"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Lights and Flowers

     On Christmas Eve we drove over to Kennett Square, Pa., to visit Longwood Gardens. The day was warm and overcast, in the 50s -- more like Oregon than Pennsylvania. We arrived around 3 in the afternoon, and as the skies darkened we walked up past the house, stopping to view the fountain display.

The du Pont summer house, through the trees

     Longwood lies in the valley of the Brandywine river, which flows into the Christina river near Wilmington, Delaware. It was created by Pierre S. du Pont (1870 - 1954) as his summer home, just ten miles from his main residence in Wilmington.

A Longwood fountain

     After watching the fountain display we headed up to the Conservatory, a huge greenhouse full of literally thousands of different plants and trees. 

A pond inside the Conservatory

     Du Pont was president of the DuPont chemical company. He later served as president of General Motors, while still sitting on the board of directors of DuPont.

Christmas tree made entirely of orchids

    He had an abiding interest in horticulture and like many captains of industry at the time he donated a significant portion of his fortune to charitable causes of one sort or another.

Orchid close-up

     He bought an old farm in 1906 -- to save the trees, he said -- and began to indulge his interest in horticulture, creating gardens, fountains, paths and pools.

Floating apples and cranberries

     He entertained his friends there in the summer, and eventually transformed the farm into one of the country's leading horticultural display gardens.

Not sure ... a mistletoe?

     Today the botanical gardens range over 1000 acres. The facility boasts the main house, the conservatory -- and woods and fields and fountains and gardens.

Red Hot Poker

     We were told that the staff starts decorating for Christmas in September, and altogether they put up a half million lights throughout the property. Longwood plays host to over a million visitors a year.

Christmas tree made of succulents

     By the time we went through the Conservatory and started down the lighted paths it had started to rain. But the rain did not dampen our enthusiasm.

Blue tree on the garden path

    Clearly, no one else was held back by the rain either. We heard German and French being spoken as we walked the grounds. People in wheelchairs. Families with kids. Elderly couples. Groups of teenagers.

Another lighted tree

     All to walk the grounds, gaze at the flowers, enjoy the incredible light display. All to enjoy the Christmas season.

And a merry Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Working on Social Security

     I am finally applying for my Social Security benefit. I say "finally" because I am already past my so-called full retirement age. I filled out the form online, earlier today, and found that it is remarkably simple and easy (as long as you know when and where you you born, when and where you were married (and divorced if that applies) and all your other other basic information). I'd recommend the online route to pretty much anyone.

    However, I did have a couple of questions, about when my payment will actually appear at my bank, and how my Medicare premiums will now get paid. So I called the 800 number:  1-800-772-1213. Mistake. After navigating through the multilevel phone tree, I was asked if  I want to speak to a representative.

     "Yes," I said.

     Click, click . . . then the mechanical voice informed me, "The wait is one hour and eighteen minutes."

     No kidding. An hour and eighteen minutes. So I guess my questions will remain unanswered. I'll find out when I start receiving benefits . . . whenever that is, however much it is, and whether or not my Medicare premium will be deducted.

     Social Security and Medicare are wonderful programs, but . . . .

     Anyway, speaking of retirement income, I have started writing a column for the U. S. News Retirement website, for a little extra money. I thought some people might be interested, and since I'm guessing not everyone follows the U. S. News Retirement website, I figured I'd give you a link to go check it out. (I can't reproduce the whole article here because, you know, I wrote it for U. S. News, not for Sightings Over Sixty. But I can give you the lead-in, and then if you're interested you can click over to the site.)

     Regardless, the U. S. News Retirement site does offer some good basic retirement advice, and I recommend perusing it now and then. Anyway, here's what I have to offer:

     "There are many reasons to keep working in retirement. Of course there's the money. But beyond that, it's something that gets you out of bed in the morning – a place to go, a schedule to keep and a routine to anchor your life. You may also want the social interaction you find at work, and perhaps the sense of accomplishment for a job well done.

     "Nearly three quarters of employed Americans plan to keep working after normal retirement age, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. But most people (63%) don't want a full-time job. They don't want the stress, and they sure don't want to spend all day in a workplace with a poisonous atmosphere. And that's one great aspect of a retirement job: You have can quit if you don't like it, because you're not dependent on the job to support your family . . ."

     And so, if you want some ideas for part-time work in retirement, click over to my story on U. S. News Retirement. I believe you can leave a comment there if you want; but better to come back here to leave a comment so people will see it.

