For the past several years, my older brothers, The General and The Tin Man, have been nagging me to visit them at their winter retreats in Florida. It’s always been a well-intentioned effort to share a piece of retirement paradise with their still-working younger brother, but their pitches have been less than persuasive. I mean, golfing in March has a certain appeal, but what are you going to do when you’re done chasing the little white ball? Talk politics?
The three of us have little in common besides our last names and vague memories of childhood. We have navigated our sibling interactions in recent years by generally avoiding any serious conversations about Obama, feminism, civil rights, taxes, Iraq, Fox News, and . . . well, you get the idea.
The General is 72 years old; The Tin Man turns 69 at the end of the month. These are just numbers, I know, but they’re large ones. And I began to realize late last year that we may not, after all, be immortal. Those two were doing their best to stay connected as we all stumble through our later years, so I figured maybe I needed to step it up a little. Do my part.
That’s my best explanation for why I found myself at the Ft. Myers airport two Mondays ago, waiting for The Tin Man to pick me up in his Lexus SUV. He had graciously offered to put me up for the week at his home in Naples, a posh suburb 40 miles south of the airport, and greeted me more enthusiastically than I had expected.
This can be partly explained, I learned, by the fact that The Tin Man and his wife seldom entertain guests. Their life seems to revolve around their two dogs (one of which took an immediate and persistent distaste for my presence), daytime TV, dinner at one of the local eateries (their kitchen is mostly unused), and a little dose of Bill O’Reilly before bed.
This is a little different take on the whole lifestyle thing for me. And, in fact, we actually broached the subject more than once during my stay (during which they proved to be perfectly gracious hosts). They seemed to be as intrigued by how My Lovely Wife and I spent our time as I was by how they spent theirs.
Forty miles north of The Tin Man’s gated community, The General and his wife (and two dogs — I sensed a pattern) live in an RV park called Shady Acres. It’s a bit off the beaten track, literally: A gravel road leads to the entrance. The Tin Man and I paid a visit mid-week and found The General and his missus lounging in lawn chairs on a slab of concrete beneath an awning attached to their home on wheels.
Adult beverages were quickly dispensed (I didn’t see a single liquor store during my stay, but there was never a shortage of alcohol), and soon neighbors arrived for impromptu visits, pulling up lawn chairs and discussing the latest park gossip. Apparently there was some controversy over the entertainment at the community center the previous evening. The guitarist, a Shady Acres regular from Tennessee named Ron, was taken to task for flubbing the lyrics.
The conversation seemed slightly awkward to me, owing to the fact that Ron was sitting in one of the lawn chairs under The General’s awning. He defended his performance as best he could, noting that he was called on to sub for the regular headliner at the last minute and had no time to rehearse, but this crowd was having none of it. “ You should have one of those karaoke machines so you don’t forget the words,” neighbor Larry suggested.
“I don’t want everyone else singing along,” Ron protested, but the topic gradually lost traction as folks shifted their attention to college basketball scandals, the sudden marital dislocation at the RV up the road, and the July RV meet-up in Branson, Mo., which The General had been tasked with organizing.
“They never have any time to themselves,” The Tin Man observed later that afternoon as we motored back to Naples. It struck me as a bit ironic, since he had invited them and another couple to a barbecue at his place that evening. And I wondered whether we’d make it through the appetizers before we ran out of things to talk about.
Snowbirds tend to have a lot of time on their hands. They’ve left behind a good deal of routine obligations (volunteer work, grandchildren, etc.) by heading south, and they seemed to have replaced them by focusing a good deal of energy on collecting strong opinions on controversial topics. I learned that evening they’re not shy about expressing them.
I’m a fairly opinionated guy, but I didn’t stand a chance against these geezers. Before the burgers came off the grill, they’d covered Trump, welfare reform, Black Lives Matter, education, and foreign aid. I just sat there, nursing a beer, and wondering when we were going to hear about the grandkids’ soccer teams.
It’s not like they were itching for a good argument or anything; it was more like they just needed to blow off some steam. But what was there to be angry about? Here they were, wintering in Florida, no need to work for a living, the checks showing up every month like magic, and the only source of stress is trying to nab a tee time before 2 p.m. This is what we live for, right?
I think it’s pretty natural to feel a bit superfluous, even a little irrelevant, when we reach middle age and beyond. The kids don’t return our phone calls, technology moves faster than we can adapt to it, and the only thing that speaks to us on TV are the pharmaceutical ads. But I’m not feeling the kind of anger, or despair, I heard among my clan down in Florida.
Research on the impact of retirement is all over the map: A recent study suggests that it leads to better overall health, but there’s plenty of other evidence suggesting that it can throw you off the rails. I returned to real life after five days in Geezerville feeling more convinced than ever that there’s a real value in getting up and going to work every day.
And that there’s nothing wrong with a little small talk among friends.