Whoever said that happiness is watching a workplace disappear in the rearview mirror has never been forced to sit idle. Trading a livelihood for leisurely living may sound appealing when the hounds are howling, but after all of the stressful issues have finally been resolved and the dust has settled on that last decisive challenge, the overwhelming sense of uselessness that comes with inactivity is crippling. The longer a guy is out of the game, the more he is inclined to crave being a player.
Sometime during the winter of 2006, thoughts of retirement began seriously crowding my scenery. Visions of laying down the wrenches and kicking back into a life of leisure had always been in the back of my mind, but other than putting money into an IRA and paying off the mortgage, I had not formulated much of a plan for crossing that career-ending finish line. It occurred to me that making the transition from dream to reality was no longer all that far into the future, but gazing over the hill at the backside of fifty also presented an interesting dilemma. Do people actually put away their careers and still have purpose? More to the point, could I ever realistically afford to stop working?
For years I had been quietly observing the lifestyles of the retired and anonymous. At one end of the spectrum, the golden years seemed to be characterized as winters spent in Florida playing shuffleboard, Tuesday morning tee times, and a wardrobe consisting of plaid polyester slacks and polo shirts. On the flip side there was Bubba in his backyard next to the outdoor refrigerator, charring burgers on the grill, a spatula in one hand and a beer in the other, sporting a sleeveless football jersey and a ball cap with his favorite NASCAR driver’s number on the back.
Both images screamed “Run for your life!” Although certain aspects of nearly every lifestyle held a measure of appeal, the thought of a pigeonholed existence to any extreme scared me to death.
Understandably, my idea of front-yard, hands-on hobbies would likely be considered intolerable inside one of those sterile gated communities full of perfectly manicured lawns and painted driveways. Likewise, I would find no comfort living in a neighborhood full of cars on blocks, staring at the engine parts spread across the guy next door’s front porch.
In other words, if I decided to spend my retirement years on a golf course, it would probably have to be as the cart mechanic. Fun is relevant, but there needs to be something more tangible than bragging rights to show for the time I invest in leisure activity. A score card just doesn’t do it for me.
And there lay the problem: What exactly was retirement supposed to look like, anyway?
Dad was a World War II veteran who had lost his leg to a German mortar. If anything, the challenges he faced as a leg amputee inspired him to rise above the obstacles and show the world that he did not need crutches. He pursued happiness through independence and self-discipline.
Like most folks of his generation, war and strife had hardened Dad. Growing up without a mother during the Great Depression of the 1930s forced him and his eight siblings into survival through the school of hard knocks. Nobody had held their hands when they were faced with adversity, so they weren’t about to hold anyone else’s. When it came time to introduce their own children to the ways of the world, all they had to fall back on was their pitiless self-confidence.
When I was somewhere around the age of nine, Dad tagged me with the nickname Daze, probably because I always struggled when handed chores that didn’t come with instructions. It never occurred to me that his approach to getting things done might actually have been a vote of confidence in my ability to handle them on my own.
It was disappointing after each project had been finished to watch Dad review my bent-nail-and-split-board quality of workmanship with head-shaking frustration while grumbling under his breath. My nickname was eventually changed from Daze to Dunce. I pictured myself in the front corner of the classroom, wearing one of those cone-shaped hats while classmates pointed and snickered.
In spite of feeling as though I would never be able to please him, I still loved my dad. Adolescence wasn’t all that bad by comparison. Our guidance had certainly been laced with impressive doses of fear, rejection, disappointment, and uncertainty, but at the time, there seemed to be nothing unusual about the way my brothers, my sister, and I were being raised…