On This Mountain

Entry by: rclayr

3rd April 2015
So, in a very short time, I will reach the “mountain top,” which is to say, I am about to find myself fully retired. It’s a peculiarly American thing, and I count myself fortunate to have been born and lived all my life in a place that allowed for the possibility. It’s not lost on me that the vast majority of the world’s population can’t even imagine such a thing. To be honest, a large plurality of the American population can’t either.

Still, the prospect is daunting. I mean, here I stand, at the pinnacle of my life, really, at the summit of all I set out to accomplish and do. It's the end of something. I know that it could also be the beginning of something, but what? I’ve worked hard, been more or less honest, tried to live a good life and be productive. I should be able to stand here, plant my feet, and savor the view from my personal acme, my mountain top. But I haven't the money to retire splendidly, to travel, really to indulge even the most modest of luxury whims, to fulfill my wildest dreams, no matter how improbable, at last. My future days will deteriorate into mediocrity unless I'm careful.

I am a writer, of course, and I have my writing to do, but that's not a full-time occupation even when I'm devoted to it full time. One cannot write all day every day ever week forever. And the way legitimate publishing is going, it's increasingly becoming an exercise in futility. I am an avid reader, but one can only read for so many hours a day, as well. I could develop a hobby, but I'm not a "hobbyshopper." I have no talent for woodworking or building things, and I don’t know what I’d do with anything I made, even if it was worth the effort to create. I abhor the idea that I might become one of those people who spends retirement surfing the web, looking constantly for items of interest or mildly humorous jokes and cartoons to send along to everyone I know, cluttering up their inboxes until they consign my address to their spam or “blocked sender” folders. I don't want to join those old duffers sitting around the public golf clubs, playing cards and watching TV and drinking beer between endless rounds of a stupid game that no one can master. I don't like hunting, and never really did; I've always hated fishing, which I think is boring and troublesome. I lack the personal patience and manual dexterity to build boats in bottles, and jigsaw puzzles bore me silly. I could learn a language, but where would I use it? I could volunteer and do charitable work, and I wouldn't mind that, but I'm honestly not really inclined to do it except out of a sense of obligation. I just can’t see myself trooping around some third world village doling out medications or showing people how to cultivate beans. I actually detest gardening and most all yard work. I could try to coach youth league sports or help troubled kids, but I honestly have limited patience with other people’s children and even less with the parents. That’s not admirable, but it’s honest.

The whole time I might be doing any of these things, my mind would be casting forward, trying to decide what I'll do next, later that day, tomorrow, next week, next year, and so on until the end of my days. I'm restless. Always have been. I can't relax. Never could. Whatever I’m doing at the moment is merely a means to get to the next thing to do. It's a hazard of growing up imbued with the Protestant Ethic, maybe. I was told at an early age that if I wasn’t doing something useful, for myself or someone else, I needed to find something useful to do. Idleness was not tolerated; nor was indolence. Retirement seems to be filled with the prospect of both.

I also know I don’t have to retire. There’s no mandatory age for it in my profession. But I am aware that I am slowing down, making mistakes, overlooking things, having trouble recalling pertinent and important details. I don’t want to be a problem for people who count on me. If I can’t make a full contribution, it’s time to quit, get out of the way, give someone else a turn. I’ve always believed that. Old people who don’t know when to quit create more problems than they’ll ever solve, and they also grow resentment. It’s important to know when the game is over, when the climb is done, when the mountain is conquered.

I watch people I know who have retired too early in life. They find their days filled with useless enterprise. They surf Cable TV, looking in vain for amusement, or they busy themselves with endless enterprises, such as genealogy or other worthless research that only bores people when they talk about it. They are adrift, still seeking, not finding. They truly are lost in a kind of fun house, a mirrored maze which distorts the reflection more with every wrong turn.

