How do you answer the question, “So, what do you do?” Your answer, and how long it takes you to think of it, can tell a lot about your sense of identity. That’s not a typical daily concern, but people who’ve left the world of paychecks can find the answer comes uncertainly and slowly. Living frugally may allow early retirement, but using the word retirement may hijack the discussion. What do I do? Allow me to explain.
“Allow me to explain” is a bad answer. The person that asked probably wanted a job title (engineer), and would probably accept a role (American), or a passion (dancer). I retired, or at least left paycheck employment based on sufficient resources for a comfortably sustainable lifestyle, about 13 years ago. (Pardon a personal moment as I let that sink in yet again. – Whoa.) Retired is the wrong word. Since I left Boeing I’ve taught karate though now I only train myself, written five books and continue to write more, sold my photos and continue to sell more, helped people start or steer businesses, aided various official charities and have been unofficially charitable, taught various classes and given a variety of public talks, and am probably overlooking something but don’t want to spend time being complete. You probably got the point earlier in the paragraph and skipped past a lot of the details. If you continued reading though, go check out my bio for more. The answer isn’t concise because my life doesn’t fit under one label.
Many “retired” people have the same issue. Our society and civilization are changing and we need a new vocabulary. We’re living longer. We’re living longer than our occupations and sometimes our relationships too. Retired was originally a very short period. When it lasts a few years, retired is a good enough label. After a decade or so though people with passion have probably found a new vocation or an avid avocation. If the new activity makes money, does the “retired” label stick?
Labels and vocabulary also fail at describing modern relationships. A few decades ago divorces were uncommon and scandalous. Empowerment, empty-nesting, decayed support networks mean marriages aren’t as permanent and the frequency of divorce worn down the stigma. What does a middle-aged single person call themself? What’s even more confusing is what do middle-aged unmarried couples call themselves? Spouse sounds like married. Partner sounds like a business relationship. Significant other has too many syllables and is emotionally limp.
In the last week or so I’ve finished the photo essay Twelve Months at Penn Cove, scheduled to teach classes in Modern Self-Publishing and Creating Your Photo Book, been interviewed on KWPA radio about my book Twelve Months at Merritt Lake, held meetings for new ventures like island movie productions and classes in Social Media for Artists, and have finished and shipped two self-published books (one is private for my family, one is semi-private for students in my Modern Self-Publishing class). That list skips the volunteer and charity work. Over the weekend someone asked me what I do and even I noticed my pause.
I’m a single guy. Being a guy I can claim oblivious manners. After I’m seen with a single woman I’m asked if it was a date, or if is she my girl-friend, or some question equally expected to be answered with simple labels. That’s when I step into oblivious mode and answer that I don’t know. My vocabulary fails.
Mostly what I don’t know is how to simply explain a self-defined lifestyle. I’m not alone. Many people through intent or circumstance are changing occupations and relationships. These have not been easy times for most. My transitions weren’t easy either.
When I left Boeing, I quickly learned that calling myself retired upset conversations. The common challenges were, “You’re not old enough to be retired.”, or “Well, you must have been lucky.” In the first case they didn’t accept that retirement is based on money not age. In the second case they didn’t believe that conscious frugality existed or could succeed.
After my first book I used the title, writer. People have low and broad expectations of writers and they’d continue the conversation with that neat answer inserted in the blank. When I started selling my photographs I switched to writer and photographer, but that didn’t last long because it had too many syllables. Now I pick whichever one I want: writer, photographer, or even artist. All of them fit that blank and fit people’s impressions of my lifestyle and lack of fashion sense. Some friends and colleagues have also supplied a couple of labels I enjoy: social innovator and instigator. Dancer fits too, but all of these other labels end up with more explanations than are comfortable within most conversations.
Our labels have power over our perceptions. I realize that labels are arbitrary and merely language constructs, but I admit that calling myself an artist, or a karate instructor, or an ex-rocket-scientist subtly shifts my attitude. Fortunately, I have a good transmission because I shift that attitude and perception frequently. I don’t get stuck in ruts for long.
A frugal life, a conscious life, an artistic life, is a personal life, but we are social creatures which means that we’re expected to live explicable lives. So, I pick a labels that almost fit. I don’t sew them on or get them tattooed. Instead I wear them like costumes, something that doesn’t shock the neighbors, fits and covers well enough, and may have nothing to do with the body inside.
Now, it’s time for me to switch from being a blogger to being a runner and then I’ll be a bill-payer and then a diner and then a photographer and then a homeowner and then, and then . . .