Return to the Index

GP 18 February 2009: Movin’ Up in the World

“Reality keeps nipping at the heels of satire—and lately outdistancing it.” -- Paul Krassner


The Top Floor. Gil McWilliam, a stalwart in executive education at Duke University, wryly observes that retirement is or is not all it is cracked up to be: “So the story concerns our not-quite-French speaking Canadian friend who knew that the French had a delightful way of referring to retirement. ‘They call it the troisième étage’ he proudly announced.  We looked puzzled, imagining the elevator stopping at the third floor—‘Women’s Lingerie, Bed Linens’ for retired people?  Gently I pointed out that I thought he was referring to the ‘troisième âge’ which is indeed how the French refer to retirement.”


A fish somewhat out of water, this onetime Coca-Cola executive to whom she refers had muddled up the term for ‘third floor’ with the words for the ‘third phase’ of life, the kind of tangle one’s brain experiences as senior moments begin to control our speech. He was determined to prove to himself and to others that he had confidently adjusted to the lingua franca of Quebec. Yet it is not altogether certain that he had got things wrong. In several senses, retirement does move us to the top floor. Not on an elevator, but on a rickety, arthritic flight of stairs.


Getting Kicked Upstairs. As one ascends in Western socially mobile societies and climbs the greasy pole, there’s always some question as to whether one is really going up, or secretly plummeting. The inner psyche of modern man is always asking whether he’s going up the down staircase. Particularly now, men and women are being “put out to pasture,” “kicked upstairs,” “thrown on the scrap heap of history.” Retirement for many, no matter how it is dressed up, is conceived of as a pejorative experience, a time of insidious decline, that last hazy decade or so where one has lost it.


We experience this sense of loss when we read about David Ogilvy in Ken Roman’s recently published The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising. A great deal of the book deals with Ogilvy’s infirmities and fears—and a big chunk focuses on his life—and his agency’s decline—after he gave up his throne. There’s a sadness to it all: existence at his Chateau de Touffou in France, as at his home in Greenwich, or at abodes elsewhere seems hollow. The book is an easy read of anecdotal stuff, probably intended for a summer at the beach. You finally get to taste the immortal Ogilvy at the end of the book in an afterword where snatches of his writings convince you that you have finally met the man, but this is sandwiched in between all his so very mortal moments. The subject of light mockery by friend and foe alike in his later years, Ogilvy had clearly been put out to pasture, or to his Elba, or to whatever else you want to call his castle in France. The king was never quite king. He was an expatriate wherever he happened to land.


It’s a good question, of course. Is retirement the end of it all? Or is it another country to be seen on the journey?


Stairway to Heaven. If you are of a different cast of mind, if you have a metaphysical disposition, if you have not let the grindstone wear you down, then the third floor is just one more stop as you build a Stairway to Paradise. It’s an advance, not a strategic retreat. In this view, the third floor is the moment when we are just getting started on eternity. If life is not about falling down and then falling further, then the top floor is a helicopter pad whence one spins off to new vistas. It’s a divine comedy.


As we have said to chief executives and other leaders for years, it’s a pity that society puts them on the shelf just as they are beginning to get a clear picture of life’s game. It’s not until the end of a career that one really grasps enough to do exciting things. Retirement, so- called, is society’s loss but the individual’s gain, because he is just beginning to come into his own. When life is right for emeriti chieftains at the end of their reigns, they really begin to get their arms around events, rather than losing their grip.


The very witty English dandy Quentin Crisp thought the theatrical stage was a metaphor for life itself. Life is like acting. For decades an actor is taken to be adventurous, romantic, and experimental. Then, at last, the actor discovers his or her true role—the one thing he or she is meant to do. At that point we call him a great and perfect classical actor, which, for Crisp, was a recognition by onlookers that the actor had uncovered his one true role.


We find, as we stare around us, that this is the case for the most interesting people. They have careers where they often perform admirably. But only towards the end do they discover their vocations—that which the gods intended them to be. They have at least joined hands with their fates. Then they come alive and radiate a power they never had before.


