Taking Retirement

Publisher’s Description

In the months approaching his retirement, acclaimed writing instructor Carl Klaus felt an increasing anxiety about what lay ahead. “Given such an unsettling state of mind, I decided to start keeping a diary, a diary that might help me work my way through the anguish and anxiety, through the bittersweet feelings so that I could genuinely take retirement rather than feel as if it were taking me unawares.” The result is this original and intimate account of a subject rarely explored in literary writing. With quiet courage, Klaus embarks upon the emotional work of retiring from a lifetime of teaching–a difficult task for someone whose sense of self is so strongly tied to his role as a mentor. TAKING RETIREMENT offers many charms: the lively give-and-take between Klaus and his witty wife, Kate; his stories of how colleagues, neighbors, and relatives are handling retirement; and his account of a revelatory trip to the Canadian and American rockies. Refined and thoughtful, this diary of retirement charts a process that we all must face, one that forces the author to confront the deeply disorienting issues of identity and mortality as well as the pleasures of creating a whole new life. For anyone who undergoes a major life change, TAKING RETIREMENT provides a testament to our perennial ability to remake ourselves.

Reactions & Reviews

Detailing the practicalities of retiring as well as the range of emotions brought forth by the process of separating from the university environment, Klaus’ book, with its insight, candor, and rare command of the journal form, will pique the interest of anyone contemplating the possibility of
retiring. It ought to be required reading for those readers who know retirement is looming on the not-too-distant horizon. –BOOKLIST

Carl Klaus has done it again–in Taking Retirement he conducts us through a bittersweet life passage with the pitch-perfect voice of his acclaimed garden books…. Here, in the modest and appealing form of a journal, is a novel of acceptance and new life, a memoir of a great teacher, and memorable travel writing of a thrilling journey West…. Klaus has made of his story a touchstone for this most beguiling– and bedeviling–of life’s changes.
–Patricia Hampl, author of I Could Tell You Stories

“Carl Klaus leads us through a rite of passage for which we have few guides–the laying down of the work that has defined one’s life, the shedding of an old skin, and the shaping of a fresh identity. The path he shows us cuts through swamps of discouragement and thickets of fear before it reaches the clearing where his new life will blossom. This journal records his emotions along the way as faithfully as any seismograph gauging the tremors of earth.”
–Scott Russell Sanders, author of Hunting For Hope and Staying Put

“Taking Retirement is the quiet testimony of a man whose ongoing writing, editing, reading, gardening, traveling and ceaseless quest for self-knowledge make him much less retired than many people half his age. And in that lie some good lessons, both about writing and retirement.”
–Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost

“An evocative meditation on purpose, dependence, leisure, and fulfillment. Occasionally wistful, always insightful, Carl Klaus will charm you with his musings about the meaning of work and his
honesty about the natural ambivalence that accompanies this lifetransition.”
–Hope Edelman, author of Mother of My Mother: The Intricate Bond Between the Generations

“A life-altering condition is faithfully chronicled in this story of a condition that is new to humanity.”
–Kirkus Reviews


February 21, 1997

Retirement. I’ve been phasing into it slowly, gently (three years at three-quarter time, two years at half-time), so I figured it would be an easy transition when the no-time time begins a few months from now. I’d step into my new life so well-prepared for it that I’d hardly miss my old one. Just a simple matter of putting one foot in front of another on my way to the brave new world of AARP-the American Association of Retired Persons. As a retired person-a retiree-I’d no longer feel the old compulsions to go into the office, check the mail, chat with my colleagues, confer with my students, or do any of the other things I’ve been doing the past forty years. I’d hang out instead in my attic study, overlooking the back yard, and watch the seasons unfold. But just to make sure I didn’t go to seed, I’d keep a hand in by teaching one of my favorite courses in the nonfiction writing program that I used to direct-a course in prose style, or the personal essay, or the art of the journal. One course a year-just enough to keep in touch with the students, keep myself stimulated, and keep my office too. But without any of the hassle.

