"In this sticky web that we're all in, behaving decently is no small task." -- Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Can We Be Happy for the Rest of Our Lives?

     Psychologists say 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 mean level of happiness. But the experts also tell us that as we get older, our happiness set point gradually goes up, from a low in our 40s to a high sometime in our 60s or 70s. In other words, most people get happier as they get older.

     In addition, retirement gives us a happiness bonus. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, retirement by itself 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 own lives.

     That's what the experts say. Then I got thinking about it. Personally, I admit that I have a lot of nostalgia for the 1990s, when I was doing well at work (before the you-know-what hit the fan in the 2000 - 2002 recession), when my kids were growing up and we lived in a big house and we had lots of like-minded friends and my parents were still alive and I was still relatively young and active.

     But there were a lot of pressures. I was worried about money (I had two kids who wanted to go to college ... imagine that!). I was worried about my job; I was working 50 - 60 hours a week; my marriage was showing strains (and we ultimately got divorced).

     So am I happier now . . . now that I'm well into my 60s? Are you?

     Let's look at some specifics.

     Well, I try not to worry about money. This is easier said than done. But with Social Security, Medicare and an IRA, I have a basic and secure level of income. Also, I have no prospects for more income; so I'm relieved of that nagging feeling called ambition.

     Studies have shown after a certain  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 more is what we focus on. I think by now we all know there is no reason to envy those who have more than we do, for they are not necessarily happier. Instead, we can relax and focus on the blessings we enjoy in our own lives -- family, friends and the activities we choose to spend our time on.

     Most of us, I think, are now using our money to purchase experiences, not possessions. (In fact, a lot of us are trying to get rid of possessions!) Or as B says, we want to use what money we have to create positive and lasting memories for our friends, our children and ourselves. So we're not taking out a big loan to buy a fancy car that will impress the neighbors. We're over that. Instead, we go visit our kids, and our new grandchild. We get together with our siblings (Easter at B's sister's house this year) or we invite friends over for dinner or meet them for a show.

     In other words, I think we all make more time for family and friends. So maybe there's a theme developing here, one that provides the key to unlocking the secret to happiness in retirement. We all know that shared experiences bring more happiness than those experienced alone. Why else do people go on Facebook or Instagram? Or write a blog?

     Think of the last time you were 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.

     Retirement also gives us the time to take care of ourselves. When we're young it's easy to think we'll live forever, that nothing will hurt us. How many of us smoked back in the 1960s and '70s? How many were chained to a desk all day, all week, and then too tired and stressed-out to get to the gym?

     We now know that good health is a key to happiness and most of us, I think, are focusing on eating right, getting some exercise, and avoiding too much stress. With no boss, no kids to worry about, we can finally put ourselves first, to look and feel our best. I've even read about surveys showing that cosmetic surgery can make us happier. Why? Because nothing makes us feel better than knowing we look our best.

     We can finally do what we want. It doesn't matter whether we're perfecting our golf game, babysitting grandchildren, doing arts and crafts or hiking the Appalachian Trail. The important element for happiness is that we are involved in something that engages our interest, that gives us a sense of purpose to our lives, that gets us out of bed in the morning. Not stumbling out of bed at 7 a.m. to shower and rush to work. But jump out of bed ready to meet the day.

     It seems the happiest people view retirement not as an endless vacation, but as a chance to pursue new opportunities and take on new challenges. So I guess the lesson for all of us is, don't be afraid to say no to people who even with the best of intentions try to steal our time for their own purposes. Instead, we need to focus on the people who are important to us, and the activities that we believe are worth our time and energy.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

     I read recently on the Forbes website that 15 percent of Baby Boomers are millionaires. Can that possibly be true?

     But then, a million dollars isn't what it used to be. According to a 2016 report from the Federal Reserve, it takes a little more than $10 million to be in the top 1 percent. So $1 million might make you "comfortable" but it doesn't make you "rich."