We are reminded, in this regard, of the Australian actor Reginald “Leo” McKern who had some 200 roles in his long career. But it was at age 55, in 1975, that he truly came into his own. That was when he played Rumpole, the wonderful bibulous barrister created by John Mortimer. It is hard to even think of Rumpole without thinking of McKern—the two were one. A wonderful old scoundrel but an honest defender of the accused, Rumpole strutted his stuff at the Old Bailey, drank awful plonk at the nearby wine bar, spun poetic soliloquies for us as asides, and submitted to his wife Hilda (“She who must be obeyed”) and to a fretful existence where there was never quite enough money to ever retire. McKern and Rumpole were joined at the hip until 1992, and McKern surely thought of himself as a retired lawyer in the decade that was left before he died in 2002. The playwright Mortimer said, “He not only played the character Rumpole, he added to it, brightened it and brought it fully to life.”



Peter Kindlmann. We have remarked aplenty on Peter Kindlmann, a remarkable educator and design engineer at Yale, who has now hung up his spurs. Always on the side, he has had a love of natural deserted spaces, a passion he indulges through recurrent trips to the back, backwoods of Maine. All this has culminated in hauntingly beautiful photography often picturing spaces that seem untroubled by man, or at least man circa 2009, and which has a tremendous clarity that has been abetted by his technical knowledge. Two of his photographs, soon to be shown in an awards show in Connecticut, accompany this letter. We can wonder whether Professor Kindlmann was intended to represent the universe not mastered by man (photographer) or to help mankind navigate its complex pathways under the illusion that we are actualpeter2ly in control of something (engineer). The answer, of course, is that he was meant to do both—each in its own time. As he said in his artist’s statement, “In his photography he aims to go counter to the trends of technology’s ever greater complexities, but instead to use technology while striving for the greatest simplicity, representationally and symbolically.” Not for Kindlmann are the information-packed images that stuff our TV screens or the dazzling overkill through which today’s professional photographers make one all too aware that they’re doing athletic technical tricks to dress up the more ordinary images life really offers. Only such a technologist, one who is as a generalist as well, could understand with such clarity that technology is a double-edged sword for society. Technology in the wrong hands is a snapping turtle.


Charles Edwin Hodges. Just the other day, Look Away, Look Away: Memories Montroseof a Southern Childhood rolled into the office. It’s a lilting self-published memoir that came together in 2003, full of all the bits and pieces of a life that stretches back to 1922 when Warren Harding was president. Born next door in Dublin, Hodges hailed from Montrose, a forgotten town at the geometric center of Georgia. A lot has unfolded since the days when he harvested peanuts on the family’s 700-acre farm in a state that even today offers up a rash of agricultural products.


A graduate of Georgia Tech, Hodges became a Union Carbide engineer for a quarter of a century, “and a damn fine one at that,” he is likely to say. He tacked on another career after that---as an outplacement consultant advising the nation’s top executives on how to handle retirement or a second career. He was probably always meant to do this high class personnel kind of work: senior executives would swear by him. And, at the last, he has done a memoir which takes us into the South where he expected to retire, even though fate has cast him into Maine.


A French TV producer once did an interview with Ed Hodges. Over steaks in SoHo one night, the interviewer recounted to us that French audiences thought that Monsieur Hodges was the “typical (the producer said ‘tipical’) Southern gentleman.” The Frenchman laughed slyly as he told the story, “What the French never understood is that there is nothing typical about Ed Hodges. New Southerners are not like him. He’s courtly—one of a kind.” And, as he made his way into the North, that’s what Ed was—a courtly fellow meant to have gentle conversations with the rest of us. Georgia 1922, which is his strength and hallmark, has never left him:

Now fully retired from the workaday world and comfortably established in our new home, I take on the task (of writing this memoir) with a degree of apprehension, but also with anticipation that it will be a way of going home to Georgia again—for a while at least.

