “What is my primary identity at this point?” I somehow got both essential elements into the question: “primary”, and “at this point”. Primacy, temporality.
By contrast, the reference point for “retired” and “retirement” is the past. It is “retired from…” but is utterly lacking in a present identity. It cunningly begs the question of “retired to…?” Heck, the only use of “retired to” in common parlance is “retired to bed”, and that’s a mighty poor image for a vibrant future. The word “retired” seems to concede that the present is up for grabs, could be anything at all, a potpourri concocted from nothing more meaningful than whatever falls to hand that day.
All “retirement” refers to is a former mode of employment. But even in retirement one is “employed”. One employs oneself—”these days I’m primarily employed doing volunteer work for the YWCA”
So, actually, “retirement” doesn’t even refer to employment. It just refers to paid employment. If that’s the only justification for using the word “retired”, let’s forget about trying to re-invent it, forget about replacing it with a better word. Let’s just banish it entirely. It is irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. Why would anyone ever define oneself with reference to the past unless the present were a total void?
And if the present is a total void—or feels like one—then that’s exactly the time to raise the question of identity. That was precisely the fortuitous dynamic I happened upon. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the relative vacuum I had permitted to form itself when I stopped working for the Company silently sipped away at everyone else’s excellent causes, drawing them into the space I left open. I let the vacuum fill up with what I could do to support their worthy endeavors, their endeavors that in the absence of any declared vocation of my own seemed so much worthier than any other way I was about to spend my day.
“Retired” is not an identity. It is a condition, as reflected in the phrase “I am ‘in retirement’.” Like, I am in good shape, or in bad shape, or in a quandary. It is totally passive, describing nothing more than a state relative to something that formerly provided a paycheck.
That is a very poor way to present your present life to yourself: I am the carcass of a formerly compensated worker.
No, no, no! Let’s just banish the word from our vocabulary.
NOW I am (primarily) a grandfather. Or, NOW I am (primarily) a volunteer at the hospital. Or, NOW I am (primarily) a golfer, or tennis player, or world traveler, or activist.
Any one of those answers would totally change how you think about your life and, consequently, how you go about being a grandfather or volunteer or world traveler. It would change how seriously you take it, how well you do it, how much creativity and energy you put into improving how well you do it.
How different it sounds, how different it feels, to say these each of these two things:
I am retired.
I am a writer.
How different these two:
I am retired.
I am a world traveler.
One is a concession. It’s about what I am not doing. The other is a declaration. It’s about what I am doing. Again, retirement isn’t who you are. It’s just a backward-looking, oblique acknowledgement of something that used to be true about you—namely, that you used to work for money.
Getting this straight in your own head takes some practice. It doesn’t come naturally, because it is oh, so easy to reach back and jingle the chimes of who I used to be when I had an easily recognizable identity, that of a medical-device company executive or whatever. But I’m working on it. At a holiday party the other night, someone new to me asked me what I do. I said, “I’m a writer.” Then came the moment of truth. Eliot, stop right there! Don’t say another word. I had to deliberately dismiss the urge to say, “I used to be blah, blah, blah, but now I’m spending my time writing and blah, blah, blah.” It was the first time since “retirement” that I had made that simple declaration—and left it at that.
Because I arrested my instinct to back and fill with my pre-history and just shut up instead, she responded, “Tell me about what you’re working on,” and I did. That tiny interchange—both avoiding the temptation to display my prior life, and talking about my current book, which is this one—profoundly reinforced my self-identity as a writer.
Reflecting back on that moment, I realized that when I was gainfully employed it sufficed to say, “I am a consultant working in the field of healthcare, developing long-range strategies for clients.” That was enough. I didn’t have to go on to say that I was also spending time doing this or that or the other thing, unless there seemed to reason to do so. Just a simple statement of my core self-identity was enough then.
It is enough now, too.
This fresh reinforcement showed up for duty the very next day. On a visit to my dentist, they handed me a clipboard with a questionnaire and asked me to update my medical history and vital statistics. Under “occupation” I put “writer” but also noted elsewhere on the sheet that my insurance status was modified from my earlier, company-based policy. I went to the counter, handed over the clipboard, and waited for further instructions. The desk clerk scanned the paper, noted the change in insurance coverage, and routinely observed, “So you are retired.” I instantly replied, “No, I am a writer.”
