Rejuvenated. Refreshed. And Resolute: I’m Not Retired

‘I hate the word retired,” says my friend Sandy (a pseudonym) as we settle in at our favorite coffeehouse on East Lake Street in Minneapolis to discuss our lives since leaving full-time employment.

She is 69, volunteering and still working part time after a departmental restructuring a few years ago eliminated a job she loved and nurtured. In early September, I left a well-compensated position two months after turning 65. I wasn’t pushed out. In fact, they were sorry to see me go.

Like Sandy, I transitioned immediately into part-time work, with two job contracts that total about 26 hours per week. Nothing close to my former full-on pace, but certainly not retired. And yet that is what many people — former business associates, one of my sisters, even a few close friends — insist on calling this period of my life.

“Congratulations on your retirement,” reads a card from a well-meaning former colleague, who softens the blow with a handwritten note: I know you will never officially be retired with all of your passions & energy.

Still. The R word bothers me enough (I literally cringe when people say it) that I reluctantly opt to poke at the bruise, look under the rock, examine the visceral impact that being called “retired” has on me. My friend Sandy nails it: It feels like an accusation, she declares, “like I sit in a recliner all day.”

Words matter, especially to a writer. And so, I believe I am being neither defensive nor in denial when I correct people — repeatedly — who say I am retiring.

True, I left my full-time job of eight-plus years on September 7. Yes, I acknowledge that I likely will never have a career, as I once defined it, again: a title, a stack of business cards, an office that overlooks historic Summit Avenue in St. Paul, name recognition among the constituents I served. I closed the door on all that, feeling like Mary Richards when she gave one last, wistful glance to the WJM newsroom on March 12, 1977.

Mary Richards, a feminist role model to girls of my generation, says goodbye to the WJM newsroom.

And yet: Here are three reasons why I refuse to use the R word for the next, and likely last, phase of my working journey.

  1. Social Security: The government declares my “full retirement age ” as 66 years and 6 months, when my benefits will be higher. Several of my peers are waiting to claim Social Security until they’re 70, which many financial advisors encourage. All I can promise is that I’m not going to claim benefits for a while.
  2. Continued employment: I have two income streams from part-time jobs, as managing editor of Streets.mn, a transportation and environmental community blog, and as executive director of a re-emerging nonprofit dedicated to urban parks and trails.
  3. I like working: Absent pressure from my retired husband, I would have stayed at my university job for another academic year. But two part-time jobs landed in my lap last spring, and that softened the hard decision to quit full-time work before I felt ready, either emotionally or intellectually.

If I’ve learned anything in recent years from the movement to declare pronouns when introducing yourself (“she/her”), it is that individuals have a right to describe themselves in words that feel affirming and true. The people who know me well will tell you, I am not retiring, in any sense of that word. My younger son’s partner suggested that I am “downsizing” my career. I can live with that.

Never depend on a single income. Make an investment to create a second source.

Investment guru Warren Buffett

Last Friday was the first time in four decades that a biweekly paycheck didn’t drop into my checking account, a tidy sum of money that helped me feel sheltered and secure, like a double bolt on the front door when I’m home alone. I now have three paychecks instead of one — the two part-time jobs and a pension from the Newspaper Guild, which I laughed off as “grocery money” when I was working full time. Soon, I know, it will come to feel essential.

These first few weeks of “gig work,” as my Millennial son calls it, were cushioned by a final, fat paycheck from my former employer that included an extra 40 hours of vacation pay. The reality of living on a smaller, less predictable income has yet to hit home, though I passed on ordering a $4 cup of coffee when I went out for Sunday breakfast (I’d just made coffee at home) and have given up membership in my pricey yoga studio because Medicare will pay for the unfortunately named Silver Sneakers classes at other gyms nearby.

Up to 40 percent of retired Americans live mainly on Social Security. I recognize the privilege in my easy choices and see the middle-class safety net strung securely beneath me. I was taught to save money, advised to take advantage of employer retirement plans, which I did starting at age 27, educated to understand the risks and rewards of buying stocks.

