I read an article in the New Yorker magazine, ostensibly it was the ruminations of an art critic coming to terms with his terminal cancer diagnosis. The article however ended up not being that at all and I found myself immersed in a blow by blow account of an excruciating childhood and upbringing which led to a life of drugs drink and smoking. He did say he attributed his diagnosis to the effects of smoking but considering his advanced age of 77 he is okay with that. Webb Chiles is 78 and fit and active as ever so one could speculate the art critic is cutting himself short with his life of indulgence.
It has been 13 months since my own brush with death and this time a year ago I was struggling to hobble for 15 minutes pushing a walker around the apartment complex pool at Seaside condos in Key West. Snowbirds returning to the Body Zone gym remember me coming to class and sitting through exercises in my walker and they are stunned by my ability to walk squat and lift. I find it hardly surprising as I have been haunting the place in my efforts to get back to normal but my recovery is rare and not usual I'm told. I have no idea, I just know I wanted nothing more to do with the wheelchair and with that haunting thought I exercise like a fiend. I am a convert to taking classes five days a week, spinning, lifting weights and exercising my abdomen in a furious series of sweat inducing classes.
I am surprised that my accident and recovery remains as vivid as ever and one can only assume that is owing to the severity of the crash and its aftermath. I spent a great deal of time flat on my back and pretty much immobile with time to think, of which I do a great deal anyway. And now after a year of recovering the use of my limbs I can say that things are on track. I walk normally, though I still have some numbness in my legs there is no pain to speak of. I can bend squat and climb stairs like nothing ever happened so I am recovered. But in my head recovery continues.
I find myself absenting myself in my head a lot of the time. The after effects of a major trauma are fairly universal and quite well known but when they happen to you they pull you up short. I really don't worry about a lot of stuff anymore; nowadays life is much more focused on he essentials. I still get upset from time to time about stupid stuff but I find it much easier to let go and forget it. I think a lot of this comes with age to even the slow witted among us like myself, but I feel the Catastrophe gave me a leg up and speeded up the process. For people who learn this lesson early on in life or are taught it by their mentors, my hat is off to them but even at my ripe old age of sixty, it's not too late to learn a useful lesson.
The thing that caught me out when I got back to regular life was that I had changed and no one around me had changed while I was out of circulation! That was a bit of a blow. So as a consequence I had to tamp it all down and turn inward. A friend of mine asked me why I am planning to take off when I retire in 2022, and my short public answer was that I need to challenge myself. That is true and I know that a seriously long difficult journey will put me through another inner transformation so when my wife and I get back, date uncertain, we will have changed again and I hope once again for the better. However I do know Key West is my home, it is the place where I have felt most at home and I am angling to come back after the Journey is done. I'd like to be a retired snowbird.
I've done my time here as a worker and Key West has been good to me, so the prospect of a small slow trawler in a city dock for the winters of my retirement sounds perfect. Summers driving the van to see friends while hurricanes blow also sounds pretty good too. I'd like to take advantage of being in town without obligations, without being attached to a job, without having to show up. I'd like that I think. My wife doesn't sound averse to that either. I have two more Fantasy Fests to survive at the Police Department, two more New Year's Eves and then I hope I shall be free. I feel privileged to be able to permit myself the hope of a period of retirement.
When I was a youngster retiring seemed the most natural thing in the world to the post World War Two generation of Europeans. Somehow we have now moved to a mindset where work has to be of uncertain duration in one workplace, and full benefits are rare and the whole cradle to grave arc of employment is forgotten. We are told young people want neither security nor longevity. Frankly I don't believe it because the Millennials I work with enjoy the prospect of their unusually munificent pension and health care as much as any of the previous generations might have done. Somehow we have managed to throw away the promise of social security (in the broad sense) and aging with dignity that was the promise made to the immediate post war generation. I never expected to grow old and find myself adrift in a throw away work culture that seems alien to me. That happened to the generations preceding me when they watched us Baby Boomers get into the workplace but we were the wild ones, the rebels, the generation that made the rules so I had the perspective of the incoming majority. Not any more, where Baby Boomers are the old timers on the way out (!) and the beliefs I grew up with and lived with are slipping away. Uncertainty and economic inequality are the watchwords now and I don't much like it. The youngsters like to mislabel me a Socialist but I think of myself as preferring simply a more humane form of capitalism, not Socialist state ownership of industry. They can label me what they want but in the end I am lucky to have social security and Medicare and a proper city pension and I always encourage the youngsters to go after the same and damn the labels. We aren't all cut out to be millionaire industrialists and I know I'm not.
But as I look forward to the New Year I am armed with a plan, I hope for the best and now I know that my wife and I can cope with the worst, we can survive and I hope flourish, even if retirement slips out of our grasp. When you have survived the worst everything else is less. Happy 2020 everyone.