He’s a vessel who transmits history to all of us. As memoirist, his life has achieved a worthy culmination. Nicely, too, he celebrates wonderful times past, and yet understands the promise of the future, saying “Life will be good.” He uses words, not as weapons, but as honey to bring us together.


Chairman Volcker and General Jones. It is not that oldsters are irrelevant and quaint: it is just that we have to get used to the idea that they are key to the America that lies ahead. We can no longer afford to cast our experienced hands into retirement. The country’s now getting old, and our population is aging by leaps and bounds. We need to call on the best of our old soldiers.


That, in fact, is the big hope for the Obama Administration. He has much overstaffed with Clinton retreads. We should not forget that the Clinton Presidency was not filled with citizens of sterling character or soaring wisdom. Most of the players were mediocrities. Just as Bush the Younger filled his offices with second rank people from Cold War days, Clinton picked a gaggle of people who could be blowin’ by the wind. Nothing good can come out of either gang. Ultimately both presidencies were failures, and most of their appointees were much tainted by association.


Yet there’s hope for the current president. In the background he has some heavyweights. Paul Volcker who rolled back inflation at the Fed—tough and stubborn and principled—is a senior domestic advisor to Obama. The new National Security Advisor, Marine General James L. Jones, has had more than a distinguished career. As Steve Coll of the New Yorker more or less understands, Jones is innovative enough to use fly swatters, instead of cannons, to kill flies, and is able to mold his actions to fit the circumstance. This is critical since we are broke, our global reputation is muddied, and we have too many battles to fight: in this web of confusion we need agility, not sledgehammers.


If the President will listen, these gentlemen can do him much good from their perches on the top floor. History has rendezvoused with these old-timers who are meant to bring steadfastness of purpose and a certain sobriety to a government that really has not been governing for a couple of decades. Both stand very tall and don’t waste a lot of words.


Evolution of Spirituality. George E. Valliant, a Harvard shrink who puts a lot of emphasis on examining and reinforcing positive emotions, has argued in Evolution of Spirituality that man’s spiritual capacity has expanded over the ages, as the brain has become more articulated during the last hundred million years or so. Of late, Valliant has gotten more interested in a scientific defense of faith and in the whole process of aging—as he himself has put on a few years. By implication, he is saying to creationists, who will have no truck with Darwin, that they should not reject out of hand the idea of evolution which itself helps demonstrate a growth in the religious ‘organs’ of mankind.


What’s more interesting, however, is not this supposed religious evolution of man throughout several generations. The more important idea is that any man anywhere, with luck, may evolve spiritually within his own lifetime. The thought here is that as we age and go into physical decline our spiritual outlook may grow and flourish. That we can see things with clarity that would never occur to us when we were mostly muscle. Like Winston Churchill, wise old foxes reach a point where they, too, metaphorically, can paint their own revealing landscapes, their own singular purviews of the human condition. This is what we call wisdom. As a nation, we are called on to use more of our spiritual power to direct human affairs, realizing that our physiques are wearing out and our natural resources are disappearing.


Growing Old Gracefully. It’s hard to realize that suddenly we, as a nation, have grown old. Better than 10% of the population is now over 65, and by 2050 more than 1/5 of Americans will reach that blessed estate. Alzheimer’s is ballooning, and seniors consume a disproportionate amount of our healthcare expenditures, which soon will eat up 20% of our Gross National Product. Our ideas are rather shopworn, and every aspect of our infrastructure is tired. Now the question is whether we can age gracefully with wit and purpose and spiritual fortitude. None of the world’s religions or philosophies are expansive enough to prepare us for this lucky challenge, so it will require boldness to achieve a more cosmic perspective that the old, inadequate anthropomorphic faiths did not embrace. If Valliant is at all correct, we’re fortunate that our spiritual apparatus is acquiring more bandwidth just when we need it to see broader and wider and deeper.