I talk with friends who are farther down the road on this journey, loping toward what we all hope will be a fulfilling and financially solvent old age:

  • “When I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” says Diane, who rebounded from a company downsizing with a consulting contract that calls on her accrued wisdom and expertise. Lately, however, elder-care duties have pulled her out of state.
  • “You have to get used to taking money out rather than putting money in,” says Mary, a former colleague who retired at 60 and is living on her husband’s Social Security draw and full-time paycheck — and doing significant volunteer work at her church.
  • “I had to learn to look at income from a monthly point of view,” says another friend whose post-career consulting allowed him to hold off drawing Social Security until he turned 70, the age at which benefits max out. “Give yourself time to adjust.”

Patience is not my strong suit. Moments of panic wash over me as my Health Savings Account dwindles, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average freefalls with Putin’s torturous and ego-driven war, as my sleep grows increasingly fitful. What have I given away?

When we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.

Poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry

One thing I miss already about full-time employment is having an office, a place to go to every morning, a space where I knew my purpose and who I am. Or who I was. I changed my profile on LinkedIn a few days after leaving the career position and realized I would be lost without a title. That’s what the two part-time jobs afford me, in addition to the ability to delay Social Security for at least a year.

A 22-item “Checklist for Retirement” — the type of document I’ve been filing away for the past few years — asks predictable questions about how I’ll spend my time once I quit work altogether, whether I have an emergency fund and a strong network of friends, whether I am comfortable with the level of risk in my investments.

The final question, framed as a statement, is the one that stumps me: “I am ready for this next chapter of my life.” Despite months of planning and preparation, I think I’m not. I watch the retirements, or semi-retirements, that I admire: people who stay physically active and civically engaged, who volunteer in both minor and meaningful ways, who consciously keep up their relationships, who hold jobs more for satisfaction than identity.

None of that fits the Barcalounger stereotype of retirement, the all-or-nothing notion that you’re either working, or you’re not. An article in the AARP Bulletin last June, “Why You Should Keep Working After Retirement,” argues for the very life that I am trying to construct and craft. Among its eight reasons, “a sense of purpose” and “a cushion for your savings” appeal to me most.

But there’s a ninth reason, which AARP does not address: I want work that allows me more space in my life — for my husband and sons, for the friends I have neglected, for the causes I yearn to support and for myself.

Financial journalist Chris Farrell coined the term “unretirement” in a book of the same name published in 2016. In one of those coincidences that seems meant to be, I stumbled upon a “Retire with Purpose” podcast episode the other day featuring another financial journalist discussing the same “unretirement” concept.

“I’m still in the game,” explained Richard Eisenberg, 66, who recently left a full-time job as managing editor at Next Avenue to teach, write and podcast. “I’m just not doing it all day, every day.” Instead, Eisenberg has time to “volunteer, mentor, travel, see my kids.”

Sam Studer (left) and Nate Studer and their proud parents on Thanksgiving 2021

One week before my last day at the office, I texted my two sons about establishing a tradition of monthly homecooked family meals. “Your dad and I acknowledge your busy lives and would like to be more intentional about finding time with you,” I said. To my delight, they responded immediately and affirmatively.

My breadwinning career took me away from my family. A lot. I can’t change that, but I can make different decisions now. Unretirement — working less, living more, cherishing time as well as money — grants me that freedom and opportunity. That second chance.

Why Old Women Make the Best Cooks

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020 and my office shut down, and everyone was scared to go outside, when a vaccine hadn’t been discovered yet and the retail shops and restaurants all had closed — with one diner and two coffeehouses in my neighborhood now permanently shuttered — I had no choice but to cook. I had to feed my family. I had to keep myself occupied, “busy” being my default way to cope.

Cooking became a way to exert control in a world that, overnight, morphed into a Twilight Zone episode. While other people drank more alcohol or gained 30 pounds or drove their pickups and SUVs faster, I knit scarves for friends and family members, discovered new streaming services. And cooked.

Red lentil soup from a Beth Dooley recipe in the “Taste” section of my local newspaper, a consistently reliable source of recipes. Sweet potato-apple stew from the New York Times cooking app (the most creative bottom line–builder a national news organization has discovered). Chicken wild rice soup from an amalgamation of recipes in a 20-year-old cookbook that parents at Greenvale Elementary School compiled and sold as a fundraiser when my younger son was there.

