To Be? That is the Question

An article about elk advocates – no, strike that, “elf advocates” – gives me a whole new way to think about who I am.


Elf advocates have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project building a direct route from the Alftanes peninsula, where the president has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer. They fear disturbing elf habitat and claim the area is particularly important because it contains an elf church. Jenna Gottlieb, Associated Press, Vancouver Sun, 23 Dec 2013

Skimming the article onscreen, I misread the first word as ‘elk’ — a natural mistake for a born-and-bred Western Canadian, especially in context. I see the second ‘elf’ but think it’s a typo. It’s only when I get to ‘elf church’ that I realize there is no accommodating ‘elks’ in this article: it really is about elves.

Elves aside — and you don’t get to say that every day — what catches my attention as an editor is the lack of any special treatment for ‘elf advocates’ in the text. There are no quotation marks by which the author might seek to distance herself from the notion of elves. There is no ‘Nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ tone to the communication at all. No, this is straightforward reporting. Elf advocates have allied themselves with environmentalists over concerns about elf habitat, just as local teachers might have done over concerns about, umm, student habitat.

My interest, though, is more personal than professional. I wonder what qualifications one needs to be an elf advocate.  Are there educational requirements? An arduous professional certification combining on-the-job training and standardized exams? I am also just a little aggrieved. Why am I only hearing about this occupation now, as I close-in on retirement age?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

This is a common question for children who are old enough to understand that they will not always be as they are now, yet young enough to be untroubled by practical considerations. And so kindergarten classes are full of future cowboys, ballerinas, astronauts, movie stars, magicians, and lion tamers, and not so many actuaries, editors, store clerks, and administrative assistants.

I still haven’t decided what I want to be when I grow up.

This is a common enough joke among the middle-aged, who are old enough to understand that they have grown, yet young enough to hope for more ‘up.’ An ‘up’ that means that their past does not define their future, that they can still change in substantive and surprising ways.

What do you want to be when you retire?

This is not a common question. I hang out with a lot with retirees and I have never heard it asked. As a closer-inner I get questions about retirement, of course, but they’re focused on where I will live and what I will do.

Do I plan to move closer to offspring? Not yet. Somewhere warmer? Getting warmer. What are my travel plans? Long answer here. What activities will I pursue? Longer answer here.

But no one has ever asked me what I want to be when I’m retired, nor would I know exactly how to answer such a question were it to be asked.

I can’t say ‘retiree.’ Undeniably accurate, it’s also completely unhelpful, and I have had more than enough of that in twenty-plus years of proposal work. No, I need something more responsive.

But I can’t go fully responsive and say ‘a traveller, writer, photographer, ESL or maybe literacy volunteer, gardener, maker of homemade soups, crossword puzzler (heavy on the puzzled), and grandmother.’ I’ve always had a tidy answer to hand: student, mother, student (yes, again), teacher, consultant, editor. Although these short snappers might not have captured the full chaos of my life (or maybe because they smoothed over that very chaos), they were nonetheless satisfactory in polite company.

I find that I can’t quite bring myself to say ‘writer’ or ‘photographer,’ either, even though I intend to do a fair bit of writing and photographing. Somehow, if money is not changing hands, I don’t feel I have a right to appropriate the corresponding occupational title.

But now, I’m thinking I may have an angle I can work.  Go ahead, ask.

What do you want to be when you retire?

An elf advocate.

Of course, I could just admit that I’ve finally grown up enough to realize that the ‘what’ matters less than the ‘how.’ That in retirement, when it comes, I want to be patient, exuberant, hopeful, generous, curious, playful, and fit.

No, I’m betting that ‘elf advocate’ will go over better, at least in polite company.

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6 Responses to To Be? That is the Question

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    People should “be” themselves. Along the lines of what you want to be when you retire.

    But then what does “retire” mean ? Can’t people be the same person both pre and post “retirement”?

    Too many obituaries spend time and space talking about what the person did during their “work period”. What about who they really were throughout their life.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim R – We can be the same people pre/post retirement if we don’t define ourselves by our work, as in “I am an editor.” It starts as shorthand, I think (although it’s not appreciably shorter than “I work as an editor”, so maybe not) and then reinforces a certain way of thinking of our selves and others’ selves. As for the obits, I’m with you – I love the ones that give a broader sense of the person than just their employment, occupation, or vocation.

  2. Derek Smith says:

    Great post Isabel! Many a truth wrapped inside the comical elf advocate proposition. Must confess, concept of dropping tools and retiring is about as far from my mind as I can make it despite the fact faced every birthday. Funny thing is, now that we’ve moved to an Golden BC in the heart of ski country, I am often the youngest person on the mountain on weekday mornings and I’m in the company of others who see retirement as THE time to define who they want to be. Great writing Isabel! Love your style.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Derek – Thanks kindly! Being the youngest anywhere would be a novelty for me – these days, almost no matter where I’m working, I’m the oldest one at the table. That’s after all those years of being the only woman in many meetings. Next, I’ll be the only elf advocate! Maybe I should get a t-shirt . . . Talk about your conversation starter! Anyway, I’m glad that folks are finding retirement a time of renewal and/or redefinition.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    I saw that same article, and set it aside to see if I could think of how to use it! You beat me to it. A small group of men (deliberately gender-limited) have been meeting here trying to figure out who we want to be. The process mostly involves examining how we got here, looking for patterns, and from that trying to extrapolate who we want to become. A gerontologist once told me, “As we grow older, we become more like what we’ve always been.” Probably true, but it’s possible to nudge the ship of life a little towards more promising directions.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Well, the ship may not need redirecting. That’s always a possibility. As for new patterns, Seligman has a lovely piece, which ends thusly: “Mind the pattern. A pattern of mistakes is a call to change your life. The rest of the tapestry is not determined by what has been woven before. The weaver herself, blessed with knowledge and freedom, can change – if not the material she must work with – the design of what comes next.”

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