No more department meetings, no more committees, no more salary reviews. Free at last! Free to tend my garden for the rest of my days. Free to read what I want, write when I want, teach when I want, go fishing, visit the children and grandchildren. And travel with Kate to all those alluring places in the glossy brochures that clutter our mail box every spring and fall. Hike Macchu Picchu, explore the Galapagos, take a villa in Tuscany, tour the Holy Land, visit the Forbidden City, and behold the Great Barrier Reef. No wonder I chose to retire at 65 rather than 70. Especially with more to spend than if I were working full time-thanks to Social Security and forty years of investment in TIAA-CREF, otherwise known as Teachers Insurance Annuity Association and College Retirement Equities Fund. My pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The only problem is that some of my plans began to change, and not by choice, when I stopped in a few weeks ago to visit my colleague Paul, who now directs the nonfiction program. The minute I sat down and started to discuss my teaching plans for next year, I could see the smile on Paul’s face beginning to droop. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that our department chair, Dee, had been fretting about low enrollments in some of our nonfiction courses, especially given the recent additions to our nonfiction staff. So, as he explained it, there’ll probably be no chance for me to teach a course next year or any other time in the near future. No room for me, no need for me. No fault of Paul’s or of Dee’s, but those words rang and rankled in my head as I listened to him review the numbers, just the way I’d advised him to do when I passed him the baton a few years ago. As he leaned back in his office chair, ticking things off with his fingers, it dawned on me that I’d not been keeping track as closely as I used to. It also dawned on me that I’d soon have fewer professional options than I’d imagined. I too was ticking things off.

Then I found out from Dee that the department will be short of office space for several more years. So, I’ll probably have to give up the office I’ve had the past twenty-five years-my office overlooking the river-and take up residence in “the emeritus suite,” a three-room ghetto for retired professors overlooking the parking lot. A place so crammed with metal lockers and similar amenities that only one or two of my retired colleagues has ever used it. Once upon a time, everyone kept their offices as long as they wished, so the department was like an extended family, and retirement was not like an eviction notice. But now I might be evicted altogether, for the emeritus suite, as I discovered just a few days ago, has been converted into office space to house our visiting professors and the department’s honors program. Talk about being out of touch! You’d think I was already retired, given how little I know about what’s been going on around the building while I’ve been phasing-in. Or phasing-out, to put it more accurately. And not just out of my office, but also out of the community of my colleagues.

Out of it, just at the moment when a new person’s coming into the nonfiction program who’s sure to be a wonderful colleague-a person who’ll fill the vacancy created by my departure and so in a sense will be my replacement. Though I met Sara just a few days ago during her campus interview, I’ve been hearing about her from members of the search committee, also from my longtime friend and former colleague Bob, who’s directing her doctoral work at Brown and sang her praises in a recommendation that’s exuberantly over the top-“She can charm bees from flowers and words from dictionaries.” Last summer, I exchanged a few e-mails with Sara about her thesis on the essay-the subject of my own study the past twenty years-and just from that exchange I was buzzing about her too. Then a few weeks ago, I looked at her teaching materials and noticed that she’s offered courses not only on the essay but also on prose style, covering some of the same material that I’ve been dealing with the past forty years. And doing it with more pizzazz, though she’s only been teaching a few years. A lot more pizzazz, as I could see from watching her run a two-hour workshop a few days ago. The room was abuzz when she finished. So when the department met yesterday afternoon to consider our two job candidates, I could hardly contain myself as I waited to make a strong closing statement for Sara-even though she hasn’t yet finished her doctoral thesis and several people are worried about bringing in someone without a degree in hand. I don’t think I’ve given such an impassioned talk since my heart attack twelve years ago-so impassioned I could feel the pulse throbbing in my temples.

Only then in the flush of my excitement about Sara did I realize that I’d delivered my valedictory-that I’d probably never have another occasion to address the whole department. And only then did I realize that I was far less ready for retirement than I’d supposed-that I have, in fact, such mixed feelings about giving up the classroom, my office, and the community of my colleagues and students that I thought I’d better start keeping a dairy. A diary where I can deal with the bittersweet feelings I’m experiencing even now as I sit up here in the attic writing this piece. A diary that might help me through this suddenly dismaying phase-in-phase-out-and beyond. For I don’t want my final day of teaching, just a few months from now, to be a day of mourning. I want to take retirement rather than feel as if it’s taking me unawares. Maybe even seize it joyously. But at least behold it without looking back so longingly that I turn into a pillar of regret.

