The Retiring Retiree...
One person’s cautious and private journey to retirement.
When it came time to retire at end of spring term, a colleague in my former department faced it about the way most of us do; or so it seemed. He cleaned up his desk in orderly fashion, notified what few remaining students who’s dissertations he was advising that he could be reached at home for help (tying to make his invitation sound genuine), attended the department lunch held each year when there were retiring colleagues to honor, graded his last set of final examinations, asked the secretary (there was only one now that the faculty computer system was well established) to hold his mail for his once a week trip to campus, turned his keys into campus security at the same time he picked up his free emeritus parking permit (actually a hunting license) and library card, removed the few pictures from his office wall, shut the window, and then left his office, closing the door for the last time.
That same Friday evening, he and his wife went out to dinner, skipping the last half of the Lerher News Hour and all of Washington Week That Was, both of which were Friday evening highlights and an unspoken sign that the weekend had started. The only times they missed Friday night PBS was due to some unavoidable faculty social event which, fortunately, were rare. The reason for tonight’s exception, they had agreed last Sunday afternoon, was that retirement was an event deserving proper recognition; a change in life for both of them that needed an appropriate public symbol, even if was only shared by the two of them.
Well, what lies ahead on the journey of life, his wife wondered aloud, as their salads arrived? Not anything radically different, he replied. More time for reading, a desire to put finishing touches on a couple papers that have been brewing on the shelf (he like the way he put it) and then trying to put flesh on a couple article outlines (he liked that one too, beginning to acknowledge that a small glass of house Chablis did contribute to a festive mood) he had put off for some time.
His wife waited for him to continue his prelude to the retired life, but apparently no more was coming. Partly because he had made such a seemingly clean break from the university, she had expected (well, actually hoped for) some significant if not dramatic changes to their personal life style. Privately, she had considered and actually collected information about Caribbean cruises, a tour of the British Isles, and even a walking tour in Austria. Even though she knew better than to mention these outright, at least without some careful preparation, she did muster the courage to ask in a general way if he had any interest in traveling? Well, perhaps a car trip down the coast, he replied, once he was sufficiently on top of things. Trying to remain in a conversational mode, she wondered what it was that needed staying on top of? Well, life doesn’t simply stop when you retire, he pointed out. There are ongoing developments at the university that he wanted to follow, professional reading that must be kept current, and the need to do some long range planning.
About our finances, she wondered aloud? No, they were under control; his concern was with developing a meaningful and orderly pattern for his retirement years. Not having a clear notion of how to procedure with the conversation, but almost desperately not wanting it to be over, she adjusted the focus and said that she had been giving some thought to that herself. That is, she went on, how might her life change with his retirement? He couldn’t see that it would. Life goes on, her days were full and satisfying he observed; why would that change just because he retired?
If nothing else, she replied with notably increased directness, you will be home a great deal more; we will have considerably more time together. That, one would imagine she noted, might possibly provide greater opportunity for sharing new experiences and interests.
Well perhaps, he agreed, suggesting that she remember that just because he was retired he was not footloose and fancy free and that she should be careful not to let her desires become unrealistic. But, he did understand her concerns and said the what he needed was a month of so to make his transition and then they could address these concerns fresh and with added clarity. There seeming little more to be said. He suggested that if they started now there would still time to see most of the British Comedies.
The month passed and by its end my colleague told me that he had pretty well settled in to this retirement business. We happened on to one another at the campus book store one day in mid summer. Over coffee, he noted that he had re-arranged his home study consistent with his changed circumstances, and had nearly worked out a suitable plan. He appeared pleased, and we parted.
Over the next six months, I encountered him in various places. In September, just prior to fall term registration, I an across him in the library. I spotted him as I passed the newspaper reading room, and waved, thinking about stopping but already late for an appointment, I didn’t. In mid October, when I was on the edge of campus for a visit to my barber, I notice him sitting by himself in a clearing on a bench reading what appeared to be a periodical of some sort. I stopped to chat, and he seemed genuinely pleased to see me. More friendly that I recalled his nature, to be honest. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked him what he was up to these days. Nothing important, he replied, but assured me that he was keeping busy. About to do any traveling, I continued the inquiry? Well, not really, but it was always in the back of his mind and perhaps someday after things settled down, who knows, they might do some.
