I’ve been back in the U.S. for two months now, and retired from government service for just over one month. I’m well into the transition to private citizen for the first time in 50 years. According to one of my neighbors, I’m in stage three of the five stages of retirement; he says that stage three is ‘happiness,’ which follows ‘anticipation’ and ‘dread.’ He won’t tell me what the final two stages are, but I imagine ‘acceptance’ is one of them. It really doesn’t matter, though, because I don’t remember going through the first two stages, and I’ve been relatively ‘happy’ throughout – in fact, I think I’ve been in that stage for most of my life. That’s just the way my brain is wired.
This doesn’t mean I haven’t been going through some kind of transition; I have; it just means that I probably go through the process differently than other people.
I have, for instance, been thinking about the whole ‘returning home’ thing. I’ve gone through this every time I’ve come back to the states from an overseas assignment – but, this one is significant because it’s the last one.
There are a lot of things I’ve had to become accustomed to again, and the process has got me thinking. Thinking about things like, how we Americans tend to be hyper critical of drivers in the foreign countries we visit or work in. How they ignore rules, drive like they’re the only ones on the road; things like that. We criticize this like it only happens ‘over there.’ I’ve been driving around the Washington, DC area a bit lately, and as I have, I’ve noticed that drivers here look a lot like the commuter taxi or ‘Kombi’ drivers I observed in Zimbabwe. Abrupt lane changes without signaling, busting through stop signs or speeding up when the traffic light turns amber; it’s done here too, and, often at higher speeds. I’ve lost count of the number of drivers I’ve seen weaving from lane to lane; distracted because they’re talking on their mobile phones or texting; or, who pull into the lane of traffic from side streets without looking, forcing other drivers to stomp on their brakes to avoid a collision.
When I lived in Harare, I learned to endure the frequent power outages. It just came with the territory. I now live in one of Maryland’s richest counties, and, guess what: when the wind blows too hard, our power goes out; the Internet is cut off; but, thankfully, since we don’t use electric water pumps, we still have water. Of course, I know that could change when winter comes. If we get a freeze that bursts water pipes, we could be without water for a few days as well.
I’ve had to get used to the telemarketers who call every day, just as we’re sitting down to dinner. It’s inconvenient for family and friends who call me, but I now use my answering machine to screen calls – that, and the call notice on my cable-connected television that shows the number of the incoming call.
In poor countries, the sight of beggars on the streets trolling for handouts has always touched me; mostly in an irritating way. Here, the panhandlers who stake out certain stretches of sidewalk, or who manage to get into the subway system and then claim they don’t have enough cash to get out again, do the same. I use the same system to cope with it here that I use when I’m abroad; I avoid eye contact with them and march doggedly past them. I don’t do this because I’m unsympathetic to the plight of the poor, but because I know, whether it’s here or in some other country, if you stop to give to one, you’re likely to be mobbed by others nearby. I also know that, here in the Washington area at least, some of them make more from the handouts they get from sympathetic passersby is often more than I make.
A big adjustment I’ve had to make is dealing with the bureaucracy; especially by phone. I hate it when I call an organization or store, and I get one of those machines that have you pushing buttons in response to a bunch of stupid questions for several minutes before passing you to a live human being – who is likely somewhere in India, Indiana, or some other place far from Washington. Thank goodness for the Internet. I try to do as much of my business as possible on-line. Just send the email and wait patiently for a reply. Going directly to the place where you want to do business is an option, but often, once you get there, you have to take a number and wait for a clerk who will ask you a few questions, and give you another number.
Life is a never-ending series of transitions. Going from being a fulltime employee to being ‘retired’ is just one of them. The key to it all is patience and a sense of humor. Patience, because no matter how much you rant about it, things just won’t move any faster, and a sense of humor, because if you don’t laugh about it, you’ll end up sulking in a corner somewhere; and things still won’t have changed.
So, I’m making the transition, and doing quite well nicely. There are some really swell things about it. My time is now fully in my hands. I determine my daily schedule; what I will do, and when and for how long. I don’t have to get up and put on a tie every day, and if I’m not doing a public speaking engagement or some other kind of official or formal meeting, I don’t have to shave. I no longer have to squeeze my writing into the early hours of the morning before trundling off to work, or late at night before going to bed. I can write whenever I feel like it, and for as long as I want.
Yes, it’s nice to be home.