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September 21st, 2018

Life

When Paul Simon, Daniel Day-Lewis and Elton John say 'farewell' to work they love, should we too?

Mary Schmich

By Mary Schmich

Published Feb. 1, 2018

When Paul Simon, Daniel Day-Lewis and Elton John say 'farewell' to work they love, should we too?

Who was the first musician or musical group you ever saw in concert?

My answer is Simon & Garfunkel.

I was 13 when I saw the two of them together -- it was impossible in the late 1960s to imagine Paul Simon without Art Garfunkel -- and the thrill of it has stuck with me for all the years since.

I can still see Garfunkel in a pool of light down on the stage, leaning into the microphone, with his soaring voice and poof of blond curls. I can see Simon stopping abruptly -- in the middle of "Homeward Bound," if memory serves -- glaring at the audience and announcing that if one more flashbulb popped, he'd walk out.

The cameras quieted down, and the guys sang on. It doesn't seem so long ago.

It was, however, a while ago, and now, according to news reports Tuesday, Simon, who's 76, is scheduled to do what's being billed as a "farewell performance" this summer in London. While it remains murky whether farewell really means never again anywhere, several stories describe him as pondering the existential nature of retirement back in 2016.

"It's an act of courage to let go," he's quoted as telling The New York Times. "I am going to see what happens if I let go. Then I'm going to see, who am I? Or am I just this person that was defined by what I did? And if that's gone, if you have to make up yourself, who are you?"

These are questions that confront many people eventually, even if the average person's reckoning with them doesn't make news and the average person lacks the money to choose as freely as celebrities like Paul Simon can.

For some people, the famous as well as the down-to-earth, letting go of a work identity isn't a choice. They're forced into the decision, by illness, family strain, the company squeeze.

The singer Neil Diamond, 77, recently cut short his 50th anniversary tour and announced regretfully that, because he has Parkinson's disease, he's done touring.

Other people have the luxury of choosing to walk away.

The singer Elton John, 70, citing a desire to spend more time with his kids, recently announced his goodbye tour (a three-year, 300-city extravaganza that will make goodbye a very long word).

In recent years, the writer Philip Roth, 84, has sworn off writing and public appearances, though his thoughts still pop up in print here and there.

"I was not going to get any better," he said in a 2014 BBC interview. "And why get worse? And so ... I set out upon the great task of doing nothing."

The actor Daniel Day-Lewis, 60, who's currently starring in "The Phantom Thread," issued a statement last summer to say he's done with movies.

"All my life, I've mouthed off about how I should stop acting," he told W Magazine, "and I don't know why it was different this time, but the impulse to quit took root in me, and that became a compulsion. It was something I had to do."

All the celebrities I've mentioned have had the privilege of being able to do the work they love beyond the age that many people are allowed to do good work for decent pay.

Still, when they talk about leaving their jobs, they don't sound much different from the not famous.

Many people I know have mouthed off at some point about how they should stop doing the work they do and do something else. This includes people of all ages, many who love their work and are good at it.

A number of people I've met have thought about embarking, in Roth's words, on "the great task of doing nothing" and for the same reason -- they weren't getting any better at what they did and were afraid of getting worse.

Since the announcement of Simon's "farewell" show in London, some news outlets have pointed out that he did a farewell tour with Garfunkel in 1993 and that maybe "farewell" isn't really goodbye.

But the questions he poses are worth considering anyway:

What would happen if you let go of the work that defined you? If you had to make yourself up again, who would you be?

Previously:


01/25/17: At Oscars time, let's snub the snubbing
12/28/17: The real 2017 word of the year
12/20/17: The laundry-folding robots are coming
12/13/17: How not to waste the last days of 2017


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