I was about 25 years old when, visiting my dad, I saw that he had a magazine from AARP, the American Association or Retired Persons. I made a face, “why do you have that magazine?”
My dad grinned widely, pulled out his AARP card and said, “I’m a member!”
“But you’re not retired,” I protested, “and you’re not even old.” He was fit and still looked pretty young — not one of the gray haired geezers I thought of when AARP crossed my mind.
“I signed up the day I turned 50, it’s a great deal. You get discounts on just about everything, it makes sense to get it when you’re still active and can save more money.” I shook my head, realizing that my dad, the ever pragmatic businessman, looked at the bottom line only. While some might object to the politics of the AARP and others wouldn’t want to join an organization associated with old people — especially just upon hitting an age that sounds older — none of that mattered to my dad. He’d save money. Accordingly, he’d be a fool not to join.
My dad had a marvelous sense of self-interest. He voted Democrat up until 1968, apparently a Kennedy & LBJ voter while my mom went for Nixon and Goldwater. But, he said, once he started making over $25,000 a year (which was a lot for the mid-sixties) he switched parties. He was upfront with the reason – once you start making a lot of money, it’s smarter to vote Republican, he argued. After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer he was overjoyed to find a $3000 big screen television for sale. His joy did not come from the fact he’d have big screen entertainment in his final months, only that he made a great deal. There were no payments for six months, and an optional life insurance policy. “It’s a freebie” he said gleefully. And it was — my sister had to do a little arguing, but there was nothing there about pre-existing conditions so it was indeed free.
Though my dad and I were quite different — he was a successful businessman who flunked out of college, was on the football team, and didn’t like reading, while I’m a college Professor who dislikes playing team sports and loves to read — I did learn a lot from my dad. First, he was always trying to have fun. Whatever happened, good or bad, he’d make a joke about it, and appeared to hardly ever worry or succumb to stress. He had a kind of natural happy go lucky air, and people always remembered him laughing and having fun. He’d make a point to chat with wait staff, people working the cash register, and had absolutely no pretense. He once told me how after work he and some friends went to a bar near the stock yards. “We were sitting there, businessmen talking solemly, while across the bar were stockyard workers laughing, drinking and really having a ball…I wished I was with them.”
I think I learned a lot from him, and find myself joking like he did, and seeing the bright side of things. For instance, we’d be on vacation and see pouring rain out the window, ruining our day’s plans. My dad would grin “I’ts a beautiful day…” he said exuberantly. As we looked out the window he’d add “…in Chicago.” Somehow, we’d find a way to have fun. I have a similar kind of natural optimism and desire to make almost any situation fun. My dad kept his sense of fun even after he was told he had only five months to live — to the end he was joking around and cheering others up. He never once felt sorry for himself or complained that it was unfair to go at age 60. Life is what it is, complaining doesn’t help.
And, of course, some of his pragmatism rubbed off on me too. So when I turned fifty, I knew that one of the first things I’d do is join AARP. They made it easy too — I got an invitation to join the day after my birthday (that’s a bit spooky — they definitely are a powerful interest group). Planning an upcoming trip to South Dakota, I’ve already saved more money than the membership cost on hotels (compared to other on line sites), and the car rental. It’s fitting that the savings start with a trip back “home.”
It’s too bad he died before my kids were born, they’ll never know “grandpa Ron.” All I can do is try to model that style of having fun while looking at life with a bit of humor and irreverence. A lot of people take life far too seriously, especially the true believers in a particular ideology, religion or way of living. Some people constantly measure themselves against others as if they somehow had to prove their value to the world. Still others let life’s ups and downs create dramas and depressions, as they drown in circumstances beyond their control. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from my dad is that stress and worry are unnecessary life burdens. You just take life as it comes, work hard, treat other people well, and have fun. That and, of course, to join the AARP as soon as possible after turning 50.