My friend Claudia Luther recently retired. She has a few years on me, although not that many, and when she told me at dinner a few months ago that she was about to call it quits on the job front, I was genuinely shocked. When I asked her what she was going to do once she retired, she just smiled at me Mona Lisa-like and said "Retire. That's what."
I thought about her answer the whole way home from dinner and concluded that retirement must just be one of those things that you intuitively know how to do when the time comes -- kind of like a baby walking. I hope so, because I can honestly say I have never given two consecutive minutes of thought to what my retired life will look like -- largely because I'm convinced I can't afford to have one.
For me, retirement planning is all about the numbers. I regularly pick up a pen and paper and add up all my assets and income numbers in one column and then start subtracting what my expenses are. Sometimes it gets down to the hair-splitting details: Dry cleaning won't be a factor if I don't have to get dressed for work anymore; I'll be using less gas and having fewer oil changes when I'm not commuting; I won't be eating so many weekday lunches out at the overpriced lunch place near the office.
Sometimes I play mental math in my head, counting down the years, months and weeks until my kids are launched and computing how old I'll be and the likelihood that I'll still be employed then. Other times, I fool around with the online real estate sites to figure out how much equity I have in my house and what that could buy me in less-expensive markets. Then I start thinking about what life would be like in one of those less-expensive markets and I pour a glass of wine.
All in all, I spend an inordinate amount of time "planning" my retirement. But the one thing I never think about is what I will do on the morning after I say goodbye to my job. What will it feel like when I no longer have to rise at 5:30 a.m. and figure out a daily carpool schedule? I can't even imagine.
AARP needs an app for people like me. The closest I found was an article on their site, from which I quote: "What do you picture when you think about your retirement? . . . [Is] retirement the opportunity for you to do something very specific with your time on your terms?"
Great, but what exactly is that? I don't want retirement to feel like a consolation prize that you get just for showing up to your 66th birthday. Retirement needs to be more than just filling up dead time. For my retirement equation to balance, I need the sense that I am essential to something or someone. And that's what I fear trips up a lot of us. Is taking a photography class at the library really going to rock my boat?
Writing for pay and taking care of my family are what sustains me. When both those things are gone, how will my need to be needed be fulfilled?
When you work at doing something you love, everything else flows from it. Your social life, your friends, they all come from that little bulls'eye in the middle -- when you hit it right. But when you take away that centric force, does everything else fall apart? I fear it does.
Which is why I need to plan for my life, not my retirement. I need to identify where my sustenance will come from down the road.
There are some things in life that we do from a kind of muscle memory. I know a couple whose social life, for four years, centered around their only son's participation on the high school football team. They sat and cheered with the other team parents at each game, threw team victory parties at their house, spent hours every mealtime dissecting each play, each call, each game. They were so deeply invested emotionally that they kept going to the high school football games after their son graduated and went off to college. But somewhere around mid-season, the wife confided to me that it felt a little weird. Their admission ticket to the extended team "family" had been their son and without him there, they just didn't belong anymore.
But it was a good lesson -- for all of us: Life moves on and the more we adapt to its changing nature, the happier we will be. The woman has shifted her spare time to volunteering at the local animal shelter where she helps find homes for stray pets. While she and her husband both still work, the football experience taught them that when their roles come to an end, it's best to have something else to move on to.
As for my friend Claudia, I checked in with her a few weeks ago and I'd have to say retirement agrees with her. She was beaming. She looks more well-rested than I've ever seen her and she's planning a trip to see her family.
When I told her that I was writing a column about her answer to my question of what she was going to do, she said she had a new answer.
"I get asked it a lot," she said, "so I've refined the response. Now I just say that I am going to live in The Land of Unstructured Time." Made me wonder how real estate prices there are.
You don't have to get the new you in place tomorrow. A good first thing to do: practice some personal archeology. That means digging out the interests you used to have. Did you always want to raise orchids, sing in a choir, be an artist, take photos like Ansel, help abused animals?
Actually, that's the title of a book by Barbara Sher: It's Only Too Late If You Don't Start Now: How To Create Your Second Life At Any Age. Sher is a genius at getting people off the dime, out of their fear freezes and into new lives that fit. Certainly her books helped me go back to school in my sixties and get an MA in Gerontology, the study of older people. So any Sher book on Amazon would be number two on my get-going list.
Find someone who struggles with the same issues. This could be your mate, a former co-worker or a neighbor. It helps to know you are not alone. Exchanging ideas may result in a new perspective on retirement issues. Sometimes others can see you better than you can and might share what things they think you could do and enjoy.
Take classes in your interests at community colleges or adult ed classes in your area. Also look online. I got my degree from USC online. Warning: Degrees from established and reputable schools earned online require work and should be approached seriously. These are not degree mills. Your professors can be tough. Standards are high, exams taxing, papers arduous. Such credentials also can be expensive. Think $20,000 for a two-year curriculum to earn an MA. That's a high price, but such courses can be an investment in a new retirement career.
If you don't care about credit -- you just want the fun and challenge of the subject matter -- take free online university courses. Free online courses from major schools are a treasure chest of ideas and information and a good way to get your feet wet in any subject. For a list of high-quality courses, go to Education-Portal.com. MIT excels at this, and not just in science, but in the humanities with a wide offering of music courses. Carnegie Mellon is a leader online with many science courses. Tufts has wide offerings and excels in nutrition and medicine, both human and veterinary. UC Berkeley is not to be outdone. I had to stop writing this column just to listen to a computer class. All the links to these universities are at the website above.
It won't magically come your way. It takes effort and bravery to go down unknown paths. To his credit, my mate, Cranky Pants, ventured forth to fall in a river after a fish, to suffer through golf lessons in the heat of an Los Angeles summer and to spin out on a race track going over 100 mph. He decided who he was not: a fisherman, Tiger Woods or Sterling Moss. He found civil grand jury work instead -- interesting and done on cool dry land at zero mph. So, again, we salute him and others who get out there in retirement as test pilots of their own lives. Fly on!
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