     After all, if you own an average-type house and have been making your mortgage payments for 30 years, you probably now own it outright. And it's likely worth close to half a million right there. Add to that your IRAs, or 401Ks, maybe a second home, a boat, whatever, and, yeah, I guess I can see that 15 percent of us are millionaires.

     Plus, if you count the real value most of us have in Social Security and some of us have in pensions (for example, if you have a $20,000 a year pension, at a 4 percent withdrawal rate, that could be considered the equivalent of owning a half-million-dollar asset) then a lot more of us are millionaires . . . at least, of a certain kind.

     That's not to say probably at least 15 percent of us don't make $1,500 a month in Social Security, don't have a 401K plan and don't have a pension either . . . but that's a subject for another post.

     So anyway, despite all the reports of a slow-growth economy, the lack of wage gains, the greed of the 1 percenters, and the woe-is-me articles you see in the media . . . sometimes, we're better off than we think.

     With that in mind, I saw this piece from my friend Jeremy Kisner of Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix, Ariz., who also produces a helpful website focused on "planning great retirements." He refers to a book first published in 1996, but the concepts and principles are no less true today than they were back then. And if you don't think so, I checked: the figures Kisner uses are current numbers.

     So, for some perspective . . .

     One piece of advice that has served me well, and I often repeat is: "When what you see and what you hear are in conflict, believe what you see." However, one area where that advice does not hold up is in judging how wealthy people are. We often see people who appear wealthy but are not, and visa versa.

     The book that really demonstrated this, with research, statistics and stories, is The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko. The book's major argument is that the vast majority of millionaires do not look or act like we would expect based on popular culture.

     Most Americans would define "wealthy" the same way as Webster's dictionary: "People who have an abundance of material possessions." It is hard to believe that most millionaires do not have fancy watches, sports cars or extravagant homes. In a word, they are frugal, living on an average of 7 percent of their net worth. In other words, a household that has a net worth of $1 million, on average only spends $70,000 per year.

     "These people cannot be millionaires! They don't look like millionaires, they don't dress like millionaires, they don't eat like millionaires, they don't act like millionaires -- they don't have millionaire names. Where are the millionaires who look like millionaires?"

     The person who said this was the trust officer of a bank who was hosting a dinner for ten first-generation millionaires. The trust officer had an expensive suit, an expensive watch and a nice car. He was not a millionaire, but he thought he was looking the part. Naturally, he was surprised when the bank's wealthy clients did not look the part.

     Here are some other interesting facts and figures about millionaires:

     About 5 percent of Americans are millionaires (1 in 20). Most of them -- about 95 percent -- have between $1 million and $5 million.

     More millionaires identify as Democrat (58 percent) than Republican (38 percent).

     Many do not drive luxury cars. Ford is the second most popular car behind Mercedes, but ahead of BMW. In addition, cars are typically not the current model year and are rarely leased.

     94 percent are married.
     83 percent attended public schools, and 80 percent have college degrees.

     97 percent are homeowners and have on average lived in the same home for over 20 years.

     80 percent are self-made, first-generation rich. Less than 20 percent inherited significant money (at least 10 percent of their wealth).

     Most millionaires who own their own companies are in dull, low-tech businesses such as construction trades, farming, mobile-home parks, pest control, retail stores. Professionals with advanced degrees, like doctors, dentists, lawyers and accountants, are also well-represented among this group of everyday millionaires.

     On average, they save and invest 20 percent of their realized household income.

     I find the truth about the "millionaire next door" much more motivating and inspiring than the myth. The myth is that wealthy Americans inherited their money or had a large windfall (e.g. stock options). The fact is America is still the land of opportunity where poor people can -- and do -- go from nothing to significant wealth. Many hard-working Americans create life-changing opportunities for themselves, their children and grandchildren through hard work, and systematic saving and investing. We celebrate it, write movies about it, and our libraries are full of books about it.

     So if you are the millionaire next door, I applaud you! And even if you're not, let's be friends. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Potpourri of Blogs

     I remember when I met my first wife, her job was to write and edit her company newsletter. It was a non-glossy 8-to-12 page monthly called Potpourri.

