Why I Retired
While I have in no way been a carpe diem sort of person, I have lived pretty much from one day to the next. I mean it was all I could do to get from one day to the next, so I didn’t think ahead very much. Maybe to the next week and the things I needed to get to make dinner or to figure out the time I needed to grade papers. I did think ahead for others. Every 12 weeks or so I would sit down and make a syllabus for the coming quarter. So, you know, I guess I did think ahead in the sense of making plans. But I didn’t think about retirement.
Well, that’s not true either. I did plan for it. Whenever I got sick of my job and I did get sick of it, I would console myself with the idea that I was getting a good retirement, the old-fashioned defined benefit kind, and my employer, the State of California, would help with my medical. So I wasn’t in the least irresponsible. I guess what I am trying to say is that I didn’t look forward to it, as the pay off for work well done, or whatever. I knew, in fact, that I would be lousy at retirement. I was a workaholic. Many teachers are. There’s always something to do or something one could be doing. Because teaching is 90% prep, and you can always do prep day or night, work week or week-end.
But a little after the time my parents died, around 2007, and my brother had a stroke, I began to tire out. In fact, I told my psychiatrist that I was tiring out, that the walk I took to get from my car to my office seemed to take longer and longer every trip. As if I were walking in mud. So he asked me about my thyroid. I had blood drawn, and sure enough my thyroid was just on the edge of falling off the low-end of the chart. Not good. Eventually, I got the thyroid adjusted. But I still felt tired.
I knew I would not take well to retirement. I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t like to travel. Airplanes and airports depress me. I couldn’t play sports any more because of bad knees. At one point, I had thought something like “When I retire I will read all of Plato’s Dialogues.” At one point I had really been into reading, but at age 65 I felt too tired to read. I could care less about Plato. That whole literary, culture thing was part of a universe long ago and far away. Also my eyes were going, not terribly. But going nonetheless.
But I was tiring out. I could feel it. “The trill is gone,” as BB King said. I was trudging, I was like Napoleon’s poor soldiers trying to get back home trudging through the winter snow. That’s what I imagined. What must it have felt like to those soldiers retreating from Moscow, putting one foot before the other, in the freezing snow, wanting to lie down in that snow, but knowing that if they did they would never get up. Yes, I was tiring out… I would, though, I think have stayed on if I could have worked less. Full time was increasingly out of the question, but half time wouldn’t work either because I couldn’t at half time make enough to cover expenses. But if I retired at 65 and got social security, I would have enough to cover expenses and have in the bank (in the form of my pension) to have a secure (knock on wood) retirement. So I signed the papers indicating I would quit on such and such a date and that I understood that once these documents were signed there would be no going back.
So I trudged into retirement and the things it made possible. I didn’t, true, have anything I wanted to do, but I did have a number of things I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to smoke any more. That was the number one thing on my list of things I didn’t want to do in retirement. I had tried not to smoke off and on for all the time I had smoked. I wasn’t completely stupid. I had heard about the Surgeon General’s Report. And I believed the “science.” Smoking will shorten your life. At moments, I would think that thought and break into a cold sweat. What the hell was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I grasp that thought and just quit! Why couldn’t I make my conscious mind talk to my body and say, “Stop that now!”
But my body or maybe my mind wouldn’t cooperate. I couldn’t quit and I tried and tried over the years. I ruined one summer of not teaching after another going though the ritual of quitting. And if I wasn’t quitting or trying to quit, I was tapering and trying to get the number of cigarettes per day down and down again. But I couldn’t quit. Because I think cigarettes served a purpose for me. When my wife to be asked me why I smoked, I said anxiety. And that generally I was anxious 30 times a day (or a pack and a half). Which leads me to a point. I didn’t smoke just because I was addicted (which I was) but also because doing so made me feel better. A cigarette soothed my nerves and I believe it help my brain to be sharper.
