My working life is not all that hectic or stressful, but that hasn’t stopped me from fantasizing about retirement. I have never golfed and don’t especially want to, but I nevertheless enjoy imagining the feeling of strolling idly through verdant fairways and over footbridges that span glistening and benign water hazards, grousing convivially with other retirees who have likewise fled northern climates precisely for such moments of casual conversation. In my fantasy everything is preternaturally warm and sunny, including my disposition—which is precisely what makes my fantasy so bizarre and disturbing, since the attitude I’m constitutionally stuck with tends to be a shade or two (or 12) this side of sunny.
Ever since I was in my late 20’s, I have spent an unnatural amount of time thinking about aging. While I will never be lining up for Botox injections or cosmetic surgery, I’d be fighting for a spot in the line for the Fountain of Youth, should it ever be discovered. It is not only the breakdown of body and mind that seems more and more dreadful and imminent with each passing year, but also the inexorable slipping away of all that I love now: my innocent daughters, my overflowing days as a father, building a life and raising a family with my best friend (my wife). I know—and feel, all too intensely—these years and days as mere moments racing by me. In this sense, aging is my greatest fear and deepest pain.
I dare say, this thought can really kill the buzz of my retirement fantasy.
I recently spent a week in a place that gave me ample opportunity to contemplate both the object of my fantasy and the subject of my dread. On a tiny island off Florida’s gulf coast, accessible only by ferry, where there are no stores or restaurants or any commerce whatsoever and where the exclusive mode of transportation is a golf cart, I stepped into my fantasy golden years. I got a taste of what my retirement buddies would be like, at least at this place.
There was John, 60 going on 14, who joined us in the pool on Sunday morning, displaying his mastery of the finely honed skill of balancing a can of Guinness while lolling about on a life-sized inflatable crocodile and wrestling with his (swimming) noodle. Though not exactly retired, he lives an hour away and spends every weekend the same way: partying with his well-to-do quasi-retired buddies. Golfing, floating and socializing with engaging, insouciant chums is not a bad way to spend one’s weekends, but it does not exactly represent my fantasy-come-true, even in 20 or 30 years.
And then there was Hans, the beachcombing German retiree who wandered over as we arrived to ask if we needed any help. His kind gesture soon turned sour as he proceeded to issue orders, both to me and his hapless teenage companion—grandson? protege? minion?—regarding how to do everything from unloading our baggage to extracting a golf cart stuck in the sand nearby. Clearly this was a man with too little to do and too much time in which to do it.
Neither John nor Hans nor any of the archetypally relaxed and fun-loving foursomes tooling around the island on golf carts—festooned with cigars, shades, golf caps and white shorts against leathery suntanned skin—seemed to lure me into retirement envy. As I kayaked along the intercoastal waterway, past so many weekend and retirement homes whose docks boasted large boats with overripe names like “My Pinnacle,” “Sea Me Now” and “Grand Dad E,” I felt transported to another world. It’s not that I’m incapable of indulgence or luxury—I was on vacation there, after all—but the scene and lifestyle gave me a salutary dose of realism.
I have no idea where, when or in what manner I will spend my later years, but I don’t daydream now about retirement the way I used to. My real fantasy is no longer to hasten my retirement but to freeze time in the here and now—staying young, keeping my daughters as they are, retiring to that Florida island not with my hypothetical golf-course buddies but with my wife and children. I would run up and down that beach with them of an endless morning, float on the surf with them in my arms of an endless afternoon, and sit on the sand with my little girls in my lap as we watch the sun setting just above the sea’s edge without ever quite disappearing.
This fantasy, of course, is even more farfetched than the one in which I retire to a golf course. To imagine ourselves as we perhaps may be one day is human nature. To wish to be something we can never be is self-torture. Creation is not a fixed point but an oceanic swell of images whose movement is so mutable, and whose depths so unknowable, that they almost always are gone before we’ve managed to focus our gaze. To hope to arrest time’s tide is folly, but to long to do so, at one point or another, is not only inevitable, but also the most sublime form of desire. For in this reach we are not aiming for something we are not, but expressing profound gratitude for what we are.
Being with my kids at 3 and 5—this is my fantasy. And the closer I get to retirement, the more I know I’ll fantasize about now, about these fast-fading days, and the silly fairway fantasy will recede into thin air like some tee shot gone badly awry.