Gratitude and expectations

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Retiring a few years ago meant two things to me: more time and less money. This irony plagues many seniors. We suddenly have time for travel, or for a cool hobby like radio-controlled airplanes. I couldn't afford much travel even during my working years, and I won't get far now on my meager Social Security income.

Fortunately, a lifetime as a slacker has prepared me perfectly for this stage of life. If it means not having to take a part-time job, I can get by on surprisingly little. My kids and their kids all live in the area, so I don't have to hop on a plane a couple of times a year to see them. Sure, I'd still like to see the world, but airfares have soared sky-high, and even a long trip by car gets expensive in a hurry. Besides, I've become so identified with my Berryville surroundings that I hate to leave. I feel a little ungrounded when I leave Carroll County, as if operating without an important part.

Living here makes it easier to survive in style on a micro-budget. We have three libraries in the county, each with its own appeal. With a good book, a thermos of coffee and a couple of sandwiches, I can spend an idyllic day on the banks of the Kings River for almost nothing.

I couldn't afford golf, even if I liked the game, but a two-dollar can of tennis balls makes for an enjoyable hour or two, and I can stay in shape without actually "exercising." I can't afford a store-bought tomato, but I have the time to grow a real tomato.

It eventually comes down to deciding whether to enjoy what I have or complain about the things I lack, and I've gotten pretty good at that. Billy Joe Shaver, an "outlaw country" singer, has an autobiographical song that expresses the concept: "The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days."

This approach won't work for everyone, of course. I used to play tennis with a guy a few years older than me, who had retired with plenty of money and a nice farm with cattle and horses. Livin' the dream, right? But after a few years, he went back to work. He didn't need the money, but he couldn't stand the challenge of idle hours.

"I failed retirement," he told me in one of our last tennis outings, and he had every advantage. By comparison, many seniors scrape by on meager incomes, and spending their "golden years" without enough gold takes a lot of the fun out of this time of life.

This issue will become an increasing fact of life, as machines continue to replace humans. Depending on your viewpoint, this will set us free or doom us to a meaningless life. In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut's first published novel touched upon this theme. The aptly named Player Piano painted a picture of people without a purpose, because machines had taken over almost all work. For people in my father's generation, this seemed a terrible prospect, but some of the baby boomers they spawned would define themselves differently. Let the machines do the work; we'll have that much more time to play.

Believe it or not, I wandered into this theme from a conversation about welfare. Almost everyone has an opinion on welfare, but this particular column won't address the actual welfare system, except to note that we could do it much better for about a quarter of the cost. No, my biggest problem with welfare comes from convincing welfare recipients of their tragic status.

Imagine telling 99 percent of the people who have ever lived they would never go without food, not even for a day. They'd have a roof over their head, and stay warm in winter and cool in summer, and they could enjoy entertainment options that even kings could not imagine 100 years ago. And all this without lifting a finger to work. What a hardship!

Honestly, I understand the way our welfare system creates a permanent underclass, and I don't want to glibly suggest that the people "served" by the system should suddenly appreciate their situation. As a society, though, we need to address the purpose of our lives. We can think "glass half empty" because we have fewer meaningful jobs, or "glass half full," because we have less work we have to do.

While society tries to figure this out, I'll continue to explore the limits of a simple, inexpensive approach to life. It reminds me of the summer days of my youth, when we'd pack some food and leave the house early, to spend all day in the nearby woods. We might scavenge some pop bottles from construction sites for the two-cent deposit, but otherwise, we had nothing. Nothing but trees, and sun, and a river and our imaginations.