BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DOLLAR?

By Paul

“Hello, sir, I’ve got a daughter back in a motel room, and I need money so we can stay there for a few more days. Can you help me out?

These were the words we were confronted with the other day, as my partner and I were leaving our local market, loading a week’s worth of groceries into the back of our car.

I’ll admit I was already in kind of a foul mood, because the cashier who had just rung us up had been paying a lot more attention to the box boy than to what she was doing at the cash register. In the process, she almost overcharged us by a huge amount ($17.00 for porcini mushrooms, instead of a dollar or two for creminis). If my partner hadn’t been watching, we’d have wound up overpaying by something like 80 or 90 percent. So, I wasn’t pleased.

On top of that, my perception of this woman now standing in front of us was that she looked pretty ragged. Not just in terms of clothing, but her face was puffy, and you pretty much got the impression that things hadn’t gone well in her life. In fact, my first thought was that she’d just gotten off what we used to call a “bender.”

So, already in a lousy mood, here’s how I replied: “I’ll be honest with you. I’m afraid if I give you any money, you’ll just go buy some cheap wine with it.”

“Oh, no sir, no wine!” she replied, laughing, maybe a little bit in an embarrassed kind of way. “No wine!”

And I, continuing on in my crummy mood, added: “Well, I don’t believe you. But I’m willing to give you the benefit of a doubt, just in case.” And I took my wallet out and gave her a dollar.

Now this, or something similar to it, is probably an interchange many of you have had before. Maybe many times. The streets of most American cities are filled with homeless people, some of whom really are just down on their luck, some of whom are there because of mental illness, and many of whom are substance abusers of one kind or another. When I was a kid, we called them winos, because they had a penchant for drinking Boon’s Farm, or some other cheap wine that you could buy for a dollar or two a gallon. No doubt, drugs cost a lot more.

The whole encounter left me with a bad taste in my mouth, though. My partner said to me afterwards: “Well, you’re a little grumpy today!” And, of course, he was right.

I got to thinking about it afterwards and it occurred to me that what I probably should have done was one of two things; either I should’ve simply (and politely) said: “No, sorry I can’t help you,” and left it at that, or I should have just given her the damn dollar, minus the high-handed commentary. After all, what’s a dollar to me? It’s not that we’re rich by any means, but for most of us, let’s face it, a dollar isn’t a lot of money anymore.

So, it wasn’t the money per se that was bothering me. What stuck in my craw was how I’d handled things. And note this. I’m a person who actually believes, at least most of the time, at least when I remember to remember, that the Divine Spark glows in every person you encounter on any given day. No matter how hidden it may be. So, what right did I have to say to this woman, this carrier of that Spark, that I didn’t believe her? And yet, the awful truth was that I actually didn’t believe her.

Later on, not to rub my nose in it, mind you, but just by way of filling in the blanks you might say, my partner told me that he’d noticed a Starbucks coffee cup in the basket the woman was dragging along behind her. So, if she could afford a cafelatemochafrappuccinogrande at Starbucks, or whatever they call them, which costs something like 3 or 4 dollars, then why was she hitting me up for a buck to keep a roof over her daughter’s head? At least, supposedly.

Which brings the big question up that I haven’t really posed yet: was I the total dupe? The answer is – probably. All right, maybe almost definitely. But you also never really know. And there’s the rub. I mean, I’m quite capable of imagining a scenario whereby somebody bought her a frappumocha-whatever out of the kindness or his or her heart, or maybe the woman found a half-filled cup and was finishing it off. Or maybe she’d just bought it on her own.

The issue comes down to that. You don’t know. You can think that you’re capable of reading the situation, of using your intuition in the best way possible, of watching and noting the clues and signs, but for most of us, it’s a guessing game, and who knows how many times we get it right?

