Best-Ever Discussion of Death and Dying

Cover of April 2014 Sun MagazineThe Sun has come through yet again with a paradigm-shifting, life-changing chunk of exquisite prose.

The Sun’s April 2014 issue contains an interview entitled “The Long Goodbye: Katy Butler on How Modern Medicine Decreases Our Chance of a Good Death.”

Immediately following this amazing interview (conducted by Sam Mowe) is an equally impressive four-page excerpt from Butler’s book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death (Scribner, 2013).

This magazine’s introduction to the wisdom of the unusually sensible as well as unusually articulate Katy Butler is one of many, many, many reasons The Sun remains, year in and year out, my favorite magazine. (It always wins out in my periodically conducted thought experiment about which of my two favorite magazines – the other is The New Yorker – is my true favorite.) 

Like The New Yorker, I began subscribing to The Sun decades ago and eagerly await its arrival every month. The Sun is so consistently brave in the subjects it tackles and the quality of its innards is so consistently higher than anything else I read (in print or on the Intertubes) that I never stop fantasizing that eventually everyone I know and care about will begin subscribing also.

Katy ButlerBe that as it may, if there’s only one article you will force yourself to read about death and dying this year, let it be this one. Like me, you may end up making copies and sending it to your loved ones. (Or maybe even giving them a gift subscription to The Sun?)

Bloggers are repeatedly advised to include photos in every blogpost they write. Hence the photos of the magazine cover and of this month’s interviewee.


The Great Clock Repair Caper

Cal's Clock 004In the latest instance of how It’s the Little Things That Make Cal Happy, I got my grandmother clock repaired yesterday. Which made me so inordinately gleeful that I’m using it a pretext to natter on a bit about why this small change in my domestic environment seems so worthy of an entire blogpost.

For as long as I can remember wanting anything in particular in my house, I’ve wanted a grandfather clock. And an old one, too.

I don’t remember my earliest childhood memories of such devices, but I’m certain that several of my Arkansas relatives had grandfather clocks in their homes. Like other things these relatives had that my family didn’t own – a huge organ with two giant foot pedals, a hand-cranked washing machine, great swaths of hydrangea bushes in the yard), they fascinated me as a visiting kid.

Eventually, buying such a grandfather clock for my own home became a standing household goal. I kept putting off buying one because of how expensive they are – and because, relative to other things, they are hardly necessary.

Year after year would pass without my having found one I could afford, but I never stopped drooling whenever I’d espy one at some antique store or discover one in the home of an acquaintance.

At least ten years ago, my sister Gayle retired from her psychiatric nursing job and set about furnishing the house she’d bought in the north Georgia mountains. In nearby Murphy, North Carolina, Gayle found and bought a grandmother clock whose chimes she liked the sound of.

I came to love Gayle’s clock, and eventually realized that not only would a grandmother (vs. a grandfather) clock probably satisfy my antique clock-owning fantasy, but that a smaller (and therefore also less expensive) clock would be more suitable for my tiny living room.

I therefore revised my antique clock-owning fantasy to hoping to locate something similar to Gayle’s wonderful machine.  A few years later, I did find one – in fact, at a shop in Blairsville, where Gayle lives. It met all my requirements:

  • Its case design was pleasingly plain instead of frilly or overwrought.
  • Its clockface was inscribed with Arabic numerals instead of the hated (and more commonly found) Roman numerals.
  • Although they were not as sublime as the clock Gayle owned, I liked the sound of the clock’s chimes.
  • The clock had an interesting provenance. (Made in Germany, it was previously owned for many years by a down-sizing clock collector who’d retired from his job as an administrator at the University of Georgia.)
  • The seller’s price seemed as reasonable as I was ever going to find for something comparable.
  • I had Gayle’s unreserved endorsement for this particular purchase, and, using my trusty “If not now, when?” purchase-timing mantra, I talked myself into believing I could afford it.

Reader, I bought it. And have since then enjoyed every minute (!) of hearing it ticking and chiming away as a background to my daily domestic routines.

What I hadn’t realized until it stopped working a few weeks ago was how much I enjoyed having this clock in my life.

