“Doing Nothing” is not in the cards

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday June 17, 2012

Meet John Fry (USNA, ’48), an interesting guy for many reasons, not the least because the former naval officer who spent much of his first career in the Pacific also had a second career in the US diplomatic corps as a Foreign Service Officer, where he served in Brussels, Stockholm and a stint in the White House Office of Science and Technology.

John, retired in 1988, is now in his third career, serving as the 85-year-old editor of a literary jewel that is invisible to most Annapolitans.  I am referring here to Literary Lite, an enjoyable quarterly publication, now in its 15th year.  Literary Lite is sponsored by the Residents’ Club of Ginger Cove, published by and for the residents.  Its co-editors are Marjorie Bradford, Pat Wichmann, and Tim Wooldridge.

Literary Lite encourages and publishes creative writing, both fiction and non-fiction, in prose or poetry. The first time I met John, at Killarney House, the restaurant and pub in Davidsonville, I was riveted by his enthusiasm and commitment to the stories he compiles and edits for Literary Lite.  I said, “John, I thought places like Ginger Cove existed so people could settle down and enjoy doing nothing.”  John replied, with a twinkle in his eye, “At Ginger Cove you can’t get by with doing nothing.”

Ginger Cove, an accredited continuing care community in Annapolis, is home to more to 350 later-life Americans who have decided to live out their bonus years in Annapolis.  More than a few residents, like John – who still runs five laps (three plus miles) around Ginger Cove three days a week – are graduates of the Naval Academy who decided, after spending a career living around the world, to resettle in Annapolis to spend (as the poet Robert Browning wrote) “the last of life for which the first was made.”

For most, the bonus years are not spent in “retirement” defined by withdrawing to a life of endless leisure and amusement.  Instead, for many at Ginger Cove, later-life is as busy and engaging as mid-life.  Reflecting the now well-established fact that continued social engagement is the best predictor of successful aging, many participate in programs and activities designed to engage residents with each other and the wider Annapolitan community.  Indeed, many residents continue to participate in work of some kind – for example, volunteer work, Samaritan work (i.e., caring for others), enrichment work (i.e., personal development, learning new skills or acquiring new knowledge) and even paid work.

Some in the Ginger Cove community are also engaged in governance.  This includes making and overseeing policies that are required to make the institution work for residents – including to manage and improve living and recreation facilities and suggest new programs and activities and all the other things that matter from a resident’s point of view.

One of these activities is the publication Literary Lite.  John said, “In Dustin Hoffman’s day the key to the good life for a young person was ‘plastic.’  Now, nearly 50 years since The Graduate graduated, the good life is about ‘wellness.'”  John and his colleagues on the editorial board see Literary Lite as just another approach for people to stay engaged both intellectually and socially – not only in creative activities but also in sharing their knowledge, wisdom and humor with those who are seeking to be informed, educated or entertained.

The 16 items in the Summer 2012 issue, all devoted to non-fiction.  These include interesting stories about everything from family life and youthful indiscretions to travel and wartime experiences, the latter penned by writers who are part of the “Greatest Generation” that fought and won WW II.

John and his wife Toni have led an interesting life that included visits to more than 70 countries around the world – some work-related and some on vacation time.  Following his second retirement (from the Foreign Service), John’s “bucket list” included some countries he had not visited, so he signed on to a round-the-world trip on a freighter – a bulk cargo container ship – that took him to ports of call in Panama, New Zealand, Indonesia, and New Guinea in the Pacific around to Hamburg in the Baltic Sea, with stops along the way, and then, after four months at sea, back to the US.

I asked, “What has been the biggest surprise of your post-career life?”  John said, “I think it’s the variety; it’s all the changes that occur in later-life.  I used to think about the ‘retirement stage’ of life as if it were a single episode or happening.  I no longer see it that way.”

“In our experience,” he continued, “the retirement years have many stages.  Toni and I  had a ‘see-the-world’ stage.  We had a stage where we enjoyed our home in the desert in California, visits from a growing family and tennis and other outdoor activities.  Then we moved back to an historic home on Prince George Street here in Annapolis.  We slowed down a bit, but only a bit. Then we decided to simplify our lives, and we moved to Ginger Cove where we’re still active but there’s a lot less complexity in our lives.”

John continued, “With every change, you keep some of your previous life as you embark on new adventures.  Sometimes lifestyle changes come from your own changing interests and aspirations.  Sometimes changes are a result of ups and downs in your health or mobility or other things you can’t control.  So you adapt.  But I’ve found each stage of later-life, regardless of what caused it, to be interesting and satisfying.”

John’s view of later-life is both insightful and refreshing.  It is not the view advanced by the typical financial advisor, TV ad or Readers Digest story – most of which still reflect the Golden Years “ideal” of retirement, as if we work only to spend our last 20-30 years in rest, relaxation and recreation.  But John’s view that later-life will be as changeable and can be as interesting, productive and satisfying as mid-life is consistent with what I have found in talking with several hundred so-called “retired” people around the US.

The rich variety of lifestyles emerging among America’s rapidly-aging population – with 10,000 a day turning 65 for the next 18 years – is way ahead of the prevailing views that continue to dominate much of the writing about later-life Americans.  Indeed, both the static, old-fashioned, “declining years” view and the more recent but boring “Golden Years” view are out of date.  Reason:  Later-life Americans are increasingly engaged in creative and productive activities where they are helping others and making the world a better place.  The “experts” need to catch up with the new realities of later-life living as it is practiced in America.

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