My reaction startled me. It also delighted me. I couldn’t believe how instinctively that demurrer came leaping out. Instantaneous. It meant nothing to her, but everything to me.
By contrast, saying that “I am retired” also seems to imply, “And so nowadays my life isn’t about much at all—not anything important anyhow. Certainly not anything as distinctive as what I used to do—what I retired from.”
In the same vein, there is a dramatic difference in impact between stating what you are doing—I am writing—and who you are: I am a writer. We start and stop doing things all the time. We do not change who we are all the time. Saying what you are doing is no more substantive than swatting at mosquitoes at the moment. Deciding and declaring who you are now solidifies the very earth you stand on.
And to put the emphasis another way, deciding and declaring who you are now—at this particular point in life—does as well. As I began to grasp this dynamic of identity, this shucking old identities in favor of new ones. it became clear to me that we have been doing this our whole lives long.
No, if there is a problem in retirement it is not “loss of identity.” The problem is failure to restate our new identity yet one more time.
Just as we have done perennially since childhood. Why stop now?
I realized that I have lost and reestablished my identity dozens of times before. I used to be the Spelling Bee champion of Montclair Elementary School. I used to be the chubby kid picked last when choosing up sides in schoolyard games. I used to be a teenage vandal and mischief-maker. I used to be a college chaplain. I used to be president of the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” company.
I used to be all kinds of things, but every one of them was succeeded—superseded—by a new identity in due course. It wasn’t as though I emerged out of any one of them into nothing at all. Yet that seems to be the de facto dynamic of “retirement” in some people’s minds. Like a low-IQ lobster that shucks its shell and then forgets to grow a new one, we lie there defenseless waiting for fate to decide what happens next.
No, our first goal has to be the development—the deliberate, well-considered choice—of that new identity. Without it, there is no hope of constructing a life with vibrant perspectives and priorities and purpose.
What is your new principal identity—writer, or volunteer, or world traveler? Whatever it is, it’s your new employment, your latest employment, maybe your last and final employment, but perhaps not. Five or ten years from now, it might be different. You may then be saying, “And now I am a trainer of guide dogs for the blind” or “And now I am a companion to my spouse who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.”
In either case, such a declaration of primary identity will invest that occupation—that vocation—with deeper meaning and deeper commitment and deeper resourcefulness. How you go about being that person—that trainer, that companion—will be more creative, more diligent, more fulfilling than if you were to begin with “I am retired” and then slide into a default-based rehearsal of some of the ways you “manage to keep busy”, giving dog-training or the burden of companionship to a spouse or your latest cruise as examples. As also-rans under the bankrupt heading of “retired” they come across as concessions to the need to do something, implying, “I guess these are as good a ways as any to ‘keep myself busy’ now that I am not longer working for money.”
What is this “keeping busy”, anyhow. So many people who are no longer working for pay say, “I have never been so busy in my life”, and for many it is true. They have filled their days with one thing and another—golf, bridge, volunteer work, travel—but these may add up, as for me, to less than the sum of the parts.
Transforming a predominant employment of time into a primary identity gives greater meaning to both the primary and the secondary matters in one’s life, through the phenomenon of “valence”.
I learned about valence when a friend who was studying educational psychology at the University of California at Berkeley back in the ’50s told me of an experiment she had participated in. She and her fellow students in Educational Psychology 101 had barely settled into their seats in the musty amphitheater-style classroom when the professor drew a line down the center of the room with his arm, dividing it in half, and said, “I want all of you on this side of the room to stand up, please.” They did.
“Now,” he continued, “I would like you to file out of this room and go down the walkway to the street and cross it—carefully, of course. Turn left and go two blocks down to Channing Way where you will come to a very large sporting goods store. The display windows are a block long and filled with every imaginable item needed for sporting events.”
The standing members of the class looked at each other in mixture of curiosity and bemusement. The professor continued.
“When you get there, I want you each to study the items in the window for exactly three minutes and make an effort to remember as many of them as you possibly can. Do not take notes. This is an exercise just in trying to remember with your brain. When the three minutes are up, return promptly to the classroom here, and I’ll ask you each to make a list of all the things you can remember.”
They did as instructed and, once down on Channing Way, confronted a dozen huge display windows absolutely crammed with sporting goods—tennis rackets, swim fins, hockey pucks, badminton shuttlecocks, baseball mitts, croquet mallets, snorkeling equipment, football shoes, basketball uniforms, surf boards, tennis balls, running shoes, helmets and pads, hula hoops, jump ropes, boxing gloves, water skis, life vests. Altogether, there may have been six or seven hundred items jumbled randomly together in a block-long spectacle of playthings.