Now, as we face down the third or fourth variant in the third or fourth year of COVID-19, bars and restaurants are open again. Coffeehouses are crowded. And I am still cooking, this time because inflation has me earning less in real dollars than I have in years.

Although I have two dozen cookbooks, a recipe box with index cards from the 1980s, a drawer full of torn out recipes that I swear I’ll sort one day and that veritable New York Times cooking app, well worth the $40 annual fee, I turn most often to the white, three-ring notebook that I began assembling during those first weeks of the pandemic.

At 65, I am creating a newfangled version of an old-fashioned cookbook and finally teaching myself — trusting myself — to cook.

Cooking is an act of showing up in the world, of caring for ourselves and for others.

Beth Dooley, The Perennial Kitchen

My younger son has grown up to be body conscious, like I am — particular and intentional about what he eats. My older son, a weightlifter, seems perpetually pleased to be offered food. “Are you hungry?” has become my default greeting when he stops by.

Cooking and baking are gifts, meant to be shared. I keep homemade muffins on hand during the winter so I can thank the neighbor across the street when he clears our driveway with his snowblower. I dropped off a package of bars to the neighbor behind us as a small “thank you” for hosting a backyard gathering with homemade carrot cake, complete with sugared carrot shavings, to celebrate my 65th birthday on July 4. When I make beef stew in the crockpot with extra vegetables and more seitan than stew meat, I always package up a big serving for my younger son.

My neighbor Martha McCartney made my favorite carrot cake, complete with sugared carrot shavings, to help me celebrate turning 65.

My father was an attorney, and I remember my mother hosting dinner parties for his clients, “back when lawyers couldn’t advertise,” she liked to say. Beef stroganoff and duck with orange sauce were two favorite entrées. We kids would gather at the top of the stairs and sometimes sneak down for treats: bowls of salted mixed nuts, relish trays with olives and sliced radishes and tiny pickles, strawberry sauce made with berries from my father’s garden served over cheese blintzes from the Lincoln Del.

Those are happy memories, tinged with nostalgia and regret, from the years before my parents’ marriage fell apart in the early 1970s. My mother lost interest in being either a wife or a housewife and quit cooking, deeming it — incorrectly, I believe — as one of the societal norms oppressing women. I was a teenager then, living at home, and still wince at her embrace of Hamburger Helper, Jell-O with canned fruit cocktail and other convenience foods marketed as liberation, in keeping with the times.

The Betty Crocker Cookbook was first published in 1950 and has sold more than 75 million copies.

If you can read, you can cook, the saying goes. And that’s how I started:

  • Reading recipes, especially in the venerable Betty Crocker Cookbook.
  • Following directions on packages of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
  • Gingerly using spices, based on whether I liked their smell.

Eventually I became a mother, in my early 30s, and had to learn to cook for kids. I dubbed myself a “housewife cook” back in those busy, money-conscious years — fully invested in my career but anxious also to be a Mom. Relying on advice from the likes of Working Mother magazine, I hid shredded carrots in spaghetti for extra nutrition, engaged the boys at my elbow when I baked banana muffins so they would be invested in the outcome, made grilled cheese sandwiches in a specially coated pan so the bread would turn a perfect golden brown.

Being a housewife cook means making do with what’s on hand, experimenting with ingredients that might go together, never creating a dish the same way twice. It’s the “no-recipe recipes” now made famous by Sam Sifton in New York Times Cooking, encouraging people “to improvise in the kitchen” and be less bound to precisely written recipes.

Leave it to a man to monetize a practice that women have been engaging in for years. “My grandmother, like many of her generation, was famous for the pseudo-recipe, a little of this, maybe some of that,” explains my sister-in-law Nicole, herself an accomplished cook. “Even the handwritten cards are near impossible to use to replicate anything without trial and error.”

That’s why old women make the best cooks — and conversationalists. Time has taught us the value of being fearless.

Cook a recipe once and you’re playing a cover song. Cook it four or five times, though, and you’re playing a new arrangement.

Sam Sifton, New York Times

As an old woman now myself, I’ve learned that experimentation in the kitchen is often worth the risk, and way cheaper than eating in restaurants. You put apples in the steel cut oatmeal because you need to use them up or chopped kale in the wild rice soup to justify the butter and whole milk that render it creamy and delicious. Preparing an egg dish for Sunday brunch means reviewing a recipe and the contents of the fridge, and then vamping. No cottage cheese on hand? Try ricotta, and it works!

