The countdown has begun. After two years of noodling the idea of “early retirement” around in theory; after an entire year of attempts by my very practical friend Judy to talk me out of it; after a stretch of several days around the Christmas holidays when I actually got to wake up when it was daylight instead of the bleak darkness of 5:15 a.m. and realize that it felt so normal and healthy…
In less than half a year I will step out of my role of nearly two decades as a state prosecuting attorney—my second career, the first was journalism—and into a another brand new slice of life. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about it! Remember that scene from the 1991 movie “Point Break,” where Keanu Reeves, playing an FBI agent who has infiltrated a gang of bank robbers who are also surfing buddies, jumps out of an airplane without a parachute? (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the movie, he’s still alive at the end of it.) I love that movie, but that adrenaline-filled scene of ultimate uncertainty kept playing over and over in my head for the first couple of weeks after I first told my boss that I planned to leave the job which, just a year before, I had described to him as “my part-time retirement job.” You know, that part-time job retirees are urged to look for by countless advice columnists because they say it’s good to have a routine that gets you out the door and meeting people on a regular basis.
Yes, just a year earlier I’d donned my usual rose-colored glasses, looked at the glass as half-full, and proclaimed far and wide that the half-time job that I had been in for seventeen years fit the bill perfectly, particularly since it came with health insurance. These days that’s the functional equivalent of having captured a unicorn in my back yard, and keeping him around with jam sandwiches and tea.
And then two things happened. I got another grandchild. And I got healthier.
The “new grandchild” thing was a no brainer. Of course I want to spend more time with my “and-Eleanor-makes-three” grandchildren who range from brand new to nearly five years old. The closest one lives forty miles away, while the other two are a clean hundred miles from my front door. Getting together takes planning, and foresight, and if it’s an overnight stay, a reservation at the kennel for the dog. Try as hard as I might, I’ve never managed to squeeze more than 24 hours out of a single day!
The “got healthier” was a more nuanced revelation. Over the past decade, my attempts to stay healthy by cramming some regular exercise into a busy, busy life have seemed to be a case of “one step up, two steps back.” In addition to several years of responding to serial family emergencies far from home, there were physical setbacks of my own, one after another. A couple of surgical procedures. A painful knee injury that cut back on even walking much for months. (And Lucky was not happy with that development!) Fibromyalgia. Severe GI trouble that lasted several years. Back trouble related to an old accident. Plantar fasciitis that flared up with a vengeance. Ever mindful of how much “image” can project strength or weakness, I refused to concede to the pain and mastered the art of subtly balancing my weight on one foot in spike heels when I was in court.
And then, little by little, over the past year things started working again like they were supposed to. I started to feel as though, after too long a time, I was finally beginning to function on all four cylinders. Or, at my age, perhaps the eight cylinders in the V-8 engine of my old Chevy! At any rate, in flash of insight, I felt as though I was approaching a tipping point, a window of opportunity that would not always be there, for cutting back on stress and focusing more on getting into better shape and working on keeping it.
And so I finally took the plunge and told my boss that I planned to retire later in the year. Once he got over his initial shock, we had a great conversation about life and health priorities and seizing the moment. I knew that the health focus would resonate with him. Before he (1) became a father and then (2) stepped into the top spot in the office, he had spent many a lunch hour lifting weights at the nearby YMCA with another attorney in the office. I once had the occasion to grab him by the upper arm for some unremembered reason, and noticed that his bicep felt a lot like a branch of an oak tree. Yes, he got the “I want to spend more time working on keeping my health” thing immediately. And if either of us needed any more of a nudge from the universe that this was absolutely the right choice for me, we got word the same day that another attorney who had stayed in the job longer and been quite sedentary as a result, was going in for open-heart surgery within days.
And so. I have lot of plans for what to do with my time once my time is more my own. There are walks in the woods with Lucky that beckon; strolls on the beach; photos to shoot; books to write; friends to visit; grandchildren to cuddle and read bedtime stories to; a gym membership to restart. And I’d like to learn to paint.
I will miss this job tremendously, for so many reasons. Changing career horses in mid-stream at the age of forty and going to law school (with four kids still at home) was a terrifying leap of faith at the time. It was also the first time I’d just plain announced “I need to do this for me” and followed through. The journey has been nothing short of thrilling in places.
In law school, I had to confront my fear of public speaking, learn to think analytically, compete with overachieving fellow students who were young enough to be my children. On the job I’ve learned to juggle tasks and priorities like I’ve never juggled before. I have literally handled speeding tickets and a state Supreme Court oral argument in the same week. On several occasions! Representing the interests of the people of Wisconsin in criminal court to hold people who break the law accountable has been an honor and a privilege. Here’s a link to an essay I wrote years ago, “Law & Disorder”, about just why I have loved this job.
Even the building itself has been a factor that lifted my spirits and challenged my imagination. Built during the Great Depression as a WPA project, the courthouse is an Art Deco gem, lined with polished pink Georgia marble and festooned with ornate wall fixtures. I have walked many miles during inclement weather on my lunch breaks in the locked top floor of the building, which once housed a jail and is now used for storage. And solving the mystery of what had become of a legendary mural that had disappeared from the Courthouse decades earlier became a grand adventure!
The job has also been a significant anchor for me as well. No matter what storms swirled around me in all that time–a faltering marriage; children with medical needs; the trauma of putting my horses to sleep one year apart after thirty three years together; countless emergencies involving elderly parents and relatives; the divorce; dating and heartaches; the death of my father and my godmother–I knew that come Monday afternoon, I would be hitting my marks in the intake branch of the criminal courts. And at least in that space, the rules and the roles of the participants were plain and simple, and I had total certainty about what I was doing and why. For at least a few hours. And then again the following week.
But now it is time for me to take another new direction. I still haven’t decided on what I’m going to do immediately after I leave the office for the last time, to formally mark the occasion. I may convene some friends and go to a Denny’s Restaurant to spend that first Monday morning happily anticipating the arrival of an omelet instead of sifting through my closet for the right combination of spike heels, jewelry and a blazer to convey that “iron fist in a velvet glove” vibe I strive for, or scrambling to get up to speed on any variety of bail motions and sentencing arguments and suppression hearings. Or, I may take a long-overdue trip to Slovenia to visit my brother and his family, and see a part of Europe I’ve only read about until now. Those are the two main contenders, but I’m sure others will present themselves!
All I know is, the future is wide open. And the adventure continues.