I wondered later on what I would have done if she’d said to me, instead, something like: “I’ll be honest with you, I need some money for a drink. And I need a drink real bad.” Would I have given her the dollar? Probably not. I’ve seen too much of booze in my life already, and I know the damage it can do, not just to the drinker, but to those around him or her. So, I couldn’t have brought myself to contribute to more of it.   Although I will say I would’ve appreciated the honesty. But no doubt she knew all this. So, in a sense, you might say she felt she was forced into lying, if she had any hope of getting some money.

So, there you have it. Some days are like that. You’re annoyed and get grumpy with a cashier because she can’t, or won’t, concentrate on the job they’re paying her to do, and would rather flirt with the box boy instead, and then you almost get overcharged by a huge amount for half a dozen mushrooms. And a lady in the parking lot hits you up for some money to help keep a roof over her daughter’s head, but you don’t believe her, and maybe you’re right, maybe even most probably you’re right. But what if you’re not? So, you wind up giving her a buck, along with a haughty and overbearing little sermonette-in-a-sentence, and she goes off meekly thanking you.

My partner said to me, as we left the parking lot: “I’m surprised she didn’t tell you to go f… yourself.” And I said: “You’re right. I was forthright with her, so she certainly could have been forthright with me.” But in the end, I didn’t really think I was forthright. I thought I was kind of arrogant and condescending, and a little mean spirited. And maybe all because I was annoyed at a cashier who hadn’t been doing her job, and because I’d forgot to see the Divine in this woman.

I wonder where she is right now. Is she really with her daughter in a motel room somewhere? Or is she downing a bottle of cheap booze, or shooting some drug up, all the while, in part at least, using my money?   I still think there’s a Great Spark of the Divine Spirit in her. I only hope that someday she’ll see it. And maybe, too, I’ll remember all this the next time somebody approaches me, and treat that person a little less imperiously, a little more humanely – whether I choose to give her a buck or not – and a lot more as if that could be me, walking around in her shoes. There aren’t any foolproof answers, but I think you never go wrong if you treat people with a little dignity, and as much compassion as you can muster, even on those days when you’re feeling annoyed and out-of-sorts at distracted cashiers and flirting box boys.

…OR JUST READ THIS LATER

By Paul

Procrastination! Are you guilty of putting things off to the last minute, of rushing around madly as the deadline creeps nearer and nearer, or just figuring that somehow things will magically take care of themselves? If so, you may not appreciate my use of the word “guilty,” as mentioned above. Perhaps your sense of things is that this might actually be a better way of being in the world, at least compared with all those folks who are harassed and driven by deadlines, stressed out and straining to get things done by an arbitrary time certain for a boss, or a teacher, or some other taskmaster, or just by their own inner sense of a need for completion. And there are researchers who may even agree with you. At least from the point of view of genetics.

A new study out of the University of Colorado has suggested that what we think of today as procrastination may at one point have served a useful purpose in our evolutionary history. Researchers found that, once upon a time, immediate, tangible goals like finding food or fending off enemies were uppermost in the minds of many of our most successful ancestors. In fact, those who took care of business in this way may have had a tendency to live longer than their fellow tribe members, those with loftier things to think about, or who planned things out and deferred gratification for what, maybe erroneously, they thought to be a more propitious moment.

A strong correlation was noted, too, between procrastination and impulsive behavior, and vice versa, both due to genetic inheritance. In other words, although it may seem ironic at first, there is a marked tendency in those who procrastinate to act impulsively, and for those who act impulsively to procrastinate.  I say it may seem ironic because impulsive activity is not usually equated with putting things off. However, it is compatible with a resistance to stopping, thinking, and planning things out. Even so, this does not mean that, if someone has a genetic propensity toward either of these traits, the individual cannot or should not change his or her behavior. Genes are not total determinants of behavior, and environment can and does greatly influence how genes get “turned on,” or not. So, if you’re that terrible impulsive buyer, or a great procrastinator, and you wish you weren’t, there’s still hope.