When time was up, they dutifully filed back to their seats in the classroom, and drained their brains of every item they had retained. The average list poured out into their notebooks was approximately fifteen items long. Some students may have listed as many as twenty or twenty-five, others only eight or ten.
Then he instructed the other half of the class to do the same thing, but with one twist: “I want you to concentrate only on items that are used for water sports. Just water sports. Ignore anything that doesn’t have to do with water sports.”
Off they went to Channing Way, studied the windows, returned, and scribbled down everything they could remember on their own lists.
The average list of items that had only to do with water sports was perhaps twenty-five items long—almost double the lists compiled by the first group.
Then the professor sprung the trap: “Now I want you to make a list of all the things that you saw that did not have to do with water sports.”
Most students added another twenty or more to their lists. Their totals were consistently triple the first group’s.
What was going on here?
What was going on is a phenomenon called “valence”, which began as an electrical term referring to a positive charge or a negative charge.
When the first group scanned those windows chockablock full of stuff, everything was neutral to them. They approached each item as an inert object that had a dictionary name. That ovoid brown object with pointy ends, a pebbly surface, and a strip of white laces is called a football. Remember football. Those bright blue rubber circles surrounding plastic lenses that are connected a headband-like strap are called swim goggles. Remember swim goggles. All they had going for them was the ability to match objects with names, cram their minds with those names of things, and hope that not too many fell out before they got back to the classroom.
By contrast, the second group approached each object with a vision of its use, its purpose, its very being. Badminton shuttlecock? Instantly I see players with slender racquets across a net from each other leaping about a lawn—stop! Okay, that’s not a water sport. Quick, park the badminton shuttlecock over there in the not-water pile. Ah, there’s a swim fin. I see it splashing behind someone in a pool. Good. Put it right here, in the water-sports pile. What’s next. Hockey puck. Hmmm. I see it whizzing over ice. Frozen water. Nahhh. Not water. Goes over there. Baseball mitt. On a guy catching a grounder by third base, dust flying up. Goes over there in the not-water pile. Goggles? Obvious. Goes here, in the water-sports pile.
No wonder they could conjure up such superior lists. Everything had some meaning.
I now think that our identity is what gives valence to the things we do, and this seems especially true when our identity is not so self-evident as it was when we were being a nurse or insurance agent or retailer or financier. Our failure to determine—to choose, to decide—our primary identity for this next chapter of our lives dooms all we encounter and do in these days to a kind of beige neutrality. All these activities may be fine and may be time-filling and may be worthwhile, and that beige life may be perfectly blameless. Indeed, I do realize that some retired people are simply tired and really don’t care about striving any more. A little of this and a little of that is just fine, thank you very much. But there’s no way such an approach could feel for me myself as vital and revitalizing and challenging as a day charged up by the valence that a clearly declared identity provides. Absent the identity-based valence, everything recedes equally from the foreground into a jumble of stuff behind that sporting goods store display window, one thing as devoid of meaning as the next.
I recall the words of J. Walter Thompson, founder of the eponymous advertising firm, who roundly trumpeted the axiom, “He who chaseth two rabbits catcheth neither”. How much truer when the day is full of rabbits, dozens of them.
I also realized with a wry smile of self-admonition that I had totally forgotten to apply to myself a metaphor I had urged on my clients for decades. Often, I found both companies and individuals spreading themselves too thin, trying to be too many things to too many people, and failing to find satisfaction.
The antidote to chasing too many rabbits, I had often suggested, was to think of themselves as a tricycle. Consider this, I would say:
The tricycle has one big wheel up front, and that wheel is supremely important.
Why? Three main reasons.
The big wheel up front is the wheel the pedals are directly attached to, so that all the energy you pour out goes directly to driving this one wheel.
The big front wheel is also the wheel that supplies the traction—it’s literally where the rubber meets the road—and pulls you forward.
And, of course, the handle bars directly attach to that big front wheel so that you can steer with it, ensuring that your forward movement is pulling you toward a destination you unquestionably desire.
But bear in mind that if that big wheel is the only wheel you have, you’re aboard a unicycle. Unicycles may be entertaining when ridden by agile circus performers, but they are remarkably poor devices for transporting us average folks from point A to point B.
