Why would you work if you didn't have to?

Before I opened my eyes this morning, I heard a hard rain beating on the roof. When I used to have a full-time job, days like today would make me think, “This is a good day to go to work!” I would dress in my raincoat and hat, take the bus to the office, and once inside, with a warm, dry, usually windowless office, I could forget all about the rain.

It has been almost two and a half years since I have had to go to work, but I’ve certainly done a fair amount of it since then. Barry and I have worked hard on a number of projects: Getting rid of our furniture and extraneous belongings, fixing up a 44-foot sailboat with a friend, launching and maintaining our website, fixing up and selling our Seattle house.

Between all that unpaid work, we traveled. It’s not something people usually think of as work, but it is. Before you leave, there are reservations and plans to make. Once you begin your trip, life becomes a constant scavenger hunt, searching for things like road signs, campsites, fuel docks, bus stations, grocery stores, and restaurants. It’s an effort to find people to connect with and things to do, and it’s rewarding, but exhausting.

We’ve done work for others, too. Last spring, I worked for weeks to put together a fundraiser for the Puget Sound Cruising Club. Barry and I revised the website for Bahia Street. We helped friends paint their beach house. We helped “cater” a couple of parties at my sister’s house in Eugene.

I know a lot of retired folks, some of whom work, and some who don’t. My father retired almost 20 years ago, but he’s written a book and taught college journalism classes since then. His current gig is a job critiquing newspapers — he sits around the house, reading newspapers and getting paid for it, then presents the findings to newspapers all over the state of South Carolina. Barry’s parents work hard to maintain their house, yard, and woods. Every day with good weather finds them outside, weeding, planting, mowing, building. Their beautiful yard is magazine-quality, at least it was until we put a 30-foot travel trailer in it.

When I worked outside Washington D.C., there was a fellow in the office named George. He was in his 80’s, but he came in a couple of days a week to lend his expertise on military strategy projects. At the time, I was in my 20’s and I didn’t like most of the men in the office where I worked. I couldn’t imagine why George would work there when he didn’t have to, and when I heard that he died during a two-week vacation, I thought it was terrible. Looking back now, I realize that he enjoyed the work, it engaged and stimulated him, and the fact that he worked his entire life was one of the things that made him happy.

I’ve known folks who were retired or unemployed who didn’t do work, either paid or unpaid. Their worlds become smaller and smaller as they sit and watch TV, and nothing engages them. They don’t seem happy, but there is little I can do for them, except worry.

If working is actually good for us, then why did Barry and I retire? It’s a good question.

After 20 years of working, I was tired of short vacations and long commutes. Working long days for someone else was great in terms of money and benefits, but it sapped my creativity and left me no energy for writing, art, music, or that all-consuming category, “projects.”

On the other hand, I had fun and challenging jobs, with cool titles like “Production Editor,” “Graphic Designer,” “Knowledge Manager,” “Information Architect,” and “Business Analyst.” I was rewarded for being a good communicator, a creative person, someone who is technically savvy.

When Barry and I returned from Alaska in August, we thought we were ready to go to work together on our next big project: Building a boat. We bought a 30-foot travel trailer to live in and put it in his parents’ backyard. We started planning the boatshed in which to build the boat. We started making changes to the trailer, to make it a comfortable home.

But an element of doubt appeared. We had always planned to build a Jay Benford Badger, but we were unsure whether to stick with the 34-foot version or build a larger one. Full of enthusiasm, we did further research on the boat. The results were discouraging. From a former owner, I heard “Terribly slow, no good in light air.” The Pardeys, who sailed against Badger in an informal race, told us “So slow, you’ll arrive after all the parties are over.” I initially brushed off comments about “no resale value,” but how can we justify $60,000 of materials on a boat that’s worth less than $20,000 when finished?

On top of that, I find that fixing things up (Cayenne, the house, the trailer) is not my strong suit, it’s Barry’s. I’m the communicator, good with people, not the engineer, good with “stuff.” What will happen to me if I spend two years in isolation doing tasks I don’t really enjoy? Will I revert to being the person who fixes sandwiches and holds tools for my husband?

This huge project, which was to be our work for the next couple of years, is in doubt. Do we build it anyway? Build a different boat? Buy a boat? Give up the dream of cruising?

When your life’s plans are in limbo, the easiest thing to do is go to work. So we work on the trailer every day, installing carpeting, rebuilding the bed, repainting it in whimsical colors. One day a week, I take the bus to Seattle, a 2-1/2 hour commute each way, and I work in the Bahia Street office as their new “Public Affairs Manager.”

We are talking about finding short-term or part-time jobs, something we’ll each find engaging that will give us a bit of breathing room to make decisions. It’s a weird thought, that we have come full circle from our retirement, and now it’s time to work again. But sitting on the sofa eating bon-bons just isn’t the life for me. Looking at what we’ve done since we retired from our jobs in 2003, we are always working, and always, perversely, enjoying it.