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Phantom Thread

(This post is dedicated to Mark Conroy, Nan Johnson, and Chris Zacher, English Department colleagues who died this summer shortly after their retirements. Dear friends, each of them, they were in no way alike except in their wicked sense of humor.)


It is a truth universally acknowledged that every person who is married to someone with a pension of at least $50,000 a year will attempt to murder their spouse. In Phantom Thread, a movie which is basically Quentin Tarantino with omelettes, the method is poisoned mushrooms. In my case, it is lightbulbs.

Cutts End Light

The first thing you see when you walk into our house in Columbus is an old light fixture from England, which used to hang outside the fake manor house built by Arthur Clough-Ellis which my father spent far too much money on in 1963, and which I adored. It was called Cutts End. Because the light fixture is, like me, British and at least 56 years old, it tends to be temperamental. If, again like me, you tend to freeze up in hardware stores, you may return from the ACE Hardware place with the wrong kind of lightbulbs. In this case they were 53W halogens, which I thought wrongly was safe to put in a socket that accepted up to 60 Watts. The lightbulb promptly exploded, sending shards of glass in an arc familiar to forensic scientists as a splatter pattern (see my aunt's fabulous new memoir of her life as a forensic scientist, When The Dogs Don't Bark). And here's where my wife set me up brilliantly.


After sweeping up the broken glass, and finding a lower-wattage bulb, the question was whether the fixture was still live. I was fairly certain that the downstairs switch was off, but it was a two-way switch, with another switch upstairs. So I asked Janette to check the switch upstairs. "What two-way switch?" she said innocently. "I didn't know we had any lights like that." I explained patiently that every hallway light in the house was a two-way switch. "It doesn't seem to do anything," she said, moving the switch up and down. And there I was, on a rickety stepladder, screwing a lightbulb into a live 60-year-old electric socket, with a beneficiary plan that gave the entirety of my pension over to my spouse in the event of my death, to be paid monthly until she herself got on the rickety stepladder of death and departed this mortal earth.


The Rickety Stepladder of Death

Stephen Kuusisto has sagely observed that we always climb on the rickety stepladder to change the lightbulb, even though we know we really should buy a new one. We bargain with death every day. Nearly every morning I put my finger in the coffee grinder to flick out the grounds that have stuck to the bottom, even though I know I shouldn't without unplugging it first. Time and again I have wrestled with a CD case while driving, attempting to snap the broken plastic hinges together in a futile attempt to return the obsolete medium to its ideal state, or swerved into another lane trying to open a packet of trail mix that has been so well sealed it requires scissors or teeth. Every week I get a notice about a VW Recall that could save my life or the life of a loved one, but throw the notice away. To drive to the VW Dealership, to unplug the coffee grinder, to buy a new stepladder would be an admission of defeat.


But what if there's a bolt missing on the rickety stepladder? What if the State Teachers Retirement System, knowing that in giving a defined benefit pension to a 58-year-old man and his young wife they are facing a serious downside, has been setting traps for me? Could the STRS have been arranging the lightbulbs at the hardware store to make me buy the wrong wattage? Do they send Ukrainian hatchet men to cut the brakes on the Volvos of retired professors? At my first meeting with the STRS, the ominously named "Retirement Countdown," I noticed that people who retire early have a slightly lower average lifespan. Could that be actually a design feature rather than a bug in the system?


I suppose I should come clean. The State Teachers Retirement System in Ohio is one of an increasingly rare number of pension plans in the country. It calculates your pension (a defined amount every year) based on an average of your top five salary years (Final Average Salary, or FAS). In my case, because of some time as an Associate Dean, my five years of plenty were well in the past. This in fact provided a negative incentive to keep teaching, since I knew I would never be able to increase my FAS. So much so that I gave up salary increases, telling the Chair and the Dean that the money was better spent on other people in the salary pool. Retiring on more than your final salary is a neat trick, and serves as a modicum of revenge on a department who watched in fascinated horror as I spiraled out of a burning plane in my first year as Chair. (Dick Davis, Chair of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, had it right: "Never be Chair, Sebastian," he told me, looking deeply and earnestly into my eyes. Smart man.)


So the STRS pension system gives you a percentage of your FAS (that percentage, adding to the riot of acronyms, is called an SLA). But not so fast. First, it establishes a set of ethical puzzles disguised as benefit options. How much do you love your spouse? Hardly at all? In which case, you choose option A, where you receive 100% of your SLA (Single Life Annuity), and nothing goes to your spouse on your death. This is clearly the way to go if you want your spouse to have an incentive to keep you alive. Or do you love her infinitely? In which case, you choose option B, where you receive 92% of that new figure, and that same 92% goes to your spouse until her death. This is clearly the way to go if you want to give your spouse a clear incentive to murder you. And then there's an even more diabolical option: option B with Reversion. This, though they would never admit it in the beautiful glass building downtown, is for finite love. In this scenario, you get 90% of your pension, and so does your spouse, but it reverts to 100% if your spouse dies before you. This is the textbook definition of hedging your bets - like putting a small amount of money on a column in roulette. Good grief. What am I going to do with the extra money when Janette is gone? Buy flowers for her grave?


I chose option B without Reversion, which I realized after the fact gives my spouse, whom I love infinitely, a license to kill. Just a month ago, when I was driving a white cargo van back from Bloomington, she asked me to pull over on the interstate in the middle of the night so I could text her some information on a new piano student - who does that? The fact is, we're both too young for this retirement lark. I get on the retirement planner website at Fidelity and I see a picture of a retired couple that doesn't in any way look like me.



It's as if Judi Dench went on a blind date with the guy from the Cialis ad. All the breaching whales and touch-football playing executives on TV don't speak my language. I'm going to have to do this my own way.


The Ohio Pension Plan is asking you to think about the ethics of money. In the US, we are not trained to think of money in this way, though we should be. Death is the phantom thread that binds character, the filament that links us to the past. At my father's grave on Harvard Hill in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, my three nieces gathered to pay their respects to Jeremy Knowles.


Saskia, Izzy, and Hanna at Jeremy's Grave

It's a lovely picture of the three of them. But as their father (my brother Tim) pointed out, there's a fourth presence in the photograph. Glancing diagonally from the top left, there is a beam of light. It's their grandfather, a phantom thread winging its way down to earth.





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©2019 by Sebastian Knowles