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Shirley Povich Tribute

  Idyllic Retirement? The Truth Is, I Missed Working

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, April 24, 1991

Retirement? What is it? As we are told in the TV football commercials: you make the call. The word means different things to so many, who make their own determinations about the quality of life when the job ends and the pension kicks in. The economics factor, of course, is a large influence, but so are the dreamy visions of perfect ease in detachment from so much of the world they knew.

A prevailing image is that of folks who have chosen shared living in leafy retirement communities, whose brochures advertise the joys of heavenly refuges. With names like Hermitage Gardens, or Fellowship House, or Evergreen Manor World, or simply The Oaks. Some of the places flaunt the subtitle "Life Care Community," perhaps signifying life without a care, or babysitter for the overly mature who don't care to make all of their own choices anymore.

Of course, this is overdrawn. There are some nice places, retirement communities where nice people meet other nice people and renew the good things in life and have contentment in the choice of their style of retirement living.

But now, a necessary confession. I am supremely unqualified for any discussion involving retirement. Yes, I am a retiree, but only in a sense so remote from the word that it is misapplied. You can't even call me quasi-retired. I am less than a zero. I am a rimless cipher. An oxymoronic, unretired retiree.

Let me explain. I retired 17 years ago — and have been behind in my work ever since. More about that later.

For me, retirement simply didn't work out. I missed the absolute necessity for an active life in a workaday world; I was used to waking up in the morning with something on my mind. Like, what day is this? And immediately thinking, what will be my topic today for my sports column in The Post? And instantly recognizing the stupidity of the first idea and rejecting it, trusting that later in the day I would get lucky and something would evolve and I would get to the typewriter to commit 900 words by deadline. As I had been doing for 50 consecutive years. Until that day came, and I retired. Or so I thought.

I didn't have an immediate problem with retirement. There were many things to do, I thought. Like again pursuing one of my first loves, fishing in the waters of Chesapeake Bay for those rock fish and blues and a breed that Walter Haight, The Post's legendary horse racing writer, used to call croakers, which somehow had mysteriously disappeared from the Bay, without explanation.

It always had been fun and I thought it would be again. Used to be that you would watch a baited line in the shimmering water and ponder a strike, and dwell so much in the rapture of it all that one could even believe all his debts were paid. But now, for too many days, they weren't biting, and my patience was worn, and I wasn't recapturing the thrill of it all. I gave it up.

My wife, Ethyl, and I had given a thought to travel, but we knew about the old cathedrals of Europe (too many), and quaint Switzerland and the Matterhorn (too steep and too cold), and England's Shakespeare country (our favorite). We wanted no more of the cruises and their put-ins to shore for the six-hour snippet tours of the islands and their shopping streets. And the shipboard food (too much pasta) about which they bragged (by whose standards?), which truly wasn't that good. In the customary last-night toast to a foreign-line ship, I could murmur to myself my own three-word salute to the menu we endured for eight days: "Disaster at sea."

In our apartment we had no gardens to tend, which was just as well, since I wouldn't know a bulb from a bird of paradise; and a visible bird feeder could discourage us from bird feeding, because the beautiful but vicious blue jays were attacking all other types and hogging the feed. Naked aggression. Drat 'em!

Of course, I tried golf again. Actually, I'd never given it up; but now there was more time for the game I like best. And the one I knew best. Lincoln once said, "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother." I owed so much to golf. It was there on the Kebo Club Links in Bar Harbor, Maine, that I found my future. Had the great good fortune, when my number (23, as in skiddoo) came up and I was called from the caddy yard to carry the clubs for a gentleman named Edward B. McLean. Coincidentally, Mr. McLean owned the Hope diamond and a few other baubles including The Washington Post. He brought me to Washington in 1922, and the rest is my history.

Golf was a game Ethyl could play, too, and that made it companionable. I knew I had lost some of my club-head speed and some distance off the tee, but I could adjust to that. The challenge was still there, and the short game and the putting would accept no excuses. Golf was still fun and most compatible with retirement, but only up to a point.

I also allowed for some of the disrepair in what used to be a smooth swing. It gave me a thought when I read not long ago that Soviet Russia was announcing it was building its first golf course. Now the Russians would have new woes: keep your left arm stiff, but not rigid; right elbow close to the body at all times; turn left shoulder toward the ball when starting the backswing; uncock the wrist at the proper point on descent; play bunker shots off the left foot. And they'd learn that the same problems would recur nevertheless. They'd find out, to their dismay, that the golf swing is built for dysfunction.

But after writing the sports column for The Post for 50 years (1924-1974) I was unfulfilled in retirement. How many cause-empty days could one take without yearning for some more of the action? Where to turn? I couldn't write fiction if you spotted me the plot and ghost writers. Magazine people wanted some of my stuff, but I was unenthused about being a free- lancer. And then, eureka! The Post's sports editor, George Solomon, was calling and saying why couldn't I write some more sports columns for the Post; anything I like to write about, he said. That's why 30 to 40 times a year, you'll see my stuff on The Post sports pages. It's not quite like it used to be when I was doing six a week, but my typewriter is user-friendly again.

Oh, yes, I also use the silky, silent word processor. Mastered it pretty well, but when in a big hurry I return to my big, old-fashioned Royal, with all its clatter. Others may like their noiseless word processors. I like my typewriter to talk back to me.

So, as to retirement, each to his own, but what I'm saying is that I've found my own unique way to deal with retirement:

I retired it.

Shirley Povich, 84, began working for The Washington Post in 1922.The newspaper's former sports editor, he currently writes about three columns a month.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company

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