Darwin’s Birthday. Evolution through natural selection, of course, was an idea given to us by Charles Darwin to make sense of the natural world. It’s an idea that today is applied to economics, psychology, and much else, yet is resisted by the population of several countries, particularly the United States. We’ve just had his 200th birthday on February 12th, 1809, a day he shares with Abraham Lincoln. Ironically, his birthday party comes along just as most of our institutions and just about everything else have become horribly outdated, not at all keeping up with the demands of our new century. The question is whether we can stop fighting evolution and let our spirits and the world around us refit themselves for a new age.


The Hindu Withdraws. The Hindus, we are led to believe, divide life into four stages—with retirement and then asceticism coming at the end. Though this is an Asian century and we must migrate to the East in our imaginations, the human withdrawal this formula envisions is not for activist Westerners. The issue for those in the Atlantic nations, as we have posed above, is to decide how we are going to be engaged, how we decide what’s next, rather than what’s past. A more spiritual existence, in this framework, is to complete life’s work. In retirement, we may be over the hill, but we still have to get up the mountain.


P.S. To lend further confusion to this discussion about floors, one should understand that the delightful, vexatious French number things differently than we do. The first floor in their eyes is the ‘ground’ floor. So the numbering begins on Floor 2, which becomes, for the Gauls, the first floor. So the troisième is a ways up: and it will commonly refer to the top floor, as in the top floor of the famed Eiffel Tower.


One of our colleagues had a distant uncle who lived, indeed, on the top floor of a Bordeaux property that had been in the family for generations. Once the structure had been occupied by the whole of the family. But World War I and World War II killed off so much of the family that he had rented out the floors below. A Bordeaux wine merchant, he still lived at an optimistic time—after World War II—when the Bordeaux wine had more body and spirit than present vintages.


P.P.S. The people of Montrose were stirred by Mr. Hodges’s book, and he was called upon to lecture about its content. A summary of what he said can be found at Laurens County Historical Society newsletter, p. 2ff. The late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a monograph on local history, recognizing its utter importance in understanding almost anything. Anything that has time and place written all over it reveals history in its contradictions: grander histories that deal with countries and the world makes history seem like a locomotive, instead of an octopus.


P.P.P.S. Retirement, as we know it, where people rake leaves, is becoming an outmoded concept. Soon too few workers will be supporting a huge and burgeoning retirement horde: this is untenable. We need old-timers to work and, where they can, to train those are behind them to do the work that has to be done with more skill and more character. Retirement, as now conceived, is an impossible drain on the economy. As well, the psychological impact of today’s retirees on the whole of society is stultifying. Millions upon millions of people who have been marginalized must try to act like they’re part of the mainstream. A successful society cannot have half its membership living outside of the club.


P.P.P.P.S. For business, retirees are a metaphor for the most basic flaw in our commercial dealings. Vast parts of the populace—retirees, prisoners, the underclass, illegal immigrants, etc.—are left out of the business equation. There’s a temptation in business, backed by all sorts of spurious rationales, to exclude as many as we can, rather than include. Micro-marketing targets narrow slices of the population, a practice trumpeted by low-rent theorists and lousy marketing people who claim this is the road to riches. Truth is, in this country, one still builds empires by figuring out how to deal with the many, rather than the few. That’s what Henry Ford did for the automobile, and Bill Gates did for the computer. As well, business has the challenge of interactively communicating with millions inside and outside our boundaries, rather than confining its conversation to the 500 or 1000 people that comprise the very small universe of most executives. Several of our old habits are now terribly uneconomic: marketing that zones out half a country, or half the world, does not make sense.


P.P.P.P.P.S. It’s good to remember that Gaul was once divided into three parts. That was when Europe had more psychic unity than it does today. Evolution has not been kind to the European Continent, since its biggest theme is balkanization, not unity. For sentimental reasons, then, the French have an inclination to think about things in ‘threes.’

Back to Top of Page

Return to the Index of Letters from the Global Province

Home - About This Site - Contact Us

Copyright 2009 GlobalProvince.com