Retirement, reality, time, and other important things

Window treatment. Chester, MT. April 1977.

One of the nicest things about retirement occurs every morning. The alarm doesn’t go off–not that it sounded much in the past 25 years–and I lie in bed debating about getting up or rolling over for a bit more ‘driftology’ (the study of drifting through my inner time and space). Usually five minutes proves I won’t be dropping back into sleep. I quietly slide out of bed; leave my sleeping wife to her dreams; grab some clothes, my cellphone, my glasses, and the glass of water sitting on my bedside stand; and I walk to the kitchen to start the morning ritual. I avoid the weakening spot on the bedroom floor near my side of the bed, the one which squeaks loudly. Similarly, I walk closely to the wall as I pass the living room, again avoiding the creaking spots in the floor. In the kitchen I put on my morning clothes in the dark. They’re a completely inappropriate fashion statement proclaiming “hey, it’s warm.”

Sometimes Benny, one of our two nearly-identical black-and-white cats, accompanies me. The rest of the time he trots out a few minutes into my routine. I’m made aware of his presence by a gentle body slam against my calves. Despite having started the morning coffee ritual, I’ll stop and feed him. He likely isn’t hungry but why not? Returning to the ritual: coffee filter wetted, cup warmed, grounds measured, and when the water boils, a gentle dribble coaxes the coffee’s blooming. Then a steady pour fills the filter holder. After years of this I usually pour just the correct amount of water to fill the cup.

While these steps play out I’ve downed a glass of water to quench dehydrated cells, and I’ve opened kitchen blinds to prepare for the day. Regardless of standard or “daylight saving” time, very little light comes in these now-opened blinds, unless we’re near the summer solstice: on Retired Saving Time I wake at the slight lightening of the pre-dawn sky regardless the time. Birds will have just started their chirping in the spring. The sun will have become more insistently bright near the summer solstice. Nearing the winter solstice I might beat the sun to rising.

How to convey the calm of living rhythmically? Of waking at first light? Of eating a midday meal when hungry, regardless if it’s 11:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m.? Of going to bed when tired, never caring if it’s 8:30 p.m. or 11 p.m.? The day becomes a physical meditation. Divorced from it, I can turn into a snarly bear, but being in tune with it resembles breathing at the steady, resonating rate synchronous with All Being.

In 1995 or 1996 I removed the watch from my wrist and never returned it. I turned off the morning alarm. Though I benefitted from a corporate job back then which allowed a laissez-faire approach to the start of the workday, I’m pretty sure I would have done this even had I been a shift worker. The slight tension induced in knowing there’s no alarm served to wake me with plenty of time to tackle morning matters; it proved far preferable to waking 25 minutes before the alarm was due to go off only to lie there cursing because I couldn’t get back to sleep and “why bother anyway”. In retirement this natural rhythm has extended to the whole day, but the slight tension doesn’t wake me anymore.

Coffee in hand, my day officially begins with reading. It may be the Morning Briefing from the New York Times. It might be the comics. It might be baseball, more specifically anything written overnight about the Phillies. Recently, during Lent, my morning read has been The Sign of Jonas, the journals of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. This last requires turning on a light since it is a physical book, not something on my tablet or cellphone. For that reason my reading necessarily takes place downstairs where a light can illumine without bothering my sleeping wife. Benny benefits too: when I comfortably settle in front of a fire downstairs or in an old wing-backed chair in our library, Benny gets to jump up for a morning petting session. (If I’ve happened to have decided on reading material on my computer, he’ll happily claim my lap there, too.) Reading becomes a bit challenging with a cat squirming around, kneading and delivering headbutts. Soon he settles down and allows me to continue my study of Merton, my inquisitive plunge through data at my computer, or the latest take on This Stuff Really Matters (Today).

Henry Clay Mansion, KY. July 2014.

Because I’ve moved to the rhythm of the day for nearly 30 years, I alternate between chuckling or muttering in irritation when people rant about jumping forward to Daylight Saving Time or falling back to Standard Time. Time–being but a mental ruler imposed by humans upon our perception of past, present, and future–doesn’t exist. Every day we are reminded how a group of people living through the same events do not experience it in the same way, do not remember it in the same way, and will sometimes seek to rewrite those events to suit a particular purpose. To put it in someone else’s words:

What usually happens is that, once scientists have worked out their equations [for a Grand Unification Theory], time is nowhere to be found. And if it’s not part of the fundamental fabric of the universe, how do we know it’s not something we’ve invented to explain what we don’t understand?

Javier Yanes on BBVA OpenMind

In most senses I don’t care if it exists or not. Hours, minutes, and the clocks which measure them indisputably resemble rulers, nothing more. Just as that tree on the hill doesn’t get any closer if I declare I’m a foot closer to it (while not moving my feet), I don’t perceive time appearing or disappearing because we move to DST. Just as retirement has brought a detached view of the working world (and many other matters), so too has it altered my perception of time. (Time as a malleable substance?) Stereotyped jokes show us older folks forgetting the day of the week with regularity. Is this any wonder when time doesn’t exist? If I stop using a tape measure to measure how far I travel, am I assailed when I lose touch of my sense of distance? I can still walk from Here to There, can’t I?

