'I'm not dead yet'
Since I’ll soon be too old to work and UU will no longer need me, I have voluntarily started a labour detox: since September 1, I’ve been working one day less. Or rather, I’m trying to work one day less. Or, as my wife so delicately puts it, “another hopeless matter!” But humour me.
The idea is that I hand in a bit of my salary one day a week, keep building my pension and, on my day off, go do something fun that has nothing to do with my work as a professor. In UU’s HR terms, this is called the Vitality Pact Scheme. Of course, that name alone is already alarming. Who came up with that? At the same time, it forces you to face the facts: you’re getting old, so there’s something wrong with your vitality…
Meet the Professor 2.0
In the scope of this detox programme, I voluntarily signed up to go to the day-care centre as a "guest grandpa" and read a children's book to the class of my two three-year-old grandchildren. Last Monday, during Kinderboekenweek (Children’s Books Week), the day had come! A sort of "Meet the Professor 2.0", this time in Rotterdam.
I was supposed to read the book Rambamboelie, which is about a little dog. About twelve three-year-olds were sitting in a circle around me, staring at me in anticipation. I thought it would be a great idea to break the ice by first asking the children a few questions. So, I cheerfully asked: “Who here has a dog? Raise your hand if you do.”
A pertinent question, considering the subject of the book I was about to read. However, none of the toddlers raised their hands. So, I said: “Really? Doesn't anybody have a dog?” A dismayed little boy said: “We used to have a dog, but it died.” And then, all the other toddlers were eager to join in...
“My grandpa is dead and my mom’s dead too!” said a girl dressed in pink from head to toe, in a soft voice. “My grandpa and grandma have been dead for a very long time and my other grandpa is dead as well,” added a boy with big hazel eyes. And, of course, the next three-year-old young lady enthusiastically shouted: “I have two dead grandfathers and our guinea pig died too!” My grandson said: “Our cat is dead.” And then one of them lisped sobbingly and almost unintelligibly: “My grandmother is sick and she’s going to die…” That's when the first tears appeared! I looked around in bewilderment and heard myself say… “But luckily, I’m not dead yet!”
What was supposed to be a fun morning of reading had escalated into a flock of three-year-olds bidding on who had the most dead or dying grandpas, grandmas or pets in only two minutes…
To get the spirits up again, I started reading the book as light-heartedly as possible, telling them about the adventures of little dog Rambamboelie, whom I assumed would stay alive throughout the entire story. The funny thing is that, as I was reading the story, I kept thinking about that insane sentence of mine: “But luckily I’m not dead yet!” Especially the word "yet". It bothered me because it implies that it will be happening in the near future.
I experience ageing as something peculiar. For a very long time, let’s say 64 years, I wasn’t thinking about it at all. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that you could tell I was ageing. Suddenly I had deep wrinkles and creases in my face, thick veins on my hands, and my hair was grey and thinning. The word "granddad" came into my life: I got five grandchildren in five years and, suddenly, I was opening the envelopes from ABP, the retirement fund. More and more friends and colleagues started retiring. And some of them I subsequently saw at their funerals not so long after, where I was often asked "How long do you still have to work?" My answer: "I am still allowed to work for almost two years."
In order to work one day less, there are certain things I have to give up. That's the aspect my wife considers "hopeless." In consultation with my managers, I’ve decided to no longer teach math to first-year Earth Sciences students (a class of more than 160 students). I’d been doing that since 2005 and I really enjoyed it. To me, teaching a non-popular course to a large group of (first-year!) students is a challenge, especially making sure that they learn something that will help them throughout the rest of their studies and making sure they see that math isn’t annoying or incomprehensible.
I must confess that it was really difficult for me to hand over this course. This block was the first time I didn’t do it and I’m suddenly realising that teaching is quite volatile. All these years, it’s been part of my identity, it’s been my "thing." And now it’s gone, vanished from my life. It was something I found so enjoyable and useful but suddenly I had to stop doing it because... I'm getting (too) old!
Perhaps worth mentioning that, when I told foreign colleagues that I taught first-year students, I was often told: “Don’t you have anything better to do?” or “What a waste of time and talent, unbelievable!” At Earth Sciences, it’s completely normal for professors and associate professors to teach first-year classes. Luckily, the appreciation for teaching in the academic world and at UU has improved a lot over the past years. Not long ago, I heard the head of an HR department at UU use the word "chores" when promoting someone to associate professor. I asked him: “What do you actually mean by chores?” The answer was: "Teaching!"
I recently watched the beautiful documentary Somebody Up There Likes Me, which is about Ron Wood (75), the guitarist of the Rolling Stones and painter. I think he brilliantly summarised my sense of wonder about getting older: “When I think back, I'm like 'Okay, I wouldn't change anything, except I would do everything with my eyes a little bit more open…” and “I never got beyond 29 in my head. To be old is just so … Weird! I did not expect time to go by so fast. You almost feel cheated, really, as time goes by.” I had to rewatch these sentences a few times. I was moved and completely agreed with him!
Getting old indeed is a peculiar phenomenon which will continue to take some getting used to. As I already noticed at the end of my reading session with the toddlers, “luckily, I’m not dead yet!” And I actually think that’s a very reassuring thought…