A couple weeks before Christmas, my wife and I were leaving the travel agency we have used for years, having just settled the final details on a trip to Australia and Japan in the early Spring, and stopped at a neighboring book store to pick up a volume about country inns in Japan. We were both pleasantly surprised to see him sitting in the corner near the Southern Europe shelves carefully examining one volume with several more at his side. We moved to him, beginning with a greeting intended to be a humorous opening about his finally getting the travel bug. No, he informed us. His wife was in need of a last minute Christmas gift for a friend soon to leave for Greece, and had left the acquisition of such to him. He was affable, responding in kind to the several topics we offered, but never really taking the conversational ball himself. We parted within minutes. I happened to look up towards the door as I was browsing and noticed him leaving the shop without a purchase in hand.
I encountered him once more prior to leaving on our trip. After completing some final trip shopping in one of larger local shopping centers, I decided that a coffee would be a welcome refreshment. As do most such centers, this one has what is referred to as a “food mall”, located near its center, consisting of four or five fast food counters, each pretending to serve a particular ethnic food. One does serve excellent coffee, and as it was near eleven and not crowded, I picked up a cup and found table were I could observe the passing parade of shoppers. By chance, my eyes were drawn to a table in the far corner of the eating pavilion where, I saw him sitting with a coffee and his ever present periodical. I hesitated about joining him, not wanting to impose and not unaware that he might think that I was making a habit of coming upon him. I thought a moment and then said what the hell to myself, stood, looked his way again and, to my slight embarrassment, discovered that he was gone.
I thought the event strange enough to mention it to my wife later in the day. And then it occurred to me. “You know,” I said,” every time I run into him since his retirement he is dressed in a jacket and tie.”
“What’s so strange about that?” she replied.
“That’s just it! He’s retired, isn’t he?”
We returned from Japan in June, the trip having met out expectations. There were also a few pleasant surprises and our health held up marvelously. Some one organized a July Fourth potluck, and while usually not taken to such affairs, it seemed to be an opportunity to reconnect with friends and colleagues. It was a medium size gathering, and after an hour or so I realized that he and his wife were not there. I mentioned this to a mutual colleague, who confirmed my observation and added that it was not a surprise. As we stood talking, two former faculty members joined us and soon one duplicated my observation. Both remarked they saw him occasionally, but other that he seemed to have dropped out of sight.
“Strange, though”, one of them noted. “Every time I’ve seen him he’s in uniform; always a jacket and tie.” The other fellow added, “That’s right. Hard to figure. Does he have a job somewhere?”
My wife and his were never more than faculty spouse acquaintances, and so it was not unusual that their rare encounters ceased with both of our retirements. On day in mid October she mentioned at dinner that they had bumped into one another while shopping. In the process of what my wife thought was an unusually prolonged conversation, they exchanged reports regarding married life after retirement. His wife was finding that little had changed, except she missed the gossip about events in the department and at the university. Apparently, my wife asked a somewhat pointed question regarding how he was enjoying retirement, and more specifically, what was he doing with his time? After some initial avoidance of the question, his wife finally indicated that after an initial period of restlessness, he had put himself on a fairly tight schedule and seemed pleased with his retirement. As a matter of fact, she added, that he had said that if things continued to go well, he was not against considering a trip after the first of the year. She seemed very pleased at the prospect, according to my wife’s report, but did not elaborate.
It was May before he and I talked again. I was at the library for a Computers for the Tender at Heart workshop when I saw him, again in the newspaper reading room. This time I made a point of stopping. He was more enthusiastic than I had ever seen him, and in a short time was describing with some pride, it seemed to me, the cruise that they had taken up the Coast of Canada and Alaska. Marvelous, he exclaimed, and if all went well during the year, they had committed themselves to another either during fall or spring. He said nothing about anything else. I did notice that he was wearing a very sharp regimental striped tie and a new Harris Tweed coat.
