I watched over the last decade or so as successful big-city professionals retire and move out to the fringes of my rural town. They typically buy farms or ranchettes and imagine themselves living in a sylvan or riverine setting with big horned owls hooting and coyotes howling in the distance after a kill. Some of them learn to fit in and truly find a home. Many others make it about five years and move back to the city or elsewhere, inevitably “to be closer to their grandkids.”
I wondered, what makes for a successful transition to the small-town life that I love so much. The following 10 rules I personally pulled out of a very authoritative hat.
RULE 1, PLACE: Pick a small town that has some moxie, some vitality for you. I chose one between Houston and Austin. We have lots of retired Houston execs, Austin artists and well-rounded folks alongside lots of impressive locals, all of whom just want to live among a vibrant population. If you don’t do this – if, that is, you pick any old place – maybe because it is affordable or its climate is nifty – then you could end up in a place like the one recently in the news for corruption and mismanagement.
CNN profiles a place in Florida as a corrupt speed trap masquerading as a small town. They say it is a gathering of 477 people, 19 of whom are speed trap cops who operate 24/7 along their 1,260 feet of highway. Apparently this faux small town rakes in the dough off this money machine, money that is evanescent when it hits the city’s coffers.
It probably goes without saying that my criteria for choosing a small, rural town says more about me than about small-town living in general. My hunch, though, is that this moxie/vitality factor would tend to suit many big-city retirees looking for a change of pace.
RULE 2, STATUS: Your previous life’s status in a small community is just that: your previous life. That no longer matters. You’re here now. You’re retired now. You were once a general, a CEO of a pretty big company, or an opera singer. You’ve met Gian Carlo Menotti, King Juan Carlos, George Plimpton; you’ve dined with the president of Ethiopia and played guitar with Richard Thompson and Paul Brady. That’s nice. Very nice. But can you fix your lawnmower?
Status? Is that what you want? Status? Great. Then learn to build cabinets or fix your dang lawnmower. That’s status out here.
RULE 3, NO DUCKING: You were once in the city. You stopped off at the local Kroger for the wine and cheese for dinner. You glimpsed a colleague or a neighbor in the wine aisle. You ducked. Quickly. Eyes averted. Oh snap, what’s that over yonder? Must go attend to it. You then maneuvered over to the cheese aisle allowing the colleague/neighbor to scurry on thereby avoiding an encounter that might have taken six or seven minutes, or worse, out of your busy day. Sure, he might have seen you, realized you were ducking. But that’s okay. He probably does it all the time too.
In your new small town, there are several meeting places, places where you encounter someone you know from a particular environment, Lions Club, say. Bumping into him under this new setting, you tend to explore with him things other than those you’d discuss at Lions. This is the way you learn about each other and your relationship develops. To duck him and to avoid the opportunity is – well – just rude.
These meeting places that serve this relationship purpose are known by various names – grocery stores, post offices, and hardware stores. Oh, yes, you can also get bread, stamps, and hammer drills in them too.
RULE 4, SIMMER: In the city you always had a sense of urgency. Gotta get on with it. Gotta move. Hustle. Time’s a-wasting. The few times that the traffic was not heavy — was actually moving, that is — it was pedal to the metal. “Speed limit 55,” meant driving 59; they can’t pull me over for a measly four mph over the limit.
In the rural environment “Speed limit 55,” means drive at some pace under 55 mph. So the pickup in front of you on the highway with almost continuous yellow, no-passing lane lines, driving at 48 mph is really not intending to hamper you or offend your sense of urgency. He’s not going so painfully slow in order to rile you. Your anger at him hurts you, but it doesn’t hurt him. He doesn’t notice. He’s just driving. Flash your lights at him if you want, but he probably has yet to master the rules of courtesy of the autobahn in his driving experience to date.
So simmer down. Just simmer down. One must untwist one’s knickers out here.
