How to Stick the Landing on the Last Chapter of Your Life

Done driving myself nuts. Thought I’d try happiness.

I’ve struggled against poverty though never been so poor I couldn’t pay rent or have a car. Now I have a nice house and an SUV, a loving wife, and a fixed income that establishes me as middle class. I can relax.

And, at 67, work less. Social Security checks have begun to come in.

Barb has gone to a yet more part time schedule at the flower store.

Trying to gear down from four days a week to three at Walmart, I ran into a problem with personnel. Wound up promising the old gal there I’d stay on four days for yet another month, until she can do the hiring necessary to replace the labor they’re losing with my cutting back.

“They hired this one guy but he’s not enough, they need another,” I told Barb.

“That’s a compliment to you, isn’t it?” It is. I’d had a dock worker job at Dillard’s which I quit after daily battering by a lady boss who found me distressingly unused to such travail after my long white-collar pose. At Walmart I acquired manual-labor chops. And it did feel good. “I can’t remember when you had a job that made you so happy,” Barb said.

She was right. I had come to regard my whole “career” as a bust. Being a writer, being a teacher, one big collective shitshow. After the final gasp of all that, it was “Walmart, here I come.” Not a proud moment. More like proof positive I was a failure, having “come to this.”

Then something funny happened. I wound up cobbling together some self-respect working at the store. After a rocky start, getting backhanded and dissed just because I was a foreign presence among these working-class grunts, I learned how to do everything. Even began to incur praise. I came to get along with fellow crew members and with the ravaged hierarchies of over-stressed bosses, themselves under the gun from their own taskmasters to increase productivity.

I clock out with a feeling of elation.

When a manager asked me to stay late last week to work a cart still on the floor in Pets, I sighed but said yes. Every muscle ached. I was so tired of taking off and putting on my reading glasses, which fog when I wear them along with the expletive-deleted mask. Wrestling 40- and 50-pound dog food sacks and kitty litter containers is a muscle job, a job for a young man. I could have asked for something else here. But I’m too proud to stand at the front of the store and say, “Welcome to Walmart.”

I worked late unloading that pet cart. And you better believe the boss was grateful. That’s a good thing. Wasn’t sure he liked me.

I’ve been lightening my karma at Walmart, showing my fealty to a team ethos, a community. I even feel – don’t laugh – I’m doing selfless service, transcending my petty ego.

I like helping customers. I know where everything is in Grocery.

I like the humble job.

But I’m nearing 70. I don’t want to hump pet food sacks and cap out the Antarctic freezer for much longer. Nor, however, do I want to retire into a life of easy-chair re-viewings of movies I’ve already memorized. Maybe it’s not a good thing I own The Godfather, available for my infinite delectation.

To prepare for a fit and productive retirement, I’m trying to cut back on TV. I read books that challenge and expand my awareness, books that got by me in college. I will take this opportunity to announce a somewhat compromised adoration of Dostoevsky, whose The Idiot represented an arduous four-month slog. But I’m glad I read it. I signed up for The Great Courses and MasterClass both online and, weirdly, have gotten more out of dorky old-fashioned Russian literature expert Prof. Irwin Weil, of Northwestern University, addressing kids in a room in folding chairs, than from Martin Scorsese talking about making movies, a program albeit slickly produced by MasterClass, much as I love Marty. I guess I’ll keep reading Russian literature. I won’t be making movies.

I figured when I retired, though I’ve foresworn being a writer, I would, well, write.

But danger lurks here. Writing could be a place I get twisted up in my past rather than heal my soul or even provide credible entertainments.

The other night I dreamt I was screaming bloody murder at an old friend who in real life has died. I was stunned upon awakening.

“I must have a lot of anger,” I murmured over to the next pillow.

Barb said I should do “morning pages.” You wake up and take paper and scribble out dream memories, anything else that comes to mind, and throw the pages away. This lubricates you, gets you in touch with yourself. “With you, you blog, you revise, but it’s all in your head. You never get out of it.”

I’m not sure that’s correct. I see it as a big battle in my heart, my whole being, that is hard to resolve.

A confession from an old hippie who acquired much of his philosophy from Castaneda occultism: Don Juan, the yakking Yaqui, says happy people are very “careful about the nature of their acts.”

I think the suffering which writing has caused me – exposing a lack of self-esteem, sharing mushy directionless prose – has forced me to mold myself into a better writer. What better exercise for an aging man willing to keep learning?

This blog allows me to target a topic, conjure a theme, and – respecting the old verities of beginning, middle, and end – let that arrow fly as fast as possible. Because people don’t have time.

Hope you had time for this.