Sabotage the Butterfly

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“Dying at your desk is not a retirement plan.” Thomas Heath- Washington Post

Maybe not, but I know many people my age who, as much as they say they want the easy life of no alarm clock and not answering to anyone any more, still manage to remain in the job year after year after year. “Retirement” is a wonderful concept until you sit down and really think about all that it involves, both the known and, more important, the scary unknown. Which side occupies your every waking hour? How long can you hold out and avoid the metamorphosis to retiree and major life change?

I have a friend who worked at a small firm for almost twenty years. When the owner decided to cut costs, he first fired her and then offered to hire her back for less money, less hours and less benefits. I was mystified as to why she’d even contemplate the offer but she took it. As it turns out, the thought of change was (and is) scarier to her than the horrific circumstances she was already in. She opted for the known over the unknown.

I have been through many career incarnations and always figure that even if the new job turns out to be terrible, it’s not likely to be worse than the one I’m leaving. And if it is, I’ll have some time to find something else. Yes, you sacrifice seniority and vacation time when you do that but you salvage your peace of mind. That always won out for me. My friend told me once that every time I moved on to a new job, the thought of it made her a little sick.

But then we get to retirement – THE REALLY BIG CHANGE.  I can sit back and steadfastly refuse to change or I can hope I become the butterfly. I’m at the stage where I sort of look forward to it on the one hand, and sort of worry about it on the other. Today, looking forward is winning. I hope it stays that way as the reality looms closer.

Another concern – probably the main concern – is money. In my years as a dancer, we didn’t have things like retirement plans and I spent every dime I made. By the time I focused on the fact that I was aging and needed to start thinking about saving, it was pretty late in my working life. So I’ve managed to pull it together somewhat, but not comfortably. Even so, it’s hard to alter routines and lifelong habits in order to squirrel away enough money to live comfortably. I read a quote by a retiree named Fritz Gilbert who said, “Not making a decision is still making a decision. Spend the money to buy that ‘thing’ and you’ve made a decision to work longer.” I guess that all depends on what that “thing” is. If you’re looking at a boat or new living room furniture then yes, you’ll probably sabotage an early retirement.  But my “things” are smaller – mostly Starbucks coffee on the weekends and a couple of magazine subscriptions. I think I can probably swing it. Nevertheless, retirement is looming and I’m keeping my eye on the butterfly and hoping to make it a colorful one.

Foul-Mouthed Adult

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Here’s another advantage to approaching retirement age: you get to hang on to all the old habits you adore that everyone else abhors.

I used to be one of those youngsters that, hearing an elderly person curse or seeing him shoot the finger at someone in traffic or adamantly refuse to give an inch in a long-term family feud or get into a spitting match with a stranger over a place in line, would comment, “You’d think he’d know better than to act like that at his age.” Really? Why?

I’ve always had a bit of a sailor’s mouth. I’d like to blame it on working in backstage dressing rooms for years, but that’s not really the source. I can’t remember when it actually became my favorite way to blow off steam but distinctly remember the first time I used the “F” word in front of my mother. I was practicing a twirling routine for upcoming high school auditions and had gone over it in the back yard so many times that I’d worn a bald spot in the grass. Every day I would start from the beginning and every time I missed a trick, I’d start over until I could get through the routine three complete times. Try that in a Texas summer with the heat and the humidity. But then again, I was a teenager and much more resilient than I am now. I had finally completed three error-free sets and, with auditions coming up soon, finally called my mother out to be my audience. Right in the middle, I dropped the baton, instantaneously spit out, “F_ _ _!” and then froze.

My mother’s face was priceless – mouth agape, eyebrows damn near scraping her hairline, hands fisted at her waist. “Lisa!” was all she said. I couldn’t help it; I laughed. I knew she’d watched me torture myself for weeks and all of that afternoon and that she understood my frustration even though she might’ve objected to the way I chose to express it.

So here we are some 50-odd years later, and the “F” word is still my favorite. It’s funny how young people think age brings wisdom, certainty about everything good and right, and a gentle, placid nature, one free of all offending language. Maybe there are more people than I think who have found all the answers and nothing bothers them enough to warrant a curse word here and there, but somehow I don’t think so. Most of us never grow up.

It was another laughable moment when I used the “F” word in front of one of my younger co-workers and her facial features took on a similar look to my mother’s 50 years earlier. Horrified, she commented, “I’ve never heard you use that word.” My response was, “Are you kidding? I lived in backstage dressing rooms for much of my youth and it’s my favorite word.” I could see that I’d become a completely different person to her. I’m still not sure if that was good or bad but it struck me that I was supposed to be of an age when I resorted to strong words like “shoot” or “darn it.” All I can say is she clearly didn’t know me at all. Once a foul mouth, always a foul mouth.

