Enumerator insights

After 7½ years of retirement, I returned to the workplace part-time for two months this year.

The job was supposed to begin in May and run through the summer but got pushed back to August and then abruptly cut off at the end of September.

I was a federal agent.

The private identifying details we recorded are sworn to secrecy – or the equivalent, for those of us who follow Scripture and refuse to take oaths. But I’m still trying to put the experience into perspective.

For nearly 40 years, I’ve worked through the available Census files in my genealogical research, as you’ll see in the posts on my Orphan George blog. It’s become something of a specialty for me, along with the Quaker minutes. I mean, it’s how I learned that Grandpa married the girl next door. There’s also one set of ancestors who were recorded twice in 1860 but with enough differences to make me suspect there were two Jacob Ehrstines closely related – one detail in the 1870 Census cleared that up. And I have one ancestor who shaved another year or two off her age every decade, though I have no idea whether it was intentional or out of ignorance, considering that Quakers didn’t celebrate birthdays.

So I set forth in part out of gratitude for those earlier enumerators. The first ones, incidentally, were federal marshals. This was that important.

What surprised me as I hit the streets and knocked on doors on behalf of the Census Bureau was how physically hard it becomes – bending over an iPhone placed on a clipboard to input data quickly had my back aching, especially. For a dozen years, I managed to work a double shift every Saturday as a newspaper editor, yet here I was pushing my limits when it got close to five hours a day. (Wimp!) Six really maxed it. An article in the Washington Post enlightened me that I wasn’t alone here, so I couldn’t blame it all on age.

I am surprised by how many Americans don’t know what a census is or that it’s required every ten years or that they don’t want to be recorded.

Well, I now also have a clearer understanding of why one household might disappear ten years later but reappear again in a subsequent Census. You know, be there in 1800 and 1820 but not 1810.

I am also surprised how much of my brain space got wrapped in a job again. You know, replaying cases and wondering how I might have done them differently. This was supposed to be something I could let go of at quitting time. Not so, though.

Inputting data in an app on an iPhone still strikes me as tedious. You might have guessed I pretty much hate texting, except as an alternative to an actual phone call. (Emails seem to be my preferred form of communicating these days.) How do kids do it, texting with their thumbs? Or are their exchanges all typos?

Oh, yes, another confession. I’ve typed for nearly six decades now. Self-taught, earned my livelihood with it. Written whole books, even. But ask me to re-create a keyboard from memory, and I have no clue where the individual letters of the alphabet are. The memory is all in my fingers, not my head. Seriously.

So I can’t imagine keyboarding with my thumbs. As I was saying about the kids? Besides, thumbs are awfully fat for those tiny screens. My dry fingers had enough trouble connecting, even before getting to any issue of accuracy.

In my rounds, I had a few near falls (including one wooden step that wasn’t nailed down anymore), a couple of dogs who could have turned nasty, some close calls in traffic, but emerged unscathed.

Some of the most enjoyable interviews turned out to be those where I could put my very limited Spanish to work. Other enumerators had backed off, so I guessed it was up to me, and somehow, we got the required data, often with a lot of laughter. Yes, I made some funnies.

The best part of the job, though, was meeting people who, for the most part, were warm, friendly, helpful. I have a much clearer understanding of the neighborhoods around me.

Would I do it again?

No, I’ll be too feeble – or feebleminded – in another decade.

But maybe you’d want to give it a crack.

Feeling stupid, again

Do you ever have the feeling when you’re reading or listening to certain discussions that you have little idea what’s going on?

The kind that hinge on knowing certain figures being referenced, for starters?

I could point to overhearing the lifeguards gossiping about their plans for the weekend or last Friday’s party, or even some of the slang they’re using. Fair enough.

These days, now that I’ve been out of the news business nearly eight years, it can happen even when people are discussing political developments or pop culture celebrities. Yes, I’ve curtailed my awareness there – too many other things to work on.

With other people, I’ve commonly missed social cues, leading to awkward situations or much worse. Add to that my lack of hands-on ability in home repairs and other domestic necessities, even before we get to high tech or digital gaming.

And trying to remember people’s names and faces has always been a challenge.

Oh, my, this confession hurts – but I have witnesses. And it’s not even where I thought this post would begin.

Look, I’ve been considered a rather intelligent guy all my life, one with a broad range of inquiry of an interdisciplinary type. Something of a geek, actually, who loves classical music and opera and the great outdoors but labors as a wordsmith.

