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Retirement, Day One

Posted by Ron George on September 2, 2015

Dennis_Wilson_porch_newspaperThe thing about retirement is you have to keep a sense of humor.

I love comic strips, and some of the more endearing humor I find in the daily newspaper relates to retired men and their foibles – and how their loved ones deal with them.

We retirees, at least in the comics, tend to be eccentric, gruff, clueless, cantankerous, rude – all of which belies a tender heart. Seeing ourselves from this perspective helps us acknowledge that, yes, we are very often just that way.

George Everett Wilson Sr. of Dennis the Menace fame is a retired postal worker. Dennis is the nemesis kid next door who continuously disrupts Wilson’s restful retirement and is often abetted by Wilson’s wife, Martha, who is far more kind, generous and forgiving than her husband.

Wilson is a gardener and a collector of stamps and coins. What more could a man want out of life, after decades of pounding the pavement with a load of mail on his shoulder, most of which is advertising? A house that’s paid for surrounded by a picket fence; just enough yard-work and gardening to keep a fellow active; time for naps in the afternoon and for maintaining his collection of special things; and, best of all, a spouse who knows him through and through and loves him often in spite of himself.

Dennis Mitchell brings out the worst in Wilson – the temper, the tantrums, the exasperation – even though, deep down, Wilson likes the boy and misses him when the Mitchells go on vacation. Thank God for Martha, who invariably reminds George of his better angel. This wise woman knows that George’s relationship with Dennis is refreshing in George’s old age, someone who keeps his life from falling into a rut.

All of which sounds familiar as it resonates with the shared experience of men of a certain age.

That’s the thing about humor, the kind that isn’t vicious and mean. There’s got to be just enough truth in it to make us laugh and give us pause to reflect if only for a moment. It gives us some ironic distance on who we are and what we do, valuable perspective from a standpoint other than our own. We may generate lessons learned from humor, but that’s not really the point, is it? Humor gives us the opportunity to stop taking ourselves so seriously that we cloud our vision of what’s of true value in life.

It’s a kind of truth that doesn’t hurt – when it is true and when it is funny.

Picles_sharp_pencil_101024Earl Pickles is a retired old coot married to Opal, a longsuffering mate with an edge. He’s a practical joker who drives a 1951 Studebaker Starlight Coupe. He has a low-level approach to life. Opal would like to raise Earl’s level as well as her own but always seems to fall short of the mark.

Earl enjoys infecting his grandson, Nelson, with nutty wisdom. He’s sufficiently hung-up that he has a hard time expressing his feelings, as in recent episodes in which he can’t actually say he loves his daughter, Sylvia. He’s often the unintentional butt of his own jokes and typically gets put in his place. We might conclude that Earl is a little pathetic, except that he’s resiliently self-confident. He hasn’t gotten to this stage in his life by being an idiot. He may be over the hill, but he’s enjoying the ride down the other side.

Not all Pluggers are retired but most are well past their prime. They tend to be blue-collar types in jeans, work-shirts, boots and gimme caps driving pickup trucks and autos you can work on in the driveway. Earl Pickles would be a Plugger if he lived in the country and not in the suburbs.

Pluggers aren’t hung up on having the latest tech-toy; in fact, they tend not to rely on them at all. They find their way with paper maps not GPS, and they take phone messages in the kitchen with pencil and paper. They go to church and wouldn’t miss the high-school football game on Friday night. They prefer the DQ and Pizza Hut for eating out. They wouldn’t dream of letting their grown children pay the bill. Their grandchildren are the center of their universe. They watch network news on broadcast TV, not cable, and their home music entertainment usually comes via the radio or LP vinyl.

Pluggers_doc_retired_150826Pluggers are practical, capable, resourceful and always willing to lend a hand. Neighbors come next after family. They are patriotic, and you can almost assume that a retired Plugger is also a military veteran. They can be as ornery as anyone else; but overall, Pluggers tend to be good folks. Jesus might even have called them the salt of the Earth.

Plugger humor emerges from holding themselves up to the mirror and taking stock of a changing world and unchanging values. A 19th-century French epigram comes to mind as a kind of Plugger humor: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” (Remember this from old Gillette razor commercials?) Frankly, I’m not sure that’s true, but there is a corollary that is certainly true, at least to Pluggers: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

It’s likely that older folks appreciate these characters in a way that their children and grandchildren don’t quite get but will, someday, as they approach what is glibly called their golden years. Maybe it’s because we elders perceive the backdrop for all human life but especially for those who are closer to the end than the beginning. Death awaits us all, and it’s a privilege to have grown old enough to appreciate that every moment of what’s left of any life is precious beyond measure, a pearl of great price.

Not everyone approaches these latter years with a sense of humor. Some become embittered about how life has turned out and anticipate death not as the next natural thing in life but as a frightening, inevitable ending to be resented, as though that were a solution. It’s not. Just ask George or Earl or any Plugger.

Perhaps the ultimate irony of old age is that only those fortunate enough to have lived so long are capable of appreciating life with the smile of good humor – and the hope that all humanity, especially younger generations, might enjoy it too, one day at a time, for all the years they have, be they many or few.

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