The Thinker

Sampling the Retired Life

I returned to work on Monday after a glorious and refreshing sixteen days off. Since Monday, it has been back to the zoo that is working in the Washington metropolitan area. As Calvin (from Calvin & Hobbes) put it, “The days are just packed.” From 6:10 a.m. when the alarm rouses me out of bed until 7 p.m. or so it is go, go, go. On the days I hit the gym after work (generally every other day) it can be 8:30 p.m. or so before I have something resembling leisure.

Once at work it feels like a nonstop circus. It may be sedentary work, but mentally my mind is on adrenaline. Even during my lunch hour, the odds are that important email will be streaming in. While I scarf down soup and a salad and leaf through the day’s Washington Post, I usually keep one eye on my email box and instant messaging program. My work may not be calorie intensive, but juggling the constant influx of email, all of which has to be sorted out for its political implications, while trying to marshal resources to effect meaningful change is actually quite draining. Yet I also find it strangely exhilarating. The days quickly slip by.

For sixteen days, at least I was away from it all. Moreover, it was glorious. My work may often feel exhilarating. As jobs go it is can be a lot of fun. However, it is still work. If I did not have to survive for a living, I would not choose to spend ten hours or so a day in my office reading emails, arranging meetings, counseling employees, listening to customers, monitoring contracts and orchestrating a team’s work. I now have some inkling of the things I would be doing if I did not have to eke out a living.

Most days would be a la carte. Now I do things because I must make other people happy to survive. Over sixteen days I discovered that in my future retired life I could choose to do most of my activities when it pleases me to do so. There will still be chores that need to be done, but the few hours a day they may take can be placed at times that most suit me. If an hour of paying bills is enough, I can do something else. Read my personal email. Surf naughty web sites. Write in my blog. See a movie. Go to the gym. The possibilities are endless.

I was surprised by how much work I ended up actually doing. As readers know, added up I probably spent three days altogether of my vacation playing house. With nothing else on my horizon, two hours a day chasing dust bunnies did not feel like a chore. My largest activity though was not cleaning, but programming. Unable to do it at work, programming computers for no money turned out to be a treat. When I did it for a living, I eventually grew bored with it. In smaller doses and on projects that actually interest me I found it is a great hobby.

While I got to the gym regularly, I did little other exercise. I could have run a couple miles every morning, but I did not want to. Extra exercise felt too much like work. Instead, I often found myself at my computer. I also found myself in front of the TV. I was not watching commercial TV (God forbid), but my wife and I found plenty of entertainment watching the complete set of shows from the Firefly TV DVD collection we gave ourselves for Christmas.

My cat was very happy to have me around. My wife reports that when I am not here he often wanders the house looking for me in vain. For two weeks though, he could have as much of me as he wanted. He could often be found on my lap being cuddled or stroked. At nineteen, though he is definitely slowing down. He ended up at the veterinarians twice during vacation. Fortunately, my schedule was free, so taking him to and from the vet was not a problem.

I found myself actually spending less time engaged in my regular leisure time activities. It was much more difficult to care about politics during my break. I hit sites like DailyKos.com, but only once a day, and I mostly just scanned the headlines.

Long breaks make it easier to meet friends for lunch. For weeks my friend Sokhama and I had been trying to do lunch, but the holiday rush had made it impossible. Finally, we found an hour to meet and catch up with each other at a Chipotle’s restaurant. Afterwards, since I was in my father’s neighborhood, my Dad and I drove to the Patuxent Research Refuge for a hike. I was able to do both activities in the middle of a workweek, and still miss the rush hour.

What was best was that my sixteen days off felt nearly twice as long. Like most busy adults, it seems to me that every year goes quicker than the year before it. The last time I had sixteen days off in a row I was a young adult between semesters at college. During this vacation I found that time actually slowed down. Taking each day at a leisurely pace had a boomerang effect that seemed to lengthen the perceived length of every day. Perhaps when I finally retire my 20-30 years of retirement living will feel like 60 or 90. I certainly hope so.

I see the value of a slower pace of living now. I can see that while work can be rewarding and engaging, it is not an end. A happy retirement itself can be a reason for living.

In a few weeks, I will spend two days in Washington attending my first retirement seminar. While I am there, I will turn 49. I am clearly too young to retire, but I am not too young to start steering my course toward a terrific retirement. For most of my life, retirement has been an abstraction. Now it is looking to be something that will actually happen to me, and that it will be the best time of my life. It might be as little as seven years away. With this taste of retirement in my extended vacation, I can now appreciate its value.

 

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