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Practicing for Retirement

What do people do when they're not working during a weekday? How do they feel about it? Inkburns wanted to know, so we asked several people to share their thoughts.

Patty Ferreira

Patty lives in Boulder, Colorado.

In a typical day, I wake up between 7:30 and 8am. I check email and then make it down to breakfast in time to see the first 20 minutes of Regis and Kelly. Then I go to my office and crank. I decided that I like to do Market Research, so that's what I am doing. I am developing an expertise in an area that will hopefully make me invaluable to the industry. In fact, I am starting a company (again ... back on the horse). So, my days are filled with reading, calling people and visiting local companies that I might want to talk to.

Each day I am able to squeeze in a run. If it's a nice day, I head out to the rocks and climb for a bit.

In terms of working, I miss getting paid to take breaks, I miss chitchatting and intellectual conversations with coworkers. I don't miss useless meetings, assholes, the politics, the drive, kissing up, the food, no TV or radio.

One truly great thing about not working is to be able to pick up at any time and go for a latte in my shorts or sweats to meet a friend.

Q: Is there any one question that people ask you? Any one comment they make?
Not really. People don't work out here to begin with.

Q: What did you wear today?
Cutoff shorts and a tank if warm, boxers and a t-shirt if working at home, cozy pants and my jean jacket if it's cold.

Scott Jacobson

Scott quit his job after working at Intel for 11 years. He's currently traveling with friends (including Amy Luna Capelle, see below) through South America.

Q: What did you do today? Was today typical of your days?
Today: Went to the ruins of Tiawanaku, a civilization that existed around lake Titicaca prior the Incas. Now, I'm trying to upload photos, but it is excruciatingly painful today. Very slow. Tonight, we are going to the Argentina vs. Bolivia soccer match. Should be fun.

Every day is different. Yesterday: Went to the Sol y Luna (Sun and Moon) cafe for breakfast. Got my haircut for five bolivianos (about 75 cents). Went to an tour agency to set up the tour of Tiawanaku. Stopped at the internet cafe — reading lots about the war, anthrax, etc. Shopping is constant, as there are shops everywhere. Stopped by the Andian-something-something club to find out about skiing at the worlds highest ski area (i.e. having a lift). Found out it is currently closed for repair; the lift is 60 or 70 years old. Went to a book store — always on the lookout for books in English. Very limited selection in South America. Nothing good there. Had dinner at an expensive restaurant: Korean, very, very good, spicy. For the three of us it cost 250 bolivianos ($37).

Q: Do you miss working? When? What do you miss?
No! I don't really miss it. Although when I read about people in the news, such as the article about the Dell factory with a quote from Steve Cook [Editor's note: a fellow graduate school alumnus], and see the titles, I think wow! That's cool, what they are doing or that position. But then I think, ah, it's just a title. I don't really need it, at least not now. I guess I do miss feeling productive at times. But I will probably quench this urge with some volunteer activities.

Sometimes I miss a good pizza. Or sushi. Or seeing friends and family. Not necessarily in that order.

Q: What do you not miss?
I certainly don't miss the anthrax scares, the fear, the uncertainty. (Should I travel? Should I open my mail?) My only worries are viruses attached to emails. But then, it's not my PC.

I don't miss the paycheck. Not yet.

Q: What is one truly great thing about not working?
Not working!

But seriously ... doing something fun, interesting, different. Being able to spend the time my way.

Q: Is there any one question that people ask you? Any one comment they make?
The typical questions from other tourists are the obvious ones. "Where you from? Where you going? Where you been? How long? What did you think of ....?" Everyone is always trying to get tips from each other.

Occasionally asked by tourist and locals alike, is, "How can you do this?" (That is, travel for a long time.) Answer: "Saved up."

And "Why are you doing this?" The answer used to be some long explanation like I didn't like my job or wanted a break, or it was something I always wanted to do. Our U.S. culture seems to make us want to rationalize and justify doing something like this. But the reality is that it isn't a big deal. So I've gotten over that craving for rationalization, and typically I say "Why not!"

