Saturday, April 12, 2014

Are You Still (Fill in the Blank)

I ran into an acquaintance (a fellow retiree) I hadn’t seen in awhile and she asked me: “Are you still writing?” Looking back, I realize that I’ve finally “made it” as a writer when people ask if I’m still doing it. One of the books I asked Santa to bring me was Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro. I asked for several of them on the writing process, but I found Still Writing to be the most helpful.

Shapiro’s title comes from the fact that folks tend not to take writing seriously as a career. They think of it as something one does in one’s spare time, or that it’s a sort of affliction. The question presumes there’s a chance you might have gotten over it since the last time they saw you. Or given up, since you weren’t likely to be good enough to get published. They don’t understand that writers just have to write.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that this is the situation for a lot of retirees, as well. People assume that something you take up in retirement automatically falls into the hobby category. It doesn’t occur to them that it might be a second act for you. They’ll ask you questions they would never pose to someone in his forties or fifties.

A college classmate in Canada took up clarinet late in life. In her retirement, she plays in several local bands. At our last reunion, she went home a day early so she could participate in the first concert of the spring series. She added tenor saxophone to her repertoire so she could join the jazz group. Her Facebook page is filled with posts about upcoming gigs and performances that were well received. Her music is more than simply a way to while away free time. It’s life affirming for her.

Maybe you’ll decide to study a foreign language. Do that when you’re forty-something, and your friends won’t consider saying: “Are you still trying to learn Mandarin?” But once you’ve become a senior citizen, they’ll assume you’ll dabble for a few lessons and move on to something less challenging. Just ignore them. Leave a few copies of the Guangzhou Daily on your cocktail table the next time they drop by for coffee. Then mention you’re now also studying Cantonese.

Another of my college classmates is taking advantage of time freed up after she stopped working full time to become a Master Gardener. The qualification process is demanding and complex. She plans to volunteer as a guide and lecturer at the United States Botanic Garden once she has her credentials. That’s not exactly piddling away her free time. So if you run into her, don’t ask: “Are you still working on identifying those weeds you’re pulling out of your flower bed?”

It’s not unusual for a man to use his retirement to launch a woodworking business. Carpentry might have been a hobby when he was employed elsewhere. Now his workshop is not just his haven but also a source of discretionary income. And then some. “Are you still making those rocking horses for your grandkids?” Yup. For his grandkids, and those of dozens of other grandparents. You can put your name on the waiting list—for delivery next year. He’s about to leave on a month-long trip to Bali.

Speaking of travel, another college friend and his wife have finally retired so they can start a tour business. They own a home in Provence and they’re specializing in tours of the Secret Provence. I can see a lot of tax advantages in this, since it’s well beyond the hobby stage. What I can’t see is someone asking them: “Are you still doing that tour thingy?”

Retired presidents almost always move on to another career. George H. W. Bush has become internationally recognized as a senior statesman. Bill Clinton is now thought of as a philanthropist instead of a philanderer. Bush the younger (“Dubya”) recently had a showing of his paintings of famous people. He’s taking art classes and seems serious about making this his post-presidential act. He also seems to have enough talent that I doubt anyone will dare ask him in five years: “Are you still painting?”

From now on, when I run into someone who says: “Are you still writing?” I plan to smile and answer yes. Then I’ll add, ever so sweetly: “Are you still reading?” and hand them a business card with the URL for my blog and the titles of all the books I’ve published.

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