Saturday, October 2, 2010

Retirement – What If There Were A Final Exam?

Last night I had one of those anxiety-laden dreams that most of us have now and then. It was the one where you’re late for a final exam and you forgot to study.

For me, those dreams usually follow a dinner of marbleized red meat or highly-spiced food. The rotisserie chicken I had last night was supposed to be the plain version. It dreamed more like lemon pepper coated with Tex-Mex and it just wouldn’t go away. Finally I got out of bed to re-brush and floss and drink more water. My hope was to banish any last remnant of the meal, and the dream along with it.

When I got back into bed, the dream mutated into a nightmare. Now I was stressed over a final exam to qualify for retirement. The scariest part was that it seemed perfectly reasonable that the government could require such a test.

Question 1: What is your full retirement age? That’s easy: 66. A bell sounds. This is going to be a piece of cake.

Next question: Part I. How much money can you earn after retirement before Uncle Sam starts taxing your Social Security benefit? Part II. Does that figure include your Social Security money or is it in addition to it? I have no idea. That’s why I have an accountant handle my taxes. I take a guess at $25,000. A buzzer sounds.

Question 3: When did Social Security begin and what was the original name of the act? I decide to Google this one so I don’t get it wrong. (It’s comforting to know we can Google in our dreams.) I learn that it started in 1935 and it was originally named the Economic Security Act. This strikes me as so hilarious that I hardly hear the bell through my peals of laughter. Economic security. As if.

Question 4: What percentage of people die within two years of starting to collect their Social Security? Government test preparers have a warped sense of humor. I Google. I Bing. I Ask Jeeves. No one can tell me this. I have the uneasy feeling it’s a larger percentage than I want to know, so I say a comfortingly low 5% and wait for the buzzer.

Question 5: Name the three rock-and-roll icons killed in a plane crash in 1959. I know this one. I start writing: Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. I’m surprised to hear the buzzer again. Turns out I’ve spelled Ritchie’s first name wrong. As a side note, this reminds me that I still have a box of LP’s and some 45’s to get rid of.

Clearly this test is targeted to those on the cusp of the baby boom. I wonder if they’re trying to stress us into heart failure so we won’t be around to collect Social Security. I also start to wonder how many questions I can get wrong and still pass.

Question 6: What actress played Lara’s grown daughter (aka “the girl”) in Doctor Zhivago? Are you kidding me? How does that movie relate to retirement in the US? It happens that I was obsessed with Dr. Zhivago, so I know it was Rita Tushingham. In my dream, I see her clearly, carrying the balalaika. As the bell rings, I drift into visions of Julie Christie in a snowy wonderland. She’s wearing a fur bonnet, tied under her chin. It’s the same as the one my parents surprised me with at Christmas the year the movie came out.

I remember that I still have that hat in a box in the cedar closet up on the third floor. It’s not something I’ll need when I retire, so I make a mental note to add it to the donation pile in the morning.

Suddenly my dream is filled with ringing bells, like the stock exchange has erupted. A sign pops up: You’ve passed your retirement test.

I guess these questions had a purpose after all. When I woke up, I had a feeling of accomplishment. Not only had I passed my test, but I also had several cartons of stuff earmarked to lighten the load when we downsize. Not a bad haul for a night of crazy dreams, but I think I’ll lay off the rotisserie chicken for awhile.

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