So This Is What A Whimper Sounds Like

“This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.” –T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

The world that’s ending is my career. Given how obsessed I’ve been with it over the last 40 years, it’s somewhat disquieting that I am letting it go so easily. But the time has come. I’ve been a professional writer for 40 years, if you count back to my first paid byline while I was still in college (I profiled the technical adviser for Jaws, who worked at Stanford).

I think four decades is enough for any sane person. All the highs and lows it encompassed still seem so vivid, so important, even as they become less important.

My friends have always joshed me about my career, and how charmed it often seemed:

  • I got my first job after graduation without an interview or even a resume; I had a chance meeting in Seattle’s University District with an editor who’d bought the Jaws profile, who was hiring for a new magazine he was starting.
  • One time a boss called and pleaded with me: “I know you’ve been traveling a lot recently, but would you mind going to Palm Springs this December?”
  • I started out as a travel editor, and knew nothing about technology. But when I was hired by a corporate publishing start-up, our only clients were technology firms. I lucked into the most lucrative gig possible for a writer in Silicon Valley: explaining computers.
  • There was the insane rollercoaster month in which, in short sequence, we bought our first house; the magazine I worked for closed down; and I received a job offer at a higher salary the following weekend. (My wife never worried when I lost my job after that.)
  • After the web went bust at the turn of the century, and I was surviving on unemployment checks and writing articles for 10 cents per word, I heard that a former colleague was looking for writers. She started assigning me features at a considerably higher per-word rate, reminding me that I was the one who’d recommended her for the position.

My career always had an underpinning not so much of ambition but of dissatisfaction. I always wanted something better. Whenever I was told that I didn’t get a job because I lacked a particular kind of experience, I went out and got it – news writing, product reviews, whatever was necessary. I worked a lot of places, got fired and laid off a lot, but got some nice promotions too. When I started freelancing in 2002, man, I was prepared.

I was not prepared, however, for what’s been transpiring recently. Simply put, work has become work. It doesn’t feel charmed anymore. The web has long been pushing fees down in a lot of markets; the technology market, where I’ve been working, was immune for a long time, but that’s changing. Two of the companies I work with most are for sale, and I doubt their new ownership is going to pay as well; one division has already cut its rates by 10%.

There were other issues. As Danny Glover sighed in one of the Lethal Weapon movies, “I’m getting too old for this [expletive deleted].” Much of my work comes through agencies, though I frequently work directly with their clients. I’d already been blackballed recently by one agency’s client after a call where I thought I was being assertive and they thought I was being obnoxious; I didn’t want that to be my legacy.

Around the same time, I was working with another agency’s client in the marketing department at the world’s most famous database company. The client was insisting that I use a phrase in a headline for a business-oriented white paper (this kind of behavior always made we wonder, if you know what you want written, why have you hired a writer?). But as it happened, the phrase actually had a technical connotation that would not resonate with the business audience we were trying to reach. Treading diplomatically because of the recent blackballing incident, I reminded her of this connotation. She replied that ten people had been in the meeting where they’d approved that phrase. Fortunately, the only technical person on the call sided with me.

The question looms: am I getting too old, or are the clients getting too stupid?

Even more discouraging, I started the year hunting for new business, something I’d never had to do before, and found I was talking into a dead phone. It became clear very quickly that 2016 was not going to be a banner year, income-wise, and I always said that when that happened, it was time to move on. My wife had already retired earlier this year, and although I insisted I wasn’t jealous, it turned out that I really was. It required the very best of my math skills, but I finally calculated that yes, we had put enough aside to enjoy a comfortable (though not extravagant) retirement.

And so, with few regrets, I’m letting my passion, my obsession, my focus for forty years slip away. I’m not sure what I will do with the shelves of magazines I have: the evidence of old work that I kept in order to get new work. Now there will never be new work. (Though there will be the occasional blog, and maybe even some fiction.)

I was lucky enough to be a writer in a place and a time where it was necessary (and lucrative) to have someone explain what these new machines called computers could do. I soon realized up that it was like walking into the middle of a movie: if you sit down, shut up, and pay attention, you’ll soon figure out what’s going on.

The problem is, I’ve grown too dissatisfied to deal with what’s displaying on the screen now. It’s time to take my memories – some of them distasteful, but most of them delightful – and quietly walk away.




About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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12 Responses to So This Is What A Whimper Sounds Like

  1. Amy Lipton says:

    u r going to write a book, yes?!?!


  2. Señora Costell :-) says:

    A poignant time for you, dear Howard. As I was your teacher when you were in Grade 9 and I still sub and tutor, I’m predicting that you’ll still write. You’d better. The world needs articulate communicators and thinkers such as you to save younger folks from drowning in a sea of like, whatever.

    My sons, whom you used to babysit, are currently visiting from Portland and Texas. One has gray hair and the other has no hair. Tempus fugit. Please stay limber, lithe, and dissatisfied. I’ll do the same. Ah — congratulations on taking this daring step toward retirement. May you and Monica enjoy long, languorous far niente.

    • Thanks, Cindy (and yes, even 50 years later it feels weird calling a teacher by her first name). I will certainly continue to write and be cranky … although as life becomes more stressful, the crankiness may dissipate somewhat.

  3. says:

    What will you be now? Old Cranky

  4. Heidi Munzinger says:

    Welcome to the wonderful world of early retirement…now you can enjoy being busier than ever!

  5. Laura Van Hook says:

    All the best to you Howard in your new, less stressful life! I agree with Señora Costell’s prediction that you will continue to write and possibly find that a very enjoyable part time position will come your way when you least expect it. I’m waiting for that situation to happen for me too! I reached a point where I was no longer happy teaching graphics classes. Losing that stress was a really good thing for me! Now, after a couple years off except for the occasional project for friends and family, I just may start searching for something fun and new for a few more years! Enjoy your free time!
    Also, hello to Señora Costell (if you happen to see this)! I have so many fun memories from German classes at Terman with you as our fearless leader!
    Laura (Buss) Van Hook

  6. Dick Brown says:

    Congrats Howard on making the plunge into this early retirement thing. Trust me, you’ll love it! And you will certainly find new and fun ways to use your incredible writing talent. Cheers to you and Monica!!

  7. Barb Sleeper says:

    Hi, Howard. Congratulations on retiring after a fun and fact-filled 40-year writing career. High Five. You survived!!

    However, despite what you say about breaking your pencil, writers never stop writing. It’s something you can do, are often driven to do, right up until you croak. I hope you never stop sculpting with words cuz you are so good at it.

    A toast to your happy, healthy retirement. 🍷🍷
    Barb Sleeper

  8. Mary says:

    I’ve certainly enjoyed your work and I’m just sorry I was late to your party.

  9. Geoffrey Creighton says:

    Wow, Howard – congratulations! You’ve aptly conveyed, among other things, how different it must be to retire from a freelance career (that moves forward only to the extent you push it) as compared to leaving behind a career where the momentum comes largely from some vast machine that you and other employees are merely helping to push forward.

    Your decision, I think, required more nuance: Quitting an ordinary job is binary – you flip the “off” switch (or have it flipped for you, sometimes) and you’re done. As your own employer, by contrast, you could have negotiated some half-assed semi-retirement that would have left you half-stranded in both worlds. Kudos to you for having the resolve to do it right!


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