     "Why Potpourri?" I asked her.

     "Well, it's a mixture of things," she explained. "A little bit of this, a little bit of that. A gathering of news and various items from around the company."

     At first I thought the name was pretty lame. Just a placeholder, really, because they couldn't think of anything better. But as I considered the name over time, I realized it was pretty good. Better than Miscellany, or Gatherings, or Tidbits. Besides, potpourri smells good!

     So . . . take a whiff of this potpourri of blogging topics from our company of baby boomers.

     Six Decades and Counting -- Meryl Baer says one of the benefits of retirement is the time to try new things. So prodded by a friend of hers, she attended a class inspired by the New Age spiritual/consciousness-raising movement. In Energizing Spiritually? she reports on her somewhat successful experience.

Carter's before ...
     Unfold and Begin -- Jennifer Koshack just realized that time has sneaked up on her, and so even before she realized it, she found that she's celebrating an unusual anniversary. A year has gone by since the closing of the call center where she had worked for the last 25 years. This week she shares a throwback post called Endings Are a Time for New Beginnings -- which may just inspire you to follow your passion.

     Adventures of the New Old Farts -- Laura Lee Carter is running a selection from her book Memoir of Retirement: From Suburban to Solar in Rural Colorado. The piece, Remodeling and Menopause, reminds us that small changes in our 40s can lead to major life transitions later on.

and after. A metaphor?
     The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide -- Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, reports on U. S. Cities Where Consumers Have the Highest, and the Lowest, Credit Scores. In case you don't know, a credit score is a number that predicts the risk that a person will become delinquent on their credit obligations over the following 24 months. Hint: the highest scoring city is in Florida (but not where you'd expect), and the lowest is in New Jersey (exactly where you'd expect).

     A Healing Spirit -- Carol Cassara reminds us in Stubbornness Is an Obstacle to Healing that so many of us hold on to "that's the way I am" even when it no longer serves our own well-being. She addresses how stubbornness can keep folks from trying different treatments, and in some cases actually hinder healing.

     BabyBoomster -- Rebecca Olkowski points out that March is Women's History month. She met with a group of women in Sherman Oaks, CA, and in Entrepreneurs Celebrate Women's History Month reports on their discussions about what makes a good leader in business. She also found out that more women than men are opening new businesses, which "may be a result of women having better organizational skills than men, an eye for detail, and more compassion."

     SmartLiving 365 -- Kathy Gottberg is traveling this week, so she enlisted Haralee Weintraub as a guest blogger. Weintraub offers some practical advice in 10 Suggestions to Rightsize Your Wardrobe -- including a couple of links to online second-hand sites.

     Sizzling Toward Sixty & Beyond -- Sue Loncaric has taken up the Blogging From A to Z Challenge. (She did it last year as well.) This involves publishing a post for 26 days based on a particular theme, and working through them from A to Z. This week she reveals her theme, which you can find out at her A to Z Guide to . . . Wait a second, I'm not going to spoil it -- you'll have to click over there yourself to find out!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Few Reminders About Your Health

     It's amazing how fast the calendar pages flip over, especially when you're talking about a certain physical test, one that shall remain unnamed, which everyone is supposed to endure periodically after age 50. The doctor found a polyp in me on the first go 'round. So I have to go every five years. But B, because of her preternatural good health, had a ten year reprieve after her last test. Still, the calendar rolls around, and so it's time for both B and me to undergo this particular humiliation.

     She got hers last week. This time they did, in fact, find a non-cancerous polyp. No worries, the doctor said. Except, much to B's dismay, she now has to go back in five years, not ten.

     I have my test coming up in June. It takes three months to schedule one of these things, because there are a lot of older people around and they all seem to be lining up for this procedure.

     All of this got us thinking about taking care of our health, trying to do the things that not only will allow us to live longer, but also to feel better, be more energetic, more able to do the things we want to do.

     So here are some reminders. Maybe you have a few more?