But here’s where the twist kicks in.

Too often when I’m reading an article in, say, the New York Review of Books, I’m feeling flummoxed. No, I haven’t read most of the books or even authors being discussed, the subtleties of the argument are eluding me, I have no background on the time or place or conflicts under consideration. And they’re being raised like it’s something every real thinker should already know. Yipes!

It’s happening again as I read a collection of conversations and correspondence between Gary Snyder and Julia Martin. I get the mentions of other poets, yes, though some of the talk gets pretty technical. But when they wander off into Buddhism, it goes way beyond my many readings, and then there’s a whole library of ecological and goddess philosophy volumes they invoke, all unknown to me.

Once again, I’m feeling stupid. Not just humbled but speechless.

Perhaps I could turn to my beloved musical experiences, but even there, I’m a rank amateur. Yes, I often baffle those around me when I mention a certain composer or performer, but put me in a circle of real musicians, and I’m again overwhelmed. I can’t even tell you what key a piece is in when I look at a score. Just wait till they get really technical.

Well, I do have some specialties, beginning with Quaker theology and history, but even there I’m a rank amateur compared to the pros, meaning college professors.

The fact remains that I believe these things are important, even if I can’t remember details like the title of a poem I truly enjoyed or the import of particular yoga luminaries.

Maybe in wanting to know it all, at least on some corner of the intellectual frontier, I’m left knowing very little.

As I said, I’m feeling stupid, again.

I’m feeling suspended in time, as in limbo

A curious set of emotions has set in for me. As much as I love living in Dover, I feel myself separating from it. There’s a sadness, as well as the excitement of new adventure ahead, though we have no idea exactly how soon.

Next week? Next month? Next spring or summer? We don’t know yet.

We had enough surprises in trying to buy this place, in what seems a life ago to me.

So I anticipate a crush of time-consuming work ahead in packing and then unpacking our goods, as well as the rounds of changing address and establishing new connections, and that in turn has me hesitating to step up to volunteer for tasks in the groups where I’m a member. Yes, I’m distancing.

It’s happening at home, too.

Moving around the garden, for instance, when we realized we wouldn’t replant garlic bulbs this fall, not here. Or looking at my fern beds and asparagus patch, knowing I’ll definitely miss them.

Or facing household breakdowns, which seem to be multiplying. You know, let repairing them become someone else’s problem. They probably wouldn’t like the color of paint we use, anyway.

Things we’ve never really liked about the house itself but somehow accepted now are acknowledged as irritants. That sort of thing.

I keep thinking we could easily pour another hundred grand into this domicile, if we had that much, but it would never be want we really want or, at this point in our lives, fit what we need.

This all feels so strange, given that I’d settled into a kind of familiar lazy comfort with things.

All of them about to be uprooted.

A time for redirection in my own life

One of my annual practices around now used to be crafting a seasonal itinerary for the coming year, one that included goals for each of the major components of my life – Writing/Creative, Quaker, Relationships, Household – that sort of thing. It was kind of like budgeting, but with a focus mostly on time and dreams.

Closely related was a consideration of what kind of schedule I wanted to follow once I retired or somehow otherwise achieved financial freedom. You know, maybe having a bestseller novel break out to fund it all.

The one thing I realized each time I attempted the planning was that there would never be sufficient time for everything I deemed important. And, as my wife pointed out, there were a lot of mundane tasks I wasn’t even considering.

Looking back, I’m rather embarrassed by what I’m seeing. One thing for sure is that little of my life since retiring is anything like what I had anticipated. I had no idea how much my stamina and self-discipline would be flagging. During the earlier thinking, blogging wasn’t even on the horizon nor was choir or daily swimming. (Well, the latter two are currently off, given Covid.) I’m still not meditating or doing hatha yoga daily, either.

Much of the time has been taken up with the self-publication and promotion of my novels as ebooks, and later, with the deep drafting and revisions of What’s Left, which in turn prompted drastic reworking and even renaming of my earlier fiction. Releasing those in both Kindle and paperbook at Amazon last summer came as a HUGE relief. In many ways, I felt I was done.

Or almost.

What I wanted to do was reshape my daily, weekly, and even annual routines. What are my goals and dreams now? What do I need to do, too, to maintain a suitable living situation? Some of it was even reexamining my self-identities and lifestyle. Well, before I retired I had hoped to take a retreat at a monastery or some such to ponder these bigger issues. Was this now the time?