Comment often made: "Wow, how lucky."

Q: What did you wear today?
Same clothes I wear nearly every day: Green nylon pants from Patagonia. One of four t-shirts. My blue boxers. Same pair of shoes I wear daily — it's pretty cool in the Andes, so rarely do I wear my sandals. My shoes stink. I'm wearing my gray fleece daily.

Other thoughts: Why didn't I do this sooner?

I also think about what I will do when I return. But I'm no closer to an answer than when I started traveling.

Jason Schulist

Jason lives in Warsaw with his new wife, and is on sabbatical from General Motors.

I spend some of my time doing the things I always complained that I never had time for: reading books, taking pictures, reflecting over philosophical questions, advising people on their lives and careers. The rest of my time I ponder over why I am too afraid to do the other things that I always have wanted to do: writing, making films, entrepreneurialism. Facing my demons is more difficult when I must actively walk towards them instead of passively being pushed.

I am a househusband, so I must cook, clean, smile when my honey comes home, and dress up in my best clothes. Actually I don't clean, but I do manage the outsourcing relationship with the cleaning company.

I go to the American Friends of Warsaw monthly coffee club where the 49 other female members tell me how brave it is that I show up and talk to them. Maybe I just like attention and English-speaking human contact and girls. Also yesterday in between the stimulating conversation regarding how women's nipples chafe when they are pregnant, I had the opportunity to get a free facial at Avon's Poland Headquarters.

I met another guy who is also retired in Warsaw. We reminisce about the times we added economic value. I have been to nearly every café in Warsaw (all five). It's amazing how much business theory can be discussed while watching proto-capitalistic latte servers inefficiently wash coffee cups. The other guy knows marketing so we walk around shopping malls and discuss brand positioning of various women's underwear products.

I live in four alternate realities. The most interesting reality is the time I spend with expatriate wives. I never knew how problematic it is to book a holiday around the world when Ritz-Carlton doesn't have a location in every major world city. While I live in a 600 square foot, two-room apartment, Ms. Williamson's pad is a three-story, 8000 square foot palace. The next wine and art auction for 80 guests will be held there. I don't think I will invite them over for dinner or tea.

I am also struggling with the solution to the meaning of life. I think I am 85% there, and I only need to read about four more books to complete the theory. Then I will have to write it down, which will take the rest of my life. So at least I will stay busy. Thank God I talk so much because in the meantime my theory will diffuse into the circle of intellectuals that I have surrounded myself with.

When I was in Greece for two weeks on my own — everyone should spend some Christian metaphorical time in the desert or, for the pagans, a Campbellesque hero quest — I met a woman who was abused by a sex-cult as a child. She has over 45 personalities and will get a BBC documentary in the future. All of her teeth have been pulled out through the years, but she still could smile. I also met a German family where the father was a preacher and was reading a book about why the Church in Germany didn't intervene during Hitler's Final Solution. Only the daughter spoke English. I did get a chance to go to Albania for the day. It is as bad as you might think.

As I am writing this, my Polish, non-English-speaking cleaner is washing my dishes. It's great to be fucking spoiled.

The longer I am in Poland, the less I want to speak the language. When I was an expat in Poland during the last millennium, I used to judge the expat wives harshly for not speaking Polish. Now I understand the frail construction of self-identity that is intertwined with one's birth language. My wife and I agreed to have Polish day once a week. In the last 10 weeks, we have had only a half day experiment. One of my many (stupid) ideas.

Even though my identity is important, I don't publicize my Americanness in this post-NYC tower-no-more world, except on Sunday evenings when I go to the American Embassy to catch live American Football on the Armed Forces Network and drink the precious commodity, extremely rare in Europe, called A&W Root Beer.

Miko Shinoda

Miko lives her life o' leisure in San Francisco.

I could be called a "dot-bomber" even though I worked for a venture capital firm. Very coincidentally, my boss from my previous job called me up on my second to last day at work. She wanted to know if I wanted to come back and offered up a contractor position and quoted a ludicrously high fee they were willing to pay. I found myself on the next flight to Houston.