The longer I put off taking it to the repair shop, the more uneasy I was with its abrupt subtraction from my sonic environment. Eventually I realized that, over the years that I’ve owned it, this clock had apparently become the stand-in for all the other antiques I’d never be able to afford; that – even more than the sounds of the wind chimes I’ve installed outside each entrance to my house –  the clock’s ticking and chiming had come to symbolize the reassuring safety and coziness I feel living in my modest abode.

Paradoxically, the clock also serves as a persistent and melancholy reminder of the fleeting duration of our pathetically limited time on this mortal coil.

At any rate, exacerbating my recent bout of clockless uneasiness was the fact that since I’m in my house so much more these days than before I retired a year ago this month, I was more acutely and continually aware of the Sudden Inertness of My Beloved Clock.

Nevertheless, for several weeks I postponed a trip to the clock repair shop. I worried that maybe the Nice Friendly Clock Repair Guy across town wouldn’t be able to repair the machine, or that the N.F.C.R.G. would charge me an arm and a leg to fix it, or that by the time I jostled my expensively repaired clock back across town in my pickup truck, it would be out of whack again.

I was wrong on all counts. Not only was the clock salvageable, but the N.F.C.R.G. showed me how to fix it myself the next time and for no apparent reason the pendulum stops swinging; he charged me only $10 for my visit; and the clock began ticking properly the instant I re-hung it on the wall – and it’s still running 24 hours later.

Domestic sonic homeostasis has been restored, and I can now wander in and out of my living room throughout the day (or the evening) with the sight and sound of the pendulum swaying back and forth in its reliable, reassuring way.

It’s The Little Things That Matter – to Cal, anyway. And though Cal may be long-winded in describing them, at least Cal is Easily Amused.

Thanks for reading!

Retirement: The First Year

Happy Face

[A self-interview about how it feels to have been retired from a 30-year career as a librarian. Much of this summary will be familiar to readers of my most recent annual Solstice letter and/or previous retirement era status reports posted after the first week, the second week, the first three months, and the first six months. Warning: This report is longer.]

Self: So, Cal Gough, March 12, 2013 was your final day of working as a librarian. Does your going-away party seem like it happened that long ago?

Cal: Did I retire an entire year ago? No way! Didn’t I retire just a few months ago? No, wait! My working life seems like it happened in some distant other lifetime.

And do you miss working?


Be honest. Don’t you miss working just a little?

Not even a little.

Does this surprise you?

Yes.  While I never expected to miss the unpleasant or the stressful or the tedious, bureaucracy-related aspects of managing a branch library, I had expected to miss interacting with co-workers, to miss interacting with customers, to miss the intellectual and ethical challenges of being a useful librarian. But I haven’t! Sure, there have been moments when I missed certain former co-workers, certain customers, or the good feelings that come from doing the million important and even tedious things that are necessary to connect library customers with the materials or resources they need or want. But those moments have been far fewer and more fleeting than I expected.

And why is that, do you think?

What I discovered early on as a retiree is that I had seriously underestimated the extent of the toll that working every day in a chronically dysfunctional work environment was taking on me – and on everyone else I was working with. Those stresses were constantly contaminating any enjoyment I was receiving from my positive contacts with colleagues and customers, and any improvements I tried to make in my workplace.

For awhile, I’d tried to focus on the positive stuff. Only when I became convinced that the library’s infrastructure – particularly the institution’s management – wasn’t going to improve in what was left of my library career did I begin entertaining fantasies about retiring.

As anyone who’s worked (or is, alas, still working unwillingly) in a dysfunctional organization knows, it’s no picnic to feel you can no longer do your own job even half-way well because your efforts to do so are constantly being interfered with by clueless and/or deluded and/or self-aggrandizing politicians or trustees, or by administrators who are in denial about (or are  so unable to shield their subordinates from) the shenanigans of the politicians et al., and/or who are so overworked that they cannot support the work of their subordinates even if they wanted to.

Toward the end of my tenure with the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System, there were just too few competent people remaining in the organization’s management, no coherent vision of (or time and energy to effectively advocate for) the organization’s priorities, no leadership – just no light of any kind at the end of the tunnel.

And that turning point happened for you a year ago?

No, my pessimism kicked in permanently probably two or even three years ago, but at that point I didn’t think I could afford to quit. It took an entire year for my financial advisor to convince me that I could afford to retire. As soon as she was able to do that, I set a date.

But it seems like you’re saying that your decision to retire was a reluctant one?

