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Perspective : How I Became Human Again

The longtime Morning News columnist takes the journalism cure in early retirement.
By John Anders |

The former Morning News columnist kicks back and finds retirement bliss in the state capital.

Austin is the perfect refuge for a recovering journalist. In Austin, it’s easy to blend in with the jalapeño chorus. Here I’m just another slacker.

But there’s a tricky part: I’m trying to pass for a human being in my new life. And, frankly, it’s a stretch. As you may have suspected, journalists are not to be mistaken for real people. Media types simply haven’t evolved to that blessed plateau and probably never will. In some instances, scribes are barely housebroken.

I love UT, but for years now I’ve felt like a jerk for getting a journalism degree instead of studying something useful. Journalism should be taught in trade schools, like welding. Six weeks at the DeVry Institute ought to do it.

You think I’m being harsh? See how Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh judges his profession: “I’ll tell you the truth about reporters: they’re the most jealous, self-absorbed, and resentful people on the face of the earth. And I’ve never seen one who wouldn’t sell out his own grandmother for a story.”

Hmm. Is it any wonder I’ve taken the cure?

In the blissed-out embrace of early retirement here in Austin, I ingest a dollop of crow and a slice of humble pie as my daily dose of methadone. My wife, Helen Bryant Anders, who also left a Morning News column to come to Austin, actually bought me a package of bonbons just the other day. Actually, it would be lovely to eat bonbons all afternoon, but I’m way too busy for that.

The big secret about early retirement is that you get up earlier and you get more done. Yet, somehow, you never have time to read all those books you said you’d get to. Still, there’s time to reflect on the winding path that brought you to this juncture.

In all my 33 years at the News, 25 as a feature columnist, I secretly fashioned myself as The Anti-Journalist. I tried to move forward the impression of a real human being who had somehow crawled on his belly across enemy lines and was sending back ditty-bop dispatches to the home front.

But maybe I was just another co-conspirator in the general fraud. I know one thing for sure: I tried to write a homemade column, a direct communication with the reader in the tradition of a tribesman telling stories to other members of tribe. The idea was to never write for editors or peers but for real human beings.

Sometimes the magic worked. Anyway, slowly but surely, I’m leaving behind that life in the trenches in hopes of un-learning everything I was taught in journalism. Today, I’m concentrating on doing instead of watching; learning instead of judging; becoming involved instead of holding back from my humanity.

After more than a year now on the sidelines, I’ve decided that early retirement, or retirement at any age, is definitely not a vacation. Living your life turns out to be a full-time job and amazing responsibility. Sometimes I think people work their lives away to avoid confronting life’s bigger issues.

At work I was always the kid who adored recess, the one who crafted elaborate plans for vacations, holidays, and even days off. If you’re the type who collapses on weekends and merely recharges batteries for the next work shift, you’re simply not early retirement material. And we won’t have you. If you’ve been known to say, “I really can’t imagine not working,” maybe you’re the type who needs to stay in the harness.

That’s fine. The recent census figures show 12.8 percent of the population now working past age 65, and that number is growing. Personally, I have no patience with people who say, “I tried not working and it bored me to death.”

As both the world’s oldest living baby boomer and its youngest retiree, I’m learning to work without a net. Suddenly, there’s no press pass to whisk me beyond the velvet ropes. Did I really think I’d be able to continue flashing my backstage pass all the way up to the Pearly Gates? I’m pretty sure I can hack it financially, by living prudently on my investments and pension, but how will I cope with no press credentials?

For example: after joining the Austin Film Society (actually paying dues, mind you) we were excited last summer to receive passes for a preview screening of Dr. T and the Women, which was filmed in Dallas. Helen knew some of the actors and society types who popped up in the picture.

As we approached the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin, we noticed three lines forming. Filmmakers and media were quickly ushered into prime seating. Then a second line of VIPs went in. Finally it was time for the proletariat. “We don’t have enough seats left for the rest of you,” we were warned, “so, it’s first-come, first-served from here on.”

