Bilbo’s retirement

August 11, 2022 Comments Off on Bilbo’s retirement

I was standing in line at the Dollar General with a gallon of milk. The Dollar General is the Wal-Mart for tiny towns that are too tiny for a W-M.

The lady in front of me was really large. She was wearing a baggy pair of shorts and a tank top. She had long gray hair and might have been in her late 60’s, although she could have easily passed for 80. She was holding a can of tomato sauce and a six-pack of hotdog buns.

In a voice that shook the store, she shouted, “I’m so god-damned sick and tired of this god-damned heat! I’m going on strike! Who’s with me?”

The old boy and old gal in front of her were about the same age and about the same degree of imploding health and exploding body mass. He was wearing a dirty gimme cap, short sleeves and Dickies, and she was dressed like the lady going on strike except the entire left half of her face was green-black-blue, like she’d been hit with a board.

“Hell, I’m with you!” the man shouted.

“Me, too!” his wife shouted.

“I hate this god-damned heat!” she said again.

The cashier looked over the plexiglass barrier. “It’s pretty hot but it’s not as hot as it was last year.”

“I don’t give a good god-damn about last year. I’m hot now!”

“Well,” the cashier replied, “when my cousin committed suicide back in 2017, my then-husband, the other one before the one before Joe, he stayed here and I went up to Oregon for the funeral. It was 65 degrees there and when I called him to tell him about the viewing, they had done an amazing job with her head, had put it back together you wouldn’t have known she’d shot herself in the mouth, and you know what he said?”

“What?” the striker asked.

“He said it was 117. And I told him it was 65 in Oregon and so we decided that was where we were going to retire, but then he ran off with that crazy lady who owned the antique shop and I’m still stuck here.”

The striker shook her head. “65 sounds about right. I can’t stand anything over 73. I am impervious to the cold, though.” She gestured at her outfit. “I dress the same way in the snow.”

The old boy nodded approvingly. “Me, too. Short sleeves every day of the year. Cold don’t bother me none.”

No one seemed to make the connection that fat insulates, and their resistance to the cold wasn’t a function of hardiness and good conditioning but the reverse.

I said nothing and as the folks ahead of me were still climbing into their air-conditioned trucks I got on my bike and pedaled home, sweating profusely, thinking about those retirees in the Dollar General and Bilbo Baggins.

Maybe you remember when the fellowship arrived in Rivendell, after being chased by the Riders? There was a happy reunion between Frodo and Bilbo, who puttered around in a sort of makeshift office, absentmindedly organizing his papers and planning the big book he was never going to finish.

It was the idealized retirement of an academic, Tolkien the Oxford Beowulf/Chaucer scholar projecting his own imaginary retirement onto Bilbo. It’s a fantasy entertained by most in one form or another. My father most definitely imagined that his retirement would be a time to do those projects he “really” wanted to do, the writing he “really” wanted to write.

Probably the most common fantasy variation is travel; “I’m finally going to see the world/this great country/my own home state,” followed by “spend time with my family/grandkids.” Maybe a few imagine that they’re going to do a triathlon at last or bike across the country or run a marathon.

The reality? Most retirees spend their time, in the following order, by doing nothing, watching TV, and sleeping. Wow. That sounds fun. What happened to daily fucking, crossing the Himalayas on a yak, and learning trans-Pacific sailing?

What all of these fictitious active retirement scenarios have in common is that they are fictions. Retirement for almost everyone means staring at the maw of death, wondering when it’s going to chomp down, and while waiting for life to kill you, doing everything you can to KILL TIME. Do you think those retiree greeters thought they would be enjoying the milk and honey years of retirement saying, “Welcome to Wal-Mart. Cosmetics? Aisle 762.”

My dad was too prideful to ever work at Wal-Mart, though it might have delayed his sad cognitive decline. Instead of greeting customers he would wake up, check email, read the news, take a walk, and be done for the day. In the evening he’d watch TV with his wife. His retirement was a colossus of boredom punctuated with trips, anniversaries, dinners out, and the rare time spent with family. In between those punctuation marks were a wasteland of boredom, sleeping, doing nothing, and television. Needless to say, the research and writing he “really” wanted to do were incinerated with him in the crematorium.

The old bad poetry that bids us to “not go gently into that good night” is exactly what retirement programs us to do. Go quietly, creakily, weakly, degenerately, passively, and to expire in a dusty pile of used-up memories. My grandparents all died that way and my dad died that way because that’s what retirement is for, to help you die off without making too much of a fuss or taking up too much space.

The people in the Dollar General were already well-groomed for death. They were obese, medicated, shot full of bad food, immobile, and unable to thermoregulate beyond the narrowest of ranges. It didn’t take any imagination to foresee what they were going home to: the recliner/couch, the alcohols, and the TV. Living near the bottom of America’s retirement income demographic, their lives are virtually indistinguishable from my dad’s, whose demographic was towards the very top. Retirement blends economic differences into a smoothie of obesity, immobility, disease, and cognitive decline.

Human physiology does not well endure a sedentary lifestyle. The older you get the more radically active you have to become. Whether it’s life in an RV, watching TV, surfing the Internet, streaming movies, or walking for an hour and considering yourself “active,” you cannot live better by doing less, for the one good reason that my grandmother often reminded us of: “Old age is hell.”

Whether he intended it or not, Tolkien’s portrayal of Bilbo ended badly. Frodo returned to Rivendell a year later from his quest, where he found a senescent hobbit futzing away the days in anticipation of his Final Trip to the Grey Havens. Even elvish magic, it seems, can’t invigorate the death inspired by inertia.


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