Yes it was. I had loved my (non-management) jobs in certain settings in numerous previous years, and felt lucky to have a job I loved and was good at and that my colleagues and supervisors were happy with (or at least tolerated).  I had looked forward to maybe working for another decade, as I could still get excited about specific ways I might help improve the institution’s operations. Those efforts and plans got abruptly derailed over ten years ago (long story), and even though I managed to find, post-derailment, enough about my work assignments to keep me looking forward to going to work, I eventually realized I was working in an institution that was steadily devolving instead of steadily improving. I also noticed that the rate of the institution’s downward spiral was speeding up rather than slowing down.

When I became convinced (by a series of specific administrative decisions) that I was likely to become more miserable instead of more hopeful or happier at work – and later discovered that I could, in fact, afford to quit –  I did. But I did leave somewhat reluctantly, and certainly didn’t expect my life as a retiree would be automatically more enjoyable than my life as a full-time working librarian.

So have you been keeping yourself busy or doing exotic, enjoyable things since you stopped working?

I haven’t felt busy at all. Or at least, not “productively busy.” I haven’t “accomplished” much, or invented a whole new life, or made dramatic changes in my daily routine – except, of course, for adding to my life, every week, 40 extra hours (plus another 5 hours per week that I’d spent getting to and from work).

And thereby having more energy (as well as time) to devote to activities or projects or relationships of my choosing, rather than having all that constrained by workplace-related factors. Having enough retirement income to prevent my being forced to cut back radically on my monthly expenses has had a lot to do with the contentment I’ve felt from Day 1 about being a retiree.

On the other hand, I haven’t, since retiring, been traveling more than usual, or traveling further afield, or undertaking a lot of new non-travel-related activities.

If you haven’t been “busy” or “accomplishing” anything in particular since retirement, or doing lots of new things, or traveling more, what have you been doing with all that extra time and energy on your hands every day that’s made retirement – so far, anyway – so enjoyable?

Before I answer that, I want to say that the biggest time-related contrast between working full-time and being retired is that, now that I am retired, I don’t know how I ever found the time or energy to do anything outside of working those 40 hours a week! The amount of time available to you obviously expands when you quit a fulltime job, but it also contracts somehow. Maybe that’s because you find yourself taking more time to do everything, because you (finally!) can? I’m not sure. And it may be more of an ageing thing than a retirement thing, or a combo of both of those factors.

In any case, whether it’s doing something boring like brushing my teeth or doing something enjoyable like sitting outside on a bench with the neighbor’s visiting cat in my lap and feeling the pleasant breeze on my face, or accomplishing some task I set for myself (like cleaning out a closet or sweeping off the patio), or even doing some chore for someone else, I am no longer forced to enjoy the experience or do that task in a hurry or while being distracted and depleted by a full-time work schedule or work-related worries.

Not being chronically in a hurry – or at least acting (sometimes consciously so, sometimes unconsciously) in an “efficient” manner most of the time – has, all by itself, been startlingly relaxing.

Also, approaching tasks with more options of when to do them, or deciding, on a whim, to interrupt something “productive” with something else equally “productive” or simply more enjoyable  – this sort of decision-making is, for me, the new and wonderous “normal.” As a wage-slave, I had gradually – and mistakenly – led myself to believe that being uber-efficient was the preferable route to maximum happiness or at least contentment. Being productive and efficient certainly was the default way of my doing most things for forty some-odd years. Retirees – if they’re as fortunate as I am, anyway – live what really should be the “normal” mode; it’s the wage-earners who are forced to adopt what’ s not a natural, congenial way of pacing one’s energies and expending one’s time.

The other morning I was meeting friends for a breakfast get-together, and I found myself rushing to get my shower and get to the restaurant on time. As I hurried through my ablutions, my first thought was I haven’t been in this much of a rush since last March! My second thought was This rushing around is what I used to do every frigging morning of my life! Not good! And it was never a good way to live a life. Lollygagging one’s way into and out of the shower  – or, for that matter, into and out of anything else: that’s The Better Way.

