This past summer, for the first time in years, I opted in for the family vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Which meant some serious quality time with my dad.
Since my father’s retirement from his career as a criminal defense and family lawyer in Burlington Vermont, he has been doing lots of interesting contemplating. He is often reviewing and reflecting on the past, and it’s always fun to hear his latest insights on life.
While we were driving down the Cape Hatteras coast he told me he has been writing a list of “Things I know better as a result of having time in retirement.” I asked him why he was doing this and he said the following:
“I wanted to do it because I would like to be better – it’s a project of retirement. I look at myself and say who the hell are you and why? Practicing law, I don’t think I was really well suited to it. I was uptight and worried I’d make a mistake. This kept me in a state of nervousness. As time went on my anxiety would increase… I didn’t have a chance to be honest with myself.”
So over the past several years my father has been sorting through the past and exploring what’s real, what’s really important. During this vacation I requested a formal sit-down interview with him on his top life lessons realized in retirement.
At the time I interviewed my dad in July 2017, I asked him how long he had been retired for, and without hesitating he said “four years, six months and three days” (not that anyone’s counting).
My Dad’s Early Life
My father’s name is Stephen Blodgett and he was born and raised by two artist parents in Stowe, Vermont. His father Walton painted landscapes, and mother Alice primarily did portraits. Both used watercolor paints (plus Alice used some pastels) as their medium.
Because being a watercolor painter in Vermont in the 1950s was not the most lucrative profession, my dad and his three siblings lived a relatively simple life.
When my father was in his teens he loved rock n’ roll and was in a local rock band called Mike and the Ravens. He was also a bit of a trouble-maker. At 17 years old, his debauchery culminated in a late-night prank on the people of Stowe that landed him in court.
The prank was fairly innocent – my dad and his two friends snuck into the town church late at night and swapped the record that played church bells at noon with a rock n’ roll record. Instead of chiming bells, the church blasted 1950s rock songs out over the town.
In court, the judge gave my dad three options for his trespassing offense: jail, military, or more school. My dad chose more school and enrolled in a private school called Stowe Prep. He quit the band and hit the books.
When my dad was 18, his father Walton died unexpectedly. My dad had done pretty well at Stowe prep, and scored well on his SATs, so he decided to take a shot at Harvard Undergrad. He wrote his application essay about the church prank, and got accepted.
As he recollects getting admitted to Harvard, he says he didn’t really deserve it. “Someone in the admissions office must’ve gotten a kick out of my essay… they even published it in the Harvard Magazine” he recalls. “But I didn’t know how to appreciate being at Harvard then, I wasn’t that interested in my studies and didn’t take advantage of the opportunities there.”
After Harvard undergrad, he continued on to St. John’s Law School in Brooklyn New York where he got his law degree. He was also a New York City taxicab driver to scrape together the cash for his sketchy Brooklyn apartment. (I remember him telling me stories when I was a little kid about how he would stay in shape jogging so he could outrun muggers at that time.)
Upon completion of law school my father moved back to Burlington, Vermont where he started the law firm Blodgett & Watts with a fellow lawyer. He worked there for most of his 42 years practicing law.
So that’s my dad’s professional background, and here are his aforementioned top four lessons realized during his “four years, six months and three days” in retirement… some are direct quotes, some are my summation of his words…
My Dad’s Top 4 Life Lessons from Retirement
1) Your Emotional Triggers Don’t Go Away: “Your emotional triggers, the things that make you do things, they don’t go away. The changes you make to your behavior will be based on cognition – your mind telling those circuits to behave. But don’t count on your wiring changing. It doesn’t.
“If you think this way – accepting that you cannot totally change your emotional triggers, you can save yourself a lot of despair. You weren’t the electrician. When you know that, working with your mind and emotions can be a happy project.”
2) Love is the First Commandment: Here my dad reflected on people creating things in order to feel special: “Sure, we all want to be special. Oftentimes our urge to create something to share with the world, a book or a song, is tied to that self-righteous urge to be special – to move people and make them cry. The pursuit of being special is not a happy life, but you still kind of want it.”
Then he went on to say, “there’s a danger there – you can become a hungry ghost. So take the pressure off. Write a song or a book if you want to, but do it for the process.” Although my father did not raise me religious (and he is not religious), he shifted into talking about Jesus at this point, and what a life of value is really made of. He homed in on the commandment Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
“Be a good samaritan. The good samaritan takes the injured person and tends to them… love is the first commandment – and clearly it’s the big love. When you are older you see things are more finite, you are led to the love. Unless you are a lost soul…”
3) The Rage Thing is Dangerous For Everybody: Being from Burlington, Vermont, and also having served two years in the state senate, my father has a long history knowing Bernie Sanders. He reflects on how in the early days, Bernie was a “hero” to him: “when Bernie got elected mayor of Burlington it was the most exciting night” he recalls.
But my dad has since become disappointed with his style of communication, and what anger does as a motivating force in communication in politics, in all parties.
“He plays to hate, he expresses anger at whole groups of people, he stirred up his followers so they say ‘fuck you’ to those groups. The country becomes more dangerous when you are purposely offensive. In the long run it is not productive to vilify a group. When you use that, you are going down the wrong track. Bernie’s values do involve economic equality, but his communication is dehumanizing towards certain groups. It’s like road rage.
“And the rage thing is dangerous for everybody.”
4. What You Like When You’re Older Will be the Same as “Back Then”: Even though my dad decided not to pursue music professionally and became a lawyer, his entire life he still wrote songs and played guitar – usually before the sun came up and at the end of the day before going to bed.
“I assumed music and popular songs would go away [as an interest] for me – the 3-4 minute songs with chords and verses. But it never has. Getting up in the morning and playing music is the same as religious chanting or meditation for me.
“It’s like giving blood. You know whoever got your blood doesn’t give a damn about your personality. The songs are like that. It’s just me and the music, nothing else is going on. It happens purely in a vacuum. All else is irrelevant.
“It’s nice to know if you really have a passion – the one thing that’s beyond the other things – building bird houses or model trains or writing… that thing will stay with you when you’re 30 and 40… all the way into retirement. It gives you that extra dimension of inner happiness.
“So whatever you really cared about back then, keep doing it. Don’t sell it short.”
By the way, my dad just recorded his first solo album. It’s called “12 Songs” – you can listen to it here: steveblodgettsongs.com
I must say, it was a real joy to formally interview my father. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, which makes it even more gratifying to purposely nurture and grow our connection as adults.
The evening after our interview, while sitting at the dinner table on vacation in North Carolina, my dad was unusually quiet. “Why are you so quiet?” My step-mother Jan asked him.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I feel really satisfied after the interview. For now, there’s nothing else I feel the need to say.”