Sometimes what comes out of your mouth is unlike what goes on in the quiet, unchallenged echo chamber inside your head. Ideas sound different when said aloud.
In early 2011, I told some friends and colleagues I was considering retirement at the end of the year.
They were surprised. And I was surprised they were surprised.
Thoughts given a voice can be challenged. Openness sometimes results in enlightenment, but rarely is free of charge.
A small number predicted I’d be bored, but only those unaware of my non-professional interests. One thought I’d return to work. People wondered what would happen if the economy tanked and my bankroll vanished. My accountant said she’d never heard of anyone closing a money-making business.
A few incredulous souls couldn’t fathom the reasons I gave (see Retirement). A small number encouraged me and said they were impressed with my decision-making process. A couple over the age of 70 were puzzled — still employed themselves — as was one 40-something who thought she’d probably never retire.
I became aware of my likeness to a coal mine canary — a lead scout on a journey to an undiscovered netherworld. I realized my retirement might have an audience made up of colleagues. They wanted to know whether I would give the “all clear” for them to proceed, lest they go “down the shaft” in a figurative sense, a plunge into the abyss. For all the encouragement therapists give about taking risks, you’d be surprised by how many are themselves risk-averse.
My friends Ron Ableman and Bob Calysn were terrific. Both had been retired for a year or more and figured out the process. Each one established new routines, had strong social networks, and a sufficient range of interests, from working for Habitat for Humanity to writing fiction.
The naysayers counted for less once I sounded out people like Bob and Ron. I’d known Bob, now deceased, since grad school and Ron since seventh grade, more than long enough to get into both the details and the feelings about the decision. I consider myself lucky to have had Bob as a friend, and that my buddy Ron — uncanny in his wisdom — is still among us.
I’d been leaning toward the idea — over 95% of the way there — when an August vacation finished the vexing job. I came back to work without the holiday-bounce I traditionally received from periods of time off. The moment had arrived to dismantle the “head shrinking” machine.
I long joked with my kids about my job. When they asked how the day went, I’d sometimes say I accidentally reduced a patient’s brain to the tiny size of a character from Beetlejuice. Now, however, I knew the contraption needed to be shut off before it was I who was shrinking.
My wonderful office manager, Debbie, heard the news first. I couldn’t speak without a few tears. All mine. She offered to keep working until the end. Debbie is the best, something I’ve known forever.
I gave my patients over three months heads-up. The announcements came face-to-face in the space of about 10 days, so no one would find out indirectly. Emotion was present on both sides.
Once unburdened, the air started to come out of my tension-filled anticipation of hurting these good people. Sleep became more restful and I relaxed for the first time in the year of retirement soul-searching.
Six days before the therapeutic finale, the office furniture I intended to keep was removed. The rest had been sold to Danute Kuncas, the therapist taking over my office. Within two days she had transformed the place and, I must admit, improved the appearance. The last 72 hours of practice in a “new” space took on a surreal quality. I was more aware of the silence in the suite than before. Perhaps I experienced a foreshadowing of the end of my job listening to others, the coming silence of the missing voices.
December 25, 2011 marked my first full day of retirement — yes, I worked the morning of the 24th.
The urge to check voice mail gradually diminished. The tension brought on by clocks needing minding and schedules to keep slowly receded. Like a runner waiting alone for the starting gun, I began to figure out the race had been cancelled and the stadium was empty. I soon became aware that waiting for tomorrow really is an option for almost everything; and, indeed, for the day after tomorrow or next week. At least, if one is retired or a child on summer vacation.
I both expected and hoped for the unwinding and slowing of my internal tempo. Less urgency and compulsion. Fewer moments of “have to” and “ought to.” My life became more my own.
The beauty of the glide into retirement — the stillness — was wonderful. Another old friend, Art Patterson, came to mind. He made the most beautiful hook-slide I’d ever seen, in a 1972 softball game. Peculiar what one thinks of, something entirely unconnected with retiring, and yet … Let me explain.
The ball arrived in the catcher’s hands well before Art’s slide. I “knew” he would be tagged out. But somehow my friend angled his body — drifting to the right — away from the foul line, home plate, and the hands waiting to tag him. Art’s left toe touched the corner of the base in a cloud of dust. The catcher was stupefied, wondering what had happened.
Safe at home — my feeling exactly.
Whenever I think of Art’s slide — I stood a few feet away from the action — it is a slow motion instant of artistic perfection.
The almost undetectable movement — slower than slow, but not at all as life happens — made it exquisite. And the marvelous sensation of the freeze-frame perception is as close as I can come to describing my internal state within days of retiring. “At the still point of the turning world,” in T.S. Eliot’s words.
A number of my patients thought I might be excited as I exited my practice. “Exit” and “excite,” they thought, are only different by two letters.
“Comfortable and at ease” was the way I described myself when they asked. The closer I came to the end point, the more it seemed “right.”
The world of therapy turns without me. I don’t have anything more to prove in the professional world of healing. I’ve done my part.
I always wonder about ambition in people who are senior citizens. Surely bodies and minds age differently. For me, the grand ambition of youth is long gone. I am pleased to have bowed humbly and bid farewell to the earlier version of myself. I do wish, however, certain other things like the capacity to run fast had not fled, in tandem with my hair.
The beginning of retirement was like the last day of school in its freedom from responsibility. The dictates of homework assignments and hectic passing periods were easily set aside once I finished graduate school, and so was my career when I retired. Those days were similar to the time just after I resigned from the faculty at Rutgers University to take a job in Chicago. The day of my return to Chicago — in July of 1975 — James Levine conducted the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia Park in Mahler’s Symphony #3, the work whose first movement is called “Summer Marches In.” The fanfare opening the piece sounded as if it were being played for me alone; as if I were welcomed to a new life.
Please understand: I’d happily become a clinical psychologist again, if my younger self so desired. Times change and one changes with those times. The therapist version simply passed the baton to the retired facsimile of the youthful Gerry Stein.
In short, retirement, which is inevitable unless you die on the job, came at the right moment for me. I am lucky to have had a choice, fortunate to have reaped fulfillment in my career, blessed to have known so many great people.
You’ll figure it out when it is time.
Those who want to know my thoughts on how to go about retirement planning might wish to read this: Betting on Life: A Psychologist’s Guide to Making Retirement and Bucket List Plans.
Since this piece is about the older version of myself, I’ve placed the photo of a very young example up top, riding (?) happily into the sunset. The Rocking Chair image is the work of Paul Lemiski and Joel Savard, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final image is of James Levine, now 71, conducting the Boston Symphony in recent years. Unfortunately, numerous physical problems caused him to resign his position with that orchestra and put his directorship of the Metropolitan Opera on hold, although he has now returned to the latter job, conducting from a wheel chair. Hat’s off to him. The photo is the work of Michael J. Lutch/via Bloomberg.