     1. Get Screened.  Well, we just talked about one type of screening, for colorectal cancer. Presumably, we all get an annual checkup which monitors our blood pressure, cholesterol and a series of other life signs. Many of us, by this stage of our lives, have our own personal problems. I get an annual skin screening because I've had several skin moles removed over the years -- a result, I'm told, of a misspent youth with too much time at the beach. Do you get a mammogram? B hates them; but she does get one occasionally, though not as often as she probably should.

     2. Get Vaccinated.  Flu and pneumonia comprise the seventh leading cause of death among older Americans. We should probably all get the pneumonia vaccine at least once, and the flu vaccine every year in the fall. This year the flu season was bad. Both B and I got shots, even though we knew they were not all that effective. But neither one of us fell to the flu this winter. That's something.

     3. Get some exercise.  Everyone – not just seniors -- should participate in both moderate-intensity aerobic activities as well as muscle-strengthening exercise on a regular basis. B is better at this than I am. She takes the dog for a long walk almost every morning. In fact, right now while I'm sitting on my butt, she's running around the dog park. I do my knee exercises pretty regularly, and I play golf when I can, and I do some walking too, but not as conscientiously as B does.

     4. Eat fruits and vegetables daily. According to the Center for Disease Control, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is linked to reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The recommended "dose" for people over age 65? Five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day. That seems like a lot of food! But I have fruit every day for breakfast (plus orange juice) and B serves a vegetable (or two) every night for dinner.

     5.  Don't smoke. A no-brainer. But I admit I smoked when I was younger, and even kept up the filthy habit in the form of cigar smoking at our monthly poker game, well into middle age. 

     6. Watch your blood pressure. I used to have low blood pressure. It's gone up a little bit in the past few years. Meanwhile, the CDC says that over 60 million Americas have high blood pressure, and almost half of them do not have it under control. I guess it's not for nothing they call it the Silent Killer.

     7. Get plenty of sleep. I've read that a good night's sleep helps lower blood pressure, and also bolsters your immune system, making your body better able to fight off infection. I found one study that showed people sleeping less than six hours a night have an increased risk for stroke, and a higher risk of cancer. Of course, sleeping well is easier said than done. My go-to technique is reading a book in bed at night. Puts me out every time.

     8. Maintain an active social life. It seems intuitively obvious that people who enjoy a close family life, and/or plenty of friends, feel better, enjoy better health and live longer than people who are lonely and depressed. Being engaged in a community gives people a sense of connection and security -- a reason to get up in the morning and go out and do things. But my theory? I think friends and family help promote healthy behavior such as exercising, eating well, and avoiding self-destructive habits like taking drugs or drinking too much. After all, B is the one who makes me eat my spinach and broccoli. And she's the one I go dancing with. But . . . 

     We went dancing last night. A friend of ours brought a cooler along. He opened it up, and had a McDonald's Shamrock Shake for everyone. So much for friends helping you stay healthy. Anyway, happy St. Patrick's Day. It's only once a year.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Life Is Uncertain

     I read, on average, one book a week. I keep a journal of my books, because otherwise I wouldn't remember them. I consider myself a reader, although I know others who read more than I do. I plowed through Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, at a little more than 500 pages; but there's no way I'm picking up Grant by Ron Chernow. It's over 1000 pages!

     I have a friend who reads, literally, a book a day. He's a fast reader, and I always think he must be skimming; but I find that he often remembers more about a book than I do.

     B, a retired librarian, usually has two or three books going at once. She has an upstairs book and a downstairs book. And very often she's got something else going as well. We both like mysteries, but otherwise we don't read a lot of the same books, just as we don't watch a lot of the same TV programs. (She's currently binge watching Grace & Frankie, a show I tried once but didn't like.) She reads a lot of chick lit and a lot of book-club-type books. I read mysteries and some history and a few biographies.

     Are you a reader? I know not everyone is, which is why I generally don't recommend books on this blog. A lot of people don't care. But I have to point you in the direction of one book I just finished. B read it two years ago when it first came out. It's called When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, a surgeon at Stanford Medical School.