On top of the post-retirement realization that I’d become accustomed to rushing around all the time is another change in the way I live my life as a Retired Person. Nowadays, what I do from day to day, sometimes even hour to hour – is often whatever I choose to do, or am in the mood to do. However productive or unproductive or enjoyable or not so enjoyable whatever I’m doing is , nobody else is dictating how I’m using the bulk of my waking hours. Those luxuries are constant sources of intense pleasure to me, and – even after a year of it – I haven’t yet begun taking for granted this new way of living.

Of course, I realize that these past twelve months of unfettered, stress-free time (and energy) to do whatever I’ve decided to do is neither typical nor likely to remain permanent. Unlike me (at least for this past year), most retirees have family obligations of various sorts, some of them extremely stressful and/or time-consuming. And if I happened to be living with a partner, which I am not now doing, my time- and-energy-spending habits and constraints would be different. I’m just trying to make the point here that I’ve been lucky enough (so far) for retirement to have resembled more than anything else a sort of deliciously extended stay-at-home vacation.

And have I mentioned the naps I’m finally getting to take every day? Another completely normal, human thing to do (the persistence into the 21st century of the siesta in certain cultures is evidence for that), and I for one have been known to take two naps in the same day. Bliss!

But since you are spending so much more time at home, don’t you feel trapped or isolated, or at least bored?

Much to my surprise, I’ve really enjoyed being at home more often now than I could ever be at home when I was working full-time.

No, I don’t want to become a recluse, but I happen to love my house (as I’ve loved most of the places I’ve ever lived), and it’s been great to spend more time inside my house, or outside in my tiny yard, especially during the daytime. (I’ll probably enjoy hanging out inside the house even more once I get around to paying somebody to wash all my windows!)

Plus, I don’t spend every minute hanging around the house. As I did before retiring, I still spend at least one weekend a month at a cabin in the North Georgia mountains that I co-own with friends. (For some reason, however, just like the other retired cabin co-owners, I haven’t been spending more time there, or spending more weekdays there, than I did before I retired.) I’ve taken two major out-of-state vacations since last March – to Mexico and to California. And I’m planning to join some friends on another major (aka expensive-for-Cal’s-budget) overseas vacation this coming fall, so I have that to look forward to. (Merely looking forward to a planned vacation has always been for me a consolation for the fact that I travel far less frequently and far less further afield than I have the means  – and, in recent years, the energy – for.)

At any rate, I strongly advise anyone who’s considering retiring to make sure he or she is living in a congenial house (and, for that matter, in a congenial neighborhood), because – unless they are wealthier than I am or like to travel less than I do – they may end up spending a lot of time there!

The boredom issue hasn’t surfaced yet, but I do wonder sometimes that it might, once the novelty of the stay-at-home vacation eventually wanes and I’ve gotten to the bottom of my considerably lengthy list of home and garden improvement projects.

Have you gotten lonely in this house and garden you claim to like so much? Especially since you live alone?

It’s true that my house projects are solitary activities, and that my main hobby – reading – is also a solitary pursuit. There have a few fleeting moments when I wonder if I currently know – or will ever know – enough friends (especially a sufficient number of also-retired friends and/or especially close friends living in the same city as I live, and/or enough gay male friends) to balance the amount of time I spend alone, either happily or otherwise. But, so far, what hasn’t happened this first year of retirement are frequent bouts of depression or prolonged periods of anxiety due to my not socializing more often than I do.

Also, the fact that I’ve had a house-mate for the past twelve months probably has obscured how I’m likely to fare in this particular respect after he’s no longer living with me.


A friend whose partner lives in England has been living in my guest room since the end of last February (shortly before I retired) while he waits for the British government bureaucrats to approve his request to stay in England indefinitely. If the Brits approve his visa request, he’ll be returning to England sometime in April or early May.

That’s when the challenge of my living alone – especially for someone like me who’s lived most of his life with a Significant Other and who doesn’t make new friends quickly – will really begin. Year 2 of my retirement could conceivably be quite different from Year 1, in terms of the feeling-lonely-sometimes factor.

Your circle of friends and acquaintances hasn’t noticeably expanded since retiring?

No, I haven’t yet met a whole new subset of acquaintances and friends, like some retirees do. That could happen eventually, I suppose, although, as I mentioned, I don’t make friends quickly or put myself easily and frequently into social situations where I might meet people unknown to me who could become new friends or acquaintances.