Four seasons passed without any contact. I did think about him a time or two, wondering how he was getting along, but not sufficiently interested to contact him. I felt a bit uncomfortable with myself about that reluctance, and wondered why I had not extended myself. I concluded that is was because he seemed to have taken a somewhat aloof posture and thus I assumed preferred to be left alone. We had traveled to South Africa during the year’s time and while there purchased several native craft pieces. They were not expensive, but large enough to require shipping. A notice arrived in the mail indicating that the shipment could be picked up at our local railway depot after August 15. The day was warm but pleasant, and I looked forward to the experience of driving to the depot and picking up the two or three boxes. It seem a pleasant minor extension of our trip which had been a great adventure, and was also an opportunity to visit the older section of town in which the depot was located.
I had not been there for years. The small depot seemed to have grown smaller. Amtrak scheduled 4 passenger trains each day, and a local carrier provided more or less regular freight service. Among the several commercial buildings near the station, were two older hotels. Both had been remodeled into office buildings, providing modest office spaces at reasonable rates. The upgrading of the buildings had a positive effect on the neighborhood. The huge oak trees provided a pleasant background and the several cafes and coffee bars added an inviting ambience. Several signs referred to the area as Depot Alley, and the larger of the two buildings sported a sign that read Depot Alley Professional Offices.
The small depot parking area was full, so I pulled into a slot in the Depot Alley Professional Offices lot. As I rounded the corner of the building heading towards the depot I literally bumped into him. We exchanged surprised greetings and agreed that it had been a long time. His light weight silk jacket and crisp flowered tie made me especially conscious of my grimy shorts and worn T shirt. I explained why I was there, and he wondered if I had time for a coffee? Why not, I said, hoping that I might finally discover what he had been doing during the past three years.
We found a comfortable table in what could nearly pass for a bistro on the opposite side of Depot Alley. He asked about us with greater concern than I had known him to express in all the considerable years I had know him. He seemed truly interested, so I described our latest trip and mentioned the minor remodeling of our kitchen that we had just completed. I asked him if they had traveled more, as he said they might the last time we talked. Indeed, they had. In fact, they spent the better part of June in Malaga on the Spanish Costa del Sol. Both he and his wife spoke some Spanish and had taken an intense conversational course before leaving. The time in Spain far exceeded their expectations. He had no idea how exciting real foreign travel could be. Well, that might be too strong, he said, but the point was that they regretted waiting so long to do it, and now hopped to make up for lost time. They had already began gathering information for a Winter or Spring trip, and if all went well, were determined to do one.
I wondered what he meant by his reference to all going well, and said I assume they were both still in good health. He reassured me that they were. I decided to risk inquiring into what was surely none of my business, and said something inane such as what is holding you back, suggesting that if they wanted to make up for lost time, there would seem no time like the present. He agreed that was a good point, but that he had discovered that travel was more rewarding when he worked it into his overall activities.
Yes, he repeated, reward was an important idea to them. He, at least, like to think of earning the travel. I didn’t know were to go with this, but predicting the probabilities of my curiosity being satisfied, plunged on. “I would be interested in knowing what it is that you do to earn the privilege to travel. I believe that I understand the idea in general, but how do you apply it personally?” “I mean,” pushing it to the limit, “what sort of work are you doing?”
He smiled and replied, ” What you really mean to ask, I suppose, is what I have been doing since we both retired. I don’t mind telling you, if it is of interest. I’m somewhat pleased with how things have developed.”
“Carry on,” I said. “I am curious.”
“It has evolved, more or less. I had taken retirement for granted, not imagining that it would present any problems. I had observed colleagues do it, and all in all looked forward to being done with what was becoming an increasingly less satisfying career. Well, after a week or so of getting settled at home, I discovered that I was without much to do. Upon reflection, I discarded that idea because I actually had plenty of projects that could challenge my interests and consume my time. These mostly involved thinking, or reading or writing…in essence a continuation of what I have always done, minus the teaching, of which at least for the time being I was glad to be rid. So, I found myself with plenty to do but not comfortable doing it at home.
