Monday, September 12, 2011

Retirement for Dummies

"Retire - verb: to withdraw or remove oneself."

Life is passing me by and I couldn't be happier.  Well maybe.  I stopped working in mid-June.  You could say I've retired, but you never know what the future will bring.  Since June, I've spent time helping my son Adam set up his living arrangements/car at his first coast guard duty station south of Boston, then another surgery in July on my ankle, so I haven't quite crossed over into retirement geezerhood, but I'm getting there.  I was initially surprised at people's reactions when I told them I was retired.  They all said the same thing, "Congratulations!"  That seems appropriate, but also not quite appropriate at the same time.  I think us retirees become a cipher of envy for those still working..."if only", much like the response John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley was greeted with when he told people he was traversing the country in 1960 in a custom made camper with his dog..."if only". Something everyone wants to do.

Close to retirement, I questioned men who had already retired (I did not ask any women as they still remain a mystery to me - besides, they never really stop working).  Most men can engage in easy conversation about sports, work, and households (the structures not the people), but shy away from talk of marriage (love),  musings on the theological or moral (beliefs), personal finance (security) - in other words, we can talk about the least important things and keep silent on life's most important things. The subject of retirement though is an exception.  I've found that men are very open and honest in assessing this period of their lives - maybe it's because they now have the time?

"Retiring is the worst decision I've ever made in my life."
"I can't believe I waited so long.  I don't have time to work if I wanted to."
"The moments are hard to fill sometimes."
"Best decision I ever made."
"I'm still finding my way."

The last one is me, but I think that is an element at the beginning of the retirement phase of life. I wish there was a retirement orientation and it had a process like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of death (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance)...I said like. but there isn't.  Surprisingly, the people I've found that are the most successful in retirement are the "type A" people.  the ones we all prognosticate will be dead six months after they leave the workforce.  They tend to do very well.  Being type A's, they find retirement tasks and then dedicate themselves to those tasks wholeheartedly, just like they did at work; or they learn forthwith that leisure has no place in their life and they go back to work.  their journey seems quick  It's the rest of us who have to hike over unknown, uneven ground without an internal compass or watch. 

So what have I learned so far?

Without any purpose, the days bleed into each other.  There is no weekend because there are no weekdays - and all have the potential of wasted time.  To correct that I've now decided to force some habits.  No daytime TV, even sports.  No internet more than one hour a day;  email, banking and investments, web searches, and favorite sites have to be done within that hour.  In the past, the paths of  my internet searches resemble that saying about economic forecasts (if you put them end to end around the world, they would all point in a different direction) so as the kids say, it's a big "time suck."

Another practice is setting a schedule 6 days a week to do one task only for a set amount of time.  In the mornings I've started to write - for someone else it can be something else.  Writing is thinking with words and it helps me dope out things in life.  I'm doing that now with this issue.  So in a sense, with the implementation of a  schedule... I'm going back to work!

Other goals?  I don't want to learn anymore.  I want to experience.  It has taken me along time to realize wisdom is better than intelligence.  I once spoke with a senior who spent a winter in Ixtapa-Zihuantanejo, Mexico studying ancient ruins and living in a hut with a dirt floor.  She exuded excitement and joy when describing the senior hostel experience and I could tell it was a significant journey in her life though I have no desire to follow her lead.  I want to travel, yes, but not to learn by collating data.  I really admire her passion about the trip and she reminded me of what a Wall Street Journal sportswriter wrote about a particular player...he played with all the intensity of a Johnny Unitas after a sausage breakfast." So maybe after all she experienced as well as studied. But I single mindedly  want to experience things...I want to experience God, not listen to a 45 minute sermon on Him no matter how good.  I want to listen to the downbeat of a Duke Ellington piece; not look at the sheet music.  Joanie Mitchell may have gotten it wrong in the song Both Sides Now, something may be gained when something is lost. I want to fill my heart, not my head.

Two other things I will need to work on as I get older.  I think it was Joan Didion in The year of Magical Thinking, that after she lost her husband there was not quite the need to measure and check the angles of life, no need to apply a moral tape measure to actions - both her actions and others.  I need to remind myself that life doesn't need my post game analysis.

Lastly, I need to guard against the encroaching ailments of old age.  We will  grow to frailty.  I've had some short periods of disability and know that illness can tinge thinking and outlook.  Jan Morris, a transsexual and wise man, wrote a book chronicling his life,  Conundrum.  He was born a man, was a famed London Times correspondent who was part of the first  expedition that successfully scaled Mount Everest in 1953.  He married, had children, had a sex change operation when he was 58, divorced his wife and then at 81 years of age, had a ceremony of civil union with the same wife (I wonder who got the bridal shower?).  Anyway, he/she was a keen observer of the human condition and from his unique male viewpoint said that as he aged, one of the worst developments he experienced was the loss of physical stamina and strength and how it affected his thinking and attitude..  He thought that this change was much more prominent in men than women.

We'll see



  1. I never knew that Jan Morris (re) married his wife. Very interesting - I always mean to look out Jan's book on his journey, having read some of his earlier travel writing. I'll try not to save that for retirement :)

  2. Thanks for the comment Alistair - pretty weird, huh?