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Coast Chronicles: Snowbirds and roadrunners

By Cate Gable

Observer columnist

Published on November 14, 2017 4:37PM

Snowbirds Marla and Gary McGrew relax at The Coffee Cup (featured in “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”) in Boulder City, Nevada while heading south to their condo in Tucson, Arizona.


Snowbirds Marla and Gary McGrew relax at The Coffee Cup (featured in “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”) in Boulder City, Nevada while heading south to their condo in Tucson, Arizona.

A couple days ago I visited Gary and Marla McGrew who are rethinking what retirement looks like. For us baby boomers, “retirement” isn’t even the correct term for whatever comes after working for others for money. The “golden years” certainly doesn’t do it for me either. The only thing golden about these years is maybe what’s in our mouth, or the amount of money needed to keep our teeth intact. (Dental work is not covered by most insurance policies though oral hygiene is critical to overall health).

As Nanci Main, who closed Nanci and Jimella’s Café and Cocktails several couple months ago, says, “I like to think of it as a time to get re-inspired.” Could that be the new concept we’re seeking — re-inspirement?

Whatever we call it, I think we can safely say as we get older there is a sorting out process that happens. It begins to dawn on us that neither the kids nor the grandkids will want Grandma’s china, silver set, or corner cupboard. That not only are the spaces we’ve been living in probably too large — even if they are now too small for all the stuff we’ve collected — but we don’t want to keep them up anymore. Mopping the floor. Maybe quarterly? Cleaning out the rain gutters, or taking moss off the roof. Big no! I say after 65, no more ladders.

And what is it about the weather? I guess as we get older it’s not as easy to stay warm. Or do we just crave the sun’s energy more as our own energy levels change?

I used to scoff at snowbirds — the whole migration concept seemed odd. Why would anyone want to leave home for months at a time following the geese south? It seemed like a tremendous waste of energy. Now as I stealthily approach my seventh decade, it begins to feel like the effort of heading south is not only worth it but a real pleasure.

And it’s not just creature comforts that we begin to re-evaluate; there are emotional and mental shifts as well.

Arizona here I come

So, I must admit it here and now — I’ve changed my mind. This is the fourth year I’ve headed to Arizona for part of our winter. At first it was just about getting out of town to visit a friend and get a change of scene after my mother died. The next year, I applied for and enrolled in an MFA program. The following year it was to write and focus on my new degree. But more and more it’s to convene with a bevy of new friends I’ve made down in the southern climes.

They say you can’t teach an old dog news tricks. It might be true for some folks, but here’s what I see. The chapter we’ll call Re-inspirement generally involves something new, sometimes a dramatic set of new things.

An amazing long-term friend of mine has taken up music with a vengeance. She is taking piano lessons; is learning to play the ukulele; sings karaoke occasionally; and is coming back to song writing. Though she might not approve of my outing her here on her music aspirations, I say, hey, when you get to be a certain age, you have the privilege of letting a few more things hang out. (Sometimes literally…) And, what’s even better, you begin to care less about what other people think of how you’re living your life.

I think, in some ways, all humans are slow learners and late bloomers (unless your field is math or particle physics: then your mental-acuity peaks in your mid-20s and it’s all downhill from there). The re-inspirement years are a time when 1) you know yourself better, both your strengths and your weaknesses, 2) if you’ve been lucky, hard-working and prudent, you have a few nuts in a pile, and 3) you finally understand what is most important to you.

Universally my retired friends have said, “I’ve never been so busy or having so much fun.” When you stop working for money — if you can — it looks like most begin to do exactly what they want with their time. Volunteer to be a Big Brother or Sister. Take up photography. Be more active in Rotary. Go back to college.

The untapped creative energy of us Baby Boomers has the potential to change the world. (But then we’ve always thought that!) Look at what Al Gore did when the exhausting and all-consuming job of the presidency fell out of his grasp.

One of my best buds from teenage years was a technology instructor in the school system in Eugene for her entire career. She retired several years ago and bought a new SLR camera. Now’s she making more money than she ever did in education and winning awards left and right for her stunning nature photography. When you stop working for someone else, you can re-engage with your heart-work.

Gary and Marla

I found Gary and Marla happily ensconced in a condo at Citation Gardens in south Tucson. We had coffee together looking out their big south-facing window at a beautiful swimming pool. They’ve decided to get a bigger RV, maybe work when they feel like it, but mostly travel. The Peninsula will be part of the picture, of course; Gary has deep generational family roots here. But they’ll also bask in the Arizona sun, do some renovation on their condo, maybe dip in the pool occasionally, and see the country. They’ve known each other since elementary school, are best friends, and have agreed on how they’re going to put more fun in their lives.

As for me, I’ve spent this last week bird watching. No, not the kind where you travel the world with binoculars hanging around your neck. My version has the birds coming to me. For the last couple weeks, I’ve been back at my favorite Arizona watering hole — Rancho Linda Vista — writing new poetry, and revising older poems for publication. My bird watching consists of making a cup of coffee, donning shorts and a T-shirt, and putting seed and water out in plates on my lanai.

Then I sit down and watch cardinals, cactus wren, finches, grosbeaks, quail, doves, thrashers, sparrows, and — occasionally dashing across the scene true to its cartoony character — the neighborhood Greater Roadrunner. That bird can travel on the ground at 25 miles per hour. Me, I’m just content to sit in one place with my fingers on the keyboard for a couple hours a day, or, in the late afternoon, wander the grassy trails with Jackson.

Complacent? Maybe. I’m settling in to being re-inspired — I’ve become a snowbird.


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