     Here's how the story begins:

     “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

     He goes on to describe how he lost weight and suffered from back pain, attributing his symptoms to a punishing schedule at the hospital. But he finally gets an X ray, on his way to visit friends in New York. “I'd hoped a few days out of the OR, with adequate sleep, rest and relaxation – in short a taste of normal life – would bring my symptoms back into normal range. But after a day or two it was clear there would be no reprieve.” He goes home early; sees the blurry X-ray, and lies down next to his wife. “I need you,” he says.

     The author then recounts how he got to where he was – growing up in Arizona the son of Indian immigrants, studying English literature at Stanford trying to divine the meaning of life; then after a post-graduate year in England, opting for Yale Medical School, then back to Stanford for his residency. He describes his first experiences cutting up a cadaver; the first death of a patient; his decision to go into neurosurgery where the mind meets the brain, where life meets death, where the meaning of life is never more critical.

     He undergoes one therapy which puts him in remission, and he goes back to work. But again the pain, the exhaustion. The cancer reappears. Before he undergoes chemotherapy he freezes sperm, because the chemo can damage the genes . . . and his wife gets pregnant.

     There's more to the story. So if you want to be inspired by someone's courage and honesty in the face of a life-changing disease, pick up a copy of the book on amazon, or at your library. It's only 230 pages, so you can share his "beautiful mind," even if you're not a big reader.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Best Laid Plans

     We had it all figured out. We were retiring from our high-tax state to a lower-tax state (Pennsylvania is not that low, but it's lower than New York). But we were still staying relatively near our old home and our old friends. Still staying in the Northeast, where we wanted to live.

     But we were also going to a slightly milder climate. Not much; but some. The average daily high temperature in March in our old town is 48 degrees, the average low 29 degrees. In our new town in Pennsylvania, the average high in March is 51 degrees, with an average low of 31. It's just enough so summer and fall last a week or two longer, and spring comes a week or two earlier.

     And then, the plan was, we would go away for at least part of the winter. This year I left in mid-January, after one fairly major snowstorm which found me helping to shovel my neighbor's driveway so it wouldn't get flooded when the next storm arrived, a storm that was predicted to bring rain. So by then I'd seen my one picture-perfect snowstorm. That was enough.

     I left on January 14. Then, come the end of February, B and I started making plans to go back home. We heard about the big storm, Riley, that was wreaking havoc in the Northeast last Friday and Saturday. No problem. We were planning to leave Friday and get home Saturday. Instead, we delayed for a day and let the last of winter blow itself off without us. You see, just as we planned.

     We watched as we drove north, seeing signs of spring all through North Carolina, Virginia, and even into Maryland. They'd petered out by the time we got to Delaware, and they were gone by the time we arrived home.

View this morning from our front door
     There were plenty of tree limbs down from the storm, and we heard that much of the town had lost electricity for somewhere between 24 and 48 hours. But we woke up Monday morning and the sun was shining. We even saw a few daffodils poking up in the side garden. It was warm, and we knew spring was right behind us, and would follow us up north in no time. We'd timed it perfectly.

     Or so we thought.

     And then comes Quinn. We woke up this morning to three or four inches of snow on the ground, and more to come. The driveways and walkways are covered. The street is a slushy mess. More tree limbs litter the yard, torn down by the wind and the heavy, wet snow. It looks like the middle of winter here today. Our only consolation: Here we're expected to get 6 - 9 inches of snow. Back in our old hometown in New York they're predicting 12 - 16 inches.

     And so I reflect back on my college days as an English major, summoning up Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind . . .  "Oh Wind/ If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"

Saturday, March 3, 2018

How to Lose Weight ... Guaranteed!

     I read recently that the latest studies have cast doubt on the benefits of the low-carb diet. A group of people consuming a high-protein, low-carb diet lost no more weight than the control group consuming a normal diet.