“On the basis of that frustration and simple restlessness, I suppose, I decided it might be a good idea to leave the house or a short time in the morning, at least several days a week, and then return to pursue what I continued to define as my work. Getting out of the house after breakfast made me feel much more purposeful, so much so that I soon did it 5 mornings a week. The problem was, that when I returned and attempted to direct my energy to one of the several projects I had identified, I seemed to lack the discipline to follow through. Thus, I decided to take some reading material related to the projects with me. That seemed to work, and as long as I could find a comfortable place to sit, my mornings became interesting and rewarding. I would leave the house about 9:00, visit one of my several haunts for coffee and light reading, and then spend a couple of hours in the library or, depending upon the weather in the park doing more serious reading. Feeling fulfilled, for lack of a better term, I would return home for a pleasant lunch with my wife.”
“She didn’t object to your routine?” I asked quietly.
“At first she told me it seemed odd that I put on a jacket and tie and left every morning. She wondered why I didn’t enjoy the freedom of not going out and of doing what I pleased. I tried to explain several times that what I seemed to need or lack was some sort of structure to my days. I confessed that I wasn’t happy with this discovery, but it appeared to be true. She agreed that it was better than me feeling as if I were on house arrest, and so in time accepted my routine.
“That, of course left the afternoons free, or without structure to be consistent. I tried using that time to write and do additional reading in my study. However, the contrast with the morning routine which I had come to relish, was frustrating.
“It was about this time that I found Depot Alley, as many refer to it. You see, my morning walks took me farther from home and it was not long before I discovered the place that we are in at the moment. There also are several public area in the neighborhood including a branch library and the depot waiting room which is seldom used in the morning. So, “going to the depot” became by morning routine. I enjoyed the feeling of place, as it were, that I had when there. It was even more satisfying then the somewhat nomadic style that I had developed.
“As you might imagine, as I became more or less a regular here, I became acquainted with others who enjoyed the same status. I learned that several had offices in the two remodeled hotels. Then, I found out that the larger one, just across from us now, contained two floors of what were presented as Extended Efficiency Suites. What this means, is that they are small, furnished offices of varying sizes but usually about 10 by 10 feet, each with an outside window, phone and modem connection, and copying machine and secretarial services as needed.
“I asked the manager to see two rooms then vacant, and found them very appealing. In some senses equal or superior to what the university had provided me. The rent was modest, very much consistent with the nature of the facility. It occurred to me that the income from one of the small rental homes we owned would more that cover the cost. Thus, I formulated an idea and a proposal to my wife.”
The essence of his plan was to bundle, as they say, his wife’s interest in travel with his desire for structure. It was simple. If she would support his desire to rent an Extended Efficiency Suite, he would reciprocate by generating genuine enthusiasm for travel. In order to promote his plan, he suggested that they begin with a trial arrangement. He would rent the office for three months, at the end of which time they would take their first trip. If all went well, he would continue the rental for three or four months, during which time she would assume leadership for planing a second trip, and so forth. They would evaluate the arrangement as it progressed.
He was pleased when she enthusiastically agreed to his proposal. And so they began their new arrangement. He left for the office at 9 each morning, returning home to take lunch three days a week and remaining in Depot Alley the other two. He arrived home daily between 3:30 and 4:30 P.M. In his opinion, the arrangement was superb. It occurred to him that it was really superior to any they had during his last 10 or 12 years at the university. After their trip to Alaska and Canada, she took to joining him for lunch once each week at Depot Town, and they discovered that to be an added pleasure to their arrangement. And so, he finished, they decided to continue it until such time as it ceased to work or them.
He realized, he noted, that his story was not unlike the text book case of the man whose employment had been terminated and who continued to set out each morning with brown bag in briefcase, spending the days on park benches, never revealing to anyone that he was unemployed. He did not believe that he fit that scenario, but noted that it was easy to empathize with those in such circumstances.
