February 25, 1997
At breakfast this morning, I devoured a two-page feature in the Des Moines Register, called "New Beat for the Old Reporter." A piece about a recently-retired columnist, whose stuff I've been reading the past thirty-five years, without ever realizing we're almost the same age-just five months apart. He's always looked so much older than me, especially in the most recent shots of him, balding at the front, gray around the edges, that I was doubly surprised after mentioning it to Kate, who smiled at me across the breakfast table and said "Have you looked in the mirror lately and seen what's going on-the thinning hair, the sagging cheeks, the growing waistline?" Only your best friends will tell you! I was also touched by the discovery that his decision to retire "came as a surprise to everyone, even himself," because he "suddenly realized it was time to go. 'I was so tired of it.'"
Though I've never been tired of the students, or the give and take of classroom discussion, or the office hours, or the mentoring, I'm so burnt out from forty years of reading and commenting on student writing-a lifetime with the editorial pencil in hand-that I sometimes feel as if I can hardly bring myself to look at another set of student essays. And it's not just the tediousness of making the comments again and again. It's the emotional and intellectual exhaustion that comes from repeatedly making the effort to produce comments that are evaluative but constructive, probing but encouraging. Now I'm beginning to wonder what makes other people decide that it's time to go. Boredom? Burnout? Buyout? Illness? Wanderlust? New ventures? Old Hungers? Or the sand running down so swiftly from top to bottom? And I wonder how they feel about it once they've decided to go.
A few more classes like the one I had this afternoon, and I'll be ready to retire-without any qualms at all. Discussion got off to a slow start, everyone sitting silent around the big seminar table as if they'd all lost their voices at once. And it didn't get any better the rest of the session, so I had to offer a more pointed critique of both manuscripts than I care to make in class, especially when I'm concerned about the confidence of the students, as I was this afternoon. By the end of the two-hour workshop, I felt much more drained than usual-also more in touch with the burn-out I was feeling five years ago when I decided to go on phased-in retirement. And now after dinner, as I sit up here in our attic-study finishing this entry, I'm also feeling in touch with another post-workshop evening twelve years ago today, another February 25, when I first started feeling uncomfortable spasms in my neck that turned out to be the signs of a heart attack. A heart attack, followed by a triple bypass, that changed the course of my life as much as I now feel it's being changed by my forthcoming retirement. But in this case, there's no kind of bypass available.