Some lawyers retire at age 62, 65 or 70. Others choose a “Downtown death,” where your secretary hears a thud, enters your office and finds you lifeless, face down on the desk, arms protectively extended over documents, having just completed, at age 100, the most important transaction of your career.
When I step down from my job 12 months from now, I will be 74; in China, 75, pursuant to Chinese natal calculations where you are deemed a year old at birth.
At my office, I have opened a new file, a manila folder marked “Future,” and on a legal pad I have taken to compiling a list of opportunities. These are placed under one of two headings: “Reality” or “Fantasy.”
Let me start with Fantasy:
• Rise late each morning. After a breakfast of orange juice, croissant and cappuccino, repair to Central Park to sit on a bench in the sun and listen to songbirds. “Birdsong provided intimation of the music of heaven” to the French composer, Olivier Messiaen, noted a New York Times obituary writer.
• Serve as United States consul in Venice. A namesake, the novelist William Dean Howells—no relation—did so. Howells was appointed consul by President Abraham Lincoln, having written a campaign biography for him. In my case, early on, I made the maximum contribution allowed an individual under the Federal Election Campaign Act to Barack Obama’s campaign for president. (Mercifully, the limit is $2,400.)
Venice and New York, both island cities, are the two cities I know best in the world. New York, population 8.4 million, 304.8 square miles, with 46 million annual visitors. Venice, population 60,000, 2.8 square miles, with 20 million annual visitors. I am one such visitor. A frequent one.
• Work as a crew member on a tugboat. I have a fondness for tugs. The joy of escorting cruise ships. The bracing sea air. My favorite Venice tugboats: Hippos, Maximus, Strenuus, Squalus.
• Serve as the Astronomer Royal of England. A holder of the position described his duties: “The Astronomer Royal’s duties are so exiguous that they could be performed posthumously.”
Vaporous responsibilities, extending beyond the holder’s lifetime, suggest the wisdom of moving on to opportunities under the heading Reality.
“I long to embrace; to include in my own short life,” Chekhov wrote, “all that is accessible to man. I long to speak, to read, to wield a hammer in a great factory, to keep watch at sea, to plow.”
In my 73 years, I have been a painter (creosoting cabins in Vermont), waiter, farmhand, camp counselor and lawyer. And also traveler, writer and teacher. It is in these three latter roles that my future in reality may lie.
• Traveler. Travel is a joy of life. Boswell wrote of Johnson that “He talked with uncommon animation of travelling into distant countries; that the mind was enlarged by it.”
I have been privileged to travel a great deal, but there are many places I have not seen: China, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Iran, Peru, Cuba, and in the United States, the south, the Pacific northwest, and Alaska.
And I want to travel far more within my own city. Thoreau “traveled a good deal in Concord,” but felt he could never come to know Concord completely. Though born, raised and practicing law here, I make no claim to knowing New York. In truth, my knowledge is limited to Manhattan Island, south from 98th Street to the Battery. There are many neighborhoods for me to explore in the five boroughs; subway lines as yet untraveled, to travel; the cuisines of 180 lands to sample.
• Writer. Or I could spend the days writing, perhaps laying out on a gymnasium floor my published essays, columns and travel journals, numbering in the hundreds, and selecting the best for a collection of essays.
I entertain no illusion as to this being a viable commercial proposition. Like Whitman, I would have to publish my own book; serve as its sole distributor; and, to promote interest, write my own laudatory reviews. Then there is the storage problem, unsold copies, especially acute when you live, as I do, in a small apartment. From Thoreau’s Journal: “I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.” Thoreau had an attic and cellar at his disposal. I have neither.
• Teacher. Or I might return to teaching. While at Columbia Law School, I taught sixth graders at St. Bernard’s School, the elementary school I had attended. Upon completing three years of law school and the bar exam, I was ready for an adventure. The headmaster of St. Bernard’s provided the opportunity, asking me to start a school in Puerto Rico.
Fajardo Academy opened with 21 students, both boys and girls, and three teachers. I taught grades four through eight in the same classroom—11 children—in all subjects but art and Spanish. I most enjoyed teaching history. I had no textbook, only my one volume “History of the United States,” by Henry Steele Commager. In the evening, I would prepare a lecture for delivery in class the next day. The students, even the little ones, dutifully took notes on our great national events.
I found teaching to be a thrilling experience. My students and I learned a lot together and laughed a lot together. On my return to New York, I seriously considered becoming a teacher. Now, after 47 years as a lawyer, a return to teaching would provide a certain symmetry to my life.
Perhaps I might teach in a school in India. I have strong emotional ties to India. India was my introduction to foreign travel when I accompanied my mother there one summer to live in New Delhi. She had been invited to teach a course on American foreign policy to Indian graduate students.
We lived in a house at number 5 Tughlaq Road, the first and only time I have lived in a house. I would travel to the city’s center by tonga—a horse-drawn carriage, and return by motorcycle, holding on for dear life to the Sikh driver. Over long weekends, we traveled around the country, including to Kashmir, living on a houseboat on Dall Lake, across from the Shalimar Gardens, in the Himalayas. Teaching in India would be an opportunity for me to work in an extraordinary land.
Perhaps I should do all three—teach, write and travel. (“A traveler,” Thoreau wrote, “is to be reverenced as such. His profession is the best symbol of our life. Going from _______ to _______; it is the history of every one of us.”)
I hope to make good use of the remaining 12 months at my job, and good use of the remaining years of my life.
William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service. email@example.com.