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

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Secret to Retirement

     You may know Ernie Zelinski as the author of the bestselling retirement book How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free. The other day he sent me a copy of his new book, The Joy of Being Retired, and since I had just written my previous post "What Do We Love About Retirement?" I was interested to find out what he had to say on the issue of happiness in retirement.

     So I cracked open the 212-page book, which consists of 365 reasons why "retirement rocks," plus 50 bonus reasons. This is not a book you read cover to cover. It's a book you dip into occasionally to get a jolt of inspiration, a reminder of how we are lucky to be retired.

     His reasons why retirement rocks range from . . .

     The simple -- Reason # 4: You get to appreciate one of life's great pleasures -- lots of time on your hands -- and follow the good advice that comes from the menu in a Canadian restaurant: "If you're not served in 5 minutes, you'll be served in 8 or 9, or maybe 12 . . . Relax!"

     To the silly -- Reason # 247: When you retire you finally get to switch to a new boss -- from the one who hired you to the one who married you.

     To the serious -- Reason # 69: Retirement is the time you truly realize that happiness is not based on possessions, power and prestige -- but on relationships with people you love and respect.

     Zelinski is a Canadian who "retired" in 1980 at the age of 31 when he was fired from his engineering job at a power company . . . for taking too much vacation. "I wanted to take some extra vacation," he told me. "The company said no, and I took it anyway. So they fired me. It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

     He didn't retire, exactly, but he was through with the corporate world. He took an extended vacation, then went back to school (surviving on student loans), and spent time teaching at a vocational school.

     He took on some speaking engagements, and he knew he had some practical advice books he wanted to write. The first one, The Joy of Not Working, focused on creativity. He sent his manuscript off to a number of publishers, only to get back a series of rejection slips. So he self-published the book. It came out in 1991 during an economic recession, when everyone was writing books about how to keep your job or get a new job. "And guess which book got all the attention?" he said.

     From there he went on to write How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free, which has sold almost 400,000 copies. At last count he has published 17 books in all. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he works part time as a life coach, professional speaker and "unconventional career expert." His mission, he writes, is to "help individuals create a better work/life balance in their lives and to help them pursue their dreams."

     His whole approach to life left me with some questions, which is why I wanted to talk with him. His "reasons why retirement rocks" offer plenty of ways for retirees to stay busy with gardening, reading, going to classes, volunteering. But I know many retirees are busy, but don't feel that they have a real purpose in life. I wanted his insights into how people organize their activities into a purposeful life.

     He agreed that people need a purpose, but he says it can be as simple as just enjoying our leisure time or taking care of our health or cultivating our relationships with family and friends. He told me about a friend of his who retired from an engineering company in Delaware. The friend moved to Phoenix, and now he loves just being retired. He plays a lot of pickleball and organizes tournaments and enjoys his leisure time and making new friends. He's energized and excited enough about his new life that he gets up at 4:30 in the morning, because he can't wait to greet the day. The man doesn't need any extra purpose than that.

     But Zelinski will readily admit that finding a purpose in retirement depends on what people want, and is really up to the individual. Zelinski says that he will continue to write books, and hopes to get to 25 before he's done.

     He has also created an award for creativity at the University of Alberta School of Engineering and another at the University of Alberta School of Business. The awards are not given for scholarship, but for quirky brilliance in either coursework or extracurricular activities. He feels this is a way for him to make a difference, while still enjoying the freedom of retirement -- the freedom to wake up when he wants, go to bed when he wants, and in the interval work and play at the things he wants to work and play at, all at his own pace.

     I had to ask him: What is the secret of retirement? He talked about the freedom to do what you want, the freedom from having a boss and being a slave to the clock. He talked about the importance of friends and community. But he also said it's important to relax, and just be in the moment. Or as he says: Being in joy of yourself.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

What Do We Love About Retirement?

     We look forward to retirement all our lives. Then we get here -- and what do we do? Do we go broke because we no longer receive a paycheck? Do we get bored because we have nowhere to go every day? Do we lose our friends? Never see the kids?

     Not us. B and I got involved in a group called the Center for Learning in Retirement, sponsored by our local university, with courses taught by volunteers. So at the center B and I volunteer to host Great Decisions in Foreign Policy, the popular, nationwide course produced by the Foreign Policy Association.

