End Notes: These Boots Were Made for Walking

In the brochures that bombard one through the years, sleek, silver-haired couples sit on the Florida sands smiling into the sunset as they contemplate the accumulated pile of money on which they sit. They are retired, a condition for which they wisely planned over their working years so now they can enjoy carefree indolence as the shadows lengthen. The purpose of employment is to gain retirement benefits. Is that the message?

There are jobs that seem merely instrumental. I operated a punch press for several months as a graduate student, and it was like making up for the temporal punishment due to sin. I did meet any number of fascinating people also working the graveyard shift— artists, aspiring writers, other students—and through them the sister of the Charlie Brown on whom the comic strip was modeled. But that is another story. My point is that I doubt anyone ever wakes up in the morning eager to get back to work at a punch press. How many jobs are like that?

Through no merit of my own, I have spent my life doing several of the things I most enjoy and enjoy because they are intrinsically worthwhile: teaching and writing. To call these work is to employ analogy, if not metaphor. To prepare for life as a philosopher was, in those days, deliberately to turn away from the usual goals. We knew we would be relatively poor, but then so would all our friends. In my last year in graduate school, my wife and I decided that if we should ever earn as much as $5,000 a year, all our money worries would be over. But then the acme of our week was a bottle of Vin Rouge Canadien and the Sunday puzzle in the Times. It is easy to romanticize the way we were way back when, but those were good days. Half a century later, I ponder what has become of my profession.

To call the life of a professor a profession seems right enough, but it has become as well a career, a job, a means to something else. What we, Wilkins Micawber-like, imagined as an astronomical annual income is now the monthly take of academic tyros. The course “load”—ah, the image of hod-carriers hoisting their hated bricks—is risibly less than it was. Affluence has overtaken the academy, an infallible sign of which is the shabby jeans and open shirts and proletarian mannerisms all about. When the complaint isn’t parking places, faculty grouse about benefits, not least among them retirement benefits, so I am back to that.

 

A few years ago, “ageism,” one of the neologisms of these dark times, removed any mandatory retirement age for professors. Now we could go on until we were drooling out of both sides of our mouths. The chief result has been a rash of early retirements. Professors in their 50s carefully calculate the earliest date on which they can flee the campus for—for what? And here I am, nearing 75 wondering what to do. Should I or should I not retire?

Once upon a time, the decision was made for one, at 65, but then life expectancy was not what it has become. There was no more melancholy sight than emeriti returning to campus and wandering about, as anonymous as tourists, not looking at all like those contented silver-haired retirees. They had the look of Adam and Eve remembering the Garden. It was then that I resolved to buy some boots so that I could die with them on.

Still, one wonders if there is not hubris in this. How do students feel at the beginning of a semester when grandpa enters the classroom? Even those of us with children and grandchildren are kept unnaturally young by spending our life on campus, but one begins to think of Dorian Gray. Maybe it is the portrait that is shuffling in and out of class and not the ageless person one thinks he is. And not even digital hearing aids do much for my diminished hearing. Has the time come at last?

I do not imagine indolence, of course. My dual career of teaching and writing provides a fallback: I would go on writing. But I continue to vacillate. Plato said that philosophizing was learning how to die. He did not say learning how to retire.

Of course this indecision is predicated on the unstated assumption that a future stretches ahead. But what if this were the world’s last night? What if this night my soul should be required of me? Ah, for an act of God. But that brings other long thoughts as well. Meanwhile, I think I’ll soldier on.

Ralph McInerny

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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