Also smoking ran in the family. My father smoked. For some reason, I was the son who had to sit directly behind him when we drove somewhere. It was my assigned seat. I remember the smoke from his cigarette floating back into my face. I didn’t like it. My grandfather also smoked. At one point, at the university, I saw a poster the school had put up to dissuade students from smoking. Basically it said, if you smoke you will look like these people. The people portrayed were clearly “trailer trash.” They looked a lot like my Grandfather. I wrote a letter to the student news paper protesting this poster, and said if they wanted to stop students from smoking, they should stop selling cigarettes on campus instead of humiliating a particular type of person who probably didn’t have many other pleasures in life beside smoking.
This whole smoking thing for me wasn’t a matter of good or bad. It was a mixed up mess. Smoking soothed my anxiety. But it also made me feel ashamed of myself. And society at large seemed bent on shaming smokers whenever possible. I didn’t want to give into that. But I was concerned also that smoking was an indication that I was self-destructive, that I was one of Hesse’s “suiciders,” people, who through alcohol and drugs, slowly killed them selves. And I remember too having been really angry when I learned that the inmates in the LA County jail had been denied their cigarettes. That seemed like cruel and unusual punishment to me. But when a student asked, I testified at a student government meeting that I was an addicted smoker, and in my opinion, the sale of cigarettes should be banned on campus.
I had tried over the years all sorts of ways to quit: nicotine gum, those patches, group therapy sessions. I knew the drill. First you do the count. In other words, how many cigarettes are you smoking a day. Then the drop! You start cutting back one cigarette every other day or every day or every 5 days, whatever you can stand and at the same time manage to keep track of. And when you still can’t stop all of them. You do: the situational analysis. As in, when and where in the course of my day do I most want a cigarette. I found for example that I had an urge to smoke at “transition” moments, as when I was going in or out of the house, or driving someplace or the other. So the time was transition and the place was car.
So I would start there. No smoking in the car. And make sure that I had chewing gum in the car, so I could chew instead of smoke. The big transition time of course was getting out of bed. The first cigarette in the morning–well, that’s the big hit. I believe I managed to get out of bed for many, many years for no other reason than I wanted a cigarette. I would stand outside my door with my bare feet on the cold concrete, coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other. And for that brief moment, think of nothing else. But I just couldn’t make it over the hump. I would get down to the end and find myself mindlessly tossing through my old clothes in search of a misplaced cigarette. Or I would get down on my belly and look under all the seats in my car. And I would find them too. Or I would drive to the liquor store, buy a pack, take out one cigarette and throw the rest of the pack away. Light up the one and for that brief moment think of nothing else…
Over the years I became convinced that the only surefire cure was the “lifestyle change.” These are all big things. Like your wife is going to have a baby. Had that lifestyle change come up, I think I might have been able to quit, but it didn’t. Or you get a better job and make a lot more money and buy a big house. Cigarette smoke can get into all your clothes. The same with the habit. There are cues all over, little traps you have set for your self, that say, “Hey, buddy, time for a cigarette.” Every time I left my shrink’s office, I just had to have a cigarette. So you have to change everything, the house you live in, all the stuff that sends the signal: “Hey, let’s kick back, have a smoke and check out for a few seconds, what will that hurt?” Your shrink? Get a new shrink. The biggest lifestyle change, of course, is when your doctor says, “If you don’t stop smoking you are going to die.” Death is the biggest of all lifestyle changes, eliminating all environmental cues that might produce the urge to smoke.
Retiring is not as big a lifestyle change as death, but I figured it might come close. And in that way allow me the space, the time, and the altered circumstances finally to get the monkey off my back. So I would be giving up my job, the habits I had developed around it, the routines and expectations from day to day and month to month that had given order to my days. I would be giving up the way I had for 30 years made a living and stood on my own feet. I would be giving up a kind of work that had allowed me to feel good about myself. In teaching, as I saw it, I was doing my best to help others. And as it turned out, I was good at it. Students enjoyed my classes and I believe some of them learned a few things.
Unfortunately or sadly, I also knew I would never be able to stop smoking completely without stopping teaching. Before every class, before going in that day, to run the class I had prepared for the day, I just had to have a cigarette. I just had to have a cigarette. So this thing that meant so much to me in many ways was tied into whatever it was that made me smoke. It was a pickle. Really getting up in front of people and talking was not something I was naturally inclined to do. And to do it at all I had to do it my way. Some teachers can teach completely by rote. They have a plan, they stick to it. They don’t try to be personable or to entertain. They know what they are doing and if the students would only pay attention they would learn some valuable things.