Before we parted, I asked him once again what sort of work or activity he actually did in his office. He said they involved a considerable variety. Some relative to his academic interest, some family business, correspondence and other contacts (he had recently been initiated into email) and reading about subjects that interested him. He noted that none of what he did was particularly important, but the structure and the substance of the arrangement enhanced his quality of life. He was concerned, he acknowledged, about the possible impact this would have on his wife. However, because she enjoyed pursuing her own interests, the over all plan was working very well for both of them.
I compiled this perhaps over lengthy account of my colleague’s solution to the retirement problem (yes, I think it is for many) as part of an attempt to illustrate the idiosyncratic nature of the question of what one does during retirement. Five years have past since he vacated his digs at the university and began his morning walks. By now several of the few people he might think of as friends, undefined at those relationships may be, know about his office, but not about his retirement lifestyle. I am almost certain that they have not been privy to his personal account of how it came to be and the firm logic behind it. I suppose, that is part of the reason for the intrigue they associate with it. And that probably accounts for it coming up in the conversation of former colleagues at what in the intervening years has become the Annual Fourth of July gathering.
The afternoon was getting hotter, even under the shade of the host’s giant poplar trees, and that may have been the reason for one guest’s drinking more that was good for him and the conversation. Several of us were reviewing how people adjusted to the circumstances of retirement. It was becoming a sort of boring show-and-tell when his name was mentioned and the especially well lubricated guest asked, “Is he still going to his fantasy world office every day? God, I couldn’t believe it. Why retire if that what you’re going to do? Perhaps there is more to it than meets the eye, but it seems strange, if not a bit neurotic to me. It is clear that retirement requires a few adjustments, but lets face it; it is reality, so why not accept it and get on with enjoying it freedom?”
“I believe I am,” he said as he joined the group.”
“Sorry, I didn’t see you,” said the realist with noticeable embarrassment.”
“That’s all right,” he replied. I’m interested in your comments. Especially about enjoying one’s freedom.”
The realist cleared his throat and the conversation hung dead in the sticky air. Clearly the ball was waiting to be hit, but no one wanted to touch it. Finally out of embarrassment for the group, another person said, “It is an interesting question. Not just you, but how we all deal with it.”
He explained that he had a strong desire for structure in his retirement, at least for now, and he partly stumbled into, partly created it. The structure helped assure that he would be able to pursue his several interests, without getting bogged down by a multitude of decisions each day. It wouldn’t work for some, he offered. He also agreed that from the view point of some it must seem horribly dull and lack any spontaneity.
“In my case, he added, protecting my time from extraneous events and happenstance, almost guarantees time for being spontaneous. And because I’m only making commitments to myself and my wife, I’m essentially in charge. I could join the country club set tomorrow, if I choose, and if they would have me.”
This put the conversation in a more interactive mode and led to a somewhat more thoughtful discussion of the nature of retirement and alternatives for using it. As the interaction appeared to be coming to a close, I said that he had mentioned the golfing solution for retirement and wondered if he would be willing to share his perception of it. It would be especially interesting in that others’ perception of his retirement solution had been aired.
“That is an interesting question, but I haven’t thought about it. I have played occasionally, and to be honest I was unable to understand the appeal of the activity. As I think about it now, I am even more mystified about golf when characterized as a way of life. My perception is that its chief objective is to hit a small ball into 9 or 18 holes with as few strokes as possible. A benefit I think others enjoy is engaging in a kind of male chatter while moving from one green to another. However, this seemed limited to the minority of players who were not riding on carts. The trade off, as it seemed to me, was vigorous walking coupled with banal talk, versus riding a cart which avoided the chatter but also eliminated the exercise. If I were to conceptualize the game as the core of retirement, I’m afraid my mind is filled with the image of following a small ball from hole to hole day after day after day.
“I’m the first to acknowledge that most of you don’t see it that way,” he added, “but that is how it looks to me. Isn’t it wonderful that retirement provides each of us an opportunity to chase our own balls as we please!”