A good end … and a great beginning

A sad fact of American life is that few people read Shakespeare.

Yeah, I know the language seems foreign and intimidating, but so what? You read a bunch, check out the footnotes, and pretty soon you’ll both understand and enjoy it.

Did I say you’ll ENJOY it? You bet. Because if you like to read – anything at all – whatever you want, you’ll find in Shakespeare. Heroics, villainy, tragedy, comedy, brilliant plot reversals, heavy philosophic musings, word play, sword play, even screamingly funny slapstick.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no expert on Shakespeare – not even an accomplished reader. But I’ve read a fair amount of his stuff, liked it and had a lot of it stick with me. I’m always amazed when some little thing triggers a quote or a scene or a quip from the Bard.

For example, there’s a line from “Hamlet” that’d been dogging me for the past few months.

It is, “the dread of that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

And what was relevant about that quote? Especially since Hamlet was referring to death, and I have no intention of doing a belly flop off the Rainbow Bridge any time soon?

Well, for me the undiscovered country was retirement, something I knew nothing about but was heading into nonetheless.

The wage slave

Retiring is no small deal, since it’s unlike anything we’ve ever done. All our lives we work, in one form or another. Sure, when we’re wee pishers not much is expected of us, from post-potty training to pre-kindergarten. But once you walk into the Hallowed Halls of Academe and plop your tuchis in one of those tiny desks adults find precious (but which to me could’ve been a bench on a slave galley), it’s all over.

Yeah, it starts with the simple stuff – the ABCs, 1 + 1, “See Spot Run” and the rest – but then, even before you’ve learned to tell analog time, you’re being slammed upside the head with the quadratic equation, the Battle of Borodino and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

And though things may get better, the pressure never lets up. Sure, there’s your all-too-brief post-adolescence when you’re chasing the Bright Elusive Butterfly of Love, and maybe even netting one or two. But blink twice and the only thing you’re chasing is the Almighty Dollah, and the only thing you’re netting is net loss.

So there you are, clocking in, clocking out, day after day, decade after decade; always a drone, never a queen bee. And then, suddenly, you’re 66, standing by a serving table with some of your co-workers, sipping warm Hawaiian punch, nibbling Velvetta-topped Wheat Thins, listening to the third under-assistant director of personnel say what a helluva guy you are and how they’ll never be able to replace you. Next, after a dramatic pause, to show how much the Tighten-Em-Up Truss Company appreciates your 50 years of devotion, as well as your love of art, he gives you something everyone knows you’ll cherish – a gargantuan oil portrait of a teary clown holding balloons. On velvet.

All right, so I exaggerated. Maybe there’s no clown painting. But the party favors and fine points aside, that IS the scene. Nine-tenths of your life you work your butt off, with no end in sight and when you finally get your bearings, you’re walking out the gate, having given back the keys to your office and the executive men’s room, off into retirement, The Paradise of the Wage Slave – clueless.

That was pretty much my experience.

I finished the school year, went to graduation, got misty during “Pomp and Circumstance,” chatted with some folks, and then and then what?

Good question. And one to which I had no answer – and still don’t. But last week I got pretty close to one, I think.

in Paradise

Now that I’m a Dope of leisure, I did something I said I was going to do for years – I visited my childhood pal Pete McIntyre in Myrtle Beach.

Pete’s also retired and has lived in Myrtle Beach for 35 years. At one time he owned a greasy spoon, and then a locally famous bucket of blood, but he finally went legit and worked for the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and ended up managing the joint. The point of this being Pete, having hobnobbed with all the MB princes, paupers, priests and pariahs, knows everyone on the island, every attraction, every fleshpot and bistro, every bit of wildlife – of all species.

So given that, before I left we talked about all the things we could do. There were dozens and dozens of them. The only foreseeable problem was time: With but 24 hours in a day, we’d be hard put to see and do half the stuff we talked about. At least that happened in the planning stage – the reality was far different.

Here’s what we actually did:

1. Went to a great little private Civil War museum and chatted at length with the owner-curator, who was the most knowledgeable person I’ve met about the Civil War.

2. Visited one of Pete’s friends, a fossil collector, whose collection is nationally renowned. Like the Civil War guy, he was another educator, par excellence. He’s also a masterful finish carpenter, with a great alternative mind. What impressed me more than his fossil collection, or his carpentry, was his recliner. It was a bucket seat from a Cadillac that he’d copped from a junkyard for a pittance. He built a stand for it and hooked up to a car battery so he could adjust it however he wanted. Reposing in it, he looked less like a silver-haired hippy than the lord of the manor.

3. Swam in the ocean twice. Got stung by a jellyfish once.

4. Chatted with a bunch of folks in town, ate a ton of seafood, got to have nice convos with Pete’s wife Tammi.

And that was it for “accomplishments.”

So what happened to all the other things we’d talked about? Nothing. We just never got around to them. Nor could we, since we never left the house till after 1, having spent each morning sitting around after breakfast, drinking coffee, digesting, shmoozing, revisiting Old Home Week in Our Home Town, and generally just goofing and joking around.

So in terms of accomplishments, I had almost none.

But in terms of enjoying myself and the company of my friend, I had everything.

And if there’s a more meaningful way to spend my retirement, I’ve no idea what it is.