Friday, August 2, 2019

Pondering Retirement

I will wrap up 18 years at the key West Police department in October 2022 and my wife will complete her time with the Monroe County School District in June 2021 closing what is perhaps the least expected chapter in my life. Rusty is already retired so every day is time off for him.
When I met my wife 26 years ago in Santa Cruz California she was already pissed off at the public defender office where she worked very happily, at the office policy of no pension plan. I was a 35 year old reporter whose mind did not stretch that far into the future and her grumbling about a pension didn't much ice with me. Then we sailed to Key West.
It was time in 2004 for us to start looking for permanent jobs, but that was also a time when people in town made a lot of cash  in bars and restaurants. Money was flowing across the United States as home values soared and debt grew and people wanted exotic vacations in places just like Key West. And because neither of us is suited to life in a bar we couldn't take such jobs, so when we decided not to return to California we both found sensible jobs. Boring jobs. Jobs with pensions that expected us to show up on time every single shift. 
Government jobs were available everywhere as the allure of a pension and health care seemed to shine less brightly for most people in Key West who preferred the chance to fill their pockets with dead presidents such was the booming cash tourist economy. This was before the crash of 2008 which wiped lots of people's vacations dreams. The school district gave Layne a job at the juvenile jail that no teacher in the district wanted and because she had no teacher qualifications she completed three years worth of certification in 18 months (she is a type A personality) and was given tenure when she had been teaching a while. She was glad to escape lawyering and she loves teaching even now. especially as she has adults for students, people who are keen to learn. Monroe County has done great by her. Plus she gets that much sought after pension!
I was stuffing my pockets with cash running a tourist boat but we wanted to buy a house so I figured I should get a "proper job" and settle down which is why I washed up where they always needed help, in police dispatch. I had never imagined myself working for The Man, but somehow the whole mad project worked out great for me, with it's odd schedule of night shift work which I loved, and I found I liked the work itself directing police and all the fiddle faddle of data entry and sending people help. The police department has done great by me too.  
And so the decades have passed living a life in Paradise as they like to call it, doing what most people do at home. They reserve Key West as the place they come to escape the daily routine that I so enjoy here! I have always said Key West is a great place to work if you can find a living wage with proper benefits, as the work environment is more laid back and there is a certain unspoken camaraderie among people who hold down mainstream jobs in a town devoted to projecting its image as that of an off beat retreat from real life. It has worked beautifully for us. 
The deeper I have got into daily Keys living the further I have moved from Duval Street which for me is synonymous with anguished 911 calls. My wife got her dream job running the adult education program in Marathon and because we live on Cudjoe Key our commutes are equidistant in opposite directions. She likes driving the Seven Mile Bridge every day and enjoying the views. I find my relief walking Rusty as far off the beaten track as we can go after  a night of answering desperate pleas for help.
And now we face the end of this period of productive work. Three years seems a long time to me but I know they will fly by so my wife and I have been pondering what comes next. Our landlord, a very dear kind man who even came to visit me in the hospital several times with delicious lunches is in no hurry to get his home back so we may well be able to continue basing our lives in Cudjoe Key for the future. But things always have a habit of changing so we shall have to see. We want to travel as one does in retirement but I have had a few deep thoughts on this.
After my accident I spent a lot of time pondering what I should do with the rest of my life as that  very life came close to ending last August and all I could think at that moment was how I wished I could have a little more time. Now that I have that time the question has been uppermost in mind: what to do with it?
The conventional thinking is that one of volunteering in old age, literacy projects, trash pick up, political envelope stuffing and all that sort of thing.  I thought about that quite a lot while I was lying in the hospital bed. Indeed I felt for the longest time that I should want to be some sort of community volunteer but the more I thought about it the less like me it seemed. I lack the hail-fellow-well-met outlook that is required of a community cheerleader. It was only when I realised that an introverted curmudgeon like me doesn't stand a chance in that world of good works that I let go of conventional expectations and slowly things started to fall into place in my mind.
I wasn't sure how my wife was going to take my plan but she has become an enthusiastic partner and as usual I am the one who tends to dream up the madness and she is the one who figures out how to fund it and she makes sure the details are taken care of. With three short years to go her head has become the  base camp of our  future expeditionary force. We will travel fully equipped when we go.
The other fact that is painfully obvious is that, as the saying goes "Man proposes and God disposes" so a plan is just that, a hope, a suggestion, a trial balloon subject to utter reversal or partial change at any time as circumstances require. But still, one can make a plan fly a trial balloon in the face of Fate. We have been spending huge amounts of time trying to figure out a vehicle for our travels and we have settled on what is known in the industry as a Class B- more commonly known as a van.  With our sailing experience we both are familiar with the limitations of space and dealing with sewage and limited supplies of water. However the opportunity to see more of the world close up is appealing rather than having to launch a dinghy and getting ashore from an anchored boat on the periphery of a new country. So we are going to travel in a van motorhome which I am told is quite fashionable. I am possibly on the cutting edge of fashion for the first time ever!
As I was lying in the roadway looking up at the sky that fateful afternoon all I could feel was this powerful sense of regret that my time was up. It was a curiously introverted moment in the sense that it was all about me. It wasn't about my connections in the world, my wife my dog my friends or anything else. It was all about the fact that my time had ended and I wanted more time. It was an all encompassing sensation of regret so my plan involves making sure that when I am back in that position of fading away I will be able to look back and say I did my best and hopefully go in peace.