But as I was reading the study, I began to wonder why other hunting traits in our genetic ancestors mightn’t have been of equal, or even of greater value. For example, why would it be better from an evolutionary (i.e. a survival) point of view for a hunter to drop everything “on impulse” and go hunting? Why not first think instead, “OK, there’s a big herd of buffalo, or wildebeest, or whatever out there, so if we plan things out and organize a hunting party, and you scare them in this direction, and I’m there waiting to pounce,” why wouldn’t this method deliver a much bigger dinner for the group than the one lone hunter, who went out on his own?   From this point of view, non-procrastination, that is, the tendency to plan things out carefully and get things done by a certain deadline (i.e., while the herd is still in striking distance, for example), might well be even more valuable. By the way, the same argument could be made about enemies, in terms of it being a better strategy to counter them in highly planned-out and coordinated ways, rather than that lone warrior going off to die in glory.

Nowadays, of course, most of us don’t get our dinner by hunting it, nor do we generally have to fend off enemies on our own. Still, many of us continue to be faced with feelings of hesitancy and resistance when it comes to getting a task done within a certain timeframe. So, it’s a fair question to ask whether or not procrastination is a useful trait anymore in the highly complex and sophisticated societies we all live in today.

There are all sorts of reasons given about why people procrastinate. One of the most common seems to be fear of failure. That may sound odd at first until we look deeper and see that people put things off because they think the task looks to be beyond their capacities, and if they were to dive right in and take the thing on, in the end it might not be done right anyway. So why risk it? If they don’t do it at all, or at least if they don’t do it now, then at least the procrastinator doesn’t have to deal with the shame or quilt of maybe having failed.

I’ll even step up and admit to my own procrastination, just so no one thinks I’m trying to write from some supposed moral high ground. I’ve put off making an eye appointment for almost a year now, and it’s just because of fear. I don’t want the ophthalmologist to tell me that I need a cataract operation, and I’m afraid he might tell me that I do. Finally, just the other day, I faced that fear, and I’ve now made the appointment. We’ll see soon enough if, in this case, my fears were “justified.”

Psychologists tell us that the antidotes to procrastination are self-discipline, persistence, and personal responsibility. Frankly, this sounds a little simplistic to me, something like saying you won’t be a procrastinator, if you learn how not to procrastinate. Of course, but how to develop these traits? How do you get to be a self-disciplined, persistent individual with a sense of personal responsibility? And furthermore, does that always align itself with things like creativity, originality, imagination, and fun-filled inventiveness?

Not that I’m suggesting, either, that the act of creation doesn’t require its own kind of discipline. No one learns how to draw, or paint, or write, or dance, or act, or play a musical instrument just by being spontaneous about it. There’s always a long period of training and apprenticeship involved, a time when you have to learn the basics of the craft and get a sense of the history of who’s done what before you. After that, maybe you can take off from there and change things in your own way, but you’ve got to take off from some place.

This all brings to mind for me the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. La Fontaine was one of the most famous writers of 17th century France, and his Fables, essentially poems that often use animal characters to deliver moral messages, have been memorized by French school children ever since. One of my favorites, which I memorized myself in high school, is called “La Cigale et La Fourmie,” the Grasshopper (literally, a cicada, but grasshopper is the more common translation) and the Ant. Mr. Grasshopper sings and plays around all day, while Mr. Ant works hard to carefully fill his larder. When winter’s breezes come, Mr. G. is hungry and asks his neighbor, Mr. A., for a handout. I give you my word, I’ll pay you back, he says, next August, both interest and principal! (“Je vous paierai , lui dit-elle/Avant l’août, foi d’animal/Intérêt et principal!”) But Mr. A. isn’t really the lending type (think “neither a borrower, nor a lender be,” as Polonius tells his son, Laertes, in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”). What, he wants to know, were you doing all last summer anyway? Oh, I was singing, Mr. G. says, whenever anybody came round. Well fine, replies Mr. A., then now maybe you’d better dance! (“Vous chantiez? J’en suis fort aise/Eh bien! Dansez maintenant”).