I do know that since I stopped showing up at a workplace every day, the average number of daily interactions with other people has diminished. Of course, some of my work-related interactions were unwelcome or unpleasant, so it’s wonderful to have had those subtracted from my daily round. But there have been a few days since mid-March 2013 when I realized I hadn’t spoken to another human soul (other than my house-mate) – although on each of those days I probably emailed a few folks, or received some emails.

More surprising to me is the fact that I also haven’t been spending appreciably more time with the friends or acquaintances who I socialized with before I retired. And that may partly be because many of my long-time friends and acquaintances are still holding down full-time jobs!

So have you, since retiring, embarked on any completely new interests or commitments?

My resolve not to take up for at least six months after retiring any new major obligations (as a volunteer, say) has extended into a twelve month period of not doing that! I had initially made that decision because so many retirement advice articles and books contained that advice. And I think it was good advice, as it allowed me to more fully enjoy the vacation-like aspects of being a retiree.

For example, the volunteer task I had planned to undertake after my six-month “vacation” – ramping up the extent of my work with improving the library of the local Quaker congregation – I still haven’t undertaken. I think it’s because I’m fully aware of the immensity of that particular task and I’m afraid I might invest too much time trying to accomplish too much too soon. I still don’t know when I’ll be plunging into that daunting project.

But the Quaker meetinghouse library isn’t a “new” project – I’ve been the volunteer librarian there for many years now, spending the minimal amount of time required to keep the place operational (vs. making major improvements that will make the library more user-friendly).

My weekly tai chi classes and my weekly square dance classes are other activities I started before retiring and am continuing to do. My involvement with the local calligraphy guild is another pre-retirement interest I’m continuing to pursue (and somewhat expand). I am blogging more often now than I did when I retired (both at this personal blog and at the other one I maintain).

However, the only totally new activities I’ve embarked on since last March are two classes (in Intermediate Calligraphy and Beginner Piano) that I’ve been taking at a local senior center. These are weekly, mid-day classes I couldn’t’ve taken while I was working full-time, and I am enjoying them very much. (Well, at least the weekly calligraphy class. Practicing the piano is not yet fun at all, but the fact that I still want to learn – and can afford a teacher as excellent as the one I’m lucky enough to have gotten – is immensely satisfying.)

You mentioned that you continue to do a lot of reading. How has retirement affected your reading habits?

Although reading books remains my default way of solitarily enjoying myself, I’ve not, for reasons I haven’t quite figured out, been reading more books per week, or started reading different types of books, or reading fewer (or more) books simulaneously than I did before retirement.

What has happened is that I’ve discovered there’s a limit to the number of consecutive hours my body – especially my eyeballs – will allow me to read, no matter how absorbing the book(s) I’m reading happen(s) to be. (That limit might have escaped my notice before retirement sheerly because of the relative shortage of hours to read in!)

Something else reading-related that actually happened just before retirement was my finally surrendering to the need for  a written list of books I want to read. Even with retirement just around the corner at the time, I could no longer casually manage the onslaught of compelling candidates for what I hope to read. That list – which continues to be mostly nonfiction, which is mostly limited to approximately a half-dozen perennial reading interests, and which is organized merely alphabetically rather than being prioritized in any way  – has proven enormously helpful, especially since I started maintaining the list on my blog instead of on various scraps of paper. On the other hand, the sheer length of that list has gotten rather daunting.

A fact that continues to sadden me is the fact that there are – even for a retired person who loves to read – Too Many Books to read even a fraction of what’s worth reading.

As has always been the case (at least with nonfiction), I continue to discover most of the titles for my “To Be Read” list in the footnotes or bibliographies of previously-read books. Now that I no longer am automatically exposed to new book titles by working in a library every day, those title suggestions now also come more and more frequently via the Internet – particularly via the blogs I read and from alerts people post on Facebook.

Probably the main difference in my reading habits, though, is where I get hold of the books I’ve decided to read. Since I discovered that I can borrow items from the library at Emory University, I’ve been borrowing most of my books from Emory rather than from my local public library. And I’ve finally started reading some of the books I’ve owned in my personal library for years but for whatever reason never got around to reading.

What about your other daily routines?

Well, I’m still getting up most mornings at the same time (between 6 and 8), and, so I can do that, still going to bed around 11pm most nights. Some nights, however, I’ve noticed I’ll decide to go to bed even earlier (if I happen to get drowsy) simply because I can – that is, I can do that without sacrificing any precious reading time. I can now simply resume reading (or whatever) the next morning (i.e., without delaying whatever I want to read or do until I get home from eight hours of work). Wonderful!

