My wife’s retirement has confirmed what my high school science teachers taught me, that nature really does abhor a vacuum. This particular vacuum involves a void within, brought on by the decreasing necessity for detailed, impactful planning. It’s a post-presidential development I should have been prepared for, but it caught me unaware. With Elaine’s having retired after twenty-four years as a college president, I anticipated both of us happily dividing up chunks of discretionary time. In my case, there’d be no daily reminder to attend this event or be present for that appointment. Without even sporadic semi-official obligations I had had, the day, for me, at least, would be like a roster filled with elective courses, not required ones. For example, I could free my inner competitor by simultaneously working on a crossword puzzle and inventing descriptive language encapsulating the follies of hometown sports teams on TV. In my own semi-retirement, I’d quickly become habituated to that blend of serene irritation.
But an assortment of vacuums that demand filling has emerged, and the process of dealing with them sometimes interrupts my self-indulgence. The alarm preceding them is unmistakable. From somewhere close, I hear the three words that never fail to blot everything else from my mind. The words are, “I’ve been thinking….”, and their tone determines my degree of apprehension.
To me, use of the words indicates beyond doubt that Elaine is filling a post-presidency planning vacuum. The focus, though, isn’t on some developing budget crisis or on a major staffing issue, resolutions of which would have university-wide, even state-wide ramifications. Almost always, it’s on something much less foreboding, like what day to visit the grandkids or which restaurant to go to with friends this Saturday night or plausible routes for a projected long drive West.
When I hear those words spoken decisively, some of my fear dissipates. The tone of assurance indicates that whatever the issue under scrutiny, a decision has been made. Details have been addressed and disposed of. For example, granddaughter Rosie has a soccer game this Saturday, so we’ll definitely visit next Saturday. Praise be, finality, at least on this subject, has been reached!
But when those words are spoken thoughtfully and hang uncertainly in the air, ice forms in my veins. The road to resolution is fogged in, obscuring which turn to take to arrive at the final destination. More exploration remains to be conducted.
For both of us, veteran composition teachers that we are, indecision is no stranger. We know many drafts are sometimes required before we’re satisfied with what we’ve produced. Plans, like good writing, can require multiple redrafts and, on occasion, probing discussions. As an aside, somehow, almost magically, the necessity for us to probe seems to assert itself just as I’m close to a breakthrough on that pesky #21 down on the crossword puzzle.
Now, you’d certainly be justified in wondering how complicated relatively straightforward planning like that preceding family visits can possibly be. For retired college presidents whose guiding principle has long been, “I plan; therefore, I am,” complication isn’t the issue. Incompleteness is the goad. I’s must be dotted and T’s must be crossed. How can we schedule a family visit when we aren’t sure what time the baby twins wake up from their naps?
During Elaine’s presidencies, I handled quotidian decisions, like when the lawn was to be mowed. Always the optimist, I reasoned that however negligent or forgetful I might have been, somehow things would get done anyway. Then, following retirement, plans under my supervision, plans that would have merited only passing attention from Elaine, were promoted to her sphere. To her credit, accustomed as she’s become to handling major decisions, she hasn’t become dismissive of less than earth-shaking ones.
And viewed realistically, some of these back-row attention demanders deserve exploration before a final decision is made. A projected long drive West during the winter shouldn’t be planned blithely assuming totally cooperative weather, admittedly my approach in the past. That venture requires Plan A, B, and C, which Elaine competently supplies. But multiple and deep assessments of menu offerings from local bistros?
I understand how the decision-making habit has become integral to my wife’s essential being. I remember almost affectionately the days when “I’ve been thinking…” drew from me curiosity and anticipation because of their cosmic importance. Since that time, however, if I’d known about a program that promised to de-toxify her of residual planfulness, I’d have signed her up for it.
Somehow, though, thinking through my message here ( redrafting, in other words), I have been shocked by an unexpected thought. I wonder if I have overlooked something of critical importance. What, perish the thought, would result from Elaine’s sudden renunciation of her visceral habit? What if I had to at least share decision-making protocols or, worse, undertake them solo? Of course, one positive result would involve my being spared time spent watching the lamentable awfulness of the Eagles and the Phillies. Another would be minimized provocations to question the parenthood of crossword puzzle makers who frustrate me.
Maybe, in our happy new existence, I should moderate my reveling in discretionary time and volunteer to be a link in the decision-making chain. I’m aware that’s a responsibility not to be assumed lightly. I’ll mull it over with Elaine. I’ll call her when she’s perusing restaurant menus and tell her I’ve been thinking.