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The Uncivil Servant: The Success of a Failure

Mitchell Abidor
April 22, 2014

Our Contributing Writer Retires

by Mitchell Abidor "The journey towards idleness is the journey of a lifetime." -Tom Hodgkinson, “How to be Idle” farewellalarmclockOn April 1, 2013 the long, slow climb to the middle that I described in Blog-Shmog came to an end and I retired after nearly forty years of work for the Health and Hospitals Corporation, New York’s municipal hospital system. I picked April 1st for sentimental reasons: My wedding anniversary is also April 1st, so I wanted all the good things in my life to have occurred on just two dates, April 1st and February 2nd, the date on which my son and I were both born (in the same hospital!). In the end, my work life was a sad kind of success: I’d set out to waste my life, and had done just that. But I wasn’t going to allow this to continue. I carefully planned my retirement, intending to live the life of an independent scholar. I’d resolved that during my retirement I would make up for the lost decades, and in very short order I had contracts for seven books of translations and another to collaborate on the biography of one of my intellectual and political heroes, the Belgian born Franco-Russian revolutionary Victor Serge. Within just a few more months I had contracts for two more books and had also decided to fulfill another long-time dream and take acting class. After reveling in my life of an independent scholar for half a year and bragging of its joys, it became clear that I’d bitten off far more than I or any mortal could chew. I began to dread getting out of bed, knowing that every day I had more work ahead of me than I did when I worked if I was going to meet my deadlines. Two months ago I decided to exercise the nuclear option on my projects, and ditched most of them. The relief I felt was immense, and thinking about what had gone right and what had gone wrong with my beautiful retirement, I realized that all the bad could have been avoided if I’d followed these guidelines. I also realized that much of what I’d discovered applied just as well to those still in the work world. On Sale Today!1. Never get up to an alarm clock: Your sleep is something that should end when it ends, not when it’s told to end. And so, on my first day as a retiree, I went down to Jamaica Bay, found a suitably deserted spot, and tossed my alarm clock as far into the bay as I could. (If you look at the photo accompanying this post you can see the tiny dot of the clock disappearing to the right.) The act was both symbolic and practical. Since that day I have never done anything that would have required an alarm clock to get me out of bed. Nothing is that important or that pressing. And I wake up with my nerves intact, not jangling along with the clock. Tears happy2. Never get out of bed earlier than you would have been at your desk. The joy you’ll feel knowing that you’re still lazing in bed while your former co-workers are beginning their work day has only a tad to do with schadenfreude (though there is some of that). Staying in bed when you would have been at work lends a certain decadence to retirement, and that’s an adjective seldom attached to that state. The fact that you have no obligations is made blissfully clear by your beginning what would have been your work day in the arms of Morpheus. But even if you’re awake before that time, lolling in bed in the half-awake hypnogogic state gives you freedom to think and dream before beginning your day. It’s a leisure we’re all denied when we work, since the morning begins with the alarm clock and then is dictated by beating the clock to work. None of that now applies. Enjoy it. 3. Never enter into any endeavor that will allow anyone to criticize you. I had long dreamed of taking acting class and, taking the recommendations of several actor friends, signed on for classes at HB Studio. On the first day, I got up to do an exercise (which, like most acting exercises, seemed extraordinarily silly), and when it ended the teacher began to dissect and critique my performance. I immediately felt the sickness to the stomach I’d feel at work when called on the carpet by some boss or other. It didn’t matter that I’d chosen to be at the studio or chosen to take the class, which would, of course, call for me to be criticized. I had just spent four decades being critiqued in one way or another on a regular basis: Did this task get carried out correctly, did that one go wrong, had I been able to motivate the staff properly? Now I was being criticized because I wasn’t convincingly leafing through a book. I knew I was going to hate it. In the end, it violated this rule as well as rules 4 and 5, and I ceased to be an acting student. 4. Never sign on for anything that requires being in the same place at the same time on a regular basis. This, too, was a black mark against acting class. Having to be somewhere on a regular basis is what a job is. Having to leave your house and worry about the trains making you late is what a job is. Regularly surrendering your liberty at a set time and day to go to a set place is no different from a job. You’ve left that behind. Similarly, the deciding factor in my jettisoning the most difficult of my writing projects, the biography, was when my co-writer asked that we meet once a week. What had been a project became a job. I quit that day. 5. As soon as you stop enjoying something, quit. I quit the acting class. I quit the biography. I decided not to do half the translations. I hated doing them, and hated myself for doing them. When you work, your ability to pay the bills depends on doing your job, in going to your job, in putting up with the daily petty indignities. There is nothing so liberating as being able to just quit something you don’t enjoy doing and not suffering any real consequences. You’ve earned the right. As the great Homer Simpson once said, “Trying is the first step in failing.” And there’s no shame in failing, especially if in doing so you’re relieved of a burden. Once I established and implemented these rules, retirement became an idler’s dream. Retirement should be viewed as that, and as more: It’s not just early-bird specials and discounts at the movies, it’s liberation, taking control of one’s life and one’s time. Talleyrand once said, “Whoever did not live before the Revolution doesn’t know the sweetness of life.” He or she does, if they live retirement as the fulfillment of life’s possibilities. For the corollary to not doing anything you don’t want to do is that you’ll only ever be doing what you want to do. Which leads to the final rule: 6. Make no excuses for whatever it is you’re doing. My great joys are reading and going to the cinema. Many’s the day when my only physical activity is getting off the couch after finishing the book I’m reading to pick up a new one. People mock me for my Oblomov-like existence. Let them mock. I’m someone who failed to scale the expected heights when I worked who has attained the ultimate success: a life I chose and love. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.