Wherefore art thou ROMEOs?

The Thinker by Rodin

The ROMEOs this morning are at the Virginia Kitchen on Elden Street, in Herndon, Virginia. This morning they are actually outside the restaurant, facing the strangely quiet Elden Street, which is at something of a commuter lull during mid August. We are sitting at metal tables under an occluded morning sky. It’s 8 AM. Even though I have been getting up at 6:30 AM for years, now that I am retired getting up at 7:30 AM to make this date with the ROMEOs seems somewhat onerous. But here I am because part of the art of retirement (so I understand) is to get away from your otherwise lovely spouse now and then and engage in something resembling real life.

So I’m trying out the ROMEOs: a bunch of guys who are also retired and seemingly have not much else compelling to do on a Tuesday morning except to get together for some fellowship and fattening breakfast food. ROMEO in this case stands for “Retired Older Men Eating Out”, and we make a congenial bunch, as we are all members of the local Unitarian Universalist church, so we are likely to agree on most stuff anyhow. Our wives (those of us who have wives) are grateful to get rid of us for a while; in fact, they have formed their own happy hour club called the JULIETs (Just Us Ladies Imbibing, Eating and Talking) that also meet once a week. Occasionally, aside from socializing, we’ll do something tangible for the church that suggests ours is not entirely just a social club.

Among the ROMEOs I am the newbie and appear to be considerably younger than everyone else at the table. The whole retirement thing, somewhat unusual for me at age 57, is still quite new to me. I’ve been at it less than a month, and much of it so far has been on vacation. But I’m usually up for a greasy breakfast, with or without companionship. The guys around the table though look like they are pros at it. They are Tuesday morning regulars at the Virginia Kitchen. The waitress knows them, if not by name, then by what they are likely to order and how much they are likely to tip. The menus, napkins and silverware are already outside on the tables anticipating our arrival when I arrive promptly at 8 AM. Apparently, I am late and the last to arrive. The banter is already well underway. The topic of the day, as is true most everywhere else in America is the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri over what looks like the unjustified homicide of an African American, Michael Brown, at the hands of a white officer. There was no particular disagreement among us on the outrage there. I’ll likely provide my thoughts on this in a future post.

The nature of fellowship though is to just flow with the conversation, and being UUs it got kind of strange at some times, such as a discussion on how citizen science took off (too many pastors in England on pensions with too much time to kill). One of the attendees is a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq who had much to contribute when we discussed issues in the Middle East. But along with the political discussion, which is a given when you put a bunch of UUs around a table with coffee, our conversation veered into many other areas.

It didn’t matter so much what we talked about. What mattered is that we had someone else to talk about stuff. It’s about having something to do, something to occupy our brain and somewhere else to see other than our four walls at home. For some of these men around the table, filling their days is a challenge. So far for me it has not been a challenge at all.

Many of the men around this table have a couple of decades on me. Behind their faces are hints of sadness and loss. Some have lost spouses. All have lost loved ones. Some have spouses with serious problems. One has a spouse with cancer. Some have serious health issues of their own, some that they will share and some that they will not. These occupy a lot of their time and thought, while they give the appearance of being men without care. Tuesday breakfast with the ROMEOs is something of an escape, not from their lives, but from weighty issues that come with moving from senior citizen to elderly citizen. For a while anyhow, they can allow themselves to be distracted from it, and engage in general banter like they used when they were younger and healthier.

Retirement for me is turning out to be a lot of work. As I mentioned in my last post, things went awry at home during our vacation: a burglary and a busted refrigerator. The locks are changed and the refrigerator is being repaired as I write. But then there is all this other stuff to do. It appears that I needed to retire just to make time for all this stuff. There is a class I’ll be teaching on Tuesday nights. Preparing for that meant that after breakfast I was off to the community college to make sure the Oracle database server was working correctly and could be accessed in the classroom. There is the huge general task of decluttering our house in preparation for moving next year, and doing whatever else a realtor recommends to make it stand out when it goes on the market. We meet with a realtor on Friday. Then there is my consulting, which resulted in a queue of work waiting for me when I got home. Most of that backlog is now clear. And there is a lot of stuff that falls into the “I always meant to do this”, like make doctors appointment for non-critical health issues and get my car detailed. The stuff I planned to do every day in retirement, like daily walks and trips to the gym, won’t happen for a while.

But there will be time, I hope, for fellowship on Tuesday mornings at the Virginia Kitchen, where the Chantilly Combination breakfast is likely to be my breakfast of choice.

The virtues and pitfalls of fellowship

The Thinker by Rodin

Ever notice how people tend to congregate with people who act and behave a lot like them? I am no exception. I live in a middle class suburb, quite similar to the one I grew up in, with people mostly of my race and around my income level. Our weekends are spent on domestic things like mowing grass and trimming hedges.