February 22, 1997

Last night I e-mailed Sara a one-word letter of congratulations, and this morning she replied: “Thank you. THANK YOU. You have been enormously helpful. As you know, this job wouldn’t even exist without you. I am fitting both my shoes into one of your footprints, and very grateful to have discovered their impression in the sand.” Such a gracious and flattering note that I responded in kind-“Your feet are bigger than you think.”

And I meant it, meant it so much that it made me keenly aware just then of how easily replaceable I’ve turned out to be. No one, of course, is replaceable. “One mind less, one world less,” as Orwell says in “The Hanging.” Still, it’s hard to ignore the contrary truth that resonates through the halls of every place I’ve ever worked whenever someone decides to change jobs or move elsewhere or retire-“No one is irreplaceable. ” I’ve sometimes uttered that line myself, especially when a big name has decided to leave. But then again, I’d have to admit that I’ve sometimes heard a little voice within me saying, “It’ll be different with you. It won’t be so easy for them to replace you.” Come to think of it, though, I’ve rarely heard that voice the past two years since Paul’s taken over the nonfiction program and done such a fine job of it. And now with the coming of Sara I don’t expect I’ll ever hear it again. So, the most haunting thing about her lovely message is the image of my footprints in the sand, likely to last no longer than the next incoming tide.

February 23, 1997

Tides be damned, there’s a life to be lived, and that means it’s time to get started on the vegetable garden. So this morning I planned the spring garden and planted a few tomato seeds, keeping myself focussed on the task at hand, on the dry seeds in the wet germinating mix, on the prospect of fruits to come. No matter what happens at the building, I’ll have home-grown tomatoes in June or early July. Fresh produce just a few weeks after I retire. Maybe Kate’s right when she tells me “Just get on with your life, and retirement will take care of itself.”

On days like this, in fact, I wonder why I’m worrying about it at all, especially when I think about my parents, neither of whom lived long enough to retire. Even if they had lived to be sixty-five or seventy, they’d probably have kept on working until they dropped dead in their tracks. Like most people of their generations, who were born so long before the time of ample pension plans and social security-my father in 1879, my mother in 1903-they couldn’t have afforded to retire, particularly after my father, a doctor, lost everything he owned, including his home, in the stock market crash of 1929, and my mother returned to schoolteaching after he died in 1934. When I think of how hard it was for some of the relatives who raised me during the depression era in Cleveland, and harder still for the immigrant parents of my childhood friends, I feel as if I’ve been richly spoiled by the retirement funds I’ve accumulated during my years of working at Iowa. A far cry from the way it used to be for college professors. A far cry from the way it still is for many clerical, factory, and service workers, given the recent wave of downsizing and cost-cutting programs. No wonder so many people have to work two part-time jobs just to make ends meet, without any chance of a comfortable retirement. No wonder McDonald’s has been running want ads for elderly employees. So, I often feel like the beneficiary of such a rare windfall that I should keep my mouth shut and get on with my life-gardening, reading, and puttering around the house, as I did today. But no sooner do I vow to shut up than something happens that starts me fretting again. And then I understand the embarrassing truth of E. B. White’s acknowledgement that “Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” Or to keep a retirement journal.

February 24, 1997

Today I was back in the pre-retirement world, getting ready for tomorrow’s workshop in the art of the journal, a course I created this year as an outgrowth of My Vegetable Love, the journal I wrote two years ago. It’s the last course I’ll ever teach here, and happily (or sadly) it seems like one of the best I’ve ever taught. Eight gifted women and I, turning our days into daybooks, our lives into journals. I wonder if it’s so lively because of the students or because it’s a new kind of venture for all of us. I’m teaching something I’ve never taught before, and they’re writing journals in a much more artistically self-conscious way than they’ve ever done before. And now I wonder if it’s so precious to me because it’s the last course of my career. Perhaps I shouldn’t even be worrying such questions and simply be thankful that it’s been so satisfying, especially when I remember how it was with my colleague Jix, who retired last year after teaching a course that according to him was one of the most disappointing of his career. Maybe, after all, there’s a truth to the cliché of quitting while one’s ahead, particularly given the recent growth of my retirement funds. But then again, what a pleasure it would be to have another go at this course. But then again, what a pleasure it would be to stop going back and forth like this. I wonder if everyone goes through such mood swings on the verge of retirement, or if it’s just me and this day. But one thing’s for sure-I can’t ever remember myself having such ups and downs, such highs and lows, as if I were on drugs or had somehow lost control of myself.

