"I thought in retirement that I would have more control of my time," said Carolyn Craske, a bit wistfully, as the Florida sun poured through the window of her dining nook.
"I could say no to things. I know I could. I choose not to, and take the consequences."
The consequences are a life for a retired person that seems very much like the life she led when she was a full-time government employee.
Carolyn juggles grandmotherly commitments, hobbies, church work, chores, and a part-time job that threatens to grow into full-time. Only 22 months into retirement, she says she "almost never" has a morning where she wakes up, rolls over in bed and asks, "Now, what shall I do today?" She already has plans, lots of plans.
Yet retirement takes place in the head as well as in the calendar. In that sense, Carolyn says she can sense a change in her internal gears.
"I don't have the gazillion things to do that I had as an administrative officer," she said. "I don't have anywhere near as much pressure." Still, "I miss my golf" -- a favorite game she has barely had time to play since the first of the year.
Carolyn, 64, retired in December 1997 from her job as a budget officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and moved from Fairfax County to Largo, Fla. Carolyn had worked for HHS for about 10 years. She is one of 80,719 members of the federal service to have retired during 1997.
She has agreed to let me visit her occasionally during her first two years "out." The idea is to provide a close, frank look at the life of a recent federal retiree. This is the final installment of the series.
No one has had to feed Carolyn the old saw about staying busy in retirement. She was in Romania for about half of August on a church mission. She recently spent a week with her father in Illinois. Later this month, she will visit the Disney complex in Orlando with family.
Asked if she'd like some books about bridge as a gift, she snorted and said she hasn't read the ones she owns.
Yet Carolyn said she doesn't feel burdened by the responsibilities she has taken on. She likes the fact that she can go to work when she wants to go to work and stay as long as she likes. There are not too many jobs like that, she said.
The job, as a bookkeeper and consultant to a Dunedin, Fla., dollmaker, swings between "40 to 45 hours one week and 12 the next," Carolyn said. Yet Carolyn obviously cannot bear to leave job-related tasks unfinished. Last Wednesday, a quick visit to check on some shipments grew into a 90-minute review of fumbled bills, payments and back orders.
"Carolyn, you see what happens when you're not here?" asked a co-worker, as the two women tried to untangle an order that had been shipped to Customer A instead of Customer B. Carolyn nodded wordlessly.
The absence of bureaucracy also makes Carolyn's current job much more palatable, she said. In the federal government, there were "always old-timers who wanted it done one way because that was the way it was always done," Carolyn said. At Rustie's Unique Designs, the boss is sewing doll costumes in the next room -- and you don't need an appointment to see her.
As retirement stretches out before her, Carolyn continues to fret about money. She is living on between 60 and 70 percent of what she spent when she was a full-time "fed." But her retirement income hasn't quite handled what it needs to handle.
For example, the recently announced increase in health insurance premiums for federal retirees will amount to about 9 percent. "But my COLA [cost-of-living salary increase] is only 2 percent," Carolyn said. The only way she could bridge the gap would be for inflation to drive her salary higher. But that would mean that goods and services would cost more, too.
"It makes me unhappy," Carolyn said, as she munched a breakfast of eggs Benedict at a restaurant near her home. "This could go on forever and I'll always be in the hole."
Yet Carolyn said she feels "basically safe" as far as money is concerned.
"I don't have to live here [in a house she owns]," she said. "I could rent and pay cash." Because she has three sources of retirement income (a federal pension, Social Security and savings) she knows she will "never flip hamburgers." She has held down her spending by "not buying a whole lot of new clothes," dropping the country club membership she used to have, avoiding expensive lunches out and driving fewer miles.
Asked to look 10 years into the future, Carolyn said she will "probably still be here, doing many of the same things."
She said she will still work if she chooses to do so, and she hopes to continue traveling. She said she will "probably" go to every play and every soccer game in which her three grandchildren are involved. They live just a few minutes away.
All in all, it's the retirement she wants, Carolyn said, even though it isn't exactly the retirement she expected.
"What would have normally come at 65 came at 62," she said. Yet retirement feels "natural and enjoyable. I am doing it the way I want to do it."