Friday, 16 February 2018

Getting to the edge

I posted something on Facebook yesterday that elicited a storm of comments which I tried to respond to, but there were so many that I believe people didn't read them all. I felt most friends misinterpreted my post, and rather than replying to individual comments I will offer a more detailed explanation here.

Yesterday I signed my retirement agreement. It was straightforward. My Head of department asked whether there was any reason to make a case for extending my employment (we both knew there wasn't, but he was obliged to ask); whether I needed any post-retirement support from the department to further develop my career, which we both laughed at, but again, he had to ask. I stated that I had no intention to continue teaching or supervising on hourly-paid basis. He informed me that as Professor Emerita I would keep my university email address and library privileges. He said that there was only a tiny office available to discarded professors, and I assured him that I wouldn't need it. He asked me whether I had any questions. I didn't. Then he pushed toward me the form where he had written this all down, and asked me to sign. He had a beautiful fountain pen, the kind my son-in-law would approve of. I hesitated. I took a deep breath. I signed. We exchanged a couple of jokes. Then I left his office and walked over to mine. I got rather emotional.

What I posted on Facebook was a one-sentence summary of the above: signed the form and felt emotional. Asked for sympathy from people who had done it and people who hadn't.

The response was a total surprise. Most friends thought I was upset and anxious. Some shared their own or somebody else's experience of retirement saying that anxiety was normal, but would eventually go away. Some suggested self-help books and mentioned counselling.

Half of friends thought I had retired as of yesterday, although I said in my original post that I still had eighteen months to go. Many asked whether I really had to retire.

Lots of friends stated with confidence that I would never “retire” but go on working as usual, just with more time for my own research, writing books and articles, attending conferences and delivering guest lectures.

I was deeply moved by all kind words from colleagues and students about my contribution to scholarship and being a role model. I even received some personal texts and emails from people who mean a lot to me. Thank you, everyone. It makes such a difference to feel appreciated. After all, I have spent forty plus years in this area.

However, I need to clarify some points.

Firstly, as I have already said, I am not retiring yet for a while. But there is a procedure that my Head of department had to follow. Cambridge bureaucratic machinery is slow.

Secondly, yes, I have to retire. I have no choice. Although it is illegal in the UK to force people to retire, two employers just don't care two pins. You can easily guess which. In fact, the Other Place is re-considering its position, but This Place isn't. I believe historically it was done to prevent derelict professors sitting on their chairs, physical and academic, until they dropped dead. It's crucial to open jobs for younger generations. When I took the job, I knew that it lasted until a certain date which was not negotiable. (Although at that time I didn't know it was illegal). Therefore I had prepared for the idea, and I don't feel upset.

Also I see lots of retired colleagues around me who are enjoying it.

What I shared on Facebook was a moment I hadn't anticipated, to which I reacted unexpectedly strongly. But not in a negative way. I was similarly emotional (and anxious) when I signed my current contract; I was emotional as I signed papers when I got married, or when we bought our house. Isn't it perfectly natural? Looking back at it, I wouldn’t want to be without this experience. The final moment just before there is no going back.

As to what I intend to do with my post-retirement life, since I have been planning it for a while, I have quite a clear picture of it. I will not go on as usual. I won't write any more academic books or articles. I think I have done enough for a lifetime. I received a prestigious international award for a lifetime achievement thirteen years ago, and I have done quite a lot since then. I won't go to conferences, because I don't want to become one of those conference props inevitably causing irritation. I have been to enough conferences in the past forty years. I won't offer any “services to the profession” because there are younger colleagues who can do it better and need it for their careers. In other words, retirement means retirement. One friend suggested I could find a job at another university with a more generous retirement policy, but why? I am looking forward to my freedom. I feel I have deserved it.

I don't think I will have problems keeping myself busy. Five years ago I thought that I would get myself a large dollhouse when I retired, but then I changed my mind and got it there and then. It is far from finished, and I have other miniature projects, both ongoing and planned. My goal is to become a fellow of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans. You have to be exceptionally good, so it might take some years of practice.

I will certainly continue with book binding. I will take cooking classes. I may go back to pottery and paper-making.

I also want to take up falconry on a more regular basis. Not sure whether I am prepared to commit myself to a bird of my own, so I'll see how I feel then. The first step in falconry is to be able to tie a falconer's knot, and I am pathetically bad at knots. If I find it too challenging I can volunteer at a hedgehog rescue.

I still have my beautiful garden, and unless we are kicked out of the UK after Brexit, there is a lot I could do. I also want to grow orchids. I only have three at the moment, but I want get various sorts and to learn more about them.

Speaking of learning, I will learn a new language. Some people do crosswords or sudoku to keep their minds going, but I have never understood the point. Learning a new language is supposed to be a good exercise for the brain. Preferably a language radically different from the ones I know. I am deciding between Hebrew, Japanese and Welsh.

Some Facebook friends suggested travel, but I am not sure I want to travel. I have travelled so much, and I am finding the effort of being transported to the places you want to visit hardly worth the pleasure of being there. Again, if we are allowed to stay in the UK, there are plenty of beautiful places I can visit close to home. Although I would like to walk Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I will need to train seriously for that. So it will also take some time, both gym and walking.

I also have a bunch of grandchildren whom I have neglected so there will hopefully be opportunities to get to know them better.

If I have any time left, I will report to headquarters.

Finally, being an optimist, I say: I may be dead by then, so why worry?