I worked between San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Austin, and New Orleans for the next seven months. They were long months, full of difficult people and frustrating travel. The indefiniteness of my situation came to a very clear fork in the road. My boss became a member of the C-suite at our long-standing client. She could no longer be the Engagement Partner because she was the Client, much higher up on the food chain. She offered to set me up to run the project for two, maybe even three years, which would get me to partner unless I burnt down a building.

The fork read: Partner or Life. I chose Life. My health was in shambles, my marriage going back to the roommate stage, and I was also just exhausted from working 80 hours traveling 3500 miles each week. Plus, I knew how partners in consulting firms work — they operate in an Olympic arena of politics, which I try to minimize my efforts around. I felt it was the best choice.

What better than to launch a joyous event like this than a vacation? A week at an exclusive, secluded Jamaican resort melted years of anxiety, self-hatred, travel rage, cubicle rage, random exasperations away. My emotional strength was revitalized, and I felt like I had finally got off an ill-fitting jacket that I had been struggling with for a long time. Somehow it slipped off very easily.

Back in the real world I saw once again the beauty of small pleasures. I no longer dreaded Sunday nights and waking up at 3:30 am to go to the airport, I could watch the weather report for more than two days ahead, I could saunter to the corner coffee shop with sleep still at the corners of my eyes. How wonderful to speak to shopkeepers about their daily routine and actually follow up on a Wednesday to buy a new shipment of flowers. And the best part was being able to buy groceries for meals rather than for specific uses. A big head of cabbage? Sure, bring it on — I can figure something out. A big container of yogurt — no problem! I can finish that before the due date. I had stepped into a world that didn't include a hotel or car service or deadlines or demanding clients. I felt the whole world pulsating with happy energy around me, even though I couldn't define my boundaries in it.

My newfound happiness, conviction in my decision, and joie de vivre were tested almost immediately, and then constantly. Perhaps this was too different from my previous life. Just the ordeal of strategic scheduling to see friends only on weekends required some complex algorithms and nonlinear optimization. Then I realized that a lot of the conversations I have with my friends are about what they "do" rather than what we think about non-work stuff. How could this happen? I'm the odd man out.

I never thought I was that self-absorbed, but if I were a non-working spouse in a crowd of my friends, I think I would be pretty lost and disinterested in the minutiae of the work conversations that seem to take exasperatingly long to play out. And cheery social conversations that previously required only minimal tending to meander lazily downstream suddenly became pockmarked with gaping holes of silence. What was this? Suddenly the staple conversation stock was missing and keenly observed. I had no work ball to toss about, so my friends stopped throwing theirs to me. And that left extracurricular stuff to talk about, or rather grope at.

Holy shit! I needed to have something to talk about. Hmm. Something "meaningful" though. What does that mean, anyway, "meaningful"? To whom? For how long? Is it like a vitamin to take? Does it mean I won't like it?

I polled friends who came up with different activities:

  • Volunteering
  • Traveling around the world
  • Hiking, outdoorsy stuff
  • Working out, going to Yoga (It's capitalized here in California.)
  • Cooking classes, language classes, photography classes
  • Cultural activities, like going to the MOMA

Well, the thing I loved most about not working was not traveling, so that one was definitely out. Volunteering always sounds better than the actual experience, definitely in the vitamin category. Hiking sounds good, I will do it every now and again, but it's not like I was going to be inspired to kayak counterclockwise around Alcatraz three times a day or anything. Working out would be good since I packed on the pounds from all those vending machine dinners. The other stuff, I would investigate.

In the meantime, it seemed somehow I met new people and inevitably the question arose, "So, what do you do?" My pithy comeback, "Lunch!" was met with sympathy, polite "Ohhh"s and blank gazes. (Translation: "Ok, you're a loser dot-bomber.") After more polite chitchat, the interrogating left jab comes. "So are you looking?" Then a quick upper cut of "What do you want to do?" and pretty soon, my ego is bleeding and in shambles, a TKO, and all I can do is limp toward a feeble distraction to catch my breath. "So how's your latte there?"