So it’s nice to have a couple of stabilizing wheels back there to enable you to relax, to know that you have some support along the way. You can lean back a bit when you want to, coast, make turns without fear of tipping over. Those rear wheels may look passive, but they are actually extremely important. You need them and want them, too.
But they can never do for you what the big front wheel can do.
And until you decide what you want the big wheel up front to be, it’s impossible to establish a valence that can guide your attention and direct your energy.
The process of making that decision will differ for each of us. For some it may be automatic and instantaneous upon “retirement”, by simply continuing to employ one’s core skill honed during a long career, but now exercised as a part-time consultant. Same identity, different work schedule. For others, it might be the seizing of a dream long deferred, like making music. Or escalating a favorite hobby to a virtually full-time obsession. The right answer may come from some trial and error, groping in ambiguity for a while. Or it may come from a structured process—I could imagine using What Color Is Your Parachute? to help here. Or it may come from a meditative discernment process including silent listening for a call, and prayer, and focused reflection with loved ones.
Or the right identity may be obvious from the outset but simply need some triggering event to prompt the formal declaration, like: I am a writer. In my own case, however, I don’t think I could have made that declaration three years ago, right at the threshold between paid work and “retirement”. Somehow I think I needed to spend those three years in the wilderness ripening my frustration to the point of a teachable moment, a defining moment, in order to take full advantage of Charlie’s workshop to pop the question and reveal the answer for me—a classic example of the Zen proverb, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.”
Once the right-feeling answer comes, though, it changes everything—from the inside out. I spend practically zero time thinking about how to spend my time and my life now. It’s like I’m on cruise control.
For example, I’m discovering that an identity-based valence helps me intuitively determine what to pursue and what to ignore. The challenge of what to ignore is, for me, far more difficult than the challenge of what to pursue. I always knew that I wanted to pursue “writing”, and wanted to pursue it more than anything else. But until I decided that I was a writer I didn’t know how to put a negative charge on the things that belonged in the non-writer pile. Not non-writing pile, the non-writer pile.
Anybody would know when they were not writing. But you wouldn’t necessarily know when you were not being a writer.
Being a writer means being a person who is sitting, as I am right now, at 6:18AM, delivering the insistent ideas that woke me up exactly as 4:00AM shone on the luminous clock in our bedroom this morning. I tiptoed into the bathroom, captured a few thoughts on the pad of paper that I keep there precisely for that purpose (something a writer would do), went back to bed. Minutes later I realized that there were more thoughts caroming around in my head that wanted to be captured, and likely more waiting just behind them, and so slipped into my robe and came out here to my studio to do it right.
I hadn’t planned to start my day this early, and it’ll probably mean that I take a nap this afternoon, ignoring (the key word here) whatever else I might have had on my calendar for that time. Whatever it was—whatever it was—could not be so important as to dissuade me from what I’m doing right now. If it turns out that there is something truly critical in mid-afternoon that can never be repeated or can not be handled by someone else, like for example the funeral of a friend, then I’ll honor the commitment, do my best to stay awake, and then nap just before dinner or go to bed really early. But if it was just a medical or dental appointment or some such, I’ll probably reschedule it to catch up on my lost sleep.
Curious how this new identity helps me instinctively get my priorities straight. Back before I was a writer, when I was just writing, my sense of social obligation or duty would roust me out of my studio with scant resistance to attend to all manner of things determined by other people’s schedules and inter-ests.
And my continuing fascination with the challenges faced by the Company meant that a single e-mail could whip me around and plunge me into instant immersion in those goings-on in Boston. By contrast, I no longer have to consider severing those ties in order to protect my writing. Now that I know I am a writer, the Company has become just one of the rear wheels—important, but not the driving passion in my life. I’m glad it’s there, but I don’t live for it. One day I may decide that there’s enough velocity in my life that the gyroscopic effect of two wheels is sufficient to balance my life, and then I’ll jettison that third wheel. The best part is, I don’t have to decide that until I feel like it.
