Pauls’ Epistles

I begin sketching out a few notes in writing (hard-copy long-hand, of course) regarding some newly prioritized feelings confronting me after the multi-national corporation I work for “invites” me in writing (electronic screens, of course) to “take advantage of the fact that you are more than fully qualified to retire with applicable benefits.”

More than fully qualified” means that (a) I am a person of a certain age approaching forty years of company employment, and that (b) a certain level of management is wondering why I have yet to test my grip on the graying and fraying ripcord on my less-than-golden parachute.

Even though the notification/invitation comes over my manager’s name, I assume that someone else – someone in the (annoyingly named) “Human Resources” unit, someone with “Human” expense-control responsibilities –drafted the mostly benign boiler-plate text (strips of serviceable sentences ready to be pasted into digital templates). I ascribe no blame to my “boss” – have no negative feelings toward her. To the contrary, on company surveys I always award Page the highest available ratings as a “people manager.” She never treats me in any way to give me cause to complain or to wish that I had a “better” manager. At this stage of my career, I am grateful to have worked for the forty-something Ms. Turner for almost a full decade. (I have no significant complaints about any of my previous managers, but I will always consider her my favorite.)

I am ninety-nine percent sure that this “invitation” has been hibernating somewhere for more than a few business cycles, has been resting in a “smart” folder on some server to be accessed by someone’s lap-top, the text patiently awaiting the passing of a certain number of midnight moons until the appearance of a certain sunrise date logically pre-defined for triggering a civilized alarm to that someone: a someone with a name a couple of layers higher on the company’s tower-of-babble organization chart than Page’s name – a someone certainly younger than I and maybe even younger than Page, a someone whose name I won’t bother to try to look up, a someone who will no doubt dutifully monitor Page’s progress toward getting an older someone named Lee Bay (whoever he is), to accept the “invitation,” to accept the fact that he is an employee whose time has (more than) rolled ‘round at last.

Page calls me with a proposal: “If – and I emphasize the word if – you were planning to retire by year-end, it might be both personally enjoyable for you, and a benefit for the company, if you were to do one more overseas consulting engagement – almost like a rock-star farewell tour!

Her laughter is mostly natural and congenial, hinting only a little that it is rhetorically “forced.”

Translation: she is (a) telling me that there is a need for someone to represent our department for an upcoming internal business process audit in China, and (b) not-so-subtly fishing for an RSVP that she can report to Human Resources – namely, my written acceptance of that gracious HR “invitation.”

Mentally acknowledging that one of Page’s key diplomatic skills is her ability to assign a project to a department member in such a way as to make it seem like he or she requested it as a favor, I use my own congenial voice to convey my reply: “Whether I retire this year or not, I could dig another gig in Beijing.” Even though I am not enthusiastic about being away from my wife for several days, I am thinking that – depending, partly at least, on how my attitude toward retirement might evolve – it would be nice to say farewell in person to some of my favorite Chinese comrades (most still in their twenties).

At the end of our phone call, Page is careful to re-enforce the theme of RSVP: “It’s a long ride from Boston to Beijing, so you will have plenty of time on the plane to think over what would be the best date for your official company departure – your defined ‘last work day.’ For planning purposes with me and HR, of course.” Her voice sounds credibly cordial, and I do not doubt her respectful sincerity.

“Certainly,” I say, with equal cordiality and sincerity. “Good planning takes time.”

Getting an early jump on my preparations for a long voyage through cold-air clouds to China, I start humming but soon convert that to singing – a private karaoke? – as I dislodge my most battered suitcase from the back of a cluttered closet.

First selection: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” (Paul McCartney)

Followed by: “How terribly strange to be seventy.” (Paul Simon)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1967 and Bookends was released in 1968. Paul M. was born in 1942 and Paul S. in 1941. I was born in 1948, so (doing the easy math in my hardened head) when Paul M. was thinking about being sixty-four, he was twenty-five and I was nineteen; when Paul S. was wondering about turning seventy, he was twenty-seven and I was twenty.

Last year my wife, Liv, reached sixty-four; and before the end of this current year, I will hit seventy. (Or seventy will hit me.)

As I dust off my ancient suitcase, I am remembering the first time – my God! a half-century ago! – I heard each of the two songs. At the time, what those musical masters were sharing with the world seemed aimed so far into the future that even though I quickly recognized the artistic brilliance of each song, other tracks – more present, less distant – on the two respective albums lodged themselves more firmly within the memory niches of my immature (softer) brain. “She’s Leaving Home” from the Beatles and “Mrs. Robinson” from Simon and Garfunkel ranked higher on my list back then; but now as I am assessing whether to swap a newer (smaller) suitcase for the older (larger) one before me, I admit that “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Old Friends” have recently become persistent earworms.

Lately in the shower or elsewhere (maybe wandering the supermarket aisles or standing in line at the post office), I find myself repetitively comparing and contrasting the two songs and their singers – how Paul M.’s voice chimes whimsically confident while Paul S. sounds somberly cautious. With regard to expressive mood, I mentally praise the way both vocals suit the lyrics and musical accompaniments of their songs. The Beatles make being sixty-four seem not-so-bad; Simon and Garfunkel make being seventy seem shocking.

Paul and Ringo and John and George and their backing instruments offer the regular rhythms of simple contentment: “Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?” And that is to say nothing of the more ambitious references to staying “out till quarter to three” (active guy!) or deciding to “rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight” during the summer, even if the song’s happy couple might need to “scrimp and save.” It is difficult for me to conclude that the answer to the singer’s jaunty question (“Will you still need me?”) could be anything but affirmative.

But a few years later . . . Sixty-four plus six equals . . .

Simon and Garfunkel etch in my brain an entirely different sound portrait. Rather than a summer “cottage in the Isle of Wight,” this couple – these two old friends – inhabit a park bench (“like bookends”). They are “winter companions . . . lost in their overcoats.”

The question posed in the delicate voices of this track reflect a stark reality about what the future might hold for Paul S. and Art G. – and for me and for other listeners: “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly?” There is no direct answer, only a chilling notation that is difficult for me today to shake out of my aging head – not exactly a birthday greeting: “How terribly strange to be seventy.”

The endings of the two songs reflect different directions: future and past. Paul M.’s protagonist makes another jaunty request to his partner: “Send me a postcard, drop me a line . . . .” He is planning for life in the future. But Paul S. warns: “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” Will present life be reduced to pondering the past? Will life now be only what I remember having already lived? Will Liv and I sit like “old friends” on a sofa paging through thousands of photographs on a smartphone?

As I shove my old (heavy) suitcase back into the closet, I wonder how terribly strange it is really going to be. I pull out a newer (lighter) one from Liv’s side of the closet and ask myself if it is too soon or too late to begin the challenge of age-appropriate memory preservation.

James Brewer has graduate degrees in creative writing (University of Oregon) and English literature (State University of New York at Binghamton). He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.