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.

February 26, 1997

Kate’s birthday, and once again I was elated to give her some better gifts than the heart attack I had twelve years ago. Especially an illustrated book about trees from around the world-my contribution to the library she’s building for herself and for Heritage Trees of Iowa City, the long-term preservation project she’s been spearheading the past several years. That book is also an emblem of the travelling we hope to do in the years to come, a leafy reminder of why I should be looking forward to retirement. Skimming its pages after she opened it at lunch, I gazed at seductive photographs of trees and places I’ve never seen before-the grass trees of Australasia, the fever trees of South Africa, the Araucaria trees of Chile. 

But this afternoon I was back at the office for conferences with Angela who’s working on an MFA thesis about her Chicano heritage, and Jean who’s keeping a journal about coping with her mother’s rapidly failing memory. Both compelling projects that I hope can be turned into publishable manuscripts. So. the thought of abandoning the know-how I’ve developed during forty years of teaching is difficult to accept, particularly when students ask if I can serve on their theses after I’ve retired. I wonder if it might be possible for me to stay on as an unpaid consultant to the program. As an adjunct professor rather than a professor emeritus. As someone who can help colleagues and students develop their manuscripts and get them placed with agents and publishers.

Or am I just looking for excuses to avoid the unavoidable? And if that’s the case, why can’t I just let go of it all without trying to hang on in one way or the other? Retirement, after all, is a time for new ventures, yet for some reason I seem wedded to my same old job. What a strange thing-to know better, yet not be able to let go. As if it were an addiction rather than a profession.

February 27, 1997

In the midst of such fretting, there’s nothing like the spectacle of a tomato seedling just beginning to emerge, its neck arching out of the soil. Only four days after being planted, thanks to the warmth of the living room radiator directly under the seed tray. So I christen it with a little mist from Kate’s spray bottle and think of the months ahead. I imagine myself taking up watercolors, so I can do detailed studies of emergent seedlings. I’m inspired by the ethereally beautiful, larger-than-life watercolor of leeks by our dear friend Jo Ann-a lovely pair, suspended in mid-air-that arrived late yesterday afternoon as the climactic present in Kate’s birthday bounty. Better to look forward rather than back. Better to focus on the joy rather than the sadness of my coming retirement. Better to stop spouting such platitudes lest I turn into a latter-day Polonious and not come to terms with the fact that it’s time for me to leave but I’m not yet ready to let go of what I’ve been doing for almost two-thirds of my life. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready. Now I’m beginning to understand why some of my older colleagues seemed so prickly or distant when they were facing retirement.

February 28, 1997

“Looking forward to your retirement party?” My colleague, Jon, clearly meant well by the question he asked me when our paths crossed in the office corridor this afternoon. But in my current mood, a retirement party is the last thing I want to hear about. So my response to Jon was a bit crusty-a response that left him looking a little less bright-eyed than usual, especially since I didn’t feel like going into a long-winded explanation just then.

How could I tactfully explain that such parties usually give me the creeps? They seem like a thinly veiled form of explusion, complete with going-away gifts and celebratory farewells. So, a few years ago I wrote a note to Dee, asking her not to plan any such thing for me. No luggage, thank you, or emotional baggage, or anything else to send me on my way. I should have known that she’d urge me to reconsider and I wouldn’t have the gumption to refuse, especially given Dee’s irrepressibly genial and earnest manner. Now, I’ll have to write her another note, asking once again to be spared the ceremonies and the remembrances and all the other stuff that sometimes make me feel as if I’m at a memorial service rather than a retirement party. For I don’t want to be buried alive, don’t want my story to be told until my story is complete, and certainly don’t want to hear it being told. Especially when I’d much rather stay on as an unpaid editorial consultant to the nonfiction program. Maybe I should propose that idea to Dee as something I’d much rather have than a party or a going-away present.