     I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season. B and I are going to see a public garden and a lights display over the weekend. And then it's family, which is what the holidays are all about, aren't they?

Friday, December 15, 2017

From Bored . . . to The Front Bottoms

     A well-known pitfall of retirement is boredom. We have no children to take care of. No job to go to. In some ways we lead parallel lives to the rest of the community, as we go about our business and they go about theirs. B and I went to the annual meeting of the Center for Learning in Retirement the other day -- our business -- then yesterday B attended lunch at the Encore club, for women over age 60. Meanwhile, they are taking their kids to school, going to visit Santa at the mall, putting lots of presents under the tree.

Our new wallpaper
     Actually, I have not been bored so much as I feel as though I've been leading a boring life. There's a difference. I've been keeping busy, so I'm not bored. But I haven't been doing anything the slightest bit interesting -- running errands, buying presents, making trips to UPS and the post office, arranging travel plans for after the new year. In other words, I've either been sitting at my desk or driving around in my car.

     We are renovating our downstairs powder room. We spent way too much time in the past two weeks picking out a new tile for the floor, and even more time selecting just the right vanity and sinktop and faucet. Yesterday we went shopping for wallpaper, because we think wallpaper will give our tiny otherwise-unremarkable bathroom a bit of a . . . as B puts it, "wow" factor.

     Just so you know, while B seems to have some interest in wallpaper -- as well as a new window shade for our bedroom (I didn't even know we needed a new shade) -- I consider shopping for wallpaper a boring activity. I try mightily to show some engagement in the process, but it didn't take long for B to catch me pouting in the corner of the shop.

Poster for Champagne Jam
     I do have one piece of useful advice that I discovered this week. I took several packages to the UPS store to send to our children. It turns out that UPS is good for sending big packages short or medium distances. But I had a package going to the West Coast. It wasn't very big, wasn't very heavy. UPS charged me $16.80. It will arrive on Thursday. Later, I found out I could have mailed it at the U. S. Post Office, priority mail, for just $13.60, or $3.20 cheaper . . . and it would have arrived on Monday or Tuesday, two or three days faster!

     So those of you still to send out your presents . . . take heed.

     Otherwise, B and I are going over to Asbury Park, NJ, this weekend to take in a show at Convention Hall. The venue is on the boardwalk, on the beach. That alone should be fun.

     We're going to see Champagne Jam, a holiday party for a lineup of Indie Rock bands. The show is headlined by The Front Bottoms. If you don't like this sample, below, don't bother trying to look up another song, because -- again, according to B -- all their songs sound alike.

     I like them. But whether you like them or not, you might identify with their one lyric: "I miss the way things used to be."

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Two-Day Trip

     My sister and her husband, who live in Phoenix, visited New York City for a few days this past week. "Why don't you come up and join us?" she suggested. "You can stay with us."

     So B and I drove over to Hamilton, NJ, and took New Jersey Transit to Penn Station ($14.70 round trip with our senior discount), and then the subway (two trips for the price of one with senior discount) to the upper East Side where they were renting an airbnb (free for us, with the sister discount).

These two fellows were keeping watch at the house next door to our airbnb

     That evening we met my son and his girlfriend for a thoroughly immoderate steak dinner at Smith & Wollensky (senior discount, hah ... no way!). The next day we walked over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art ($17 with senior discount). On the way we noticed that 87th Street was closed off -- apparently there's a school on that street, and for recess they just close off the block.
Kids playing on a Manhattan street

     We were going to the Met to view the Michelangelo (1475 - 1564) exhibit. There were many drawings and a few sculptures. My favorite was Michelangelo's bust of Brutus.

Brutus looking powerful

     There was also a controversial portrait of the youth Andrea Quaratesi, 37 years younger than the great artist himself. Apparently Michelangelo was smitten with the young man, and, well . . . Michelangelo by that point was a very celebrated and powerful man. (Remember, those were different times -- they would even castrate some young male singers to keep their voices from changing.)

Andrea with hooded eyes

     A portrait of the great artist himself, painted by one of his students.

Michelangelo as painted by a protege

     After Michelangelo we had a little extra time, and so I ducked into the David Hockney (b. 1937) exhibit, over in the next wing. Hockney is an Englishman but lived for a number of years in California and is famous for painting scenes of mid-20th century swimming pools.

The splash is ill-defined, but it's kinda cool isn't it?

     Here's another one, painted from two separate photographs in 1972.

