Saturday, December 9, 2017

Entry - 12.9.17

"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."
                                                            - Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

I’ve been pissing off a lot of people lately – even more so than usual.  It seems that when folk learn of my approaching early retirement they experience an intense emotional reaction.  Now I won’t deny that many an acquaintance had congratulated me heartily, expressing only goodwill and hope for a successful transition into a new phase of life.  But then there are the others who cannot believe that anyone in this day and age could possibly bow out of the daily grind without suffering a catastrophic financial calamity – that the worker who can expect a decent pension at retirement is not yet extinct, stuffed and displayed for posterity in a natural history museum.  I certainly can understand the anger and resentment.  In the last decade or two the American worker has been stripped of most benefits, a livable pension being one of the first to be taken away.  The vast majority of pension holders today are public workers: policemen, firemen, teachers and federal, state and city workers, and the general public is hopping mad and itching to put an end to this exorbitant benefit.  It is indicative of how successful the moneyed powers in this country have been in controlling the dialogue on this issue that most people are hankering to take away pensions from public workers instead of questioning why this benefit was taken away from them – that their anger is directed at bus drivers and kindergarten teachers rather than the fat cats who have watched their wealth increase spectacularly over the last half century.  But Americans have always been easy prey for manipulation, whether the motive is to get us behind a war, fear communism, reject unions, distrust foreigners, hold the poor in contempt or shaft government employees, we are ready and willing to swallow the rhetoric hook, line and sinker.  But my intention here is not to complain, and I’m certainly not feeling sorry for myself.  That would be ludicrous.

Edward Hopper - Office at Night - 1940

Edward Hopper - Office in a Small City -1953

My working life has been a bit of an enigma to me.  As I stated in an earlier blog entry, I sort of tumbled into my “career”.  Having just left Grad School with a Masters of Fine Art, I expected to put my degree to use getting established in an NYC gallery but also recognized that I would need some kind of gainful employment to pay the bills.  I was lucky enough to find decently paying office work at a government agency located in Manhattan.  The environment was relaxed, and the work wasn’t too taxing.  Over a couple of years, my role as a carefree, part-time, paid-by-the-hour office clerk evolved into a full-time, salaried position with tangible responsibilities.  Initially, I saw myself as an artist who happened to be working in an office.  It pains me to admit this, but I looked upon a good many of my fellow employees with some distain, finding them, though for the most part well educated and professionally skilled, lacking in intellectual curiosity and cultural awareness.  Over the years, my perspective changed.  Identity can be established through conscious effort and persistent struggle, and I suppose for many years I resisted surrendering my “self-definition” as an artist.  Throughout my working life, I never stopped producing art, though I must confess that my efforts to promote my work have been ineffectual and intermittent.  Yet, while continuing to generate what I hope is quality work and evolve as an artist, while further educating myself through serious reading and attending exhibitions, I was experiencing a slow and subtle identity shift.  With time, my income generating work became more complex and challenging.  More responsibility was put on my shoulders, and I was given a small staff to supervise.  Often while away from the office, I found myself mentally addressing work issues or developing a strategy for completing a project or meeting a deadline.  I became thoroughly indoctrinated into a cyclical pattern of annual duties, a summer vacation and some time off at the holidays being my only welcome respite from the work routine.  Traveling twenty hours by train each week, I became one of a pack of regular commuters who knew each other’s scents and habits.  And I learned, regardless of cultural or intellectual preconceptions, to respect many of my fellow workers who were very industrious and committed to making things work and often displayed a surprisingly thorough understanding of how our Agency functioned extending far beyond the scope of their immediate responsibilities.

Gustave Caillebotte - The Floor Scrapers - 1876

Edgar Degas - Two Laundresses - 1884
Look, I recognize that we wear many hats as we pass through our lives.  Our identities shift and evolve with time.  But spanning over a period of thirty plus years, my work experience inevitably became an essential component of my conception of myself.  So when my working life comes to an end, I will have to reinvent myself to some degree.

