Watching your lives pass before you

Justine_and_her_persona This time last week I went to a retirement party for a woman leaving the New York education system.  It was a big joyous event. 

This was predictable.  Justine, the retiree, is a one of the most animated people  in the universe.  No, I think it’s probably true that one of the animating forces in the universe.  That’s her, second from the left.

Most of the affair following the usual "text" that our culture supplies for an event of this kind.  There were drinks, toasts, speeches, remembrances, tears, laughter, good wishes, promises never to forget, "goodbye" played out over 3 hours.  Pretty standard package…except of course for the animation.  This was Justine standard. 

One thing was different.  Towards the end of the evening, Justine’s colleagues from school put on a fashion show.  That’s them in the photo.  I didn’t get what was happening at first but finally it became clear that what the "models" were playing out the stylistic changes that Justine had gone through over her career.  The fashion show was a transformational review.

Retirement parties are usually classic rites of passage.  Normally, they transport us from one status (working) into another (retirement).  It is a Van Gennepian event.  We are looking at a cultural reengineering as the ritual occasion is used to erase one set of social markers and cultural meanings and insert/apply/impose another.  But Justine’s event represents a new kind of ritual (anthropologically interesting all on its own) to a new social and cultural purpose.  Justine is not merely being moved from work to retirement, she is being reminded of a larger transformational cycle even as she was primed for a transformational opening. 

When you ask Justine what she is going to do next, there is no talk of a tending gardens and winding down.  No, it’s clear that Justine plans to take retirement by storm, as she did teaching.  And to some extent this is Justine.  But I think if we asked most people on the verge of retirement there would be relatively little talk of winding down and a good deal more talk of opening up.  (And this makes Justine quite a lot like the 70 year old man I interviewed in Beijing a couple of years ago.  See post below.)

No one goes quietly anymore.  No one winds down until the very last.  If once the life course was a little like MetroNorth commuter line.  With well marked stops and schedules.  Now, it’s really hard to know what’s next.  Even Justine doesn’t know.  The transformational cycle has lots more churn and vastly more indeterminacy. 


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  China II: Americans of Asia.  This Blog Sits At the …  here

Last note:

I am headed to SF for a week.  I promise to get back to the rationality theme when I settle in. 

1 thought on “Watching your lives pass before you

  1. Peter

    A client of mine once shifted divisions within a large corporation, and her old colleagues gave her an interesting surprise farewell gift. A week or so before she left, they (secretly) took a full-length photo of her, blew it up to life-size, cut it out, had it mounted onto cardboard, and then added another, transverse piece of cardboard to the base, so that the object would be self-standing. They then took this object to all the lady’s usual working-day locations (a telesales office, a retail outlet, a client meeting, her regular coffee shop, etc), and made a video of her friends and associates at each location telling the object, standing in the lady herself, how much they would miss her, etc. The video, along with accompanying, life-size, self-standing, cardboard-mounted, cutout photograph, was a very nice farewell gift.

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