Cutting Cords, or: How to Retire- 2009

Cuernavaca, Mexico

Yes, it was my retirement party, a farewell event. Catered by Helena, Montana’s best, there were bartenders offering beverages to everyone milling about …troves of people I knew from work …members of my board of directors …other management friends who flew in from other states …my wife, Carol …and an unexpected surprise, my children. Everyone smiles at these events. Pictures are taken. Stories told. After a symbolic handing over of the gavel to my successor, Jim, he gave a short talk about my hard-to-fill role. Having worked for the American Automobile Association since marking TripTiks back in 1965, for the last sixteen years, I had been CEO of AAA MountainWest overlooking operations in Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska. Celebrating more than four decades simply had to be a special occasion.

Eventually it came time for my own remarks …I was captured by the podium police, the microphone was gently handed so I could say something poignant or maybe mention a collection of my own stories. I gazed around the room thinking at least one story for each and every pair of eyes. I fondled the mike for a few seconds producing those typical feedback whistles and electronic taps before saying anything.

Over the weeks prior, the subject of my workaholic style surfaced frequently. I even heard several folks were worried that, post-retirement, I would come back and let my thoughts and druthers influence things like I indeed had over years past. My successor was respectful, of course. And, officially, I was on the payroll for six more months to assure an orderly transition. My hands-on behaviors were all anticipated with both positive and cautious retorts from those with whom I worked closest. Everyone kept predicting I would now play golf …at least they hoped I would.

Taking a breath, pushing some air into the mike creating a whoosh, I gave predictable thank you nods and one or two sentence stories about some I knew best, spending more time with those who traveled the farthest ending with some emotional of-course-type comments about how supportive family members had been. It was a distressing moment. I had commandeered everyone’s solemn but patient eyes.

“Yeah, I have AAA logos running around in my blood stream, but I think the time has come to make a clean break. No, I will not be in to work tomorrow, and it’s not because I’m playing golf. And, no I will not be coming in to work later either …oh, I’m not saying never, but not for a long time. Jim will take care of things quite well. I’m already packed. Tomorrow morning, I fly to Salt Lake City then to Mexico City. From there I catch a bus to Cuernavaca where I’m enrolled in a Spanish language immersion class. I’ll live with a Mexican family who speaks no English.” And, so it was to the surprise of most, and dismay of business fortunetellers, that I was turning an entirely new page in my book of life.
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Traveling to Cuernavaca was uneventful. I speak touristy Spanish, and can get by with basic wants and needs. After getting off the bus, a taxi took me to the home I would be staying for about a month. I was introduced and welcomed in typical Mexican style.

Cemanahuac School classes were filled mostly by American or Canadian college-age students seeking language skills coupled with travel. There were a handful of retiree-types too. This practical conversational-oriented approach was easy to adapt to. Classroom spirit focused on understanding first, and grammar second. No one was corrected …if it didn’t sound right, another student would say it another way with the teacher reinforcing the best pronunciation or use of words. English was off limits. Every question was asked in Spanish—interactions with other students, in Spanish—permissions in Spanish. This was immersion.

In late afternoons and evenings, groups of three or four would explore our new environment. Coffee shops were all over, and little shops where one could buy local art, pottery, or jewelry were indeed tourist-oriented and prolific—a souvenir for everyone.
What I found most interesting was the black market where most locals shopped. It was a huge tented area about three or four football fields in square footage. Rows upon rows of food and goods were positioned along narrow side streets inside a city of thousands of small businesses. Haggling was expected—the art of making a sale or walking away from the deal—were crafted skills. There were many sellers of similar products competing for shoppers’ pesos.

Prices for food, varied widely depending upon freshness—the older the produce, the lower the cost. The best food was considered expensive; those who could afford fresh bought it. Middle Class purchasers haggled the most. The poorest or the homeless, appealed to the sellers’ hearts and bought cheap. Spoiling food was given away. There was never ever any food garbage. Even debris swept up was collected; those with no money were thus “paid” with on-edge free food for hauling such little bags of dirty leaves and floor grime away.
Animal parts were butchered to order–with each part having a different price based upon customer desires. Sales were wrapped in paper after weighing. Money exchanged hands. I watched how a pig turned into loins and chops …even pigs’ ears, nose, tails, and hoofs were sold …the price always ended right.

Aromas were tantalizing—I never smelled anything rotten or distasteful. Human interactions, while certainly spirited were never nasty or confrontational. Shoppers were courteous. Vendors plied their skills about how much better their products were than others’. Everything was clean, organized.

Everything else, like shoes and clothing, small appliances, potted plants, pharmaceuticals, vitamins, tools, or what have you, were organized in sections. Wider “boulevard walks” separated major sales areas so people could get around.

It was free enterprise in full action—full spirit—fully achieving what everyone wanted. This was indeed the commercial heartbeat of Cuernavaca. All those coffee shops and souvenir shops outside the market were for tourists. Here, I was mesmerized and captured watching how the system worked. Even if you bought nothing, seeing how all gears synced together in a Rube-Goldberg-type sales apparatus was probably the most significant memory I have. I even used my Spanish and learned how to haggle politely by the “rules.”
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At other times, we explored what the city had to offer. It might be mariachis singing in the square, children popping balloons, and parents providing private arms-length chaperone service for teenagers just socializing in the plaza.

Time permitting, small groups would go to an archaeological museum on Saturday. Then go visit an old Aztecan ruins and depictions at nearby Xochicalco on Sunday. After “work” and before dinner, we’d walk around town exploring nearby parks with their intricate paths and mysterious geology.

While Cuernavaca is a practical, and somewhat upscale by Mexican standards, it is also a complicated place for businesses, tourists, and Mexicans who choose to live outside Mexico City. It’s always been a place of historical attraction …now in the 21st Century, of course, but for different reasons going back four centuries for so many others.

One time, I went with a small handful of other students to visit Teotihuacan—an Aztec pyramid of giant proportions. If one so chose, you could “hike” up the steep sloping accesses and get to the top as I did.

Since I was in the area for less than thirty days, I crammed a lot into my visit. And, I believe I achieved two important things. First, I traveled to Mexico to learn some additional Spanish; I didn’t merely tourist around. My Spanish did improve, and I gained considerable knowledge, appreciation, and respect for this rich culture.

But probably more important, I made my clean break from decades of in-office work; I cut the cords that had bound me—and I didn’t look back. I didn’t play any golf or tennis or bingo; and, I didn’t go back into the office.

As I believe it should be, I faded away—to become less noticed, then unnoticed –without a need to impose legacy.

Unquestionably, though I remain remarkably proud of my career and achievements, I now understand how pages in books turn. There’s always another chapter to anticipate, there’s always another epilogue to the epilogue.

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