Actually, the ending here is a little less moralistic, and a little more ambiguous, than you might expect from a fable. La Fontaine’s ant doesn’t exactly say “no” to his hungry, song-filled neighbor. He tells him to go dance instead. And that’s not quite the same thing. Maybe the world isn’t so easily divided between procrastinators and “doers.” Maybe most of us are part ant and part grasshopper. We play one role or the other at one time or another in our lives.   So, let’s not be too condemnatory of those who put things off.

Sometimes, it would seem that it’s best just to drop everything, jump up, and go hunting, and sometimes it’s better to wait and carefully hatch out a whole strategy. The real trick is to know the difference, to plan and strategize when that’s right, and to dance and dream when that’s called for. In the end, I’ve found that there’s nothing wrong with doing a little of both.

I, for example, have been meaning to write this essay for the longest time. And now, you see, I’ve finally gotten round to doing it.

FRICKING AND FRACKING AROUND WITH THE PLANET

By Paul

The word “fracking” has come to be used as a kind of shorthand abbreviation for the more technical term “hydraulic fracturing,” but I’m really not sure which of the two sounds more ominous and pejorative to me. The technical expression brings images to mind of cracking and breaking things apart, which, in fact, is exactly what happens. It is a process whereby millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are injected under high pressure into the ground in order to break apart, or “fracture,” the rock below. The fissures so created are then held in place by the sand, and the released oil or gas is pumped to the surface. In one sense, even to the layman, this sounds simple enough, and that’s the message that large oil and gas companies most definitely want to project: simple and safe.

“Fracking,” on the other hand, has become the term more favored by environmentalists and others opposed to the process. Personally, I can’t help thinking of Frick and Frack every time I hear it. And while that may sound as if I’m minimizing or trivializing the concerns of those who question this highly invasive and toxic procedure, I don’t mean to. Most people don’t even know anymore who Frick and Frack were, it seems. They were actually two real people, believe it or not, two Swiss gentlemen to be precise, who came to this country in the mid-1930’s, and who then became a famous comedic act performing in the Ice Follies. They skated and horsed around and made a lot of folks laugh, which no doubt was a good thing in the throes of the Great Depression. They soon became so well known that the term “Frick and Frack” entered into the language in a couple of ways. One was as a general reference to two guys who were constantly hanging out together and who came to be seen as almost indistinguishable. The other meaning took off from the first, but added another layer, that is, two guys frequently seen together, acting like “bozos” or clowns.   In the new 21st century context, I like to think of “Frick and Frack” as the modern take on Big Oil/Gas Companies and – sorry to say – government.

I say this because Big Oil or Gas can’t really go fracking around without government permission. And it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anybody that Big Money, which Big Oil and Gas most definitely have lots of, often goes to grease the wheels of government. I’m not talking about outright bribes, although I can’t say I would be totally “shocked-shocked” to hear of that too, but more so about the lobbying efforts that bring favorable bills to the fore in Congress and in state assemblies, to say nothing of the big bucks that go to getting “the right” representatives elected to these bodies in the first place.

Still, I suppose we really ought to try to be fair about things. Companies that do hydraulic fracturing claim that there are safeguards aplenty in place to protect the environment. I know that this may smack of the old “trust me” plea, akin almost to “the check is in the mail” scam, except that this time the checks are at least ostensibly in place beforehand. But shouldn’t we at least listen to what they have to say? Here is what one company, in fact, states: “Casing and cementing are critical parts of the well construction that not only protect any water zones, but are also important to successful oil or natural gas production from hydrocarbon bearing zones. Industry well design practices protect sources of drinking water from the other geologic zones of an oil and natural gas well with multiple layers of impervious rock.” Later on, referencing the chemical component of the injected slurry, they comment that “(t)he composition of the chemical mixes varies from well to well.”

