Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Retirement for the Isotope Queen

Wild storm surge, The Sea Ranch, California--our town on the coast

            I am the Isotope Queen. What will I be when I retire? We scientists train for decades on how to succeed at our jobs—we are not mentored nor taught how to slow down, divest, and retire. I’ll be officially retiring June 30, 2020.

            My persona for 40+ years has been associated with being a hard-driving, serious Biogeochemist. I’ve been playing on the Isotope Geochemists Baseball squad at first playing on the second string, in the outfield. For the last couple of decades, I was a starter--pitcher, second baseman, maybe shortstop working tirelessly to get the team through rough games and championships. Now I’m getting off the Team, not even sitting on the bench. Whew—I’ll need to reinvent myself.

            When I turned 60--seven years ago--I decided to give the University of California ten years of good work before retiring at the age of 70. I was determined not to hang on and be thought of as that “Old Bat”, who should move aside for younger scientists to get a chance to show what they were made of. I had decided that I wasn’t going to be the Old Person who shuffled into their office after retirement, dusting off old tomes, and nodding off at my desk.

            Within a year and a half of moving to Mariposa California in the Sierra foothills, Chris and I branched out, purchasing a small house of our dreams on a beautiful stretch of the wild northern Pacific coast 100 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We spent long weekends, spring breaks, and holidays there enjoying the fresh ocean breezes and vistas. Our plan was to transition eventually to full time coastal living—maybe upgrade the house, but certainly keep up an active life hiking, swimming, playing tennis, and drinking fine wines.

            In retirement, my goal was to be the best grandmother a grandchild could ever have. When I grew up, I had two of the best grandmothers you could imagine. There was Polish Grandmom Hencinski, my mother’s mother--a real character. During the Depression to make ends meet, she told peoples’ fortunes by reading their palms, made bootleg whiskey in her basement, and rolled cigars. As a grandmother, she took my brother Fred and me to the Jersey shore by train or bus. She made the best lasagna, spaghetti, and pizza that I had ever eaten. I got into a fight in 4th grade insisting that these were Polish foods—not Italian! Grandmom Hencinski also made a kick-ass vegetable soup, stuffed cabbages, and perogis. Fred and I spent many a Saturday night at our grandparents’ small row house in Camden, New Jersey, while they served as weekend baby sitters. Grandmom Hencinski was outspoken, outrageous, funny, and adventurous.
I AM the Grandmother of a fine dog--Stella, Evan and Meghan's Korean Mutt

            Grandmom Fogel was an opposite. She took us to Sunday school when we visited. She sang Lutheran hymns and never touched a drop of whiskey. She baked several pies and chocolate chip cookies—every week. Once a year, she sewed a patchwork quilt for me, as well as dresses for my dolls and me. Grandmom Fogel kept my grumpy Pop Pop in line, banishing him to the back porch to smoke his cigars. Her cooking was influenced by what was growing in her half-acre garden and included Pennsylvania Dutch specialties. She was sweet and gentle.

            In contrast, when Dana and Evan were babies and young children, their grandmothers were otherwise generally occupied. My sister Barb and her two boys, Chris and Mike, lived with my parents fulltime. Come the weekend, my mother was more interested in adult conversation than grandkids. Chris’s parents lived across the country from us and rarely traveled. Both grandmothers were well meaning, but neither babysat or cooked special dishes for the grandkids. Spoiling was not in their nature.

            I thought maybe by the age of 70 “Grandmom” status was a possibility, but of course this is out of my control. I had visions of providing relief for parents, withholding my opinions unless expressly asked, being there for support, cooking special meals for them, taking them on brief vacations, and of course, some grandmotherly spoiling. Chris and I envisioned traveling to see our children Dana and Evan wherever they lived, helping out, and being pleasant supporters.

            We also expected we’d take a few trips that we never took while we were working. I wanted to take a European trip touring English pubs, hiking on wind swept Scottish isles, taking a barge through British canals then hopping over to the Netherlands to enjoy the Dutch scene. I’d been to both of these countries before, but Chris had not. Further, the family had planned to take more adventurous trips. In 2015, we spent Christmas vacation on a wild trip to Thailand. The list of adventures we wanted to have was pretty long. Chris and I had lived frugally all of our lives—we had the resources to now have fun.

            This plan made a lot of sense then.