In a way, I have achieved all I set out to do, and more than I truly thought I ever would. I have earned the highest degree available in my profession and have achieved the highest academic rank that is possible, although I never got a chaired or named professorship, an unfortunate circumstance that does sometimes bother me, even though it's not something I can do anything about; I've made a career out of teaching and have had marvelously successful students and am regarded as a master of the classroom on all levels, although I've never won a teaching award in spite of a file cabinet full of notes and letters crediting my mentor-ship and tutelage as contributors to my charges' successes; I've published twenty books and more than 1,000 other pieces of writing and can, really, publish almost at will, although I've never enjoyed very successful booksales, again something I cannot control; I have won national awards, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, am a competent and lauded public speaker about either teaching or writing or both; I have met a lot of famous people, many of whom have expressed respect, even admiration for me and for my work. Not incidentally, in the course of all that, I have reared up and seen grown and married two beautiful, intelligent, and well-educated children, who are parents of beautiful children themselves and are fully qualified successful professionals in lucrative fields; I've sustained a marriage for 43 years and counting and have the privilege of the love of a genuinely good woman; I am healthy, truly in the best physical condition of my life. I can eat what I want, and for the most part, do what I want, within nominal and decreasing limits that seem perfectly ordinary.

So what's the problem? I'm not rich? I'm not a free agent who can write my own ticket and do whatever I want to do because of financial limitations? I'm not happy? Am I ungrateful for a life well-lived, one where I’ve managed so far to avoid arrest or being targeted for lawsuit, haven’t been victim or predator, really, of any malice, have no real enemies—although I’m under no illusions that everyone I know or ever have known likes me or even respects me—and, truly, no real friends—although there are people I’m very close to and for whom I feel deep affection. Or is it a sense that that life isn't over, even though the best parts of it have been in the achieving, not the arrival? There is the saying, “It’s lonely at the top,” but I think I misunderstood that. I thought it was about the isolation of responsibility and authority; it may be that in the end, when you reach the apex of life, you realize that you’re the only one there. It’s your mountain top, but you had to get there by yourself, and once there, you’re alone. There’s no one who can really appreciate the view as you see it.

Part of the issue is age, of course. Most of what I ever wanted to do and never did or somehow thought that I would eventually do, someday, I now either cannot do because I'm too old and lack the athleticism and enthusiasm of youth, or because I now see it as foolish and no longer appealing. Some people take up sky-diving or scuba-diving, parasailing, surfing, and so forth in their autumnal years. I think those are dumb activities, thrilling for a moment, but way too much trouble, too expensive, and too dangerous to consider seriously, even for the young. They’re just stupid for the old. Even if I could afford travel to many places I truly want to see, I am too old to care about the blandishments and bohemian attractions that originally were part of their original appeal. No one wants to see an old man cavorting with twenty-year-olds on a Parisian disco's dance floor, or swimming in Roman fountains, or biking across the Pyrenees, or drinking himself silly in a German beer hall while singing along with a brass band, and I really don't want to dance, not any longer; drinking to excess just makes me sleepy and a little sick, and although I own a quality road bike, bicycling is just not comfortable. I would love to be at the top of the of the Rockies or the Alps--or even the Carpathians or the Urals--but I have no interest in hiking up them or, for that matter, in skiing down them. Turned ankles, broken bones, sleeping on the ground, frigid temperatures, dousing rainstorms, gale-force winds, and eating freeze-dried food around a primitive campfire no longer hold much appeal. I’d like to see the Great Wall of China, but I know I don’t have the stamina to walk very much of it, and only walking part of it seems to be too abridged an experience to warrant the expense of traveling there. On a more mundane level, I'd love to have a sports car, a convertible, but I have nowhere to drive it, really, no one to show it off to or take for a spin, no hairpin switchbacks to race it around; the same holds for motorcycles and sail boats or airplanes. My wife assures me she wouldn’t join me in any of these things, so I’d have to hurry back and cook supper. Besides, all of those activities are expensive, and I really can't afford them.

It's a conundrum. I sometimes think that my life hereout will be a series of gaps between visits to see my grandchildren, which will annoy my grandchildren and, if I stay too long or offer too much unsolicited advice, will annoy my children, as well.

I don't think we were meant to live this long. I recently read that in 1949, the year of my birth, the average life expectancy for an American male was 57 years. Average. There might have been some value in the maintenance of that without all this bother of extending life into later years. It's not that I'm eager to die, although death holds no dread for me, in particular. It's that life offers no new challenges after a certain age. There are, instead, a lot of perils. There’s incapacitation, mental or physical, for one thing. Disease or injury that can put one into a seemingly endless pattern of awakening, sitting blindly and deafly and mutely, and retiring for the day, all punctuated by tasteless meals and diaper changes and occasional visits from people you can’t recognize or remember. I know some people live into their hundreds and remain alert and active, but they’re not typical. More often I see, from time to time, some old codger on a TV report who has found a new spiritual purpose after "that certain age" when he might well have justsoughta