Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/16/2009

Temporal lobes, Fluorescent lights—“retirement” or “withdrawal”

Disclaimer: the following attempts to make an insightful play on the two meaning of a word. The writing fails, I fear, but the idea may be valid. My head is too heavy to tell. That makes this, I am sure, a better example of the effects of a seizure than the writing itself.

People who are alive in that special way we all admire—who radiate energy or fun or joy or whatever, and zoom around with ideas, and go off on birding expeditions to the Amazon, or write books about the history of this and that, or live “ordinary” lives but are happy and arrange their lives pretty much the way they want them to be or at least come to peace with their lives as they are—these people never “retire.”

According to The Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “retire” has a somewhat stranger-than-usual birth record.**

Back in the olden days when I was a child, people didn’t talk about “retiring.” At least not the old people I knew—of course, when we’re children, anyone over twenty-five is “old,” so who knows what the really old people were talking about. It takes some growing up to realize the difference between older people and old people (I can refer to “old people,” by the way, without insulting us because I am one).

Back in the olden days people didn’t talk about depression, either, or Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Being depressed isn’t being “crazy.” The sister of one of my family’s closest friends was “crazy” and lived with her. Her name was (coincidentally, I trust) the same as their family dog. I saw our friend probably two or three times a week. I never met the “crazy” sister. I often wonder what her diagnosis was.

My father was thirty years old when I was born. He was an older person. His father was thirty years old when my father was born. My grandfather was an old person. My family’s generations are a bit longer than the average according to the Census Bureau which said in 2007 a generation in the US is 25.2 years (imagine the math it took to figure that one out).

My grandfather was sixty when I was born (59—his 60th birthday came 18 days after I was born, which makes us both Capricorns. I don’t remember conversation about my grandfather retiring, but I remember conversation around my grandmother’s decision to begin drawing Social Security when she was 62 rather than waiting until she was 65. I remember the family going with my grandfather to see a house he was building. He must have been near or beyond Social Security “retirement” age and still building houses.

The old folks (my grandfather lived to be 92, and my father is now 95), from my childhood did not “retire.” Or at least they didn’t become “retirees.” Douglas Harper says “retiree” entered the language in 1945. My grandfather was 60. The first Social Security check was issued in 1940, so the concept of “retiring” was only beginning to take root  by the time my grandfather was sixty. I’m no sociologist, but it seems to me the government practiced “social engineering” with Social Security. We have a different idea than our (my) grandparents did about moving from being older people to being old people. One of my students asked me if I think Social Security is constitutional—that argument goes back 1937. Maybe so, and maybe not. But try to end it now when Americans who have become “retirees” wouldn’t give up their SS checks for anything.

There was a time when I zoomed around with ideas and went off on birding expeditions to the Amazon (my trip was with academics to learn about teaching international studies, but my college’s president got booted out and I moved to Dallas), or write books about the history of this and that. My books are scrambled in my head—the information may be there, but the synapses aren’t. It was ever thus.

Douglas Harper’s dictionary asserts “retire” meant originally “to retreat” (armies); it came from the Middle French, re – “back,” coupled with retirer “to withdraw,” The meaning “to withdraw to some place for the sake of seclusion” is recorded from 1538, with the first occurrence of meaning “to leave an occupation” first appearing in 1648.

Today my head is heavy. Last night I sat for two hours in a meeting in a small, low-ceilinged room lighted intensely with fluorescent lights, and the heaviness still has not gone away. I want to “withdraw to some place for the sake of seclusion” so I don’t have to meet anyone when I feel this way, this way that can lead to depression.

My therapist believes that, if I would do certain things, follow certain “suggestions,” work at keeping myself from succumbing to depression, I could change the way my mind functions. I’m doing pretty well at learning to observe what’s going on in my brain. Observation means distance rather than being caught up it the process. However, the effect of fluorescent lights on my temporal lobe(s) provides no room for distance.

Now the point. If by “retiring,” one means “to leave an occupation,” I suppose that is something to look forward to (when one has a million bucks in the bank). We have become acculturated to believing retirement is a good idea, quite apart from our family histories. However, retiring in the sense of “to withdraw to some place for the sake of seclusion” is not an option.

Retiring as a change in employment status is a goal: we all know about “planning for retirement.” But the economy being what it is and the majority of us now being something less than middle class, I’m not sure the social engineering is working. Retirement is not a bad goal, simply an odd goal in the history of mankind—as Americans are beginning to understand.

The “crazy” sister of my family’s friend was “retired,” that is, “withdraw[n] to some place for the sake of seclusion.” The same way we retire old 747’s when they have outlived their usefulness. I am older than my grandfather was when I was born (I’m now one of those “really old people” from my childhood). I’m required to sign up for Medicare before this year runs out. The next incremental increase in the amount of Social Security I can draw will be available to me in one more year. All of the signs of “retirement” are here.

I don’t intend to quit working yet (you will have to support me if I do). However, “withdraw[ing] to some place for the sake of seclusion,” is a good idea this morning. My family couldn’t have me living in their houses (perhaps I’m saved—none of them has a dog to name after me).

Was it right,
While my unnumber’d brethren toil’d and bled,
That I should dream away the entrusted hours
On rose-leaf beds, pampering the coward heart
With feelings all too delicate for use?***

Oh, please, I tell myself, my “feelings [are not] all too delicate for use.” I know this will pass. But anyone who knows this feeling knows how useless it is.
** You should, if you use (or even check out) the OED—not the Oxford English Dictionary, although you must, if you want to appear to be educated, do more than check than one out—read the autobiography of Douglas Harper, the compiler of the Online Etymology Dictionary. I think he’s hypergraphic, too, from the way he writes. And anyone who could do what he’s done with his dictionary has to have some disorder of the brain. He is the perfect example of someone whose life zooms around with ideas and is always off on birding expeditions to the Amazon. You’ll find his autobio at
*** Coleridge, Samuel. “Reflections On Having Left A Place Of Retirement,” 1796.


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