I visited a class of a guy like that. He had written a book on the teaching of writing. He was a pro. The class I visited was on how to write a legal brief. It was laid out beautifully. Planned to a “T.” I loved it. But the students just didn’t like the class. This bugged the hell of my teacher friend. He tried everything. He even took a class on how to tell jokes. But it didn’t work. Me, I blamed it on the students. But then I was a teacher myself and pretty smart. So I could see what he was doing. But the students didn’t seem to. And he couldn’t seem to get them up to the level he was operating on. He was one of those people who might say, “I don’t teach students. I teach the subject.”
And he did. He taught the subject very, very well. He might as well have written out his lesson and had the students read it. Lots of teacher, at a university, teach like that. And the ones who don’t care, unlike my colleague, whether the students like them or not, can go on doing that effortlessly for years and years. But I just wasn’t made like that. The few times I tried to teach out a plan, I would feel hollow, I would start to hear my own voice, as if it belonged to another person. And when I tried to do that and then tried to figure out what, if anything, students had understood what I said, I realized that, from the students’ point of view, I was making no sense at all. My words came back to me in a parody. So if you want to teach to a plan, in a by rote fashion, make sure you never ask students any questions.
But I just couldn’t teach like that. I had to get myself, my history, my views, my language, into the mix somehow. Yes, I had a subject to teach, content to cover, but I had to “engage” or embody it. I would fly by the seat of my pants. I would walk in the room with a plan of course, but I never knew what my first words would be. I needed plenty of slack in my schedule to go this way or that depending on how I felt things were going. But that was precisely the problem from a personal, stop-smoking point of view. Since you didn’t know where things were going, you had to deal with anxiety. When it worked it was great, when it didn’t it was a disaster, and whether it worked or not this thing that I loved doing and was good at doing was rooted in anxiety. And to deal with that I needed a cigarette or the promise of one.
So along with being tired out, and sixty five years old, I decided partly to retire so I could get myself out of that particular anxiety complex, with its constant demand that I do something or other. I had to clean up my act, and I did. It took a while, but I did. I fell off the wagon a couple of times. The hardest to give up, of course, was the first one, the one right after waking up. So my wife and I substituted a walk up to a nearby park for that. We were there seated on a bench not long after the sun came up. We became friends with the ground’s keeper, and we got to know a few other folks out walking their dogs. And later we walked out near to look at the ducks in the slough. And, then, sometime in there, I had my surgeries, and by the time I got out of that fog I had no memory of my last cigarette.
But not smoking was not the only thing I didn’t want to do in retirement. I also didn’t want to take any more klonopin. I had been taking this drug for anxiety for over twenty years, and I had recently begun to receive notices from my HMO saying that it was perhaps not good for the “elderly” to take this drug. It tended, the notices suggested, to perhaps over sedate the elderly, to make them light-headed and dizzy, and prone to falling down. If you are elderly you know that one of the signs that the end is near is “falling down.” Doctors now ask the elderly at their yearly physicals, “Did you during the last year, fall down?” A young person might say, “Yea, I fell down a lot. So what?” But the elderly know better because they all know somebody who fell down and kept falling down, and finally couldn’t get up. I helped a neighbor on more than one occasion pick up his wife who kept falling down and finally couldn’t get up.
So I told my wife that I wanted to get off this klonopin drug because it tended to sedate the elderly and I didn’t want to end up sitting in a chair all day and drooling like a vegetable. Also I was sick to death of going through “tolerance” withdrawal every damn afternoon. Tolerance withdrawal is when your body starts tolerating the amount of drug you take, and during the course of the day your body starts withdrawing from the drug. For me this meant that every damn day around noon I would become completely fatigued and ache all over. The only way to get out of this ugly pattern was to take even more of the drug. That’s what alcoholics and opioid addicts sometimes do. In order to get the high they once had, in order to stop the tolerance withdrawal, they take more and more of the drug or the substance until they take more than their body or their life can tolerate. So unless I wanted to take even more of the drug that would make me a drooling vegetable in my fast approaching last days, I would have to stop the drug. Completely..