Instead, I glanced at what I want to do here on WordPress in the coming year, and that prompted several months of heavy writing and scheduling of posts. You know, clear the deck, for the most part. Frankly, it’s been more time-consuming labor than I expected, no matter how much I enjoy doing it.

The thought even crossed my mind: What if I stopped blogging altogether? What would I do with the free time? (Would that leave me feeling retired?)

The latest unanticipated turn, though somehow fitting into this refocusing, has arisen in the joint decision to downsize and relocate. It just might lead to a time of isolation and retreat for me, too. We’ll see how things shake out.

Yes, indeed.

As for those dreams

My wife’s long dreamed of living on an island and had come close to making that a reality. She’s still pained by the way that came apart, back before she met me. Well, indirectly it’s a reason we came together.

So here we are, finally with a destination that’s technically an island, one connected to the mainland by a causeway rather than a ferry.

As for me, Downeast Maine – the lands and waters east of fashionable Acadia and Bar Harbor – reminds me of the Far West, with its long distances to anywhere, the wilds and wildlife, and opportunities to explore nature. But our destination also has a lively arts scene, one that reminds me of Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, back in the early ’80s.

Leaving the Pacific Northwest crushed a passion and way of life, something I’m feeling rekindled in this new setting.

No, it’s not Alaska or the coast of British Columbia and there are no glacier-glad mountains, but the vibe’s right. For that matter, I’m not up for that degree of isolation in my life at this stage.

Somehow, though, this is exciting.


For us, it’s not quite as simple as packing everything onto a boat and landing at a new dock.

Instead, we’re relocating in stages, eventually merging two households into one. Two households with barns, to an old Cape without one.

Whatever we keep will be strategic, for sure. And yes, it will still be lined with books, lots of them.

Facing up to downsizing

After nearly 21 years in the same house – the one with the small red barn – we’ve come to a difficult decision.

It’s time to move on. Not only is the place too big for just the two of us – remember, there were once five us of living here – it’s also eating up too much of our retirement budget and time. We can’t continue to watch our meagre savings shrinking. For that matter, we can’t even keep up with the gardening and cleaning routines, not if we’re going to indulge in the other desired things on our proverbial plate. An estimate for reroofing the house may have been the tipping point.

We’ve run the numbers of having others renting space here or trying to swap what we own for something smaller close by, and we do love the community, as you’ve gathered from reading the blog, but no enticing alternative has jumped out. Dover’s simply a very hot housing market at the moment.

What has caught our fancy, thanks to a daughter’s investigation, is a small down-on-the-heels city on the ocean at the other end of Maine – one with an active arts community and a nearby Quaker meeting. It is as far from where we are now as is Manhattan in the opposite direction – a five-hour-plus drive. Half of the townships you pass though in the last two hours of that route are uninhabited, except for the black flies, mosquitos, and moose.

Even without that prompting, we still need to sort through our possessions and cull what we can. It’s not just clutter, either. So much of this is essentially frozen time – things we thought we’d want to get to someday or debris from the past, souvenirs we probably won’t ever revisit again. (There’s more on decluttering on my Chicken Farmer blog.)

The key question we’re asking ourselves, “Is this something I’ll need or use in the next five years?” Or, for that matter, really miss.

And so, independently, we’ve started. No matter how liberating the task ultimately becomes, getting there is often painful.

In our case, it’s a multistage process, as I’ll discuss in future posts.

We’ve started with the books, mostly, because there are so many of them and they occupy the most space. They’re also heavy to move.

After that we get to clothing, kitchen goods, garden and home maintenance tools, our personal collections.

For me, that leads to writing supplies and files, concert program notes and playbills from events I’ve attended, my vinyl, CD, and tape recordings.


Here’s another consideration of your worldly possessions

If your house caught fire, what would you miss most?
Or, if you had time, what’s the first thing you would you save?

You know, that Dolley Madison thing of grabbing the portrait of Washington when the White House was burning. (OK, a slave actually deserves the credit, but back to the point.)

I have to admit that having so much of my work now backed up in the cloud, rather than on paper, greatly refocuses my response here.

My journals would be a big loss – there are too many to take them out all at once.

Other people would top the list, and after that, whatever’s closest at hand, probably starting with my laptop.