Jimmy Carter's recipe for retirement


Jimmy Carter is so far removed from his days in the White House - nearly 20 years - that today he can lead a relatively normal life without going into seclusion.

Recently, he popped into Boston on a book tour to promote "The Virtues of Aging," the latest of 13 books he's written since leaving the White House.

He's become a prolific writer and a gracious autograph signer. "I have the good fortune of having an outpouring of people who come to the bookstores to buy my books," he says during a Monitor interview.

Retirement obviously agrees with Mr. Carter, even though he acknowledges it was initially a sudden, unwelcome development for him and wife Rosalynn.

Those who find themselves abruptly put out to pasture by a corporate merger or downsizing may take heart from Carter's experience.

Being "surprisingly and involuntarily retired" from the White House (Ronald Reagan defeated him in the 1980 presidential election) was a blow. It was followed by a personal financial crisis (he discovered a profitable business he'd left in a blind trust was a million dollars in debt).

The tide, however, has been reversed since then. So much so that Carter says his forced retirement has led to "the most glorious and productive years of our lives. It's turned out to be a constant series of gratifying and enjoyable adventures. And the point is, almost everything we have done since I left the White House has not been predicated on having been the president."

Oh, sure, there are echoes of that experience - his work with the Carter Center in Atlanta and his international peacemaking efforts - but much of his time is filled with the sort of activities that might occupy any retired person. It's just that he's got his fingers in more pies than most.

His activities include running, tennis, woodworking, mountain climbing, birdwatching, writing, volunteer housebuilding with Habitat for Humanity, skiing, and church work. He says he's temporarily put away his oil paints, expecting someday to return to the easel.

One dead end was chess. He wanted to become an expert and bought numerous books and a computer chess program with that in mind, but he was stymied. "I found that I don't have any particular talent for chess," he says. "I hate to admit it, but that's a fact."

Carter isn't cutting corners in pursuing personal enjoyment in retirement, which is part of the message of his newest book.

Retirement, he says, presents an "unlimited menu" of options and the freedom to explore them.

"The panoply of opportunities we have is what makes the average older person the happiest in America," he observes.

He considers retirement an ideal time to review and act upon previously unpursued interests, which partly explains why he's become such an avid writer.

As a college student at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., he studied engineering and nuclear physics, but missed out on learning to be a creative writer.

Consequently, when he decided to write a book of poetry he sought help from professors at the University of Arkansas. With his sights now set on writing fiction (his next book will be a Revolutionary War novel), he is working with these same professors and some at Emory University in Atlanta, where he has taught political science the last 16 years.

Book writing, Carter says, "keeps me in touch with things that are going on." It's also a major source of income.

Clearly he enjoys it and the challenge of skipping around to different topics and writing styles (he's even written a children's book illustrated by daughter Amy).

The pleasure of the person involved, Carter says, should be a "preeminent consideration" in retirement. But he cautions against defining "pleasure" narrowly.

"Is it watching TV eight hours a day or playing golf three times a week?" he asks, "Or is a source of pleasure having adventurous challenges where you might take a risk on meeting new people and doing new things? My experience has been that every time I've done something that I thought was a sacrifice for the benefit of others it's turned out to be one of my biggest blessings."

Especially satisfying for him is his involvement with Habitat for Humanity. Each year he shows up in work clothes ready to lend his carpentry skills to build homes for low-income families. Last summer he and thousands of volunteers built 100 homes in Houston. In March he'll fly to the Philippines to participate in another mass construction project.

"The Virtues of Aging" (Ballantine, $9.95) was originally going to be an essay, but as Carter plumbed his thoughts on the subject, out tumbled a book, albeit a short one.

Asked if he feels any responsibility for setting a high standard for retired-age people, he says, "Before I decided to write this book the answer would have been no. Now I do feel a responsibility."

In a chapter titled "A Successful Life," he talks about maturing, not aging. The point he makes is that despite frustrations and disappointments encountered in pursuing legitimate human ambitions, we can still grow, learn, and set challenging goals - "we can still strive for something exceptional."

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