Thursday, April 21, 2011

And so, what do we do now?

When it comes to advice about retirement, particularly by AARP publications, about 60 percent of it has to do with making sure you pile up enough money and the other 40 percent with health-related issues. So if you have as much money as Donald Trump, presumably without his comb-over or oxygen-depleting ego, and the body of a 30-year-old sprinter, you're good to go into a happy retirement.

After five years of retirement though, we've discovered another, possibly more important ingredient: Having a passion or some sort of unfinished business to fill all the free time retirement brings. Quitting work is not enough, as odd as that may sound to someone still slogging to work every day.

Some folks try to beat that "what am I going to do after I retire?" quandary by staying on the job until they croak at their desks or younger colleagues complain about their incoherent mumbling and/or unsightly drool stains on their ties. Ahem, it may be time to retire, Jack.

On the other hand, some federal legislators and financial whizzes want to "solve" the Social Security financing problem by gradually raising the retirement age to, say, about 90, so the government doesn't have to pay out any benefits except to a few Jack LaLanne-types who refuse to die. Jack died at 96 and probably pulled his own hearse to the cemetery with his gums.

There are also a few people who love their jobs, or say they do, and fewer still who make a ton of money at it. Retirement is out of the question. God bless 'em.

But most people don't want to work until they die yet haven't quite figured out what do when they quit. No matter how much planning they've done, the first day of retirement is a bit a shock, like someone pulling the plug on an fan that's been faithfully whirring along for 40 or 45 years. What is a fan to do if not whir? Even if you loathe your job, the routine of going to work catapults you out of bed every morning and provides you with a ready answer to the question of how you will spend the next eight, or maybe ten or twelve hours of your life.

A job can also provide an identity and an often false sense of importance. "I'm in personnel, sales, journalism or whatever" has a ring of purpose lacking in, "I'm retired in Mexico." This is particularly true for Americans who are more defined or driven by work than Europeans who on the contrary, can't imagine life without five weeks of vacation sipping cappuccinos.

When I tell someone I'm retired, the next question most often is, "Hmm, well, what did you use to do back in Chicago (when presumably you had some purpose in this world)?" A few times I've felt like responding, "Well I did nothing in Chicago, so you're going to have to take me for what I am doing right now."

When Stew and I first arrived here we both went through our own post-retirement crisis, complicated a hundred-fold by the day-to-day challenges and surprises of life in a different country--the Mexican subsidiaries of Costco and Office Depot notwithstanding. No matter how many times you've vacationed in Mexico or eaten at Taco Bell, it doesn't quite prepare you for the feeling of foreign-ness you find during the first several months here.

I can speak Spanish, which is always helpful if I need a bathroom pronto. Even then, mine is Cuban Spanish which is immediately detected by Mexicans. During our first year of retirement we used to visit a non-profit home for the elderly to play dominoes with the residents and help them pass their time. When I spoke to them, even those who had completely lost their marbles would look at me, pause and ask: Cubano? Stew thought it was hilarious that my efforts to "pass" were detected even by these thoroughly compromised minds.

We've also watched fellow retirees in San Miguel struggle to figure out what to do with their time, even if none would complain about too much free time. Most often you'll hear they are deliriously happy and hadn't looked back for a second.

I'm sure many of them are but occasionally these protestations didn't ring quite true. Stew and I stopped drinking about 25 years ago but had stopped attending AA meetings. In San Miguel I started going again and was surprised (and somewhat relieved) to find a thriving all-gringo, English-speaking AA meeting house that was jam-packed for all sorts of meetings almost round the clock. Folks often complained their drinking had re-started or spiraled out of control since they'd retired, something that, mercifully, neither Stew nor I experienced.

San Miguel also seems to be a mecca for the wu-wu crowd--you know, shamans, incense-burners, pseudo-spiritual gurus, Eastern religions, shantis, crystals, new-fangled meditation techniques and other quacky time-fillers. I've always had a weakness or curiosity about the world of wu-wu, particularly during my senior year of college when I was stoned a good deal of the time. But most of the stuff here is beyond me: This is more like wu-wu-wu.

Volunteer work is the traditional time-filler for retirees. San Miguel is fortunate to have more charitable organizations per capita than probably any other city north of the equator. Almost all these groups have been founded and are staffed by generous retired gringos wanting to help with all the poverty and suffering so evident in Mexico. And it is lots of gringo money and time that keeps all these groups going: Mexican involvement in them is woefully lacking.

But often volunteering is not a passion but a pasttime, a distraction to fill empty days, like playing shuffle-board aboard a cruise that goes on and on. So in San Miguel the good works of volunteer organizations sometimes are clouded by the eye-scratching infighting and squabbles among the members who behave like piranhas trapped in a ten-gallon fish tank. The needs of orphans, hungry families, abandoned animals or homeless old people become secondary to the desperate need of well-heeled ex-pats to have something to do or find a reason to get dressed and comb their hair in the morning.

We also have friends however, for whom retirement has meant up-shifting their lives rather than coasting to an inevitable stop. Carol and her partner Norma, who live strictly on Social Security, have developed a website and blog, and written a couple of books, precisely around the challenge of retiring in Mexico with not a lot of cash. Her website has become a more credible source of news and reporting than the English-language weekly.

Billie, whom I think used to work in personnel—but who cares what she did before?—continues her real passion as a brilliant photographer and recently announced in her blog that she had completed the installation of three (3) external storage drives, with a capacity of 550 gigas. Or something like that. She must have more pictures than the Vatican.

Then there’s George, whom I don’t really know all that well, except he used to be a professional violinist. We still see him driving his 30-year-old Oldsmobile up and down the hills of San Miguel, hands firmly on the steering, his eyes peering just over the dashboard with the determined look of a Navy Seal on the trail of the rest of al-Qaeda. His wife says George keeps coming up with complicated projects as if there’s no quitting time. He’s in his mid-90s. [June 1: Just got word that George Bell, the "George" mentioned above, died in his sleep last night; he was almost 95. His was a great run and a peaceful way to go.]

That leaves me. The first couple of years of retirement were aimless and difficult. There definitely was a withdrawal period.

Building this terrific house snapped both Stew and me out of those retirement doldrums. It was not only the design, construction, animals, trees, gardens and other chores associated with property ownership, but the creation of what some people call a forever home, reflecting our tastes and joys, not merely an address or shelter.

A passion I’d like to develop is from-the-heart writing, even fiction. My previous career at a newspaper I feel put me in a straightjacket of “objectivity” and formula writing. I’ve always been fascinated and envious of fiction writers, and even poets, who write about worlds and people only they know.

Photography is another piece of unfinished business. In high school I shot pictures for the school paper and was pretty good. Someone even approached me about a job as a assistant-cum-slave for one of the photographers at Sports Illustrated. I never particularly cared for sports but have always wondered about that road not taken.

What has never occurred to me so far is going back to full-time work. A former colleague from Chicago visited us recently and excitedly talked to me about a possible journalism gig back there. I don’t think I answered, but my are-you-out-of-your-mind look must have been enough of a response.

“I guess not,” he said.

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