For some reason that I don’t understand at all, I’m eating out less often than I did when I worked full-time. When I was earning wages, I I treated myself to lunch in a restaurant every day, and in any given week I probably ate out for supper a third to a half of the time. Presumably because I have more time to shop for and prepare food at home, and because I often regard getting in a vehicle to go out to eat as too much bother, I’m eating more often at home. And I’m eating more meat these days, although that trend started sometime before I retired.

On the other hand, what I haven’t done since retiring, food-wise, is to radically enlarge my culinary repertoire, vegetarian or otherwise. My housemate’s (non-vegetarian) cookery habits have been a good influence here: he eats in almost all his meals, and his example encourages me to try cooking (non-vegetarian) things he happens to know how to cook. Inexplicably, I’ve only managed to increase the number of new dishes I know (confidently) how to make by – what? – two things in twelve months? At this rate, I’ll never get around to teaching myself how to enjoy cooking again, and being able to fix a lot of things without resorting to risky adventures in recipe-following, and that was something I had hoped to accomplish during the first few years of retirement.

Finally, in terms of changed habits, and despite the valuable prerogative of being entitled to a senior discount on ticket prices, I see fewer movies than I used to. However, I suspect this may have less to do with retirement and more to do with a steadily widening disconnect between the movies being made these days and the kinds of movies I’m interested in watching (at least on the Big Screen). I have seen more plays than I did before I retired, which I’m happy about. (I’d be patronizing live theatre every week if I could afford it – and maybe even if I couldn’t afford it, if I knew someone equally thrilled by theater-going to share those experiences with.)

Meanwhile, I still don’t have a cable-connected television and am unlikely, even in retirement, to get one. On the other hand, I am spending no less time on the Internet than I did before retiring: just as I did when I was working,I’m still turning on the computer first thing in the morning to check my email and Facebook account. At least nowadays all the time I spend staring at a screen I’m staring at something I want to look at or read, instead of filling out some personnel form or typing up yet another list of all the serial numbers on the library’s computers!

How’s the financial end of retirement working out?

So far, so good. The goal of my financial advisor was to arrange things so that I’d draw enough down from my invested savings to pay my bills and allow for continue living the life I was accustomed to before retiring – including occasional overseas travel. My retirement savings are apparently sufficient to accomplish this – partly because I’d been a good saver throughout my working career, partly because I’d been sure to live within my means all along without resorting to borrowing money from credit card companies, partly because I don’t have any children to raise or anyone else to support financially, and partly because I long ago determined how much money I need to cover my total expenses (consistently – if still somewhat shocking – $100 to $115 per day).

For the first year of retirement, my income has been coming from various investment funds, but in a few months my Social Security income will begin, and that, along with income from another part of my financial plan, will make the way (and the amounts) I draw down each month a lot more routine and automatic than they have been so far.

In any case, I haven’t so far felt deprived or like I need to cut down on my monthly expenses, and it appears in retirement I may even be spending a bit less on some things (like restaurant meals and gasoline costs).

I’m certainly not living high on the hog, but I’ve never done that. As long as I’m fairly comfortable, relatively debt free, can afford to travel now and again, and my medical expenses remain minimal, I’m pretty satisfied with my post-retirement financial situation. Fingers crossed here that I won’t be forced, further down the road, to go back to work to make ends meet.

So how do you think Year 2 of retirement might differ from the first twelve months?

I do hope to tackle a few major long-put-off projects around the house and in the yard. For example, this time next year, I’d love to have emptied my pathetically full-to-the-brim attic, and I’d still love to replace my dilapidated gardening shed with something I’d like to spend more time in. I want to finally spend some time improving the front yard. Of course I’d like to travel abroad – and around the U.S. – more during the next twelve months than in the previous twelve. And I’d love to join forces with another guy who’s interested in joining forces with me. (If he’s the right guy, of course.)

But I actually haven’t the slightest clue about how my second year of retirement might resemble or differ from the first year. I can say that Year 1 has been so much more pleasant than I expected it to be that I’m reluctant to make any predictions at all. Which is probably a sensible way of starting out that second year.