The Best years of Our Lives
A friend commented that, since his retirement, he has been living the best years of his life. Like me, he is now pushing 80. It’s hard to call him retired, since he writes books, lectures, still teaches and writes about ethics. He also writes a bit of poetry when he is so moved.
And now, he is planning to write a book about what he views as the best years of his (and everyone’s) life. He says:
“The realisation has taken some time to sink into me – that your retirement years are the best years of your life. Better than any of the 65 years or more that preceded them. The reason? You are at last free! Free to do anything that you want to do. If you want to take a university degree you can. .Or even a second degree, in an entirely different field, you can do that too. If you want to change the world, help feed the poor, make your country (or even the world) a better place to live in, you can make that your goal. You can write letters to the editor, articles for magazines, join voluntary organisations, or even start your own campaign. My future years have come from my past years – from the stories of my life. Yours will too.”
So, he caused me to consider whether his assertion is accurate from my perspective. First, though, it does seem clear to me that “the best years of life” can only be defined by individuals. Retirement might be those years, but surely not for everyone. One example, my father-in-law. He worked hard his entire life, having been forced to stop his education at the 8th grade so he could go to work (that would have been during the early depression years). But then, just as he was poised to retire, he began having mini-strokes. Finally, being already somewhat incapacitated, he had a large stroke that put him in a nursing home, where they cared for him in his final year or so, but during which he could not speak and was largely unaware of his daily visits by his wife. So for him, I doubt that retirement was the best period of his life. Other examples could be cited, but I would assert that the best years is an individualistic concept.
So, what about me? I have been sort of retired since 2000, when I turned 65. I say, sort of because, when I announced my pending retirement, my two main clients said, “Hmmm, no, I don’t think so. We expect you to continue working with us for a while longer. So, I did, at least until 2007, when I just said, “OK, I am now fully retired”. Even between 2000 and 2007, I really only worked part time.
But let me examine my life a bit to see where retirement stacks up.
1. Period 1: Let’s say, birth to 13. That defines my life in Brooklyn and Manhattan from birth until we left the City for Rockland County, after the War (remember WW II??). That period was a mixture of fun and kind of sorry times. My father was in and out, and not of much use as a father or husband. So, my mom had to keep the family alive. It was also the period of WW II, which was interesting and ghastly at the same time.
2. Period 2: Pre-high school. Oddly, while no longer even pretending to have a father, we lived a nice life. No personal clashes and a pretty nice, if Spartan life style. We had little money, but we laughed a lot—at least I did. So, maybe a contender.
3. Period 3: High School—I know, it’s only four years, but still, it defines an interesting period. All fun and games. My only responsibility was to attend school and get reasonable grades. Not bad, I would say.
4. Period 4: College—Another four-year period, but this one was enlivened by my marriage. A pretty satisfying life period, I would say.
5. Period 5: The Working Years—So, this period defines my working career, my family creation and sustenance. It is a period so full of life that it is difficult to summarize. Creating children, all of whom became wonderful, loving, responsible adults, who in turn created their own successful families. It includes a long and continuing loving relationship with my wife. And it includes a career in which I worked for large and small for-profits, large and small non-profits, the government, and myself. Someone once asked me, “so you couldn’t hold down a job?” Well, yes, but stuff kept popping up in front of me to tantalize, and I have a notoriously short attention span.
6. And the “working years” includes so much that was fun, and culturally fascinating that it would be difficult to set it aside. We lived during that period in California, both Southern and Northern, including a happy stint living in downtown San Francisco. It includes living four years in India, fascinating indeed. It includes a brief stay in Boston, and then a long period, over 30 years, in the Washington, DC area. And that period was largely the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The 1970s was bursting and full of life—an ongoing, despicable war, lots of protests, lots of parties, and lots of stuff involving kids maturing. All of that hectic activity slowed down during the 1980s and 1990s. By 1984, our youngest child entered college, so we were officially “empty-nesters”.
7. Now, the empty-nest period perhaps deserves a look by itself, since it involves a kind of freedom from kid-responsibilities. The children are now adult, or fast becoming so, and they begin acquiring their own lifestyle, separate and distinct from yours as parents. We traveled a bit more, acquiring a taste for a little town in Canada, called Niagara on the Lake. A sweet little place, full of life, gardens, theatre, and fine dining and resting spots.
