Volume 74, Number 20 | September 15 - 21 , 2004


Retirement: Can’t wait for the easy life?

One man’s account of how it’s not so simple

By Leonard Quart

I never had trouble sleeping when I was younger. I went to bed late, woke up early, and usually slept soundly through the night. But my sleep, like my aging 64-year-old body, has rarely been untroubled over the past decade.

The most dramatic sleep disruption occurred a number of years ago. I had decided to retire. It was not a snap decision, and I thought I was feeling relatively calm about the future.

What soon followed, however, were days when I kept obsessing about death — seeing it lurking everywhere — and nights that turned into many months of insomnia. 

Those months were agonizing ones. The insomnia coupled with a full-fledged depression made me feel like a character in an Antonioni film (L’Aventurra, Red Desert) where the everyday world turned into a gray, viscous fog that I couldn’t quite penetrate.

It was not the kind of depression that prevented me from teaching and writing. I didn’t withdraw from people or the world into some private reverie. Nor did I spend a great deal of my time hidden away at home watching television.

I went to work, but felt removed from meetings centered on hirings, budgets, curriculum, and the college’s future. Yet I had been feeling disillusioned with my job for some time. I’d been feeling as though I was going through the motions — losing my life-long desire to fire up and move students intellectually beyond conventional pieties and superficial analyses.

Still, on my annual trip to London that year, I discovered that walks across a tour boat-filled, gray/blue Thames, and a lush green hill overflowing with iridescent kites in Hampstead Heath that usually exhilarated me, gave me no pleasure. I felt dead inside, a mere shadow of myself. 

And during those nights when I struggled to get to sleep, I nervously paced the floor, drank herbal tea, listened to mind-numbing radio talk shows, and supinely watched execrable old movies and ads for a golden oldies’ doo-wop collection. I became exceedingly sleep-conscious — constantly watching myself as I laid my head on the pillow always trying to conjure up erotic images that would ease my way into sleep.

A couple of times I was so distraught that I left my apartment at 3 a.m. and dropped in at a 24-hour Greek diner around the corner. There, alongside other aging insomniacs, cops and subway workers on the night shift, disheveled alcoholics, and a motley group of high-on-pot young people, talking loudly and incoherently after returning from nocturnal clubbing, I could sit and have a black coffee and experience a bit of serenity. I felt better because there were other people who were also awake and achingly alert in the middle of the night.

I am relieved to report that death anxiety no longer plagues me, and that with the aid of the occasional sleeping pill, those agitated nights of insomnia are gone. I can’t pinpoint the moment that the depression and insomnia ended. It seemed to vanish as abruptly as it came on. What probably happened, was that I adjusted to my imminent retirement, and realized that there was much I wanted to accomplish in the remaining years.

Now retired I continue to give talks and lectures about a variety of subjects — the teacher in me still needs an audience. Next week I am giving a personal talk on my retirement — some of its content mirroring this essay. It’s an odd sensation charting in public one’s private feelings. But there is much about job burnout and seeking a new life in one’s sixties that I think will resonate with my audience.  And, in the process, I will achieve a sense of release, and, perhaps, even elation.

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