     This doesn't surprise me. I've been around long enough to see the Atkins Diet, the Gluten Free diet, the South Beach diet, the Mediterranean diet, the Paleo diet, and a hundred others come and go. But . . . my diet works, guaranteed. It's called the Do-Everything-But-Eat-It diet. You just follow these principles . . . and don't worry about what anyone else thinks.

     Honest spillage. So the way I got the idea for this diet is by looking down at my shirt and pants the other evening during dinner. I thought I dropped some spaghetti sauce off my fork. Oops, there it is on my sleeve! Next to a bit of egg that somehow found its way there at breakfast. And low and behold, there was some other unidentified stain on my pants . . . maybe from the French fries last night. The dietary lesson? If you spill, drop or otherwise lose 5 to 10 percent of your meal, you have not made a mess. You have cut your calorie intake by 5 to 10 percent!

     A corollary of this technique is to be more discriminating when it comes to leftovers. I swear, B (who, by the way, is thinner than I am, but how she does it I'll never know) will eat a plate of food that's been moldering in the refrigerator for a full week. And she eats leftover pizza. Leftover pizza! Yuck!  Just . . . don't . . .  go . . . there.

     Serious competition. I grew up as the youngest in a family of four kids. I had some serious competition for the mashed potatoes, not so much for the cauliflower. So I developed a taste for the vegetables that nobody else wanted.

     Later on, I would watch people with kids eating in a restaurant. The kids would order a meal, eat about half of it -- and then the dad got the rest. This seemed like a good deal . . . for the dad. So I talked to my wife, and we agreed to have kids. The result? Sure, I gained a little weight. But my kids never got fat.

     However, now the shoe is on the other foot. B and I go out to dinner. Do you want any dessert? asks the waiter. Yeah, I'll have that caramel sundae, says I. Oh, nothing for me, B demurs, just an extra spoon. Well, you can see where this is going. I order dessert, B eats the lion's share of it. And I retain my thin, youthful appearance.

     Inedible meals. The other night B and I went to a fancy restaurant in Charleston. It's been on TV. Cost way too much money. I figured I ought to be a little adventuresome so I ordered the quail, with collard greens and a side of lettuce wrapped pig's ears. I felt very sophisticated. However, the meal was absolutely inedible. The dinner maxed out my credit card. But I consumed less than a hundred calories that evening.

     Similarly, B has a couple of favorite dishes she likes to cook. The other night she fried up some sausage (okay so far), but then in another pan she made broccoli rabe, which is like spinach, only worse. Then she throws it all together with little curly pasta that's impossible to fork up from the plate. So the stuff tastes awful, but even if you did want to eat it, you can't possibly transport it from the plate to your mouth.

     But B likes it. I don't know why. She scarfs down the whole thing; looks at me and smiles. I know you don't like this dinner, she says, so thanks for indulging me. Sure, I went to bed hungry. But who cares if you're hungry when you're asleep?

     The lesson: As long as you're served food that you don't like, you'll never get fat!

     Play with your food. To give credit where credit's due, I got this technique from my daughter. Back when she was a teenager, and becoming a vegetarian (a religion she later gave up), she would lift her chicken breast off the plate, let it hang there dripping over the table, and then start waving it around, complaining in a pained and exasperated voice: How can you ask me to eat dead animals? That's so gross!

     Of course, this kind of behavior, expected from a teenager, is not really acceptable for a grown man. So I use another technique, also inspired by my kids. When they were young, they could never sit still through an entire meal. It was up to me to entertain them -- push away from the table, walk them around, find something else for them to do for a little while.

     So now, many years later, I find that I, myself, can no longer sit through an entire meal either. To this day, halfway through a meal, I find myself getting up from the table and taking a little walk around the house. I come back. The table is cleared. Hey, I wasn't finished with my supper! But it's too late. The dishes are cleared. Oh well, I realize, I wasn't hungry anymore, anyway.

     One last hint, under the heading of play with your food. Order lobster, or mussels, or artichokes. You actually use up more calories fighting for the food than you take in by eating it.