8. Period 6: And finally, we come to our retirement years. As I said, earlier, I retired twice—once in 2000, and again in 2007. Carol, on the other hand, retired from paid work, as a librarian, in 2000, and then began work as an unpaid staff person, volunteering at schools, and at a social service organization. Fourteen years later, she continues working. Well, a special focus of her retired work has been on producing quilts for sick kids at the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital. A nice bit of socially useful work, while remaining “retired” (i.e., unpaid). I largely stopped doing anything socially useful, unlike my wife. During my retirement years, I have written a bit, although refraining my writing for publication, unlike my friend. Mostly, I wrote stuff like a memoir, for my kids and grandkids. I devised and continue to write into several blogs—one my “cranky old man” blog (www.artfulnotes.blogspot.com) another for my pseudo-art, called Observed Art (www.observedart.blogspot.com). Finally, I began creating what I call my “farm foodies” blog (www.farmfoodies.blogspot.com) where I engage local farmers and other folks who cook fine food. I get them to divulge some recipes for how they fix the food they produce. It’s fun and not terribly demanding. I also pretend to artistry, by creating what is called digital art for our local art walks. It’s fun, although not very economical—I spend way more than I take in. Still, it occupies the mind.
9. Another of my retirement “activities” has been travel. Many folks talk about wanting to retire so they can travel. Then they retire and never travel. We have indeed traveled. We had already traveled more than most folks up to our retirement. For example, I had already visited 49 of our 50 states. But we zoomed off to Australia to see friends, took a 9,000 mile road trip throughout the US of A, and made numerous trips to Canada, (to our favorite little town) and to northern climes to visit with family and friends.
10. Now, it may well be true that retirement has been good to us. The time demands of work went away, as well as the responsibility for caring for kids and/or grandkids. Mostly that has fallen to our kids. Several issues have begun clawing their way into life, however. First, folks we know and care about began dying off. Parents of course, but also siblings, and close friends. Each time someone pops off a little signal sounds in my brain—you’re getting old, and your time is getting closer. Then there’s the little thing of money. We were doing ok for a while, but two bank and hedge-fund induced stock market hysteria—crashes as they are known—produced a big hit on our retirement portfolio. So, we wound up with a bit less available money than we had hoped. That induces its own anxiety.
11. Finally, is our own health. It had been really quite good. Then, seemingly quickly and without much warning, health problems began popping into our consciousness. Joints begin to crumble; breathing problems have appeared for Carol. The ever present heart issues, and, for me, continued and now increasing eye issues, because of glaucoma have begun weighing in. Health problems appeared surely when we were younger, but when you are younger, such problems can often be ignored. When you are old, ignorance is no longer bliss.
12. It’s interesting that the definitions—young, middle aged, old, are bandied about when we are younger then “old” but at some point, “old” begins to have real meaning. Because, “old” brings with it a close association with death. And death has different meanings for folks. For the truly religious—the “believers”-- death seems to be akin to a welcome friend. Organized religion seems to focus on death as being the ultimate great trip—sort of a permanent vacation. I have written about this issue in my ramblings on organized religion (the world’s greatest Ponzi scheme). If death is so damned desirable, I keep wondering, why don’t the true believers just off themselves? When someone dies, folks say, “He is in a better place now.” And I keep wanting to say, “he’s not in a better place you idiots. He isn’t anywhere any longer. He simply no longer exists—he has entered what I call the”night for which there is no morning”.
13. But I digress. This is only to say that the retirement years change over time. Given that nothing remains unchanging, these retirement years present rather unique changes in one’s lifestyle.
14. So, what to say about this large question? Perhaps I would assert that “the best years of your life” could be the years in which you find yourself. But “best” implies several things:
a. Health: if your health is good, life is good.
b. Money: if you have enough money, life is good.
c. Personal relationships: if your family remains intact, your marriage healthy, your loved ones healthy, life tends to be good.
15. If it turns out that, at one stage of life, you are so busy doing “A” (earning a living) that you can’t do “B” (write, travel, paint . . .) then one should re-examine lifestyle choices so that the tradeoffs are at least reasonable.
It may be that the question itself is either unanswerable, or simply a way of discussing the possibility that retirement need not be a total downer. And that assertion would be true for many folks, not for all as noted. Retirement does not mean that you must step off the planet. Indeed, many sweet years can be ahead of you. But those years are not unending, so it is important that you take advantage of whatever opportunities avail themselves.