A major blessing for me is that I finally know intuitively what to defer and, even more importantly, what to ignore completely, including, especially, most of the e-mails that deluge my inbox. I’m not talking about spam. My spam filter works just fine to intercept and deflect the tidal wave of offers to help me borrow money or turbo-charge my erections. It’s my own filter—the one in my mind—that has long been too porous. Before I declared myself a writer, I spent several hours a day doing e-mail. I carried on a lively series of e-mail dialogues with a wide range of correspondents, ranging from colleagues at the Company to former partners and friends and political junkies and people seeking a bit of time or advice. I threw myself into these with gusto and typically composed page-long e-mail treatises on one matter or another.
The famed science writer Isaac Asimov gave me great comfort one day long ago when he, the author of some 500 books, was asked by an interviewer how he liked to spend whatever spare minutes he could find in a day. He said without a trace of self-consciousness that his favorite pastime was reading and savoring his own writing. My heart leapt for joy when I heard that. I too simply loved—and still do love—reading my own writing. But I had always hidden that away as a shameful little secret, hoping never to get caught at it. Asimov gave me permission to relax and indulge myself.
That self-indulgence led to a wakeup call during my preparation for the workshop on insight. After I had formulated my initial writing-oriented question (“If I really like writing so much, how come I do so little of it?”) I began reflecting on the different ways I actually was spending my time. That was when I got a big “Aha!”—a realization that shocked me: I occasionally spent some time actually going back into the Sent Mail file and re-reading my own e-mails—the carefully composed, cleverly crafted, sometimes even extensively re-written e-mails I labored over for hours each day.
Oh my God! I suddenly realized what that meant. I was writing a lot!
Forget this tiresome plaint about doing “so little of it”—I was actually doing loads of writing. I was in fact spending many hours a day, every day, writing. And a lot of it was pretty good writing—good enough for me to dip back into it repeatedly and take delight in what I had crafted.
The problem was, it was totally inconsequential writing. Reactive, responsive, gone-with-the-wind writing that could never add up to anything. Day after day, I was squandering my writerly instincts, abilities, time on e-mail, of all things. What could possibly be more ridiculous? I was bleeding off my beloved creativity into the most trivial conceivable dribs and drabs of “writing”, evanescent missives whisked off into cyberspace at a key-click, destined to evaporate there without a trace.
Small wonder I was feeling disgruntled about the way my writing was going. I wasn’t being a writer. I was just…well, just…just writing. Writing away. Writing away. Writing away.
Instead of being a writer.
Instead of being the particular kind of writer I am meant to be—a writer whose principal subject matter is his own life experience, a writer whose drive comes from a passion to understand his own life and the life around him.
What I learned from my failed attempt to co-author the book with Patti or to chronicle other men’s experience of women’s liberation was that I was interested in only one kind of research—plumbing the depths of my own life to ferret out the memories, fantasies, lies, dreams, feelings, and yearnings sequestered there, in hope of sorting them into an honest portrait that made sense to me and might even prove useful to another.
Having gone through all that writerly trial and error established, in retrospect, a useful context in which to set my new identity. Now two things are clear to me: not only that I am a writer, but that I am a writer who writes his own life.
This afternoon, when I finish my morning’s writing, I will spend some time responding to e-mails. I used to be drawn to my computers like a deer to a salt lick. I kept a laptop in my kitchen where I was never more than seconds away from it, rarely passing near it without a quick scan of what had newly appeared in my e-mail in-box that of course would require immediate response. Just as bad, I was all but incapable of sitting here at this computer in my studio without first checking the e-mail inbox—and, usually, spilling out my energy and burning up my time on them rather than fulfilling my as-yet-ill-formed identity that could be satisfied only by writing what a real writer would write. I dipped into my e-mail six, eight, ten times a day, spending several hours total messing with them.
Now I go a day or two without even looking at them, sometimes longer. They no longer appear at all on my studio computer. The laptop that was in the kitchen is now in a small office elsewhere in the house. When I do get around to it, I’ll spend fifteen or twenty minutes at most today on e-mail, to deal with the hundred or more that await me. I will delete two-thirds or more of them unread. And most responses I send will be one or two lines long.
None of my responses will merit re-reading.
Fortunately, no one bought “Concinnity” during the winter when she was for sale, and so I launched her again the next spring. From the first moment I stepped aboard, everything was different. The anxiety that had gripped me and spoiled the experience of sailing the year before was nowhere to be found, and I spent the summer sailing the Maine coast waters (yes, the frigid ones) with a joy and freedom and confidence as of yore. Curious, how my previously shriveled sense of self had infected so many realms of my life, and how miraculously it vanished once I knew again who I am.