RULE 5, WAVE: I don’t mean you need to wave idiotically at everyone you pass on the road or in town. Not at all. But if you find yourself, perhaps, on a lonely road and a car approaches, or you are on a back road and pass a guy on a riding mower, and your eyes meet – wave at him. Somehow the fates put you and him at the same place at the same time. That alone demands acknowledgement. Not to wave is to say, “I don’t see you; you are too insignificant for me to acknowledge; I can’t be bothered even to raise my hand in recognition of our shared humanity.”
This attitude will not bode well for your new country life, much less your reputation.
RULE 6, YOUR NEW JOB: You spent 30 years in the big city, working your way up the corporate ladder. You did so well you can now retire and live on a bucolic farm out in the sticks, a pretend farmer. So you slip on your new Balmain distressed biker jeans from Neiman’s and reflect on you career. The reason for your success? Well, for one, it was your focus. You were successful because you focused on success. No TV for you. No silly novels. Why? “It’s not my job to do that.” That was the mantra. “It’s not my job to do that.”
So, you are on your way to the board meeting and you notice a woman in a faded Corolla with a “baby on board” decal; she’s got a flat tire. You could help but you’d be late for your meeting. Besides, you reason, she probably has a husband or friend on the way. After all, she surely has a cell phone. Everyone has a cell phone. Should you stop? Ah yes, the mantra: It’s not my job to do that. You go on.
Same scene, now in your new small town. Same mantra … well, with one letter changed: It’s now my job to do that.
That’s the way it is now. Your job is to look out for your neighbors. One day you are gonna need them to look out for you. Do try to be good at it.
RULE 7, CHURCH: I know, I know, big shot. You’ve read all of Sam Harris, Hitch and Dworkin. You watch Bill Maher’s show faithfully. There’s no way you are going to fall for some spiritual lessons from a preacher in this little town. No, church is not for sophisticated you.
Well, OK then, be that way. How ’bout trying this? Just don’t think of it as church. Think of it as a club, maybe the only club where you are going to connect with others out here in the boonies, and where you may just pick up some edifying messages to boot. In fact, you need to join a club within the club: the men’s club or the choir. That way you become enmeshed in a close group and find genuine friends.
The whole idea now is connecting with people. I know, you haven’t done that since high school. Trust me: That’s why you’re here, not just for the screeching owls and howling coyotes.
RULE 8, MOW: Oh, you have fond memories of the talented landscape crew that tended your double-lot acreage back in Tanglewood or West Lake Hills. They kept your vast lawn green and healthy and sculptured as if it was a Scottish golf course. The trees were all trimmed and grafted in a topiary fashion that made one think of Balmoral castle grounds.
Well you don’t have that crew out here. Pretty much all you have is Bubba Jones and his 42” Murray riding mower, which is parked in the shop half the time. When Bubba does come around, he does a decent job – when he’s not been drinking, that is. Weed whacking? That’s extra.
The solution: Mow your own damn lawn. In the city, you wouldn’t be caught dead on a mower. Is he too cheap to hire out? Maybe he’s going broke?
But out here the impression is different. It says, this guy is into taking care of his stuff; he cares about his stuff and is not above getting his hands dirty setting things right. It’s not just about the lawn; it’s about nearly everything.
RULE 9, YOUR NEW TRANSPORTATION: This one’s gonna hurt. Sell the Beemer, buy a truck. A used one. You just look silly tooling around in a shiny, almost new 7-series. It says: This city guy is not serious about being out here with us. He’s just passing through. Wonder how long he’ll last?
There is no one to fix the Beemer anyway.
RULE 10, SUMMATION: Rural living is a great option for retirees from the city. But the habits, skills, machinations, tactics, strategies and aversions that got you where you wanted to be in the city need to be unlearned in the country. They will not serve you here. You should shed them unless you want to stand out like a Kardashian in a convent.
Jim Austin is the retired CEO of the Houston International Festival. He and his wife Kathi recently moved back to La Grange, Texas with Molly, their Black Lab.