The latter makes it sound as though this chemical mixture is a minor afterthought, and one that benignly varies in a simple sort of way merely to accommodate local requirements. In actual fact, companies almost never tell us exactly what these chemical additives are, although other sources report that they are often highly toxic and can cause cancer. Much of the language above reflects and reminds us of that used by other companies with a “trust-us-not-to-harm-you-or-the-environment” approach. Didn’t Exxon say similar soothing things to the people of Prince William Sound, for example, just before the huge oil spill (which was never supposed to happen) in 1989, and which still today, 25 years latter, continues to negatively impact the lives of humans and animals alike? And what of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of April, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico? We were similarly assured by British Petroleum, Haliburton, and others to “trust us” about this well, that all safeguards were in place and that technology had so advanced that anyone would have to be nothing more than a foolish fear-monger to worry. Technology is always touted by way of allaying the fears of those who fret, and we are always assured that modern science and engineering has taken care of “all those old problems.” So, stop worrying!

Well, I say, worry on. Just this week, geologists in Ohio have found “a probable connection” between fracking and several earthquakes in the region. The state shut down Hilcorp Energy Company’s fracking operation there because of five earthquakes near the Pennsylvania border, including one that registered 3.0 on the Richter scale. According to an article in the April 14, 2014 edition of the Los Angeles Times, scientists have found “a significant relationship between the initial blast of fluid and the earthquakes shortly afterwards.”

And in one sense, earthquakes ought to be the least of our concerns. There have been multiple accounts of a connection between fracking and contaminated ground water (apparently in spite of the “casing and cementing”), as well as greatly increased air and noise pollution, to say nothing of the enormous amounts of fresh water that are needed for the process. Between 1.2 and 3.5 million gallons are needed for the fracturing and completion of a well, and for larger wells, as many as 5 million gallons of water are required. As one expert has noted, “Shell gas wells completed in 2011 across the United States consumed on the order of 135 billion gallons of water.” And what to do with the contaminated water afterwards with, you remember, those toxic chemicals in it? Pump it back in the earth, we are told, but there have been many examples of this noxious mishmash leaking out into surrounding lakes, streams, and even reservoirs.

All this, and we haven’t even spoken about the specious underlying rationale of extracting yet more and more oil and gas out of the earth, with both the process itself and the results of it flushing more and more dangerous hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, thereby causing yet greater pollution, and ultimately warmer and warmer temperatures around the globe.

President Obama says we need “all of the above” in order to meet our energy needs for the 21st century, meaning that we’ve got to go on relying on “old technologies” that continue to pollute, while we are exploring and creating newer ones that do not. Even if there may be some truth to this, we have to think about drawing the line somewhere. And maybe fracking is where the buck ought to stop. Our two old Swiss friends made a lot of people laugh with their antics, and God knows we still need humor. But fricking and fracking around with the earth and the environment isn’t really a laughing matter. Let’s make a decision to stop this nonsense, and put our efforts where they can really do some good. We can no longer afford to clown around with whatever bozos care more about the bottom line than they do about the planet.

WHAT POWER POPES ONCE HAD, OR HOW A PAPAL BULL EFFECTED THE LIVES OF MILLIONS OF AMERINDIANS

By Paul

There’s been a brouhaha of late in tony Santa Barbara County, California, between the Chumash Nation and many of the locals. The Chumash want to build a bigger and better gambling casino, including more hotel space, for those who like to loll away the hours depositing money in electronic slot machines. The locals very much want things to remain the way they are, and fear that proposed changes will alter the nature of the area – more traffic, more outsiders (read, the hoi polloi?), less bucolic peace and quiet, which they pay a lot for. And, to be completely fair, I ought to add that there are no doubt other factors at work, as well, in terms of zoning laws, environmental regulations etc.