Two photos merged together in a painting

     This is a more recent (2006) landscape of the British countryside. "Trees are never more alive than in winter," Hockney said. "You can virtually see the life force, thinned but straining, pulsing, the branches stretch palpably, achingly toward the light."

A winterscape near Hockney's studio in Yorkshire

     After that B and I headed back to Penn Station for our trip home, while my sister and brother-in-law were staying on for a few more days. It was my sister who took this photograph, as the two of them walked across Central Park at dusk, looking across the lake to midtown Manhattan.

New York skyline from Central Park

     A memorable little mini-trip. Isn't it wonderful that we're retired and can do these things!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

What Makes Us Happy?

     There is no doubt we have some issues to face when we retire. We may have money problems or health problems. We may face episodes of boredom and loneliness, or fear that we'll become irrelevant as our careers fade into the distance and our children increasingly develop their own lives. But do these issues stand in the way of our happiness -- any more than any of the other problems we faced along the way?

     Psychologists have demonstrated that each of us has our own individual set point of happiness. As events unfold in our lives we may temporarily become more or less happy, but then as time goes on we revert to our own mean level of happiness. However, those same experts also tell us that as we get older, our happiness set point gradually goes up. In other words, most people get happier as they get older.

     Then retirement gives us a bonus. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, retirement by itself often produces a positive impact on people's sense of well-being, a feeling that lasts for a considerable length of time. Why? Because there are fewer demands on our time, and we have more control over our lives. We experience less pressure, less stress; and we enjoy a less-hectic lifestyle.

     So what can we do to bolster our happiness levels as we retire and get older? You may have your own ideas -- and I'd love to hear them -- but here are five ideas I have as they apply to my own life. 

     Don't worry about money. Easier said than done. But multiple studies have shown that after a certain basic level of income that covers housing, health care and other necessities, there is no relationship between how much money we have and how happy we are. What matters is what we focus on. So there is no reason to envy those who have more than us, for they are not happier than we are. But there is plenty of reason to focus on the blessings we enjoy in life, whether it's close family ties, a supportive group of friends or an opportunity to spend time pursuing an activity we love.

     Use money to purchase experiences, not possessions. Many of us have recently downsized and spent countless hours disposing of carloads of material possessions. Some of those things are valuable -- but almost always for the memories they evoke, not for their intrinsic market value. B is always reminding me that it's not important to drive a fancy car, or watch a bigger TV. We should use our money to create positive and lasting memories with our friends and children, or just for ourselves. So we don't live in the most exclusive neighborhood, we don't shop at Nordstrom's. Instead, we  go on vacation, invite friends for dinner, organize a family get-togethers -- and B has been known to pay for those who can't afford to come.

     Make time for friends and family. You can see a theme developing here. We all know that shared experiences bring more happiness than those experienced alone. Why else do people go on Facebook or Instagram? Just think of the last time you ate alone in a restaurant with your nose stuck in a book or magazine. It probably wasn't much fun. But when you go to the same restaurant with friends, you almost always have a good time talking and laughing and sharing your stories.

     Take care of yourself. People in poor health almost always report lower levels of happiness than people who are in good shape. It works the other way around, too. People who eat better, get more exercise and suffer less stress tend to lead healthier and happier lives than the sedentary couch potatoes. So while we want to be connected to other people, we also want to make time to treat ourselves right. Surprisingly, some surveys have even shown that cosmetic surgery makes people happier, both in the short term and over longer periods of time. Why? Because nothing makes people feel better than knowing they look their best.

     Engage in an interesting activity. Not necessarily an activity that is interesting by some objective measure -- surfing in Hawaii, say, or acting in a play, or walking El Camino de Santiago -- but something that's interesting to you. It doesn't matter whether you're perfecting your golf game (by the way, did I tell everyone that I got a hole-in-one this past summer?!?), babysitting your grandchildren, doing arts and crafts or . . . or writing on your blog. The important thing is that we get involved in something that bounds us out of bed in the morning and gives us a sense of purpose. The happiest people view retirement not as an endless vacation, but as a chance to pursue new opportunities and take on new challenges.

     I've found that what makes us truly happy in retirement is that there are no more expectations. We don't have to please our parents, or bear responsibility for our kids. We can move to the city, or the country. We can do something, or do nothing. No matter how well-financed we may or may not be, we can live the lifestyle of the truly wealthy – that is, we can do what we want and answer to nobody.