The most offensive category to me is "housewife." Hausfrau at least has a little sarcastic edge to it, which I prefer. I went to a prestigious women's college where we were taught and exalted to lead, to excel, to be Wonder Woman but in business casual clothing. Housewife. It makes my shoulders sag in limp defeat. For Christsake, you might as well get it over with and spank me and put me in a French maid's outfit. There's more dignity somehow in that. The indignity of not having a separate whole identity is what makes "housewife" so intolerable. Or maybe that's just ego, speaking from watching too many girl power movies like Thelma and Louise. I don't know which it is, but it's my fate.

I'm thinking about creating a fictitious small company — a story to tell random people who I've never met before and don't plan to run into again. The problem with this is…it's lying. And I'm exactly the type of person who would get "totally busted" in about five minutes.

I do think identity goes deeper than just occupation. But because the overlapping trifecta of ego, pride, and dignity get all mixed up, we can't help but project ourselves from the company we work for. You know, how pets begin to resemble their owners (or vice versa in cases where the pets are better looking than the owners). There is a Goldman Sachs look. I heard Harvard Business School is going to come out with an HBS Ken doll. I can, with 99% accuracy, pinpoint the Accenture consultants in any airport. And living here in San Francisco, I see the people who work for Banana Republic sashaying in their funky-faddy purple leather whatever a full block away. Startups had the advantage that they were all the same, so it didn't matter which one you worked for. So not only do I have to find a vocation/profession/career, I have to impress my personality (or vice versa), actually meld my look to a company's standards.

Amy Luna Capelle

Amy is an ex-management consultant and Scottīs friend and fellow-traveller.

Q: What did you do today?

  • Woke up at 7:30am to go to the bathroom. Went back to bed until 9:30am.
  • Had a lukewarm shower, heated by a Frankenstein-type electrical appliance.
  • Had two Bolivian Salteņas (mini-chicken or beef pot-pie) and a Coca-Cola for breakfast. Cost: USD$0.55.
  • Visited the LaPaz cemetery to see how dead are buried and remembered.
  • Had lunch at a mid-scale restaurant and watched Paceņas play dice drinking games and tell stories to pass their Saturday afternoon.
  • Visited the Textile Museum, learned much about weaving styles and purposes of traditional textiles and weaving motifs.
  • Had a cup of coffee and watched part of a soccer game on TV with locals.
  • Looked for a newspaper to buy or books in English. Couldn't find any.
  • Went to the internet cafe, where I am right now.
  • Tonight, will probably watch a movie, eat dinner, and read.
  • Tomorrow, will go mountain biking on a dirt road through an undeveloped valley.

Q: Was today typical of your days?

Q: Do you miss working? When? What do you miss? What do you not miss?
I have not worked since May 2000. Sometimes I miss working, most of the time I do not. What I miss most is feeling like I am contributing to society and accomplishing something. However, I know that eventually I will work again, and I plan on that being social work (i.e. nonprofit or similar) so I can rationalize not working at the moment.

Q: What is one truly great thing about not working?
Waking up without an alarm clock every day, except when we have to catch a bus or a plane.

Strangely, the other great thing about not working is thinking about what the possibilities are for working again. Meaning, trying to figure what to do to earn money and realizing there are so many options out there: get a job, start a company, etc. When you are working, you tend to forget you have many options that might make you happier.

Q: Is there any one question that people ask you?
When are you going back to work? How can you afford this?"

The other question is, "Where have you been?" I hate this question because it leads to a 10-minute discussion on where the other person has been also, and after answering and hearing the answer to this question about 100 times, it gets old.

Q: What did you wear today?
Jeans, a wicking t-shirt (quick drying when hand washing in the hotel sinks), wool sweater, wool socks, and hiking boots. Same as I wear everyday, with variations in undergarments and the color of my wicking t-shirt.

Copyright © 2001 by Inkburns.