‘So how’s retirement?”
I’ve frequently gotten that question from friends and acquaintances over the past two years. There is an easy answer to that question (good) and a more nuanced response that I’ve dished out more than once — especially to guys.
My late father said to me that, “Retirement is the hardest thing I’ve done.” He said that work had been his life since he was a teenager. While he had seen his own retirement approaching — scheduled for 1988 — he did not see a path beyond that, until my mother, with the assistance of Marian Palmberg Soderberg, set him up to mentor students at Warrenton Grade School.
In Portland, he continued that by assisting immigrants who were studying for the citizenship test. I had hoped he would write a memoir of the long span he had seen in Oregon politics, but he had no ambition for that.
Having watched my own experience, which began some two years ago, I have identified three steps in retirement. Step one is getting more sleep. Step two is what I call “We could do that.” In other words, we could play golf on a weekday. Or we could drive to Portland to see that movie that will never come to Astoria. Or take Amtrak to Tacoma to see that legendary automobile museum.
Step three is the big one. And that is the need to discover new purpose. In other words, a project.
I have been fortunate because writing has been my profession. And of course, writing involves no heavy lifting. Retirement has allowed me to pursue a book concept that I had nurtured for some 30 years, but with no time to execute. Chet Orloff, the Portland historian, was my sounding board.
The theme of this prospective book was “Eminent Oregonians,” modeled on Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians.” Chet heard me out on the idea in 1990. Upon leaving daily journalism in 2016, I renewed our conversation — this time for keeps.
Before I give you an update, let me share another element in the three-step retirement program. It comes from Frank Gehry, the architect. In a recent issue of WSJ: the Wall Street Journal Magazine, Gehry, who is 90, describes his latest project, which is leading the reclamation or refashioning of the Los Angeles River. He tells the WSJ interviewer that it is unlike anything he’s done. And that, Gehry said, prompts “a healthy insecurity.”
He adds a useful credo: “The only reason you keep going is if you know there’s something more to discover.”
When I recruited four writers to help me create “Eminent Oregonians,” I did it without the somewhat reckless buoyance of a 25-year-old, but with the healthy anxiety of a 70-year-old.
Researching my chapter, on the late Oregon Sen. Richard Neuberger, has been totally engrossing. There is joy in hitting the jackpot in a box of musty correspondence from the 1950s. I recommend research as a pastime. I further recommend the archive of the Clatsop County Historical Society. There are several books waiting to be written in the materials of that archive. If history is your fascination, Astoria is a mother lode.
Women are no different than men in their need to develop a post-working career set of options. But men tend not to talk about it. For The Wall Street Journal, the humorist Dave Barry wrote an amusing column about turning 70. He noted that while women instantly share one other’s problems, men do not. So Barry concluded that the reason the NFL, the NBA and the MLB were created was to give men something to talk about.
And that leads me to the later-in-life project I have not executed. As I approached retirement, I told my wife that I’d like to form a book group for men. We would read only one book — Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” That would keep us going for years.