That’s why I am creating my three-ring-binder cookbook, with printed recipes in plastic sleeves, to capture the improvisations that have made recipes my own. Even so, I leave room to write notes for ongoing adjustments and adaptations, much like The Best of Byerly’s cookbook full of neat, penciled notations I found at a library sale. That the Byerly’s cookbook is now online is more convenient, but a digital version will never tell me that Parmesan Dijon Chicken is “easy” and “very good” or that the cayenne pepper in the Shrimp Creole should be cut back.

“I don’t consider cookbooks as static things,” said a reader recently in an online discussion in Carolyn Hax’s intelligent advice column in the Washington Post. “In my mind they are meant to be notated, spilled on, dog eared.”

Every cookbook I own tells a story of relationships that influence my cooking: who passed it on or gave it to me as a gift.

When I asked my siblings about their own use of recipes, my sister Debbie pointed me toward a piece in The Atlantic sharply critical of Sam Sifton’s “no-recipe recipes” trend. In “When Did Following Recipes Become a Personal Failure,” from April 2021, writer Laura Shapiro claims that Sifton’s call to “make the act of cooking fun” recreates the Happy Housewife stereotype that duped middle-class white women of my mother’s era.

Sure, I can call myself a “housewife” cook because I never was a housewife. But I can enjoy the creativity and selflessness of putting together meals in my kitchen not only because I want to eat good tasting, healthful food but because I want others to enjoy it, too. Nothing about that threatens the feminist or careerist mindsets that have defined me.

I like the efficiency of managing a kitchen. Cooking, grocery shopping, putting my hands in sudsy water make me feel safe, make my life feel ordered, help me stay on top of the chaos that COVID and rising crime rates and visible climate change induce. Cooking and sharing food connects me with generations of women — my stepmother, Dorothy, my Aunt Mary, my sister-in-law Peggy, all of them gone — who cooked for me and my family, who opened their kitchens in all their messy, miraculous, sometimes maddening glory. And who, in the process, showed me their humanity. And their heart.

The ABCs (and Ds) of Medicare: Back to the Basics

Why do so few people in Medicare brochures wear glasses? (Sometimes the men do.) Why do so many of us aging Americans view 65 — the age at which we qualify for government-sponsored healthcare (thank you, LBJ) — as a natural end to our full-time working years? Who could have predicted that learning the ABCs would be a task not only for toddlers but for those of us toddling toward retirement, too?

“Don’t let the alphabet confuse you,” a BlueCross BlueShield Minnesota rep told me last January during the first of my phone calls to learn more about Medicare. Back then, I thought understanding the multi-pronged program would be child’s play.

“Parts A and B are original Medicare,” he explained patiently, while I pictured him holding up colored wooden blocks. “Part C is an advantage plan. Part D is prescription drugs.”

D is for drugs, I told myself: I can remember that!

The ABCs of old age

Turns out, there’s so much more. I have learned that the weightiest decisions about Medicare — whether to enroll in a Medigap or an Advantage plan, when to enroll in Parts B and D without facing a lifetime penalty, which private insurer to use — can all be delayed since I plan to keep working full time, with employer-provided healthcare, after I turn 65 in July.

Still, my months of research have changed my perception of where I am in life. Wrinkles flank my mouth and crease the bridge between my eyes. My right hip hurts from over-exercise. I feel the beginning twinges of arthritis in my hands. Or am I finally just acknowledging the obvious?

“I’m officially old,” I texted my lifelong friend, who turns 65 in May, six weeks ahead of me. “Just enrolled in Medicare Part A.” (That’s the part that covers most hospitalization expenses and is free at 65, provided you’ve worked long enough to qualify.)

“If I didn’t tell you today, I LOVE YOU!” she replied, reassuring me that I am really only “young-old.” Age reveals the importance of family and friends, the relationships we nurture because we need one another as we feel our way forward, toward the inevitable end time.