So, I’m not exactly taking sides on this one, since I admit to feeling very torn. First off, I’m not really much of a fan of gambling.   Sure, in a sense it’s like drinking alcohol, or any other thing that some consider to be a vice. If done in moderation, what harm can it really do? And while that’s true, it’s also the case that there are those who get hooked on it and ruin their lives, as well as the lives of those who love them. Personally, I can’t even stand going into a casino. Just the ping-ping noise of the machines sets my teeth on edge, and somehow I get this feeling of a vast aura of desperation. For me, it’s an uncomfortable place. On the other hand, it seems to be one of the only ways that Indians have ever been able to accumulate a degree of wealth in a society that has long considered them to be second and third class citizens. There’s definitely nothing glamorous or virtuous about being poor, so who can blame the Indians for latching onto a thing that works? The money gambling brings in can be used for education, healthcare, housing, and a whole host of other necessities that much of white society takes for granted, though not always all people of color.

Looking back at history, there’s no doubt that Indians have gotten the rawest of raw deals from Europeans, and later on from white Americans. In fact, as a measure of how invisible Indians are, most people don’t even think about or bother to educate themselves regarding what has happened over the years. In a short essay, I certainly won’t attempt to encapsulate the enormous, sad history of Indian-white interaction ever since that fateful day on Oct. 12, 1492, when Columbus “discovered” the so-called New World. Even the use of the term “discover” highlights the arrogance and high-handedness with which native populations have been treated. After all, the word means to find something new, something that no one had seen before, a place that was not known to exist. When, in fact, it was only the Europeans who didn’t know.   Depending on which anthropologist and which theory you believe, Indians have been in this hemisphere anywhere from between twelve and twenty thousand years.

Naturally, once word spread that the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria had landed everybody wanted to get in on the act. That meant that everyone wanted a piece of the giant pie that had been “discovered.” The indigenous population of Indians, so called because Columbus was so turned around he thought he’d somehow landed in India, counted for very little. They were, in fact, pretty much just in the way. And besides, they were pagan savages, so Europeans were duty-bound to convert them to the true religion and in so doing to civilize them.

The very briefest of historical sketches might help to set the stage for that day when Columbus and his men first set foot on Guanahani Island, and the whole world changed for those who lived there, as well as for all other native inhabitants of the Americas. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what is called a Papal Bull (a kind of official “letters patent,” granting an office, a right, a title etc.) to the King of Portugal, allowing him to declare war against non-Christians throughout the world and sanctioning conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christians and their possessions. Later on, the King of Spain, who was not to be outdone, demanded one of his own, and got it. The Bull “inter Caetera” was issued in May of 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands Columbus had “found.” This included all rights over peoples so discovered, who were to be “subjugated and brought to the faith itself.” Pope Alexander went so far as to draw a line from the North Pole to the South Pole, stipulating that the Spanish Crown could take any lands to the west of this line of demarcation, unless, of course, such lands had already “come into the possession of any (other) Christian lords.” Indigenous peoples were considered the “lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.”

In essence, this document, and the legal reasoning found therein, was used for the next several centuries as a blueprint for how to deal with Indians. It has come to be referred to as “The Doctrine of Discovery.”   In the United States, it was the basis for a Supreme Court ruling handed down in 1823. In this ruling, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that Christian nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the Americas during the so-called Age of Discovery. As a result, all Indians living within those lands had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations.” Marshall specifically gave the U. S. government the right to occupy lands previously controlled by “the natives, who were heathens.”

The logical result of these legal documents can be seen in how Indians have been treated in this country. If their lands were not simply taken from them by force, if Indians were not killed off by smallpox or other European diseases against which they had no natural defenses, if their cultures and ways of life were not decimated by alcohol, then so-called treaties were made, which were largely legal conveniences that were never meant to be upheld, once it came time for white people to make their move. And all this was done in the name of civilizing and Christianizing them, a logical and legal throwback to the Papal Bull promulgated by Pope Alexander VI.

