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Happy retirement (again), but no shelves this time

I retired the other day -- again.

Eleven years ago, I called it quits at Newsday. I loved being a reporter, but the company offered a buyout and I bit.

This time, I ended my career as a part-time professor.

After nearly 20 years, off and on, I won't be driving to Stony Brook University twice a week. How journalism students will survive without my timeless commentary on press freedom, public service and the power of the written word, don't ask me.

My idea was to leave the office without being noticed -- just pack up and slip through a side entrance. No luck.

Word got out and I knew what was coming. Soon, inquisitive colleagues would ask the dread question.

"So, what are you going to do with yourself?"

No matter how often I ducked into the supply room or hid behind the door of my office, co-workers tracked me down.

"Travel?" they asked. "Finally write the novel?" "Sears deliver the hammock yet?"

To each inquiry, I responded with a witless smile and answer worthy of a candidates' debate. "Oh, well, you know," I said, hoping that would settle the matter.

In some cases, I insisted that I still had plenty to keep me busy -- a lot of freelance work, and, ha-ha, if you have four kids, grown or not, there's always something. At other moments, I only shrugged. "We'll see."

I felt like a Wall Street swindler pleading the Fifth.

What would I be doing with myself now that I was no longer "Professor," but just plain me? How would I occupy the hours once spent glazing student work with remarks in red ink? "Spelling." "Accuracy." "Past tense." "Third person." "Segue." "Uppercase." "Lowercase." "No semicolons!"

The morning after I left Newsday more than a decade ago, the question -- what now? -- caused such anxiety that I awoke at 7:30 thinking: I better get started. I was taking a breather from teaching duties at the time and, so, faced "freedom" of the most daunting sort. If I didn't do something immediately, I feared, I might not do anything -- ever.

Accordingly, I took the approach of any sensible rookie retiree: I began building shelves.

We have a little house with modest storage and it seemed perfectly logical to me that, as the sun lifted off the horizon and golden age awaited, the first thing I must do -- the very first -- was increase the surface area on which my wife, Wink, and I could place flower pots, paint cans and Clorox jugs. Measuring, cutting, wielding a power drill like a six-shooter, I threw myself into the work.

From the bedroom, Wink called out: "What are you doing?"

"Shelves," I answered.

"Now?" said Wink, a person who takes sleep seriously. "Right now?"

After I retrofitted our little laundry room and workshop, I turned, in subsequent days, to the boiler room, also closet sized. Shelf after shelf went up. Items once on the floor now were neatly stowed. I eyed every wall. Where next?

"Enough," said Wink, after a few days. "No more."

Other projects beckoned.

I went through my old newspaper clippings, filed a few things and tossed the rest. Who would ever read that stuff, anyway? Surely not me. I planted impatiens everywhere -- this was way before the impatiens blight -- until Wink told me to cut it out.

I did volunteer home repairs with the great organization, Rebuilding Together, which made me feel virtuous and permitted the purchase of more tools. I read espionage novels. I never thought to relax.

Before too long, a friend at the Stony Brook journalism program called and wondered if I was ready to get back to work.

"How about this afternoon?" I asked.

But now I am a few months from 75. And, honestly, I am plenty busy writing this and that. And there is the house -- OK, no more shelves -- and the garden and the car and the grandkids. I needed to reclaim some time for Wink and me. Eat clams on the East End or zip into the city for a matinee. I had to stop obsessing, at last, about segues and semicolons.

Accordingly, I drove to Stony Brook one afternoon and turned in my office key. The semester was over and only a few people were around. "Come back and see us," one colleague said. Another blew a kiss. Something just ended, I thought. With a little luck, something else will begin.


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