Bob Cox, of Frankfort, Ky., offers some insights into the joys of retirement. If you would like to submit a post to Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
Today I painted a puffin. I could not have done that last year. On a Monday morning a year ago I would have been jumping on a loan production call sweating that my boss would not be pleased with my meager efforts to grow the corporation.
But now I am free. Every day offers a brand new adventure.
I recently arrived at one of life’s great milestones. I had looked forward to the day with great anticipation. I set up a countdown calendar on my phone. I organized all of the important details I could imagine. I even planned a special toast with my wife at The Champagnery in Louisville. When December 31st arrived and it was official, I finally retired after working for 40 years.
Now, I am several months into my newfound retirement. Newfound is an accurate description as this period in life has become a journey of discovery. I fully expected the jubilation that accompanies closing out one’s career. But I was unprepared and pleasantly surprised by the exuberance I now feel from the total freedom to decide what each day will hold. I am often asked, “Are you enjoying retirement?” That’s like asking a child if they are happy on Christmas Day. What is there not to like?
My childhood friend and fellow retiree Sallie Showalter shared with me a perspective that a friend of hers had expressed: Our lives can be divided into thirds. The first third is preoccupied with childhood and education. The middle third is typically devoted to family and career. Retirement comprises our final one third. This was a remarkable revelation and an inspiring point of view for me. If we truly have another 1/3 of our years ahead, then retirement is not just the end of a career, it is the beginning of another significant portion of our lives!
I find myself quite stimulated and eager to open this new chapter. It begs the question, “What can I accomplish now?” And perhaps, “Is the best yet to come?” I love that possibility.
Retirement for me was always on the horizon, but it seemed a mysterious and honestly frightening concept. Several questions loomed. Would I be able to afford it? What would be the optimum time to leave my job? And what would I DO in retirement?
The money question, while paramount, was not a complicated riddle to me. My career was in banking so understanding the numbers was part of my DNA. I could fill the blog with advice, but the abridged version is to consult a good financial planner. It is a magical skill to match the resources to meet the needs. I found my advisor and together we navigated the sea of forecasting models to determine how the money could be there for that rainy day. This part of my puzzle fit into place.
The appropriate time to leave a meaningful career also requires some thought. But most likely the hole we leave behind is not as large as we imagine it to be. I was becoming a dinosaur as the banking world changed dramatically. Online access is replacing brick and mortar locations, as well as any need for face-to-face transactions. When was the last time you walked into a bank? Therefore, leaving my profession was not difficult. It took less than 5 minutes to box the potted plant and the family pictures, steal my last handful of ballpoint pens, and turn off the light.
Then the remaining question—What to do with my time?—was ready to be attacked with enthusiasm. I first jumped into a couple of projects that I wanted to tackle for my family.
My wife, Pam, is still employed and has supported my retirement decision completely. To assuage her resentment at my staying at home each day, I volunteered to take over the cooking duties. Because I had practically no experience, I enrolled with a meal-kit provider. The kit arrives with the ingredients and complete instructions. Using this service expedited the learning process. I must admit to making many a greasy mess, a smoke-filled house, and a couple of over-spiced, undercooked results. But with practice I joined the ranks of those who can dice, mince, chop, and drizzle their way around the kitchen. I am now ready to fly solo without the meal kit. Armed with new skills, I have an interest that should be useful for my remaining years. More importantly, I am contributing to the household, which earns brownie points with my wife.
The other project was a graduation gift of sorts. My last-to-leave-the-house son was wrapping up his final semester in college and purchased an adorable Labradoodle puppy. He obviously had no clue as to the enormous responsibility of owning and training a dog. Not to mention, he was totally unprepared to care for a breed that quickly grew into a 50-pound small pony galloping around his apartment. With the aid of an online obedience program, I committed to an hour per day, four days a week for three months. I am pleased to say that Leo, still a bounding bundle of curls on legs, now responds to some basic commands. The online instruction was quite challenging, but in the end rewarding. I now have a talent I am anxious to use on a new dog of my own (which my wife says will only happen in my next life).
Squeezed into the free time that I now enjoy are endless soccer games and cross country meets starring my grandchildren. At their young age it’s more like watching a swarm of bees, but far less worrisome. And I was recently elevated to first off the bench to pinch hit at babysitting the one-year-old. After a 25-year hiatus, I can still change a diaper, shoot a tiny spoon of applesauce into the clown’s mouth, and read Dr. Seuss like Morgan Freeman. I have learned, however, that my endurance is not the same as it once was and any dose of time with the grands is a wonderful recipe for a great night’s sleep. Regardless, I proudly wear my title of Poppy Cox with honor.
A totally unplanned adventure began purely by chance. A former classmate saw a Facebook picture of me hiking with my family last summer. My friend is quite an avid hiking enthusiast and invited me to join him and a small group for a winter hike to Red River Gorge. The group included several other high school acquaintances I had not seen since graduation. This nature-loving assortment all have retirement in common and therefore the freedom to pick the best weather day to head to the woods. The hiking excursion was an awe-inspiring time spent reminiscing about the days gone by and where the last 40 years have taken us. This unofficial trekkers club has made over a dozen more hikes together and we keep tabs on each other via group texts. This is the retirement gift that keeps on giving.
Hiking in the red river gorge
Pam travels regularly for her work. With my available time, I finally had the opportunity to join her for a business trip to New Mexico. While she attended a conference, I ventured out into the countryside near Santa Fe. I took a horseback trail ride at Ghost Ranch, the former home of artist Georgia O’Keefe. The scenery gave me a glimpse of some of the red hills and colorful cliffs used as reference material for her gorgeous paintings. The pastel layers that cut through the mountains were indescribable. I gained a whole new appreciation for her keen eye and ability to portray that beauty on canvas. I was struck by the contrast between the lush foliage and meandering streams of Red River Gorge and the lonesome cedar trees scattered among the endless desert-brown tones of the southwestern landscape. This was a solitary and peaceful adventure and fuel for my right-brained, creative side.
The tale of my trip is a convenient segue to a use of time that really feeds my soul. We converted into an art studio the empty bedroom previously occupied by the now college-graduate dog owner. It is my plan to see if any real expertise can be excavated from repeated experiments with oil paints. If enjoyment is the gauge, I am already wildly successful. This is a contagious outlet that intrigues me and the most gratifying thing I have accomplished.
My generation will appreciate the reference: Simon & Garfunkel were on to something.
I’ve got no deeds to do, no promises to keep
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me
Life, I love you, all is groovy
(From “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” Lyrics by Paul Simon.)
I must say that these first months of retirement have been overwhelming and joyous. I am truly relishing this time. The days are refreshingly original, frequently full, often exhausting and at the same time enriching. Reacquainting with old friends has been deeply meaningful in ways that I did not foresee. The reality of it all is still new and the structure is still forming. I don’t have any long-term predictions, but with a third of my life still ahead, perhaps the best IS still yet to come?
Tomorrow, I think I will paint a highland cow. Or I may not. It’s totally up to me.