Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume XXIX Number 2
Spring 2007

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Donald Gray
Donald Gray
Photo © 2007 Tyagan Miller

Odd Jobs

by Donald Gray

Soon after I retired in 1997, I dreamed that I was riding in a car with some of my young colleagues. We were moving through an unfamiliar countryside, driving up and down hills. At the top of the hill, the car stopped.

"You have to get out here," they said. (They did not speak in chorus, but I understood the command as communal.)

"But how will I get back to campus?" I asked.

"You can ride your bicycle."

"But I didn't bring my bicycle."

"You should have thought of that," they said.

That was nearly 10 years ago, and I still haven't found a vehicle to take me comfortably through retirement. Instead, I have cobbled together pieces of the work I used to do to make a replica of the professional life I used to lead. I have taught a dozen courses of one kind or another, from undergraduate classes to organized conversations in retirement communities. I've seen a couple of doctoral students through their dissertations, graded papers for correspondence courses, chaired two or three campus committees, written a few papers about literary study and the educations of high school teachers. Odd jobs, as I think of them. Odd because they are occasional, episodic, discrete. For me, work in retirement has been something more than a hobby because I practice the skills of what was my profession, but something less than an absorbing occupation. It is not exactly like suiting up every so often for the old-timers game, but that is the metaphor that comes to mind.

My post-retirement jobs feel odd because they lack a dimension of futurity, for one thing. When I pick up undergraduate courses for colleagues who had to let them go for one reason or another, I know that I am probably not going to teach those courses again. Whatever I learn this time through--about an assignment that didn't work, a novel that ought to be moved in the syllabus--will just hang in my head as wish and unrealized possibility. I also know that I am not really the teacher of the undergraduates in these courses. I am not going to see them again in another course. They usually don't ask me to write letters supporting their applications to graduate schools or serve on the committees of their honors theses; they don't come by my office (I don't have an office) to ask my advice about courses or papers or what to do next.

Even when I repeat, on and off campus, courses I have designed myself, the experience seems to me to be bounded by its immediate purpose. The engaging people in a retirement community, for example, who spend some pleasant afternoons talking with me about mystery stories are not going to take this interest into an extended study of the form, and neither am I. The students in the writing tutorials I have supervised, who come to learn how to frame and polish the essays required to complete their degrees, tend to think that the job is done when the essays are done. And because my role is not to advise them on their actual program but rather on how to write about it, so do I.

Work in retirement also seems to me to lack cohesion and context. When I had a lot of work to do, the tasks seemed to fuse and fit together into one job--my job as a university professor. I enjoyed moving around among the parts of that job, like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Eliza crossing the Ohio River by jumping from ice floe to ice floe. Now that I have arrived on the northern bank, I miss the continuity and urgency of those jumps.

I could try to pursue some of the recommendations prepared by one or another of the committees on which I have served since I retired, and certainly I could write more. Why don't I? Of course, age slows everything. But more important, I think, is the feeling that such tasks now pop up out of rhythm and continuity; they no longer connect with and engender one another.

My odd jobs in retirement feel like lessons submitted by students in the correspondence courses I have graded. I admire these students, many of whom soldier through books by Virgil and Dante and Art Spiegelman amid the demands of families and full-time jobs, and I look forward to reading their ideas. But the reading of their essays, which arrive one or two at a time, punctuates rather than constitutes the content and rhythm of my life in retirement. I miss the tension of being fully employed, of always thinking that I had one task too many, which now seems not only to have sustained but also to have propelled the work I used to do.

For the past few years I have been helping to create and organize an archive of videotaped oral histories offered by emeritus members of the Indiana University Bloomington faculty. In these interviews, and in conversations with retired colleagues, I have learned that although my remembered pleasure in the pressure of academic life is common, my restlessness in retirement is not. Some of the people to whom I have talked and listened have used the time opened by retirement to evolve a clarified version of their professional work. They perhaps sleep a little later, and spend more time at home than they used to; once in a while, one of them said, he feels liberated enough to order a glass of wine at lunch. For them, the gift of retirement is that, once the round of classes, conferences with students, committees, and professional meetings has been relaxed, they can turn their nearly undistracted attention to research, writing, painting, collaborations with colleagues, or the management of academic projects. In the metaphor of my post-retirement dream, they brought their bicycles with them, and they continue to ride them forward on familiar roads.

Other colleagues have figured out how to take their knowledge and talents off campus, into community and church organizations, and occasionally into organizations on campus, such as the office that offers experienced emeriti faculty as advocates to students who are contesting or just trying to understand decisions that affect their academic lives. One of these colleagues, an extraordinarily capable and thoughtful woman, began planning for retirement three years before she entered it. She gradually diminished her service on campus and school committees, cut back her research, and worked only as a teacher for the final six months of her tenure. Then, in her words, when she left, she left. She went to work in a series of community settings--a center for the counseling of rape victims, for example, and a temporary residence for abused women--in which she deploys all her skill as a teacher and advisor to students, all her knowledge as a teacher and writer on topics in health and human sexuality. Like others who have managed similar transpositions, in her retirement she has put to work outside the academy everything she learned and did while she was working in it.

I admire these modes of working in retirement. But I envy yet another way of being retired, which I think of as remembering to dance with the partner who brought you. We came to the academy because we liked to learn, to figure out answers, then to learn some more and change the answers, and all the while to talk to smart and variously experienced people. That is exactly what some of my colleagues do in retirement. They use its spaciousness to read, sometimes books and essays in the academic field in which they worked, sometimes not. They use the richness of the campus to go to lectures and concerts and add to their store of information and pleasure. They go to lunch with one another, with and without wine, to talk about what they are reading and what they have listened to. They reflect on the work they did. They don't fret--or at least they say they don't--about the instrumentality or futurity of their learning. If occasionally they think that it would be interesting to work out something they have learned in an essay or in front of a class, they pass by such distractions and go on learning. On the one hand, they really are retired, at the end of academic careers. On the other hand, they have returned to that charmed condition in which we all began. Fully in command now of the customs and tactics of learning, they are released by retirement to behave once again as students.

One morning recently I went to a Bloomington retirement community to drop off some material I wanted to use in a class there later in the week. On the way in, and again on the way out, I noticed men walking vigorously around the grounds wearing hats. All kinds of hats--baseball hats, visored caps, floppy rain and sun hats, even a panama. I thought of these men waking up, getting out of bed, shaving, getting dressed, making their breakfasts (O.K., maybe their wives made the breakfasts), and then putting on their hats to walk into the morning. Old guys in hats: that's the name I gave to this scene when I saw it, and ever since I have pondered why I find the scene so moving. Now, at the end of this reflection on the latter days of work, I think I know.

It's the hats that move me, and the announcement they make that the old guys who wear them are leaving the house, abroad in the day. Like all of us working at retirement, these men and, somewhere, their female counterparts, retain and rehearse the habits of their--of our--lifetimes. Whatever the work they have now chosen to do, they walk out to do it with an air of purpose and a dash of style.

Donald Gray is professor emeritus of English at Indiana University in Bloomington. He writes, "I wish to thank these colleagues for conversations in which I learned a great deal about the various styles of work in retirement: Anita Aldrich, Bob Arnove, Frank Banta, Chuck Bonser, George Juergens, Elizabeth Lion, Norm Overly, Rudy Pozzatti, Dick Stryker, and Paul Zietlow."