The Thinker

Retirement’s first year

Certain people get paid breaks during their careers. They are called sabbaticals. It’s basically an extended period of paid downtime, usually at least six months, to get away from a 9-5 job and recharge. It’s a privilege apparently given to a vanishingly few of us: ministers, scientists and professors for the most part. The rest of us don’t merit the privilege. The sabbatical depends on the idea that a change of scenery and intellectual focus will feed a creative mind and it will result in renewed energy and perhaps new ideas upon your return.

I could have used a few sabbaticals in my career. I think I would have been more effective in the workplace. Of course I didn’t get any of them. Some of us though have the privilege to retire well and in decent health at a reasonably young age. I opted for retirement a year ago. August 1, 2014 was my last day as a full time salaried employee. I retired at age 57 principally because I could. My federal pension was generous as I was under the old retirement system and I was highly graded in the government. In addition I had enough saved for retirement that it appeared I could reasonably expect to match my standard of living. It helped to have almost all my debts paid off too.

Still, retiring was a bit of a nervy thing to do. It ends badly for a lot of people. Often they discover they don’t really have enough money to have the sort of retirement they envisioned. Or they find themselves terminally bored, missing the contact they used to have at the office. I miss having the daily office experience, although at the time it was a mixed experience. I keep in touch with a few old colleagues, mostly on Facebook. However, most of them have vanished as a continuing presence in my life. I also miss having an office, just some place outside the house to escape to for much of the day. Of course I love my wife, but I wasn’t sure if I would like her as much when we were in each other’s faces so often.

So far I feel like I haven’t properly retired. For one thing, I haven’t stopped working. I don’t work full time, but I am doing some consulting that amounts to about twenty hours a week on average. It just depends on what inquiries come in through my professional website. This was by design. In spite of the pension and the retirement savings, I wasn’t confident that we could maintain our standard of living. Continuing to earn some money eased my financial anxiety. It also forced me to keep engaged in the work world, just in a different way than I used to.

When I wasn’t consulting my wife and I were busy remaking our lives. As regular readers know, the last year has been busy in spite of the fact that we are retired. That’s because we chose to relocate, and that decision started a whole chain of events. It meant selling our house in Virginia and moving to western Massachusetts. We sold the house in April and now we live in temporary lodgings in Easthampton, Massachusetts while our house in nearby Florence lumbers toward completion. It won’t be until we are in our new house and things are properly put away that this transition will finally be complete.

From last August through last March most of my time was doing basic fix up to our old house so it would sell. This meant what seemed like endless trips to the local Lowes, plastering, painting and minor construction jobs. Simultaneously we had to find a new place in Massachusetts. A neighborhood had to be selected, a house price agreed to and contracts had to be signed. It was all very tedious and often nerve wracking, but it worked out quite well. I went by our new house today and inspected the newly installed drywall, which is all screwed into place but awaits a lot of joint compound. We hope to move in during the middle of September.

As nerve wracking and expensive as the whole process was, it was still better than my old job. It had pretty much burned me out after ten years. The cast of masters I reported to had changed as well, and not for the better, giving me more incentive to get out. It did not take long after retiring to find that I slept better and was much less stressed in general. I discovered I have a natural sleep pattern after all (bedtime is around 11:30 and eight to eight and a half hours of sleep a night is what I need). I rarely got that when employed, except on the weekends. The crazy demands of my job and the frequently hellish commutes made it mostly impossible. I spent much of my professional life sleep deprived.

I rarely find myself bored in retirement, but I do find myself doing more of what I prefer to do and less of what I don’t like to do. I found that I like information technology too much to give it up. I try to stay current on the latest trends and to expand my knowledge, even though I am unlikely to need to know a lot of what I am learning. I used to feel guilty about surfing the web at work. It’s obviously not a problem anymore. I surf with abandon. Should I get bored I have Netflix streaming as a distraction. I also subscribe to a music streaming service. Together they provide a lot of entertainment.

Now that I’ve moved I find that I exercise more. I’ve taken up biking again and have enjoyed the many bike trails in our new neighborhood. I often walk in the evenings, generally for a few miles. I also enjoy learning about my new community. Finding new doctors, meeting new neighbors and connecting with a new religious community have proven to be growth experiences. Before the move I stayed connected to my community too. Right until the end I kept volunteering at my local Unitarian church. I also taught a class at a local community college. I am trying to teach here as well, but so far there have been no nibbles.

It does at times feel surreal to have relocated four hundred miles away. I had been living in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area for more than thirty-five years. I do miss some things from that area. In some ways I stay connected. I still read The Washington Post; I just do it online. At the same time I enjoy reading the local newspaper around here, pedestrian though it is compared to the Post. In the Daily Hampshire Gazette a big news story can be a moose found ambling through a suburban neighborhood. Routine content includes school lunch menus. I read the details of local town meetings where items like buying a new fire truck must get an up or down vote from the citizenry. They practice real democracy here in New England. It would not occur to The Post to publish this sort of “news”. It would be beneath them.

When you live in and around Washington D.C. you are deeply consumed by the minutia of national and international affairs. Who you know is important but what’s most important is what you do, which amounts to what power do you have over the government, which ideally involves control of policy or regulation. One of the first questions you are asked when you meet someone new is “What do you do?” In my last job I had a reasonably prestigious position. While that vanished with retirement, I find I simply don’t miss the authority or the problems I used to wrestle with. It’s someone else’s problem now. I’ve moved on.

I’ll try to come back to this topic in a year. I expect that my next year of retirement will be more settled and I’ll have a truer perspective of what it means and feels like to be retired. So far I have found that if you are reasonably confident that your financial house is in order and you are pretty good as distracting yourself with fun things to do, it is something to look forward to and not to dread.


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