[Which sparks a possible and humorous but too truthful dialog:

“Do you know what day it is, Mr. Pilcher?”


“Would you tell me?”


“What day is it Mr. Pilcher?” (a bit of exasperation now)

“It’s today.”

“And what day is ‘today’, Mr. Pilcher?” (more than a bit of exasperation now)

“It’s always today. I don’t understand your question.”

“What DAY of the WEEK is it, Mr. Pilcher?”

“Gee, I’m sorry if I annoyed you. I have no idea what day of the week it is. It’s a day between Sunday and Sunday; I go to church on Sunday, and I didn’t go to church today.”

(lengthy pause while Mr. Pilcher’s treatment plan is revised to indicate he is losing his marbles)]

My paternal grandfather spent many minutes and hours staring out of windows in his later years. He at times seem befuddled. He also showed he was sharp as a tack when it came to philosophical and existential questions. He had studied theology and led congregations for decades. Staring out of a window came with the territory, especially when composing this week’s sermon. While the need to write sermons disappeared in retirement, the window-staring did not. Did this indicate a dissociative mind? Doubtful. More likely old habits outlived their usefulness. So too my need to keep track of every hour of the day, every day of the week. I never did, much. Why should I be punished for that? I wouldn’t be punished for a deteriorating sense of distance; why a deteriorating sense of time?

I would argue my rising with the predawn light, moving through the day totally in touch with what needs to be done Now, whether it be eating, my taxes, planning meals, pruning shrubs, reading books, attending a doctor appointment on time, or going to bed when tired keeps me in a meditative state. Retirement provides extra incentive to be in touch with the here and now. I shouldn’t be penalized because I’ve approached a more natural state of being, I should be admired or at the very least respected. Instead, I feel the need to document how my memory of many things has been tenuous throughout my supposedly ‘with it’ years. I have never  been able to tell you what I have to do today. As a reporter in my late 20s, I would drive to work oblivious of what stories I had to run down that day. As a teacher in the years that followed, I had only a fuzzy idea of what I had to teach that day, usually because I had planted the seed in my brain the night before: “you have to get to school quickly to print that test you’re giving today.” Ask me on Monday what the lesson plan for Thursday will be, and you would have received a panicked look. In the corporate world where each day’s list of to-do’s varied quite a bit, I had no idea what I would do that day until I looked at the task list. (Bless you Franklin planners for focusing me the idea of A, B, and C tasks.)

And now? How do I prove to those who will judge my mental competence that I have never been able to remember what I have to do today? That I’ve marched through many a day thinking it was Thursday, only to be reminded continuously “no, it’s Wednesday”? When my mother neared the end of her life, she was subjected to many a judgement like this. When she microwaved a throw pillow because she thought she could warm it up and use it on her sore neck, her dramatically shocked visiting nurse felt that Mom was ‘losing it’. Well, somewhat, yes, I concurred. “But Mom has always had a tenuous grasp of the physical sciences including those which govern a microwave. Just because it wasn’t marked “microwavable” on the throw pillow shouldn’t totally count against her. After all, she had several microwaveable neck pillows which she did put in the microwave each night–and they didn’t have “microwavable” on some tag attached to them, because they were handmade by the good ladies at her church. Should she have responded to the smoke filling the room? Yeah, probably. Then again, my wife should have reacted to the smoke filling our house that night in midwinter 2002 when the furnace’s chimney had decomposed, and I came home to a house filled with smoke and a wife merrily preparing my dinner. Losing your marbles doesn’t occur when you misplace the bag of marbles. You lose one here, one there, never noticing the slightly lighter bag you’re holding.

Our perception of time varies from person to person, and time’s but a human construct. Our perception of reality–whatever reality is according to the popular philosophers of the day–varies even more. We should be judged on who we are and who we were, not on who someone wants us to be. Want to scare yourself? Pretend you’re the plaintiff in a court hearing to prove that you are mentally incompetent. My guess? You can’t prove you’re competent right now! Good luck when you’re 80.

God forbid I should be denied my mornings with Benny, coffee, and reading material simply because someone says I need to stay in bed longer, or get into a shower, or do anything else I don’t want to do. “Oh Lord, I pray my ability to perceive how I’m being treated matches how I’m being treated.”

9 thoughts on “Retirement, reality, time, and other important things

      1. In that photo he’s about four or five. (he’s adopted so we’re not wholly sure.) Now, he’s about 10.

      2. Well, I try to avoid being a cute-cats-on-Facebook blog, but… in the near future I will do something which you might like!

  1. What an interesting read! First, I love the term driftology. I don’t often have the time to linger in the drifting world but I relish it when I do. I’m still in the midst of the grind, but I’ve had moments of this (mainly when I vacation at a beach house I rent a few times a year). It’s a wonderful thing to be able to listen to our bodies and have a peaceful rhythm throughout our days. I’ve tried to give my kids that, to some degree, but look forward to a time when it’s just me and my husband puttering around the house.

    Your thoughts about perceiving reality and mental competency were interesting to read. Thank you for giving me lots to think about and for making me look forward to the next chapter in my life (still a little ways off).

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