No apology has ever been forthcoming from the Catholic Church (or from the American government, for that matter) for these injustices done to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, no admission of wrong, no acknowledgement of pain or suffering or loss, no compensation, no acceptance of guilt, no mea culpa. This is a fact of history, a thing that most Indian peoples have simply learned to live with over the years. The best lands were taken from them and given to white settlers, and what was left was “reserved” for them. For many years, it was forbidden that their languages be spoken, their religious traditions were belittled and condemned, and their wonderfully varied cultural expressions denigrated and disparaged. They were put into servitude by Franciscan friars, and their children were forcibly taken from them and placed in boarding schools hundreds of miles away, where they could be taught to “behave like civilized white people.” While those left on the reservations came to know the meaning of poverty, want, and cultural dispossession.

So, fast forward to the 21st century, and we wonder whether or not the Chumash of Santa Barbara County, California, ought to be given permission to expand their gambling casino. Should the Chumash really take into consideration the rich people who live around them and their desire for peaceful country living? And what about the zoning and environmental regs? I still don’t claim to know the answer to all this, but if I were to try to put myself in the shoes of a member of the tribe, I guess I could imagine myself thinking, why shouldn’t it be my turn now? The Doctrine of Discovery, after all, did what it was intended to do. It “civilized” and Christianized the heathen Indians. So, why is everyone complaining now that those same Indians want to take advantage of an opportunity to make money? You know, just like those good, civilized, white Christian folks, who live in the beautiful country surrounding them, have always done?

 

BEYOND RETIRING: RETHINKING, REINVENTING, RENEWING OURSELVES

By Paul

Having stopped work some seven and a half years ago now, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what retirement actually means, and to an extent how to do it, at least for myself.

But before discussing it in detail, I should probably admit to being a little uneasy with the term retirement itself. After all, if we take a look at the etymology of the word and note its history and where it comes from, we see that it first entered into English back in the 16th century, coming from the Middle French “re” and “tirer,” meaning “back” and “to draw.” So, the sense was to draw back, to separate oneself from, to retreat, to withdraw to a place of safety and seclusion. Later on, it took on another specific meaning, that of going to bed. People in the nineteenth century, for example, might well have said, “I think I shall retire now,” and everyone understood that they wished to leave the company and go to their bedroom in order to sleep. Even today, the emphasis seems to be on the leaving of something, on separating oneself from, on pulling out, or absenting oneself from what had come before. Is that, I wonder, what I was thinking of when I retired?

Well, to an extent, I suppose it was. I knew I was leaving a job I’d had for almost twenty years, in a profession I’d practiced for more than forty years. I knew I would no longer be following that same regime of getting up and going to an office each morning, arriving by 7:00 a.m., or so (I always got there early), and dealing with all of the managerial and supervisory issues that once filled my day, to say nothing of a host of policy concerns, as well as the rounds of endless meetings, the official visitors from universities abroad who frequently came by, and numerous other tasks that it was my duty to perform. From all this, I knew, I was in fact withdrawing. And I was quite happy to do so. As much as I had once found it all interesting and even stimulating, by that time I’d really had quite enough of it.

So, it was clear that retirement meant putting the emphasis on my departing from something. It did not, however, say anything about my stepping into anything new. But in fact that was exactly what I was looking forward to. I felt much more as though I were entering into a new phase of life, rather than merely ending an old one. I certainly did not feel as though I was withdrawing from the world, or retreating into a place of safety and, except for the usual hours of slumber, I definitely didn’t feel like I was stumbling off to bed. In fact, I still often get up before 6:00 a.m., perform my daily meditation, eat breakfast, and then go to work on some project or other.

Before discussing what I do, I want to make sure not to be misunderstood. I’m not one of those people who believes that they are wasting their life if they’re not constantly “busy.” Busyness, in and of itself, has never been a goal of mine. I’m not sure what that even exactly means, but I am often quite content just to sit and read a book, or occasionally go out into the backyard and look at the beautiful flowers that my partner and I are growing there: lilies of several different varieties, orchids, snapdragons, pansies, petunias, freesias (depending on the season, of course), as well as irises, roses, and so on.

