Sifting through the noise

Listening requires special skills which, like muscles, weaken with neglect; they might not always be needed in retirement. The need should be weaker there I imagined -retirement is more transactional, with each of us intent on regaling others with our own contrasts in exchange for hearing, but not necessarily listening, to those of our friends. But to contrast is often just an excuse to compare -to insert ourselves and what we think into the discussion; to dilute the other thoughts with our own; to offer advice, if only obliquely, when it is not requested. Sometimes, people just need to be heard though, not counselled.

The art, of course, is in knowing which. I used to be good at it (I think) before I retired; it was part of my job to listen to the problem, as much as to solve it; in fact, it was often preferable for the person to solve it themselves: agency was a powerful tool for them to learn; a useful gift for me to give.

People can get used to the way they are heard though, I think. They may expect interruptions, so not getting them may convey the message that the listener either isn’t paying enough attention, or that the conversation is simply not important enough to interrupt. I suspect that lately I may have fallen into bad habits with some of my friends; they have never consulted me in any professional capacity; they expect the give-and-take of old-men’s bravado.

But there is a fine line between actively listening to somebody (hearing both the content and the feeling underlying the content -which may be the real thing being expressed), and interrupting with personal advice and interpretation -as if they don’t really have to explain things any further[i].

There is always complaining when the guys meet each Wednesday morning for coffee in the Food Court. Usually it is about the tasks their wives have assigned them around the house now that they aren’t at work all the time. But on a good day, it will be about discovering that some of the tools they had collected for their retirement years are either missing or so old, they don’t work anymore; or that the clothes they’d bought on vacation, then put in the closet years ago, no longer fit. Stuff like that. Stuff demanding frequent guffawing or interjections: guy talk.

Geo was different, though; he never mentioned his wife, Delores, or complained about her. Quiet and thoughtful, he would listen to the others with a smile or a carefully timed nod, but he didn’t seem to understand the rules of elder-banter as well as the rest of us. He appeared to judge each complaint as if it deserved thoughtful consideration, and mindful reflection; I’d never heard him complain. He was likely in his late seventies like the rest of us, but he hadn’t let his appearance suggest that he was anyway near retirement age. Each Wednesday he would show up in a clean white shirt, red tie, and grey flannel slacks. Depending on the weather he would also be wearing a sports jacket, covered, occasionally, with an overcoat. He took a lot of kidding for that, but he would just smile and brush his wavy silver hair off his forehead with his hand. He was a professor of something or other at the university, but identities like that were wasted in a Food Court on Wednesday mornings.

One day, though, when the weather outside was stormy, he was the only person I saw at the table as I walked over to it with my coffee and bagel.

“You made it, Geo,” I said unnecessarily, as I sat down.”

He smiled and shrugged. “It’s Wednesday, isn’t it?” I think he’d blocked off Wednesday mornings on his calendar, and like all of his departmental meetings at the university, felt an obligation to attend. But he remained silent, as I fiddled with my coffee and bagel. He seemed distracted, worried.

I tried not to stare, but when he remained silent, I felt I should say something. “You okay?” I asked -even though I once was very good at listening to a silence.

He raised his eyes and sent them on a reconnaissance mission to my face for a moment, and then sighed. “Thank you for asking, G… I’ve got an important decision to make at a meeting this afternoon,” he said almost apologetically, and then lapsed into silence again.

I threw my eyes at him in the classic questioning mode, and he chuckled.

“It’s about my identity,” he said, and shook his head slowly.

I raised my eyebrows at that, but hesitated to say anything; he looked so serious, I thought he needed to proceed at his own pace. And yet the silence became unbearable after a minute or two, so I smiled. “Your identity…?” Nothing more, just a recapitulation of his words.

He nodded and had a slow sip of his coffee; his doughnut lay undisturbed on his plate. “Retirement…” he said, softly, as if he’d answered the question -and I suppose, in fact, he had. “I’ve been a professor for over 40 years…” He took another sip of his coffee and then attempted a contemplative nibble of his doughnut.

I waited for him to continue; it was painful for him, I could tell.

“I’m beginning to forget things now, and although Delores thinks it’s just stress, I’m not so sure…” He sat back on his chair for a moment. “Little things, like a word I should know, or a phone number I’ve just looked up…”

I’ve experienced things like that, as well, but I didn’t think he’d be particularly interested, so I sipped my coffee and then had a bit of my bagel to soften the silence between us -make him less uncomfortable while he was deciding if and what to tell me.

He sighed and sat forward to sip his coffee again. “The university will offer me emeritus status, of course -they’ve been very understanding.” He thought about that for a bit. “It’s not as if I would have to give up writing papers… And they’ve offered me the opportunity to teach the occasional class each month.” He put his coffee back on the table. “But…”

I waited until he glanced at me. “But…?” I felt I should respond to the question in his eyes.

He chuckled softly. “But…is it just a token consolation prize they’re offering me?” He sighed again. “I’ve taught at the university for so many years now, I’m almost a fixture, a sine qua non for the department. The place would probably seem empty without me… Or is that simply a conceit of mine? Is it actually just the opposite…?”

I had another sip of my coffee and finished off half my bagel as he stared silently around the room. Then I thought of something. “Didn’t you tell me once that they’ve named one of the lecture theatres after you?”

His face brightened, and his eyes actually twinkled at the thought. He nodded and a smile crept slowly onto his face. “I’d forgotten about that, G,” he said.

“So then, no matter what, doesn’t that mean you won’t be forgotten -that you’ll always be there, retirement, or no?”

His smile expanded, and almost bisected his face as he nodded in agreement. “I suppose my identity is fairly well moored, there, eh?” he said, and then attacked his doughnut with a delight I don’t remember ever seeing him exhibit before.


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