Today marks the first anniversary of my retirement from UC Berkeley.
It was abso-fraggin’-lutely the right decision. I miss a couple hundred people I worked with, but not the work itself.
One of the many things I hold against Ronald Reagan is that he demeaned public service: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” That cynical line, repeated over and over with B-actor conviction, grew into an article of faith for much of the populace, which now assumes public entities are malign and public employees are incompetent, perhaps corrupt.
Many of the workers at UC Berkeley are like me: asked which we value more, making ourselves rich or furthering education, research, and public service, it’s not even close. We get one lifetime. When it’s over, we don’t want to look back on a relentless chase after the almighty dollar — not when there’s so much to be learned about this wondrous universe, planet, and society.
And though this shouldn’t need saying, Reagan’s canard makes saying it necessary: public institutions hold no monopoly on malign intent, and public employees hold no monopoly on incompetence and corruption. In fact, the private sector could well be more malign, incompetent, and corrupt.
Nonetheless, when the public is conditioned to believe you’re malign and incompetent, you start interactions with two strikes. Whether they’re students, faculty, fellow staffers, or members of the general public, individuals and groups assume the campus exists to fulfill their needs. Any resistance to those needs is seen as proof of malignity and incompetence.
My job was to deal with people who felt UC Berkeley hadn’t fulfilled their needs. That was a lot of people—and not all of them were mentally well.
I always started from kindness — I am here to help! — but the more entitled or dishonest the individual, or the more the individual insisted on dictating terms rather than working toward a mutually satisfactory solution, the more the old New Yorker in me said, “You wanna fight? Fine. You start it. I’ll finish it.”
Maybe those confrontations increased over time. Maybe they had a cumulative effect. Maybe I just got too old to deal with them anymore. Maybe all of the above. But I reached a point where they wore me out, and not even long vacations refreshed me. So I retired.
And it’s been wonderful. I’ve regained my peace of mind, and I’ve made the big transition from achievement mode to being mode. I’m no longer preoccupied by an endless to-do list at work, at night, and on weekends, and I no longer value myself based on how quickly and effectively I cross items off that list. Instead, I value sitting in the backyard with The Fabulous Wife and our cats, feeling the sun on my face and hearing the wind in the trees. The miracles of existence and consciousness are alive to me again — and, increasingly, they are all I need to feel fulfilled. If I make it to extreme old age, I’ll be one of those bundled-up wisps the nursing home attendants wheel outside for an hour or two each day, and just sitting in the fresh air will bring me joy.
Here and now, though, I am truly, deeply grateful for the opportunity to have restored my spirit, and I wish the same opportunity for all of you, whether through retirement or some other path!