Even so, I still have things that I want to do, tasks I’d like to accomplish. I suppose I could say one of them was thinking about what this notion of retirement means. It may seem odd that thinking about what you’re going to do could be considered in someway akin to the actual doing of it. But let’s remember that most actions have their genesis in thought, and without prior contemplation and reflection we risk those actions coming off as half-baked and ill-conceived.

Which brings me back to the notion of life-after-retirement. Rethinking, reinventing, renewing, these are, or ought to be, the first occupations a post-retired man or woman ought to spend time considering. I’ve already spoken about the rethinking part, but it is the essential starting point. Or not. Maybe you don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking. Maybe your interests are already perfectly clear. I know they were for me. Long before I retired, I knew that I wanted to spend a lot of time writing. And I have done that. I never promised myself that I had to be “successful” at it, that I had to find a publisher and get it out there in book form. Of course, it would still be nice, but I always felt the most important thing was to continue writing. In fact, so far I’ve written dozens of short stories, some poetry, a novella, a post apocalyptic novel and, of course, more or less weekly essays on our blog. Between my blog partner, Kevin, and myself, we now have 147 essays posted on this site.

That, I suppose, was in essence the rethinking part of it, followed by action, by getting into a rhythm, a kind of regime, sitting down each day and writing. You do it, even if you don’t always feel like it, or feel inspired, or if you’d really rather take a nap. All writers, whether they are successful at it or not (that is, whether they’re published or not), know that writing is a discipline. Of course, not every reinventing of oneself in retirement necessarily demands such a marked degree of self-regulation. As I’ve already mentioned, self-discipline itself also needs to leave room for just sitting back and musing, and on sometimes doing nothing at all.

In some ultimate way, retirement also gives us the opportunity to both renew and to reinvent ourselves. Those who are successful at it do so in ways that deepen, enrich, and reinvigorate their bodies and their psyches. Although not the only approach, one way to do this is to take on something completely different from what you had done at work in the past. If you were an engineer, for example, begin a process of learning about poetry or film or painting; if you were in business all of your life, spend time with little children or teaching reading to adults who have never learned how to do so; if you spent your life with the principal aim of making money, spend your retirement helping the poor; if you managed an office or taught literature, become impassioned and learn all you can about theoretical physics and the great mysteries of the cosmos. There is a great deal to be said for this kind of renewal and reinvention of the self in different and potentially fascinating arenas of life that played no role in your earlier professional world. I’m not saying that this is right for everyone, but consider the benefits in terms of the expansion of one’s horizons and of the sheer joy and reinvigorating energy of learning and doing something entirely new.

And let us not forget our bodies. Human beings are not just minds, or psyches, or emotional or even spiritual beings. We are also corporeal ones. We have bodies and we owe it to these bodies to take care of their needs. Get out there and exercise! If you’ve never exercised before, of course, don’t go crazy. Be smart about it and begin reasonably. Start with a short walk every day. Fifteen or twenty minutes are enough, but keep at it. The key to exercise at any age, but especially when one is older, is to do it regularly. And gradually build up so that, after a while, you are walking half an hour each day, and eventually forty or forty-five minutes. Add other calisthenics, as well, a few easy sit-ups, some jumping-jacks, and as you get more and more fit, you can even add push-ups. If you have never exercised on any kind of a regular basis before, this too is part of renewal in retirement.

And I have nothing against television, but keep watching it to a minimum. If contemplation is best (and again here I include both reading and the appreciation of nature), constructive and energizing action is second best. Leave TV watching to a distant third. People sometimes get stuck in retirement because no one is there to organize and construct their day, the way the demands of work once did. So, be that organizing person for yourself. Make a schedule, stick to it, vary from it when it seems right, and do nothing when that’s best.

One way or another, don’t just retire from something. Consider it an opportunity to rethink, reinvent, and renew your life. In so doing, you will greatly benefit, and play a role, however large or small, in making the world a better place – surely for yourself – and perhaps for everyone around you, as well.