Sampling the Retired Life

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Oh the Mundanity!

The Thinker by Rodin

Oh the mundanity of it. It’s time for my annual vacation at home: that indulgent time off that starts a couple days before Christmas and ends after the New Year. During this time I am not just off, but I am off. I spend my days doing nothing much and reveling in it. Altogether it is ten days of staying up late, sleeping in late (which for me might be 8 AM) and doing not much. My brain is in a different time and space. I enjoy all the comforts of home because, well, I am home.

And my wife and daughter are on vacation too. My wife happens to be unemployed so in a sense her vacation is about two months old now. This annual recess from real life is a perfect way to end a year that was full of work, school, extracurricular activities, doctors’ appointments, family crises and numerous other things, most of them necessary but no fun. So now it’s that time of year to turn off the dutiful part of my brain and recklessly, deliberately and insistently slack off.

I thought perhaps of starting a project to keep me busy, but that thought was quickly dismissed. There are some doors that need to come out and be replaced by drywall. We need to purchase and install a new microwave over the stove. But I can’t seem to summon the energy to start. I’d rather be lethargic. There was no hurry to do these things six months ago so there is no reason to do them now either. Even trying to sum up the energy to go see a movie is proving difficult. My wife is deeply into watching two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD that she got from me as a Christmas present. She doesn’t want to be disturbed by reality. My daughter is doing something similar. When she isn’t online (usually IMing her friend Laura) she is watching an Invader Zim DVD. When I can use the DVD player, which is not often, I am watching the appendices in the Extended Edition of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Mainly I exercise, eat a bit too much Christmas food, and surf the Net. It’s good to be a vegetable as long as the money keeps coming in.

Not that I’ve been permitted to totally zone out. There was the usual Christmas activities and obligations to attend to. The Christmas Eve dinner with the parents and my sister at our house went well. They arrived late and took off early, which was fine because we saw them all again on Christmas morning at my parent’s apartment. But by 3 p.m. my crew was anxious to rush home to do nothing in particular. There was too much socializing going on for their tastes. Time to go back to Gumby mode.

Once a year I use this time to go to areas of the World Wide Web I normally don’t bother with. I read obscure Usenet news groups. Foreign newspapers. Kos diaries that aren’t even recommended. Polyamory newsgroups. I watch online short movies at sites like Atomfilms.com. I even peruse the casual encounters section at Craigslist. (I have to wonder about some like this lady.)

I’ve decided though that with the remainder of the week I will reconnect with friends if I can. Since I’ve changed jobs I’ve lost regular contact with friends mostly made through work. It’s time to make a physical presence again instead of trading emails. My dance card is filling up. Tuesday I’ll lunch with my friend Sokhama in Silver Spring. But I will also show my friend Frank the virtues of my new Honda Civic Hybrid. And, as long as I’m near my parent’s apartment I’ll bring my wife’s laptop with me and do some modem diagnostics for my father. Wednesday I hope to see my friend Courtney for lunch, who also lives and works in Silver Spring. And Friday it’s Angela’s turn to endure me for lunch; we’ll meet at Union Station. And somewhere in there I hope to see Lisa and her husband Bill to fix a computer problem they’re having. But I’m hoping Lisa and I can abscond to a Starbucks for some long neglected chitchat.

Somewhere in all this time maybe I’ll see another movie. We’ll take down the Christmas tree and the outdoor lights. I’ll pay some bills. But mostly I hope to keep doing a whole lot of nothing. The most ambitious I’ve gotten so far on Day 4 was to work on the web site for the next class I will teach in January. Since it’s basically the same as the one it didn’t take too much time.

My wife and daughter are big into emulating vegetables. I have to admit there is something to be said for it. What’s the point of working hard for a living if there is not the reward of being able to recklessly slack off? I need to do more slacking. I need to chill. Instead more often than not (and mostly out of habit) I am running from one activity to the next. But for now I live in the moment and enjoy each day in its splendid mundanity while it lasts.

Home Alone

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not often that I get a chance to be home alone for any extended period of time. Oh there are a few hours every now and then when the “girls” (wife Terri and daughter Rosie) go out shopping. And I confess I do enjoy my alternate Fridays off when Terri is at work and Rosie is at school. On those days I get up to seven hours at a stretch. But these are short duration experiences. And alternate Fridays are padded with stuff I have to do, like hit the supermarket, wait in inspection lines or get my locks trimmed.

This weekend was different though because I had more than 24 hours home alone. My wife Terri was at ConneXions, a convention for slash writers in Baltimore. My daughter Rosie was invited to a Unitarian Universalist church youth retreat in Chincoteague, Maryland. So for 24 hours or so there was just me, two cats (who thankfully largely left me alone), and Rosie’s pet fish.

It’s a weird but certainly not unpleasant experience to be home alone. After so many years of marriage though I feel a little bit like fish out of water. I don’t know really what to do. The complete freedom to do things on my schedule and have no pressing responsibilities makes me a bit giddy. But then I can’t seem to enjoy the experience. Even 24 hours is ephemeral. It would take a week or two to really see if I could enjoy it, or whether I would feel disturbed by it, or both.

I have learned that I don’t have a family so much as a wife and a daughter happily engaged in their own pursuits. Yes, we do love each other and are very much connected to each other’s lives. Terri and Rosie often seem to be best friends: they share a love of writing and Slash. Rosie and I have a bond that is more than a father and daughter sort of bond. We share passions for theater and the arts, and can have deep and meaningful conversations about life. But in what passes for our free time we are more apt to spend it doing things that interest us. Terri has her slash writing and her online slash friends. Rosie has her little coterie of girl friends, her writing, her interest in Wicca, and spells to try. And I have teaching (I teach web page design) in addition to my full time job to fill the hours. In addition I run a couple Internet domains including The Potomac Tavern.

So there are three of us, but when two of us leave the home becomes very quickly just a house. Our two elderly cats seem to sense the absence of excitement and find some remote spots and sleep. And I don’t want them in my face. They sense something is different and leave me alone.

The possibilities of how to spend my free time were rather endless. There were movies I could see that Terri wouldn’t want to see. I could venture into the city, or climb a mountain or two. But I didn’t. I don’t quite remember what I used to do when I was single and by myself. I wasn’t the bar hopping type. I was shy. There was work and the weekends.

I didn’t end up in some strip bar. I don’t know where they are and frankly, I don’t care. I’ve seen enough naked females and if I want to see more there is plenty of pornography on the Internet that is free and much more accessible. I didn’t see a movie either. Instead I was doing pretty much the same things I always do. I teach Saturday mornings so I taught, stayed late and tutored a student. I hit the grocery store because I’d have to anyhow. I did wander down to the Barnes & Noble. It would have been nice if my pal Lisa could have made it, but she wasn’t available. But I had just been there last week. Even the books looked stale.

So I stayed mostly at home, looked out the window, ran a couple miles, worked on stuff for my class, and then tried not to let it feel too weird to go to bed in a big house all by myself.

They’re back. Both are recharged. Terri communed with her friends. Rosie had a good time in Chincoteague and read to us her list of beliefs, an output from their workshop. And the cats are moving around and are in our faces again.

I wonder what I would do if I had a week or two all to myself. Am I still someone wholly apart, or am I now so integrated into something larger that I can’t really distinguish myself apart from it? Am I a fish out of water without intimates in my life? I don’t really know.

Doubtless I will find out again in time. Rosie is less than five years from college. Slash conventions will come and go and I expect my wife will attend more as opportunities and time allow. I will have to relearn how to be my best friend again.