"But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go..."
The Beatles were the soundtrack for that Wednesday morning in June of 1970. I’d managed to get fired from a job I hated, and wound up at large in downtown Boston, one of the oldest cities in North America. I soaked up the sun in Boston Common (established in 1634), checked out the house where Paul Revere worked as a silversmith (1770-1800) and the gilded dome and red brick of the State House (built in 1825).
Even though I didn’t spend a dime, I felt wealthy, privileged. The city was a banquet, and I was invited to the feast. Even so, and not to belabour the metaphor, by early afternoon I was getting hungry. I needed to get another job if I wanted to eat or pay the rent. But for that one glorious morning I got a glimpse of what wealth (or retirement) might be like – waking up each day to a world of possibilities.
But that's not always the case. Some newly retired people panic when faced with all that time. They miss the structure, tension and importance of work -- the feeling of being part of a team, accomplishing things. And let’s face it, retired people just don’t draw as much water as working people.
“I felt like a defunct species, an old Studebaker left in the weeds.”
That’s the way Cliff saw his life as he headed for the shady side of sixty. Cliff was an English teacher, then a farmer. His wife got the farm in the divorce settlement, and Cliff stopped teaching. Instead, he drove the highways of America in a camper van, feeling sidelined, irrelevant, like a model they just don’t make any more.
Cliff is the narrator and titular character in The English Major, a novel by Jim Harrison. And although he’s fictional, Cliff personifies the growing number of retired geezers who feel like they don’t matter much anymore. My friend the photographer was lamenting this the other day. Being Argentine, he said he felt like un cero a la izquierda – “a zero to the left” of the decimal point. It’s a way of describing the feeling after retirement of being unnecessary -- neither use nor ornament.
“I used to be a somebody,” another retired friend told me. Now people don’t return his calls or answer his e-mails. It’s a profound loss of status for some people, a rude shock for others, and a tough adjustment from the give-and-go of the working world, no matter what the job was. Where once it seemed like there weren’t enough hours in the day, now there are too many.
A lot of people go back to some kind of work shortly after retiring. They miss the routine and the social interaction. The money doesn’t hurt either. Even a modest pension doesn’t stretch as far as a full paycheque.
On the other hand, when you're retired, you can write a new script for yourself every day. Or do absolutely nothing at all. It’s like being a kid again, only with a bit more money, a driver's license and a body that doesn’t work quite as well. Not a bad trade-off. Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go.