Column: Type A retirees
They want a productive second act, but not everyone wants to be written into the script
Shortly before my good friend T.J. decided to retire from his high-powered job, I suggested that we collaborate on a play. T.J., who had abandoned a career as an actor and playwright 30 years earlier, almost immediately sent me an engaging one-act play called Alms. I quickly got to work writing jokes and rearranging scenes, and within a month we had the play ready to go.
Before we could schedule a public reading of Alms, T.J. sent me a second play. Because I am still an active member of the workforce, I could not immediately give it the attention it deserved. By the time I started to work up a head of steam, T.J. had sent me the first 40 pages of a third play about two brothers divided by their opposing political beliefs. And he was already sketching out a fourth collaboration.
It is a basic principle of warfare that you must never fight a war on more than one front. I learned this too late, as did Napoleon. And so I soon found myself facing the same situation as Bonaparte at Waterloo — so preoccupied with the English army directly in front of me that I never noticed the Prussian army sneaking in from the side. Because T.J., who was not even officially retired yet, was not the only Type A person I knew. I have a number of friends who have recently retired, and none of them is going gentle into that good night. They are attacking retirement with all the passion with which they had attacked their careers. And they expect me to help them do it.
Was I free for breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Could I go to the Army-Air Force game up at West Point? How about the New York Knicks developmental league game in White Plains? They had an extra ticket for La Traviata. They had an extra ticket for La Bohème. They had an extra ticket for everything.
Alas, these outings were not innocuous social get-togethers, but heavy-duty work sessions. While we were at the game or the film or the opera, they would spring the trap. Could I give a speech at an event they were organizing? Could I read a memoir they had just written? Any chance of my pitching in and helping with their foundation that helps teach ex-cons marketable skills?
Or consider this. My best friend, Rob, retired from the IRS in his late 50s. That left him with a lot of time on his hands. He filled it in various ways: estate planning, helping a sick friend sell his house, the usual. Then one day, thanks to Facebook, he found out that he was living not 15 minutes away from the lead guitarist in the garage band we had played in 43 years earlier while growing up in Philly. Feelers were put out and the bass player from the band was run to earth, and soon the Phase Shift Network had a joyous reunion. At first we merely got together to play “Sunshine of Your Love” and talk about the good old days before Billy Joel showed up on the scene and ruined life as we know it. But then we got a drummer off Craigslist. And then things got serious. And then we started playing all the time.
Unfortunately, those guys all live in or around Philadelphia, while I live 120 miles away. I found myself flying up and down the dreaded Jersey Turnpike every fourth Sunday, playing “Hey Joe” with a band consisting of the retired, the semi-retired, and the soon-to-be retired. Fortunate son? I think not.
Last year we hired a hall and held a concert for a hundred of our friends. It was great fun. But after that, exhausted by all the travel, I suggested to Rob that we scale back the live music for a while and write a musical together. Rob quickly sent me 30 jaunty, exquisitely crafted songs. All we needed now was a script — which I could easily bang out if I weren’t already writing four full-length plays with T.J.
In olden days, people did not retire. They simply died. This made it impossible to write a musical. But as life expectancies lengthened, people began to live a long time after retirement. That first wave of retirees knew what to do once their race was run. They fished. They knitted. They read Master and Commander novels. They traveled. And they did all this at a relaxed pace. They did not overcommit. They did not overschedule. They chilled.
The first wave of the retirees among my own acquaintance fit into this laid-back, reassuringly generic mold. They packed in their jobs selling computers and moved to Hawaii, sending me an annual postcard telling me how much fun they were having golfing. Or playing tennis. That was fine with me, as I loathe both sports. And as I had no desire to learn Portuguese, or visit those amazing waterfalls in Argentina, or get a master’s degree in theology, their retirement activities did not make me envious.
But then the second wave of retirees arrived. These were not laid-back old geezers happy to play bridge and drift down the Rhône in a houseboat and learn Introductory Sanskrit to help stave off Alzheimer’s. These were Type A retirees. They had seized life by the throat when they were working, and they were going to seize it by the throat now that they were retired. They were going to serve on the board of their local health clinic. They were going to chair fundraisers for the public schools. They were going to get things built, bills passed, politicians elected.
Once retired, Type A people — accustomed to delegating responsibility to others — must cast about for someone new to task with demanding chores. In my circle of friends, because I am self-employed and therefore appear to have lots of time on my hands, that someone is me.
I am not a Type A person. I am not a 24/7 kind of guy. I do not take it to the limit one more time. I don’t even take it to the limit the first time. I am not the kind of person who gets things done yesterday. I get them done when I feel like it. Often I do not get them done at all.
But because I am now hemmed in by high-energy retirees, I have been plunged into a vicariously stressful Type A life. I am writing introduc-tions to books. I am listening to self-recorded compact discs. I am reading family histories, self-published astrological guides, novels involving hipster werewolves masquerading as hedge fund managers. It is quite, quite laborious.
If retirees would embrace their traditional role and sit on the porch whittling or making quilts, the rest of us could breathe easy. But because so many of them fall into the Type A category, the rest of us find ourselves struggling to keep up.
That’s why we need to cajole our Type A friends into doing things that will get them all tuckered out so they’ll leave us alone. That’s where golf comes in. Despite its negligible merits as a sport, golf performs a positive societal function because it takes four or five hours to finish 18 holes. Five hours spent playing golf is five hours that can’t be spent asking other people to read your self-published book of haiku. That’s why I never disparage the game in front of my retired friends.
Nor do I ever discourage people from taking a year off to hike the Appalachian Trail or live on a houseboat in Tierra del Fuego. Take two years, guys. Take 10. For similar reasons, I never talk down bridge. I never make fun of people for playing bingo or attending supper club productions of Pal Joey. If retirees want to jump into the Winnebago and visit all 50 state capitals, to them I say, “Godspeed.” I even encourage them to visit every baseball stadium while they’re at it, or go to England and spend a month in the room where Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland, or visit the house where the lead singer from the Small Faces grew up. To deal with the coming onslaught of Type A retirees, the rest of us need to encourage them to sign up for Danish classes, join the Peace Corps, replace the roof on every abandoned house in the South Bronx, or go on long, long, long trips to Nepal. Otherwise, we’ll never have a minute’s peace.
• Joe Queenan is a freelance writer based in Tarrytown, New York. Read more stories from The Rotarian.