Every few days or so, someone asks me something like, "How does it feel being retired?" Or, "What are you doing in retirement?" Or, "Is retirement all you thought it would be?"
I always bristle before giving either my standard "busier than ever" quip or delivering my "retired, hell!" lecture.
"Busier than ever" is a cliche that many other people at this stage of their lives use. It means that you have replaced the time clock or salaried job with other activities and stuff. I know retirees (their own designation) whose lives have become a mess. They're volunteering for this or that nonprofit; caring for grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and helping out this or that political or humanitarian or religious cause. And most of these folks aren't earning one brown penny for their efforts.
I use the "busier than ever" response in most encounters because it is the polite thing to do. Other times, when I can't control my resentment of being labeled a retiree, I launch into my "retired, hell!" speech.
For me, retirement is a state of mind, and I can't see myself ever being in a retired state of mind.
I'm a writer. I do what all writers do: write. I'm one of the breed who naturally writes. It never has been and never will be work to me. I'm one of the luckiest people in the world because I've been able to earn a respectable income doing what I naturally do.
The only time writing is work is after I have goofed off and found myself about to miss a deadline my editor would deem to be unacceptable. That's when I sweat.
As a child, I read everything I got my hands on, especially newspapers and magazines. I would stay up half the night practicing being a journalist, writing down observations of things I had seen or heard, summarizing articles I had read and conversations I had overheard. I went on to start my high school and college newspapers. It was all about writing, doing what I did naturally. It wasn't work. It wasn't for pay.
Most of the people I admire are others who never retire, whose work is what they do naturally. The great vocalist Tony Bennett is an example. At 85, he's still hitting nightclubs and concert halls, wowing fans young and old. His smile remains infectious, and he continues to mentor aspiring vocalists. He's a gifted painter and still produces fine art under his birth name, Anthony Dominick Benedetto.
Here in Tampa Bay, 82-year-old trombonist Buster Cooper is my unretired hero. He is a living treasure, still traveling the world with his wife, performing his unique brand of jazz. Every time I'm with him, I have to remind myself that I'm in the presence of an unpretentious man who played with the likes of Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman, who entertained the queen of England and a U.S. president.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being with Cooper during a Tampa Bay Rays game at Tropicana Field. We talked about growing up in St. Petersburg, music's powerful influence on people and his career as a trombonist for some of the world's best band leaders.
Knowing that he had just returned from a gig in Europe, I asked him about the future of jazz and what kept him performing with so much energy and with such obvious joy at his age. After giving me that famous smile, he said: "Maxwell, every day is the first day of my life. And performing jazz is my life."
I asked if he planned to retire, if he would put his trombone in its case and leave it there. Again, he gave me that famous smile. He said it was impossible to retire from the "essence" of his life.