Thursday, March 8, 2018

Retirement: A Forty Year Fait Accompli

Dick Lehman (Feb issue) has written a thoughtful article in Ceramics Monthly on a subject so many of us are facing.  Retirement.  Or at least thinking about retirement-ish thoughts as we’ve reached the age when normal, non-clay-addled folks do such things.
 Dick and I started our potteries within a year of each other back in the last century, in the mid '70s.

Dick Lehman and Mark Nafziger and Royce Yoder and Jane Graber and Lynn Lais and all those guys who came through Goshen are the "Gallants" against whom my "Goofus" has always introspectively been held in stark contrast (what?  You didn’t subscribe to “Boy’s Life”?). 

Those potters all seem to have their ... you know ... STUFF (the properly vulgar word has been recently appropriated out of usefulness, so I'll avoid it) together.  I haven't. My stuff is most definitely not together.

 Never has been. 
I dove and continually dive into deep ends and only by sheer:
1. luck
2. persistence
3. the grace of God,
4. marrying a woman willing to put up with all that "stuff" I got her into, and
5. strangling ducks and forcing them into rows that didn't properly fit them

....have I been able to flail around in some sort of dog paddle that resembles surviving the swim.

So, Dick's article is apt. It's proper. It's how things ought to be.

It's not me. 

Have you ever ridden a bicycle over the edge of the road? You know what I mean? 

There's this raised edge to a road and when riding a bicycle you either stay on the road or you stay on the shoulder. But riding a bike doesn't always allow you to stay on only one or the other. Traffic or simply not paying attention often forces you to transition from the road to the shoulder, or t'other way 'round.
And from there you start what can be a very protracted, agonizing fall. A fall that at every point pre-fall, you delude yourself into supposing doesn't have to happen -- isn't inevitable. 

You catch yourself. And then you don't. And then you do.

The wheels keep turning. You're still upright. You're still moving forward. But your front wheel keeps getting jerked at angles against the will of your handlebars. And you're wobbling. And your heart is pounding. And you can't sleep at night because you know you're falling.... 

...okay, that last one isn't really part of the metaphor. That last one is the reality of the life lived in that metaphor.

Terror of embarrassment at your failure.
Terror of the very meaninglessness of life that had you pursuing a vocation that you thought would give it significance and meaning in the first place.
Terror of the consequences your stupidity placed on the shoulders of the family you love and who depended upon you for security.

...but the bike hasn't actually fallen over yet. You're still wobbling. And you might forever. Never on the road. Never on the shoulder. On and on. On and on.

And then

RATIONALIZATION. Or how one paddles a sinking inflatable lifeboat with one hand while inflating the next lifeboat with the other.

Yeah, that's pretty much the story.

When your dog gets sick you end up telling your friends, "Man, I just spent $1500 on veterinary care for my dog". 

And your friends say, "Are you NUTS?", because they envision that you went to the vet's one day with your sick dog in tow and the vet said, "Tell you what, you give me $1500 and I'll make your dog well".
That scenario would, of course, test the most pet-loving-but-broke among us......but that's not my point.
My point is that it doesn't happen that way. Vet bills don't happen that way. What happens is you take your dog to the vet and he does this test for $50, and that shot for $75, and this office call for $30, and that follow-up appointment for $30 more and when he's done he figures out that you need to go to that specialist for $125, who prescribes this med for $22 ....... and when ALL IS SAID AND DONE you've spent the $1,500.

And retiring seems to similarly occur in a series of events, problems, and choices over the entire span of a career.

We started out with art fairs on the rise 35 years ago. Even those of us who might have had an inkling of their (art fair's) shelf life -- and for good reason -- still chose it because it WAS good money, it was what we SEEMED to be relatively good at, it was personally rewarding to our sense of significance even when it wasn't always thus for our sense of security. But the shows didn't -- like some light switch -- shut off all of a sudden.

They were good and they were bad. We told ourselves and each other that "Hey, this is what's selling now" and, "Here's where to go to sell your stuff". And we watched neophytes enter the market and kick our butts. Totally. So we KNEW that even in the dwindling market....if we could just wrangle up the right stuff.....and schlep it off to exactly the right (supernaturally divined) series of art fairs....we were still gonna be alright.
Then one year you don't get into a single show you've entered until July. And then the only thing people ask you is, "What do you have that's new?” And it rains at 50% of your shows.....and snows at the other 50%. And in panic you start producing what everyone (customer and fellow artist alike) is telling you sells (instead of what brought you to the dance .... because what brought you to the dance is getting you published in national magazines.....but national magazines don't taste even as good as mac & cheese).

And then you find a balance. 

The shows aren't terrible. They're not great, but they’re not terrible. And some of them are pretty good. And you're still selling everything you can make because half your life is spent wearing your marketing cap.....the very half that used to be wearing your art-producing cap.....which you put on when you weren't entering shows or selling shit online.

But then you look at your books and see that that "balance" is like being the tiny girl at the far end of the teeter-totter holding up the weight of your 450 lb brother-in-law because he's sitting really, really close to the middle. But he's sliding back. And by "sliding back" I mean "leaping back". And when he reaches the distant end of the teeter-totter with that full 450 pounds, your tiny little girl ass has just been launched into the oblivion of....
....rising health insurance cost (I finally had to drop mine -- probably the MAIN reason I'm looking for work), rising show fees, rising gas costs, rising clay costs, bad firings, bad glaze chemicals, van repairs on your ten year old Ford with 200,000 miles on it.

...and just like that $1500 vet bill .... there was no simple decision to have been made at any one single point in your life wherein you knew beyond a doubt that you would be throwing good life after bad in a mad dash to grab your tail between your teeth. 

And you look back and in hind sight you say to yourself, "THEN! ....THAT'S when I should have called it quits! THAT'S when I was still young enough to re-train in a different field. THAT'S when I still had the energy and physical capacity for the kind of labor for which I’m qualified”....

...but it was exactly then that you were making the very most money from the art fairs, and it was exactly then that a change of life would have made the least sense to the contemporary you.

And by "you", I mean "me".

I retired at age 21.  And, well, now that I’ve actually somewhat successfully reached the more culturally accepted retirement age, I can sigh out a satisfied, “I made it…
…so far.”

Retirement isn't for sissies.


  1. Well I am certainly hearing you and living this..... you get an Amen from the choir and yup I read that article too. Life just happens sometimes. I used to go to elementary school with a beautiful little girl who wore white blouses and perfectly ironed skirts. I started out the door that way but by the time I got to school I was a mess and usually had stepped in mud or a pile of something fragrant but man I had a great time getting there. She was such a mystery to me....... and still is. best of it all everyday John........ :)

  2. A potter never really retires..even if you close your business,there is that urge to create

    1. I'd rather be a potter not retiring than many of my friends who are, in fact, retiring.

  3. Or you create that urge :>)

  4. On the other hand, John...I worked in non-pottery jobs to pay the bills and raise the family, then retired and with whatever energy was left, for the last 10 years I've returned to the craft I love...and live in poverty! But I'm happy!

    1. Turns out there may never have been a perfect way to play the game, huh? Especially if the measure is financial security.