I am far too young, poor and good-looking to be retired, but, the truth is, I’ve always
been horrible at planning out my life. Take the internet, for instance. Never saw it coming. Like a
classic late-1980’s idiot, I thought I could parlay my freshly minted English degree, my aptitude
for stringing completely unhypertexted words together and my (mostly) congenial workplace
demeanor into a printed-word-centric vocation that would allow me to prove my worth in my 20s,
begin rewarding me monetarily in my 30s and 40s, start conveying a highly-lucrative eminence
gris status upon me in my 50s and then land me gently and prosperously into mid-60s quietude.
Turns out, I never made it to the eminence gris stage.
My biggest bone-headed move actually came in 1973 when I was an 8-year-old boy already
feeling trapped by his culturally-barren existence in the suburbs of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
That year, my father took me to Manhattan for a weekend, and that’s when I decided I
was born to be a New Yorker. My father and I did the typical touristy things: We went to see the
just-finished World Trade Center—taking the ear-popping elevator to the top and using binoculars
to scan the eye-popping playground below. We shopped Fifth Avenue and ate in Little Italy.
And—most auspiciously—we saw a Broadway show: Two Gentlemen of Verona. I remember
exactly two things about that production: 1. I was 99.9% bored to tears. 2. The remaining .1% of
me was completely enthralled by the male nudity that occasionally paraded around on stage.
Now, I’m not saying that a couple of spotlit peckers convinced me that I must one day become a
citizen of New York, but they certainly dangled the idea that life could be thrilling there for a sheltered
boy who felt ill-at-ease in his hometown.
I ended up spending more than 25 years living in Manhattan, gradually morphing into a
model New Yorker. My magazine career became increasingly more impressive. My sartorial
style got more refined. My theater seats kept inching up—from second-mezzanine for Angels in
America to mid-auditorium for Six Degrees of Separation to almost-arm’s-length to the puppet
steed in War Horse. All the while, my urban survival skills were escalating to superhero levels. I
developed a pair of steel elbows to jostle my way through the chaotic streets and to use as surreptitious
weapons against discourteous subway riders (“Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to jab you,
it’s just that you were standing right in the middle of the doorway”). I sprouted a concrete exoskeleton—
the perfect defense against excessive noise, noxious smells and the ever-present
realization that your apartment isn’t anywhere near as nice as the ones you peer into on your
walk home. My bloodstream started coursing with hate-lets and rage-ocytes, which allow you to
be in a perpetual state of pique over everything from painfully-slow-moving drug store cashiers
to maniac drivers (when you’re a pedestrian) to daydreaming pedestrians (when you’re driving)
to any other irritating member of the city’s mass of humanity. Also, out of Darwinian necessity,
my brain began to grow and grow and grow. It grew in a (mostly failed) effort keep up with the
Machiavellis of office politics, it grew to parry with the witty cocktail conversationalists and it
grew to figure out ways to simulate self-esteem in the presence of all those New Yorkers who
found the sliest of ways to flaunt their well-hung resumes (“This salted caramel cheesecake is
the best thing to happen to me since my MacArthur Fellowship”).
It took me a quarter century to make peace with the idea that all that steel and concrete
is not really me. I’m far softer than that. I had plenty of opportunities to realize this earlier. In
fact, each decade of my New York existence featured at least one epic life crisis that would send
me off on an East End sabbatical—scurrying down the tongue of Long Island to lick my Manhattan-
inflicted wounds. Fuming that you got passed over for that much-deserved promotion? Off to
a cozy cottage with an expansive view of Noyac Bay. Left heartbroken by yet another failed relationship?
Treat yourself to a cathartic sob session at a deserted Two Mile Hollow beach on a
brisk but glorious mid-October day. Realize you’ve dedicated your entire professional life to an
occupation that now finds you hopelessly antiquated and utterly replaceable—at age 49? Fine,
I’ll go live where my soul feels most nurtured, my house—which I was lucky enough to buy dirtcheap
at the height of the recession, thank you very much—deep in the Springs.
This time I’m not going back. Maybe it’s being older and wiser and less voracious about
proving my worth. Maybe it’s because I recently had all of my superhero pretensions zapped out
of me by 6 weeks of radiation—ironically, it really was true that my brain was growing and growing
and growing: A mandarin orange-sized atypical meningioma finally had to be cut out of my
right frontal lobe. Most likely, though, it’s because I was 100 miles off when I decided I was born
to be a New Yorker. Right state, wrong mindset. In the city, I prided myself on my speed-walking
past dawdling doofuses; in the Springs, dawdling—preferably in my backyard hammock under a
thicket of brownstone-sized trees—can be a work of art. In the city, perpetual forward-motion is
mandatory; in the Springs, you can rediscover the joys of simply floating on a gentle surf. In the
city, it’s as easy for the spirit to be overshadowed by ambition as it is for the sun to be blocked
by bricks; in the Springs, I’m trying to internalize the vast sky and give myself the space to let
my true nature rise to the surface. My city self keeps whispering: “What will this mean professionally,
financially, socially?” I don’t know, and I’m allowing myself to be okay with that. Sometimes
your soul just needs a gentle place to rest. These days, I find the satisfaction of achievement
in little things: baking a blueberry pie, getting up at dawn to take my dog for a run on the
beach, shoveling away gravel to make room for sprouting grass. I like to think of myself as “pretired,”
a younger, hipper, less osteoporosized version of retirement. Others have said I’m in a
state of suspended animation, and I’m okay with that too—particularly the suspended part. Suspended
by a hammock, suspended by the sea, suspended by the love from my circle of friends
who are rooting for me to find peace. The Springs has long been a destination for painters
who’ve been drawn to the light. I’m just here for the lightness.