Marketing Madness

An unmarked white envelope fell out of my newspaper the other morning, an ad to join AARP. Did all subscribers get these, or is generational marketing that sophisticated? My mailbox hasn’t been so stuffed with ads —invitations to Medicare 101 classes, appeals from insurance companies whose chief executives earn multiple millions of dollars a year — since I aged out of the desirable demographic of 18 to 54 years old.

The first piece of Medicare mail has proven the most useful. A tall, laminated, two-sided flyer from UCare, it looks and functions like a large bookmark and has sat atop the growing pile of brochures for months. One side declares in oversized, old people–friendly type what steps to take six, four and three months before you turn 65; the other side urges you toward the research you should do anyway if you plan to keep working past age 65 and are fully insured.

Three key points that months of research has taught me:

First: Other than Part A (the standard hospitalization coverage), Medicare, contrary to assumptions, is not free. Nor is it the Bernie Sanders vision of a single-payer, government-sponsored program. A former colleague of mine retired nine months before turning 65. Despite careful budgeting and the blessing of her financial advisor to walk away from a six-figure salary before she qualified for Medicare, she said the monthly cost of post-retirement healthcare coverage surprised her: “It’s expensive!”

Second: If you have healthcare through your employer, and plan to keep working past 65, determine whether the prescription drug coverage is “creditable,” meaning it at least equals Medicare Part D; that’s the only way to delay Part D enrollment without a penalty once you have turned 65. (Given that a trusted neighbor contradicted the advice from a BlueCross salesman, I have fact-checked this several times.)

Third: “Original Medicare” — Parts A and B — covers only 80 percent of your expenses. That means you have to figure out the distinction between a Medigap supplemental plan and the relatively new (since 1997) Advantage plans, which are cheaper, more bound to a network of providers and recently have been in the news for denying claims. Heavily marketed, they appeal to healthy, young-old people like me because of their emphasis on fitness programs and coverage for fashionable eyewear.

We ego-driven Baby Boomers don’t feature ourselves ever sliding into decrepitude or suffering the indignities that a more expensive Medigap plan would cover.

Medicare’s Promise and Potential

Just as I started saving for retirement at age 27 and have counseled my grown sons to do the same, I have spent months now researching how Medicare works and what health coverage I may need heading into these years when the uncertainty of life has never looked more certain.

Key to keeping the fear at bay has been talking to people who have crossed the bridge:

  • My politically conservative confidant who favors UCare because he won’t buy health insurance from a for-profit company like United HealthCare.
  • My friend who thinks Advantage plans are overrated and overmarketed; she uses a more expensive Medigap supplemental plan because it serves her wherever she travels, including overseas.
  • My buddy who swears that the free services of a broker — who, of course, is getting compensated by insurance companies — bring clarity to the head-spinning confusion of Medicare options. He laughed at my insistence on doing my own research (“that’s so like you, Amy”).

For those of us who have earned enough and had the discipline to save throughout our working years, Medicare opens a door to the final active stage of life. However much I may mock the glossy brochures — color photos of women walking in the woods, a laughing couple out on bikes, a man lingering in a bookstore, two women talking over coffee — I have to concede that the calmer life they portray looks good.

Nothing in the stack of marketing materials tells me how to decide when to leave full-time employment. How I’ll fill my time or discover a new identity. How my husband and I will belt-tighten once a tidy sum of money no longer drops into our checking account every other Friday.

Most of us know that retirement requires a baseline of financial planning; but emotional and spiritual planning are just as important.

Connie Zweig, Ph.D.

What I do know — and what one of my older sisters predicted — is that my view of work is shifting, almost without bidding, as I edge closer to the time when healthcare coverage no longer ties me to a demanding full-time job. Allowing others to control my schedule, always carrying the worries with me, rarely getting a full night’s sleep: It’s all less appealing and less physically possible as I age.

“How we retire, and how we imagine retirement, may be more important than when we retire,” says Connie Zweig, Ph.D. in her 2021 book The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul. “All this emphasis on working and doing . . . stresses that purpose comes through productivity and doesn’t appear to include more service-oriented doing or more contemplative, spiritual development,” she writes.

Maybe the Medicare brochures with all their bicycles and coffee breaks are marketing more than overpriced health insurance, after all. Maybe it’s time to listen, to see the end of work-as-identity as a new beginning. As a time when I finally will be free.