            Things changed—of course. Anyone can have their life alter with just one doctor’s visit. My life took several sharp turns. First, the ALS diagnosis was an extreme left turn. Then, we steered sharply right leaving UC Merced and moving to SoCal and working at UC Riverside. At the end of June, I’ll be veering to the left again and retiring officially. I’ve been taking the last six months getting accustomed to the idea. Chris and I spend time with each other almost 24/7/365. Fortunately, we are pretty happy looking at birds, the weather, and the PBS News Hour together.

            Heck, retirement is something you’re supposed to look forward to! My colleagues and friends are retiring in droves. The science folks are cleaning out their labs, shipping their precious samples to others who might value them, and getting their final studies published. The non-science folks are lining up volunteer activities, traveling to Nepal and Italy, and helping with grandchildren. The transitions are varied, but as far as I can tell working out well for everyone.

            My retirement now requires further planning. I’m a bit anxious about it. As my physical abilities diminish, traveling is nearly impossible. Forget trying to get on an airplane with tiny bathrooms I can no longer use. Hotel rooms are even a challenge that Chris and I eventually figure out, but they take a lot of work to be remotely comfortable. Our house on the coast requires renovation because I can no longer fit into the small bathroom on the first floor. [Last week, I washed my hair out on the deck with a bucket of warm water and a cup.] We’re working with architects and a contractor to retrofit the bathroom creating an accessible space for me. We’ve started looking at wheelchair accessible vans with lifts or ramps. One is in our future. I still love to see new places and meet new people.

            Fortunately, my mental facilities remain as much as they normally are in any 67-year old. I’m still able to talk without any problem; so visiting with people is a major source of fun and stimulation for me. Obviously, I’m still writing and working on several research projects that require reading, thinking, and writing. I’m starting a project on the Salton Sea with UC Riverside colleagues in a couple of weeks. I’ll be writing a biographical article for the National Academy about Phillip Abelson, former Carnegie President. This week, I helped revise a manuscript on hydrogen isotopes that is destined to be a classic. What a blessing it is to have the ability to continue intellectual engagement through retirement. Because academics build strong social networks with their colleagues, I expect to keep in touch with many of my scientific colleagues.

            My responsibilities at the University will diminish. I stopped teaching this year. I taught 18 classes while at the University of California—it’s enough. I’m still in contact with UC Merced students and serving on committees at UC Riverside. No more writing grant proposals! Soon, no more faculty meetings. I don’t mind them, personally, but I’ll no longer have the ability to vote on hiring and promotions. I have two funded projects that will require me to continue to pay attention. I have one student remaining: Mr. POM Bobby Nakamoto, who I need to push towards graduation. Two postdocs, Kaycee Morra and Jon Nye, are doing well, but will need full time positions. We continue to press on with first class work, publishing, presenting, and job hunting. I believe I will have the stamina to do this.

            So, what will retirement look like for me?

            I hope to spend more time aimlessly tinkering, sitting in the sunshine,  painting abstract works of art, and reading more novels. Perhaps, Chris and I will buy a big motorhome complete with accessible bathroom and comfortable bed, then we’ll set out across North America. We might park in your driveway, roll into your living room, and eat your food. We dream of seeing the national parks in the western states again. I’d love to see Chincoteague Virginia, Moorestown New Jersey, and St. John’s Newfoundland again. One more time.
A recent painting--our garden Riverside, 2019

            Chris and I will figure this retirement thing out. He’s writing a book about his famous grandfather Harry Swarth, an ornithologist. I’m working on my memoir. We tap-tap-tap on our laptops, exchange chapters and comment. It’s not climbing the mountains of Nepal, but it’s something. Our homes are Bed and Breakfasts for friends. Rarely does a week go by without sharing our hospitality with special people.

            Together we plan and plot.

            And I can dream.


  1. and finish all those papers you have not written dear. Im 70 as well now actually going into the 71 era. im determined to write stuff before I retire. when will the retire be for me. not till 75 i think hugs girly we have a driveway waiting for you and a ramp up the side of the house
    and of course a big kitchen

  2. Give Jeremy Jackson a call. He seems to have found his retirement groove and probably would say he’s doing mostly the same job as a scientist free of the shackles of institutional bullshit! I think what is often unsaid is that scientists don’t need an institution to define us as scientists. Vision is what younger folks need and you exude vision!


Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...