Why did I seek this lifestyle instead of hanging on to my old lifestyle, which was living in a townhouse in a truly diverse community? In part it was because I got promoted and could afford a single family house. But I also didn’t like the teenager next door persistently sitting on the hood of our Camry while he smoked, who continued even when repeatedly asked to stop. I’d never do that with his car, or turn up the bass on my stereo so his floorboards rattled. I shared similar values with many of my neighbors, but not with some, particularly those renting next door. So when opportunity presented itself, I skedaddled to a community that did share my values. Here typically the only noise I hear from my neighbors is if they turn on their leaf blower. No one sits on my car hood anymore either, because my car is parked on my property, not communal property. I am happier when people that share my values live around me.

It has been remarked that Unitarian Universalists like me are principally a lot of liberal, upper income, predominantly white people. That is true of the UU church that I attend, although we do have a handful of African American members now as well as a few other families from other races and cultures. In our unison affirmation at every service we covenant to “help one another in fellowship.” Now there’s a strange world: fellowship. It’s so archaic that I had to look up the definition:

The condition of sharing similar interests, ideals, or experiences, as by reason of profession, religion, or nationality.

Fellowship is basically enjoying spending time with people a lot like you. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy going to services: not only do I hear great sermons, but services are followed by coffee and conversation: code words for fellowship. There I try not to eat too many carbohydrates while chatting mostly with liberal white guys and ladies and discussing issues near and dear to us, like the building expansion. I also practice fellowship by attending my covenant group meeting at the church once a month: more time to interact with smart white people, share our travails and joys, and to discuss some issue of the heart.

I’m not a Rotarian, Lions Club member, Masonite, or Knights of Columbus member, but they are all principally doing the same thing: practicing fellowship. Fellowship seems a bit unnatural to us liberals, even though we guiltily enjoy it. Surely we should be using our time to help the poor or save the earth or something. Instead, we are busy engaging in fellowship. The actual doing of that other stuff is somewhat harder, at least in person. It’s much easier to give money to charities. If I start handing out food to poor people, I may get grateful looks but some teenager may also decide to sit on the hood of my car. That would not be cool.

It turns out America is all about fellowship, and our fellowship is often fierce and insular. Texas governor Rick Perry represents a certain kind of fellowship: almost exclusively conservative Republican white guys and their spouses from Texas with evangelical roots and humble beginnings. He won’t hang out much with George W. Bush, who is also a conservative Republican, but really only gave lip service to religion and evangelicals, is a faux Texan and never had to worry about bills because Daddy always had his back. No wonder they reputedly don’t get along.

Americans love to self-segregate. We mostly unconsciously surround ourselves by yes men who largely parrot our values. Hear enough of it and when you hear something outside of your bubble your tendency is to be hostile toward it.

Yet we do need to escape our bubbles now and then, because too much fellowship leads toward insular outlooks, warped perspectives and ultimately a false picture of how the world is and what is required to fit inside it. It turns out that’s a pretty hard thing to do that, because it requires an open mind, an open heart and finding the courage within yourself to admit that, hey, maybe I am insular. And maybe it came from too much fellowship.

And yet I have found out that fellowship does have merit. I find enormous satisfaction is simply having a community of fellows: people a lot like me that I can bounce ideas off and know I will get heard. In many cases these people may superficially look like me, but they often have life experiences they can share that are outside my experience. Of course, it tends to be easier to consider these ideas when they come from people you perceive as peers.

One way I step outside my comfort circle is by teaching. I teach a course or two a year at a community college. It gives me some satisfaction, but when I teach I am also deliberately moving into a zone of potential discomfort. I am not a peer, I am a teacher, which makes me something of a leader and judge. And unlike in my congregation, neighborhood or even at work, few white middle class faces stare back at me from across my desk. Instead, I see lots of hues. I see people working two or three jobs and still trying to fit college into their lives. I see more women than men. I see a plurality of people from India and Pakistan. Communicating with them is sometimes a struggle, because we both have to struggle through cultural, language and age barriers. At the end of a class I am frequently wrung out. However, I do return home feeling like I have a truer understanding of the community I live in than if I had stayed home instead. By stepping outside my comfort zone, I have developed empathy for the tough lives that so many people endure for just the chance for real middle class prosperity.

I hope you do something to step outside your comfy circle of fellows, at least semi-regularly. It grounds and centers you. It also makes you appreciate the comfort of fellowship in more measured doses. Last week I traveled all the way to Tacoma, Washington and back. Yet it was like I never left home: the same sorts of people and the same conveniences of modern living were available 2300 miles away, right down to the Starbucks on the corner. For a truly grounding experience, I merely had to drive a dozen miles to campus, stand in front of a room full of students, speak and listen. Last night, as is true of most nights after teaching, I felt that I learned far more than I taught.