The Day I Turned Old

FeaturedThe Day I Turned Old

My actual (as opposed to official) retirement began the day I walked into Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and asked to volunteer for a few hours each weekday. I’d had a couple of rough years at my final payroller job and I thought volunteering would help lift me into a new way of thinking. Or, more precisely, I wanted a time-filler to keep from obsessing over the aftermath of the soul-crushing previous twenty-four months of my life.

Oh churches! There seem to be so many cries for help, until they try to find a job fit for you. I grabbed the first one offered and plunked myself down in front of a computer in the cubicle next to Vince, a friendly volunteer who was out of work but not yet retired. Our job: clean up the database. 

The database. Every pensioner I’ve met since my stint who looked to the church to help fill the first year’s lonely unproductive hours says the same thing.

“I started with the database.”

Vince knew what he was doing and in fact devised a formula and matrix for our work. I suppose it was simple. If you could pay attention. I couldn’t. At the end of each of my four hour stints, he’d spot-check my work and stay an extra hour or more to correct everything I tried to accomplish. Vince had an advantage—he was good at the game Concentration. He could spot a misspelled name in seconds-flat with his highly industrious mind.

The room next to the dreaded cubicles had been cleared of all furniture. It may have been the size of a football field. For about a year, having been diagnosed with PTSD due to the aforementioned job, my perception of size, space and time was like science fiction, all out of whack. 

One day, I heard an old Frankie Valli tune, “Sherry Baby” seeping under the door from that huge room. Of course I learned all the words—they’re pretty simple—as a teenager and never forgot them. 

“What’s going on in there?” I asked Vince. 

“Sher-er-ree, Sherr-ee, Baby…

“Oh, that’s the old people’s exercise class,” he said.

“Old people?”

“Yeah, ya’ know. CLL. The Center for Life and Learning.”

I didn’t, in fact, know. The church bulletin had notices about CLL but I never thought they were meant for me. Within the next few weeks, each day I grew grumpier and grumpier working on the database.

“Vince,” I said, “No offense, but I’d rather be in that room dancing around to “Sherry Baby” than sitting in front of a computer.” 

“Aw, yes, Regan,” he said, “But would it be as rewarding?”

Rewarding. Now there’s a loaded word. Did I really need to feel rewarded for the hours between sunrise and sunset? How about satisfied? Couldn’t I just feel satisfied?

Or, neutral?

“Vince. I’m logging out today and joining the exercise group tomorrow.”

And that day, that neutral day, is the day I turned old.

Money Money Money Money

Money Money Money Money

The first time I received payment for a piece of writing, I screamed at the check when I pulled it from the envelope. Screamed. The sight of $175 from the Christian Science Monitor payable to “Regan Burke” evoked all the screaming emotions. Jumping-for-joy shock. Amazement. Pride. They all belted out of me at once in three syllables: OhMyGod.

And they stayed with me for days. Weeks.

I sent my writing teacher a note riddled with that forbidden string of exclamation points!!!! She told me I’m officially a published author. I updated my Linked-In profile to “Published Author,” to notify the public that I’d been paid for words I’d written.

I waited for the world to notice that I’m officially a writer. The world. Not my friends, though they ARE important. The world. I expected a big shift in the way perfect strangers treated me. It wasn’t until I finally settled down that I realized a shift more monumental had happened, not in my exterior world but inside myself.

Money has been problematic in every family I’ve been a member of. My parents were grifters who presented themselves outwardly as monied people but had no honest wages. My first marriage was riddled with money arguments so unsettling that I claimed no alimony or child support when we divorced. After the end of a second marriage, I left everything and moved a thousand miles away. When that ex-husband called to ask where to send my portion from the sale of our house, I screamed,Never call me again”, slammed down the phone and forfeited the money.

I once had a high-paying job and a company car. I wore business suits and high heels. Co-workers congratulated me on landing a contract to build a military base in Diego Garcia, a remote island in the Indian Ocean. I congratulated myself. And as soon as a political campaign kicked up dust for a candidate I admired, I quit. I joined the quixotic Gary Hart for President campaign with the promise of a salary. All the money in the campaign fund got sucked into television commercials. I never got paid, used all my savings and maxed out credit cards, a practice that became surprisingly easy in succeeding years. When it was over, I limped into a friend’s office begging for a job in his construction company.

images-2I hated money. When my father insisted I send my twelve-year old son to boarding school in the late seventies, I relented because I was afraid my father would stop paying our rent. My son resented me openly and I resented my father secretly. I’ve spent a lifetime declining requests from friends to join them in a subscription to the ballet or a share in a vacation beach house. Why? Money, that necessary evil that separates me from others.

I fight to maintain balanced books. Fight is the word. I fend off my parents’ goading from the grave to spend more than I have. When those demons win, I ignore my checking account and “insufficient funds” letters show up in the mailbox. This week I donated to the Valerie Plame for Congress campaign after clicking on her badass internet video. I gave no thought to outstanding checks or bills. There’s always a political campaign, or a friend’s charity, or a piece of art—different temptations than my parents’ houses, jewelry, and cars–that appeal to my genetic code to blow the budget. 

Yes, until now I’ve hated the entire money apparatus. A friend recently applauded me for having a second career in writing. A career? I’m sure I never said that. I don’t even think of myself as having a first career. Maybe she’s right though. The first career, managing  political campaigns, construction projects and government offices, has resulted in enough pension income to pay bills and lunch with friends.

Nothing beats this second career though. After all, I’ve been paid for my words.

I am a published author.

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Watch: Valerie Plame

Listen: The O’Jays, For The Love of Money