Diego Rivera - The Flower Seller - 1942

Jacob Lawrence - Ironers -1943
I’m going to digress a bit here.  About forty years ago, my grandmother offered to bring her two daughters with her to tour and visit family in Germany, but my mother was resistant.  Except for a few years of part-time employment at a local elementary school, she had always been a stay-at-home mom, caring for her sizeable family and maintaining the household.  Despite our efforts to encourage her to take advantage of this opportunity, she consistently refused, asserting that she was too busy to spend a few weeks traveling in Europe.  One weekend, my father’s sister was visiting us, and at the dinner table the topic of the pending trip to Germany came up.  My aunt, who was single and had traveled in Europe many times, forcefully pressured my mother to make the journey.  “But who will take care of the children?” she objected.  “We’ll take care of ourselves,” we responded; after all, we were all in our teens and fairly independent.  “What about your father?” she asked us.  “We’ll take care of him too!” we replied.  Tears welled up in her eyes, and she sobbed “You don’t need me anymore!”  This provoked an explosion of laughter from us children.  At the time, we found my mother’s emotional outburst to be hilarious, but in truth a very serious transition was occurring.  Her family was maturing.  The two oldest worked and attended college.  All four of us children were very self-reliant, starting our day before my mother was out of bed, maintaining good grades and meeting our various school objectives without parental oversight, doing our own laundry and tackling the lion’s share of routine chores both inside and outside the house.  Of course, our family structure had been changing for some time, but it took the potentiality of an extended trip overseas to force my mother to recognize and acknowledge that change.  Her identity was in effect being stripped from her, perhaps one of the most stressful occurrences an individual can endure.  We children might have been more sympathetic, but, at the time, we saw her objections as frivolous and really worked to encourage her to seize this opportunity.  Fortunately my mother did agree to make this journey and, I believe, benefited greatly from the experience.

Edouard Manet - Road Workers, Rue de Berne - 1878

Vincent Van Gogh - Weaver - 1884
So my mother faced and I am facing the same challenge which is to reinvent oneself after many years of consistently playing a life-defining role.  I can say from experience that just approaching this transition has been surprisingly stressful for me.  For months now I have been quietly dismantling my old existence centered on my NYC-based employment and establishing a primary presence at my home residence.  I’ve been amazed at how many independent and intricate tasks have got to be effected and coordinated to make this happen and how many critical decisions have to be made.  Also I have attempted to extricate myself from my office workload gracefully, closing out all of my projects and training staff to take over my responsibilities before my final exit.  At this stage in the game, that’s looking like a pipe dream.

George Segal - The Commuters - 1980

John Seward Johnson - Allow Me - 1983
I’m hoping that once my retirement becomes a fait accompli I will decompress a bit, shuffle about the house for a spell and then take stock of my situation, organizing a reasonably productive existence for myself.  I have about a million “deferred maintenance” jobs to tackle around the ol’ homestead, and my mastery of the German language has never progressed beyond the rudimentary.  I intend to get very serious about my photography and fully master the multitude of modes and features available on my Digital SLR.  And luckily the Hudson Valley is home to an abundance of fantastic hiking trails.  I’ll be donning my lightweight boots and UV protection hat, stocking my backpack with water bottles and granola bars, taking my walking sticks in hand and hitting the trails.  Most importantly, I expect to become totally focused on my artwork – executing paintings somewhat more efficiently than at my current snail’s pace, attending life drawing classes on a weekly basis and finding a local venue at which I can pursue my nascent interest in etching.

Duane Hanson - Queenie II - 1988

Jean Francois Millet - The Wood Sawyers - 1852
I’m really not sure what will transpire.  I must admit that I have an unfortunate tendency to seek the path of least resistance, to hunker down in a comfortable rut until hell freezes over.  I mean if I were Odysseus, The Odyssey would have only one chapter: Odysseus ends up stranded on the isle of Ogygia with the bewitching nymph Calypso – he finds the situation very satisfactory and stays there.  End of story.  Hopefully at this time I can resist the lure of low hanging fruit and push myself to achieve some long neglected yet very significant goals.  Only time will tell.

Ben Shahn - Unemployed - 1938

Kathe Kollwitz - Weavers Revolt March - 1897
As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at


yhmhelen said...

Best wishes as you wend your way to retirement. I’m happy for you and hope your plans also include more writing. Love your version of The Odyssey. I never managed to finish the original -perhaps when I retire ...

Gerard Wickham said...

Thanks for the kind words and a good laugh, Helen.

Peter Evans said...

In your examples of artwork of people on the job -- none looks so happy. So congrats on your good news!

Gerard Wickham said...

Thank you, Peter. Hope your retirement is going well for you.