So all you youngsters keep in mind that unless you work on them now, your bad habits will follow you into retirement and you’ll be annoyed to hear someone twenty, thirty or forty years younger say, “Shouldn’t she know better at her age?”

And when that happens, watch your language.

Suicide Scares Me

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Anthony Bourdain’s apparent suicide has scared me. Inadvertently, it hit on some latent fears and also my inability to comprehend the act. Let’s take the latter one first.

I don’t truly understand how a person reaches the point of suicide. I suppose I can’t comprehend it because I’ve never been in those shoes. That does not, however, mean that I’ve dismissed those who reach a point where life is too painful for them to go on. I understand it only from the point of the terminally-ill because that’s the population I’ve worked with for so long. It used to scare me when I would hear someone say the patient was ready to die because they were “just tired.” I couldn’t imagine, and didn’t want to imagine, reaching a point where I was “just tired.” However, after having my own back surgery for a problem that had grown increasingly painful on a daily, then hourly, then minute-by-minute basis, I was made aware (on a diminished scale, to be sure) what it must be like to have a much more painful problem that had gone on for so long that that person would rather die than live with it any longer. I get that now.

Okay, but that’s a physical problem. I still can’t really understand dealing with mental demons that would incapacitate me to the same degree. I’ve always been aware that my darkest thoughts happen at night and that if I can hold on until morning, I’ll feel better. And even if nothing has resolved overnight, I feel better just because I’ve put it aside long enough to sleep and now feel like it’s something I can run with for another day. And even though I might face the same issue every night for weeks, there comes a time when the issue has resolved or I’ve realized it’s not the demon I thought it was and I’m able to move on.

I remember once upon a time in my early Vegas dance career, going right off the deep end over a broken relationship. The cad had walked me out the front door to my car after work every night and then walked around back to meet another girl who was in the same dressing room with me. When he finally decided to make the split official, I found that I couldn’t eat. I was already thin at 5’8″ and 126 pounds, but I went down to almost 110. I would go home and sob every night and, exhausted, try to sleep but, of course, didn’t sleep well. This went on for months. But even then, I never contemplated suicide.

So my fear is twofold: (a) What if, once I retire, I discover that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, I run out of things I want to do or explore, I have nothing better to do than sit around at home and stare at the television, and I begin to spiral down into a place where I will understand how one gets to the point of suicide. I will have become that terminally-ill patient with no future who’d just as soon die. And (2) how can you ever know a person well enough to see past the exterior, to know if their interior emotions have a stronger pull on them than their outer persona? If you can’t see it, how can you help?

I’ve always understood that people let you see only what they want you to see and that they never share all of themselves – in my opinion, never. There are inner parts of all of us that we simply don’t share with others.

So the thought that someone like Anthony Bourdain, who seemed to have pulled his shit together from an admittedly raucous youth, should be suffering and no one had an inkling, is frightening.

 

Is Modern Art Art?

Here’s an interesting thing you’ll learn as you near retirement age: You begin to voice your opinion on things you wouldn’t dream of bringing up years earlier in case it stirred controversy. Once you reach the point where your opinion isn’t likely to impact your career, you feel the freedom that comes with being able to mouth off at will (not that it really took retirement age for me to mouth off). So here I go.

Several years ago, I found myself in Chicago with some fellow employees and, although most of the rest were interested in clubbing and sleeping late, two of us were interested in taking in the Art Institute of Chicago. It was fabulous and we spent several hours perusing the different exhibitions, even tagging on to the back of a tour group to hear the guide explain all the hidden messages one Impressionist painter incorporated into his work.

But then we wandered off and eventually saw a sign indicating the entrance to the modern art wing of the museum. She indicated modern art was not her favorite and I readily agreed. She went on to say that the thing that irritated her the most was when someone included something like a big red dot in the middle of a canvas and called it art. We both laughed because, really? (and here’s me mouthing off at last) if it looks like something I could do, then it’s not art, because although I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, I’m pretty sure I could manage to get a colored circle on a canvas or sling a bunch of paint and when it looked colorful and pretty, declare it a masterpiece.

So, yes, you guessed it. We walked in to discover a giant red dot on a canvas. It was a laughable moment. Nevertheless, I am left trying to imagine an art connoisseur staring fixedly at the painting, taking in the bold use of color, the brush strokes, the nuance and declaring it a masterpiece worthy of exhibition in a museum.

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Ok, I clearly don’t understand what makes modern art art. To me, it’s art if it’s something I can identify and something I couldn’t achieve in a million years of classes or practice. Something like this –

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– something where even I, the novice, can see the bold use of color, the brush strokes, the attention to the smallest details, the beauty of the facial features, the tranquility of the scene, the snapshot of an era.

You can try to get me to understand what makes something qualify as “art,” or you can sigh, shake your head and leave me to enjoy the Impressionists, thank you. Ah, the joys of retirement age and no filter.