The other part of the drive that I have to make this retirement  journey  came from Webb Chiles who wrote that after his sixth and final circumnavigation he felt at peace and that comment pushed me down the path I think I need to follow. Webb has lived a purpose filled life from the very beginning and he decided his artistry was to be by means of sailing the world and of going to the edge of human experience and as he puts it sending back reports. His idea of going to the edge and sending back reports struck a chord within me that gives me hope that following that path may be how I reach the end of my time without regret. 
People who know me think I have lived an adventurous life but I have not gone to the edge the way Webb has. My own life has been lived in fits and starts with short term plans but no overarching design. My mother's death at 49 prompted me to live my life meaningfully and with some sort of purpose and I decided I wanted to try to live as many lives as I could. This had the unfortunate effect of requiring me to move on and try something new every time I succeeded in mastering a skill so I became a jack of several trades but unlike Webb I became master of none. I never really got so deep in that I discovered something new, my adventures were mild and my discoveries were less than earth shattering.
 Similarly my journeys appear to others as remarkable and numerous but to me I have too often failed to create a goal and thus achieve a goal. I feel like I have given up too easily. When my wife and I sailed from San Francisco to Key West I dreamed the journey up but she was the prime mover in getting it done. We arrived on time and under budget and it was all thanks to her. Therefore I now live in hope that when we set off in our van with our pensions and with our dog we will go deep and not hold back and refuse to give up when we are on the road.
Our retirement plans involve compressing our lives into a small space, a 21 foot Promaster van to be precise and taking the time to drive hither and yon. I told my wife I needed to attain some sort of fulfillment in retirement and the idea of traveling was obvious to both of us. I offered a rough itinerary, ambitious to be sure but I pointed out that if we are to reach old age in contentment we have to be able to look back and see how well we handled adversity, how much we challenged ourselves and we can only do that on the road by not turning back when the going gets tough.
For now I cherish my time here, and I trust Rusty does too. I wonder how he will take to a life on the road. I know he enjoys coming home after a few days away and checking his familiar places but I hope being together will be a routine reassuring enough. I plan to make our mobile home bearable for him so he will enjoy the new places he will get to walk when we get there! I jokingly tell him he will have a job at last as our chief security officer. In Alaska I will expect him to tell us when bears are in the neighborhood, on the road I trust his presence will be enough to let people know we are secure. People are strangely fearful of dogs and Rusty is large enough to do his newly assigned job as long as they don't figure out he is a happy little soul. I don't think he would be happy if he thought someone was messing with us.  
I am ready to be done being a sensible human being. This is the longest I've held down a job and I am proud of myself for keeping it together but it's been too long since I had a real road trip, an open ended journey to test my mettle. 
I spend a lot of time  pondering maps and roads, while Layne thinks about how to equip her two burner four foot long kitchen in our rolling home. We found a custom builder in north Florida who will create a van to our design for less money than a commercial builder would charge for a cookie cutter machine. We want to incorporate details  from our sailing experiences and are much less keen to recreate all the comforts of home. We both find it a bit odd that so many RV owners take pride in packing complex systems into their vehicles such that we know they will be spending time and money fixing things that inevitably go wrong. 
We told Bob at Custom Coach Creations in Deland that we wanted a shower stall without running water. That was a first for him, and he was already looking at my wife wondering why she was okay with no water heating system in the proposed van. We explained we like solar showers where we can heat water with the sun or with a kettle and we hang the bag and take a shower using very little water. Bob is completely unconvinced but Layne and I know water heaters fail and running water will drain a thirty gallon tank in no time. 
Bob did convince us to get cold running water in the kitchen as he puts the spray nozzle near the door and you can use that as an outdoor shower. I made him promise to sell me a spare pump so when it fails I can replace it with the exact same model. One thing we discovered when sailing was that manufacturers change sizes and specs of everything they make all the time. I made it a habit to carry spares of everything I bought. The van we want built wil have a sliding pantry for lane who saw one in a commercial van and the front seats will spin so we have a separate seating area from the rear benches which will turn into a queen sized bed.
Rusty already has a no spill bowl even though he doesn't know it and his bed will find it's own space in our mobile home. Even though he fears water and doesn't like boats ( to Webb's dismay!) he is a great traveler in the car, as always no trouble at all sleeping on his blanket on the back seat. The van will have battery powered air conditioning and he will be properly looked after as you would expect.
Our early plans have already come in for criticism from well meaning people who don't really understand what drives us. Too cramped too dangerous too reckless is part of the chorus of the naysayers but our friends who know us just ask thoughtful questions and plan to meet up with us along the way. We see Mexico and South America in our future after we check out our van and ourselves on the long hard road to Alaska. After that who knows.
It will be a change and getting away from 911 calls will be great. The process of shrinking our lives has begun and we are already figuring out the nuances of mail delivery, storage of mementoes of our lives already lived and a future somewhere most likely outside the Keys. We love it here and want to hang on as long as we can but the financial cost is just too limiting and I fear hurricanes will not abate as climate change forces unwelcome changes on all of us.
Frankly I cannot wait to spend my time with Rusty and Layne in the van or in the house, on the road or in the Keys. But when my time is up for real I don't want to feel that lasting sense of regret at not having accomplished what I know I am capable of doing- seeing the four corners of the earth and sending back reports. 
Travelswithrusty.com is already my domain name and now we need to put it into action. Soon enough I hope.