There was a scramble for remaining seats, and Helen and I were lucky to plop down on the last row while some other members of our ilk were turned away altogether. It was a reminder that doors swing open wide for a pair of newspaper columnists—yet barely open a crack for ex-columnists (and nearly everybody else). I suppose a case can be made for journalists being underpaid and over-privileged. I sat there moping for a time, and finally harrumphed, “Do these people have any idea who we used to be?” Helen laughed and answered, “Well, I guess now we finally know our place.”

Our place, as it turns out, is a mile from the Congress Avenue bridge, on the rolling banks of the south side of town—Austin’s answer to East Dallas and Oak Cliff. In a pinch, Helen could walk downtown to work (and maybe get there faster considering Austin’s traffic snarls). We often walk to any of a half-dozen good Mexican restaurants on 1st Street, but we also miss the great restaurants of Dallas. The humble Latino grocery at the end of the block carries chorizo tacos and the New York Times.

There’s a halfway house for troubled teens just across the street and right behind us is a low-income, gated apartment complex—the only gated community I’ve ever seen where it is obvious the gates are there to keep the residents in rather than interlopers out. The neighbors to our right are a Costa Rican family and just beyond them is a gay Hispanic couple who were the first and, come to think of it, only people to welcome us to the nabe.

I’m feeling like a real American and a true Texan for the first time in my life, and I have all but forgotten the former supervisor at work who lives in Plano but never seemed uncomfortable delivering diversity lectures to the staff.

We paid three times what my White Rock digs cost, and doubtless our new neighbors are worried that Dallas refugees will drive up property taxes. But after a year our neighbors are starting to wave back. We’re dug in.

It never occurred to me until retirement, but Dallas is such a relentlessly work-driven culture I’m not sure I could have early-retired there without answering the daily question: what are you doing?

My answer? I’m not doing; I’m being.

In Austin, nobody seems to question that. I saved hard (40 percent of my paycheck for 12 years), invested well, and, barring a permanent plunge in the stock market, should be able to live modestly for the rest of my life without returning to the workaday world.

Naturally, I’m traveling a lot, and on the cheap as usual. In the last year I’ve visited New York four times, San Francisco thrice, Colorado twice, Paris just recently, and South Padre Island every six weeks. I have time to see our three grown children a lot. Helen, still in the work force as public relations director for an advertising agency, is thriving in her new career. I hate it when she can’t drop everything and go with me.

When Helen told an editor that I was bailing after 30 years in the business and we were moving to Austin, the guy wanted to know if we had “asked permission.” Where is it written that you need a note from your parents to make a quality-of-life decision? Nobody, not even our best friends and relatives, could understand that we were moving to Austin simply because we wanted to.

D Magazine, in fact, published a base and baseless story saying I had been “fired” and that Helen would commute from Austin to continue her column. Wrong on both counts. It would have been nice if someone from the magazine had bothered to call the News’ CEO, publisher, editor, a parking guard—or maybe even me. The reporter would have learned that I left on good terms after the paper cut me a generous offer. I had a wonderful career in newspaper but now I’m ready for a real, grown-up life.

Bill Clinton and I are approximately the same age and both of us took varying paths to early retirement, but he dresses like he’s still applying for a job. I wonder if they ask him what he’s going to do. Every time I’m back in Dallas, it’s the only thing I hear.

Helen still hears that question all the time, too. “People get this earnest, funny look on their faces,” she says. “And then they ask: what is John doing?”

I’m still crafting an answer to that one, and when I frame a suitable response, I’ll get back to you. For the time being, living well really is the best revenge.

Longtime columnist John Anders has taken the journalism cure. D Magazine was obviously wrong in our report, and we apologize for getting his early retirement off on the wrong foot. D also expresses its corporate astonishment at, and admiration for, anyone who can save 40 percent of his paycheck every month for 12 years.

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