Anatomy of a Retirement
August 12, 2014
There is a story, really more of a fairytale, which tells of a man who has worked at the same company for 40 years. Then comes the big day when he is given a loving farewell party, he is thanked for all his loyalty and good work, and is given a beautiful gold watch as he walks out the door towards the sunset to collect his pension and enjoy his much deserved retirement.
Yea, that might still happen, in fairytales!
Believe it or not though, people do still retire. I did. I don’t know if my road to retirement was typical or not. It came as a surprise, with starts and stops, and a period of semi-retirement. It caught me completely unprepared, with no pension, no gold watch, and no goodbye party to look back on.
Here is the story of how we made it to retirement. As the Grateful Dead once said about our travels through life, “What a long strange trip it’s been.” And the road to retirement can be about the strangest part of this whole journey.
My last real job goes to India
I was working as a contract database programmer at Boeing in Seattle. I had gone back to college, got another degree, and changed careers from English teaching to become a computer programmer about 20 years earlier. I started working with computers right around my 40th birthday. I eventually became an independent contractor and worked at most of the large companies in the Seattle area. I was doing okay, especially since coming to Boeing and working on a huge database (containing all the parts of all the Boeing 7xx airplanes ever built). Then the bomb fell.
My job got outsourced to Bangalore, India. One hundred and twenty of us American contractors were immediately out of work and Indians who started getting paid a fifth of what we were making were now in charge of all those Boeing airplane parts.
My options were to first go on unemployment, which I did, and then look for a new gig, which was a little more difficult. I was in my late 50s and almost all the 120 other database geeks that got laid off with me were in their 20s and 30s. Who would you hire? So my long-suffering wife and I did the most logical thing we could think of.
We go on “The Great American Laid-Off Road Trip”
In order not to think about what I would need to do to land my next computer job we decided to clear our heads and take off and do something quintessentially American. We went on a road trip.
We packed the 12 year old Dodge Spirit with a tent and sleeping bags and everything we could buy from the Coleman Company and set out to explore America. We crossed Washington state and into Alberta, Canada. We visited Banff and Jasper National parks. Then after driving through a blizzard of grasshoppers in the great plains of Canada we made it down to Montana and Glacier National Park. Next was Yellowstone, and then the Grand Tetons. Then we went down to Utah and the temple in Salt Lake and over to Bryce and Zion National Parks. Somewhere in the Mojave Dessert we decided that we couldn’t take one more night in our sleeping bags so we headed to The Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.
After a nice cool few days in La Vegas, outside was 118 degrees, we went down to San Diego, the Zoo and Sea World, and Jim Croce’s bar, and just so that we could say we had driven from Canada to Mexico, we went into Tijuana. Then to LA and had lunch in Thai Town and went to Universal Studios, north to San Francisco and then to The Hurst Castle and Yosemite National park. We then drove through the redwoods, up through the Oregon coast and back to Seattle.
The one thing I learned during The Great American Laid-Off Road Trip, surrounded by the beauty of all those mountains and trees and waterfalls and canyons and bison and elk and grizzly bears and coyotes, and even those grasshoppers, was that I never wanted to write another line of computer code ever again. And I never did.
We return to Thailand and watch the towers fall
After a hiatus of more than 20 years we were back in Thailand for a very short trip where we had spent 10 wonderful years and where our children were born. We arrived on September 10, 2001.
The next night we were having dinner with some old Chiang Mai friends when we got a call telling us we had to get to a TV right away. Something bad was happening in New York. Less than 1 kilometer from where I grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, our country was being attacked. We were able to get to a TV with CNN and BBC. I can’t remember much else about our few weeks in Thailand except the picture of the second tower being hit and then both buildings collapsing. I guess there were bigger problems in the world than my inability to find a job.
I retire twice
I still had my master’s degree in TEOSL so back home in Seattle I looked for some part-time English teaching jobs; anything but computers. I got a job at Green River Community College preparing Japanese and Korean students hoping to study here at the university level. I got another job at North Seattle Community College teaching immigrants. Best students I ever had, from Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, South America, and a few from Europe and Asia. But I began to realize that teaching was meant for a much younger me.
I had already retired from computer programming, now it was time to retire from teaching.
So we run away and join the circus and make one more career change
Over the next few years we returned to Thailand 5 times, living mostly off of savings; social Security was a few years still in the future. But a lifetime of frugality has its rewards.
Each time we stayed in Thailand a little longer, finally living in Chiang Mai 4 months out of each year. Somewhere along the line we got the idea of buying handicrafts in Thailand, shipping them to the U.S. and selling them there.
It turned out for us that the best way to sell stuff back home was to go to outdoor fairs specializing in arts and handicrafts. We got a white folding tent, some tables, and a guide to all the outdoor fairs and farmer’s markets in the western United States. I had the best fun of my working life hawking Thai handicrafts in the great outdoors. We even made enough money to buy our annual tickets to Thailand and pay for our time there. It was as much fun as joining the circus.
But circus work is also for the young, and schlepping all our stuff to the fairgrounds, and setting up our tent and breaking it down was tiring work. As fun as it was working alongside of all those world-traveler-hippie-artsy-fartsy type fair vendors, four years of the circus, longer than I had ever held a single job, was enough. Thus came retirement #3, and still no gold watch.
We finally take the plunge
For 5 years we were lucky enough to be able to split our time between Seattle and Chiang Mai – voted in many surveys as two of the most livable cities in the world. But keeping up two households, half a world from each other, as beautiful and livable as each one was, was stretching our finances. It would be a few more years before we could get our Social Security and feed off of Uncle Sam’s proverbial teat, so we had to make a decision.
One of the hardest things we ever did was to sell our Seattle home and move to Chiang Mai fulltime. But there were goods and bads from that decision. The good, we sold at just about the top of the real estate boom and had enough equity left to buy a comfortable home here in Chiang Mai. The bad, we missed being in Seattle when the Sea Hawks finally won the Super Bowl. But I downloaded every game this year so that mitigated the pain of not sitting in the upper deck on cold and rainy Seattle Sunday afternoons.
Retired Life in Thailand
Being hyperactive I knew I had to occupy myself while being “retired”. I wrote 3 English textbooks and found a publisher, Silkworm Books. I started writing a column for Chiang Mai City Life magazine called “A Retiring Attitude”. I turned those articles into an eBook called “Retired Life in Thailand” and after 5 years as a columnist I also retired from magazine writing and took up blogging about retiring to Thailand.
I also took up golf, a bane to my existence, and the piano to accompany my singing – not really into karaoke. I have to admit that my singing and piano playing are on a par with my golf game. But that is okay with me, I’m old so people forgive me.
No regrets so far. And now that I am collecting Social Security I just might go down to the local mall and see what kind of gold watches they are carrying. But I sure do miss sitting in the upper deck on those rainy Sunday afternoons in Seattle.