     We don't get paid for volunteering. But we have met a few friends, and we do get a lot of positive feedback and stroking of our egos. Plus, we're learning a few things about the international situation.

     We both are also taking separate courses. I go to a class on the Constitution, while B is doing one on self-discovery. I have a friend in my class who is taking five courses. "If I'm not here," he confided to me, "I'd just be at home, probably reading a book. When the weather gets warmer, I'll be out in the garden. But there really isn't too much for me to do."

     I think this friend is facing some boredom issues in retirement, and perhaps some loneliness as well. He is married. But aside from that he doesn't seem to have much interaction with people.

One retirement activity we do NOT do
     I sometimes get bored myself, especially in the winter. But things will pick up in a couple of weeks when my golf group starts a new season. Yes, I'm a cliche: a retiree who plays golf.

     I joined a league consisting mostly of retired teachers. I was invited into the group by a man named Bruce from B's church. Bruce a very nice guy who also invited me to meet up with him in Florida in January to play a round of golf. He's a retired social studies teacher and high-school football coach, and he's a popular guy in the golf league.

     That doesn't mean he gets away without a lot of harassment from his friends. You know, in general, guys tend to express affection by insulting one another and making bad jokes. When Bruce introduced me to the group, last fall, he announced to everyone on the first tee. "Hey, I want you to meet my friend Tom. He's new to the group."

     A couple of guys called out, "Welcome," and "Hi." But one guy laughed and said, "Well, what do you know ... Bruce has a friend!" A chorus of laughter followed.

     I've also joined a table tennis club that meets on Monday nights. Meanwhile, B has become active in her church, and goes walking with some friends and meets some of them for lunch at least once a week.

     As a retired couple, we go out to dinner more often than we used to. We go to our local movie theater more often. We occasionally go dancing. And of course we travel more ... although I believe we'd be considered homebodies by some bloggers who seem to head off to Europe, Africa or South America at the drop of a hat.

     So what do you do, as a retiree, that's different from when you were working and raising a family? What do you love about retirement?

     We're just starting to appreciate the joys of being grandparents. B and I have four kids between us, but only two grandchildren so far. We're hoping for more.

     Meanwhile, I love not having to keep to a work schedule, and being free to go wherever we want, whenever we want. Just last weekend B and I made a spur-of-the-moment trip to New York to see my son. We stayed one night (at a discounted AARP rate), had dinner at a fancy restaurant, went out to Brooklyn to see my son's new apartment. And at the senior rate, the 80-minute train trip up to New York only cost us $7.25 a piece.

     Last week we applied for our senior SEPTA card (the Philadelphia train, subway and bus system called Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority). We'll be able to ride for free. So now we're planning a day trip to see a concert at the Kimmel Center.

     But the best thing about retirement is that my stress levels have gone way down, as a weight has lifted off my shoulders since I quit the rat race. I no longer have to compete with colleagues at work, pushing for a raise, angling for a promotion. I no longer care whether I get a bigger office or a better title. I appreciate the freedom from the pressure to get ahead, pay the mortgage and bills, get the kids into college, keep up with the neighbors. I don't have to please my parents; no longer bear the responsibility for my kids.
     I admit, B and I sometimes face issues in retirement. We watch our spending, since we're on a fixed income. There are the physical problems like aching joints and hearing and vision issues, and the doctor visits. And sometimes both B and I wonder what the point of it all is. Yeah, we're having fun. But what's our purpose in life? How do we redefine ourselves?

     But for the most part, at least so far, retirement has been a great journey for us. I hope it has been for you too.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Too Old to Be President?

     I admit to some age bias, at least when it comes to politicians. And in my defense, I'm not the only one. The American Constitution is written with an age bias. It says that someone has to be at least 35 years old to assume the office of the presidency or vice presidency.

     In my mind, you shouldn't be president if you're older than I am . . . and I know this because while I hate to say it, I realize that my friends and I at our age are simply no longer at the height of our powers. And even if we are still relatively energetic and competent now (with the help of Lipitor, Coumadin or who knows what else), what about in four or eight years?

     Most of us retire when we're 62 or 65 or 67. So doesn't it make sense that politicians in their 70s should be looking to retire, not looking for a new job? I don't think we should be electing anyone president who was born much before 1950 -- they're simply too old.

     On the other hand, if anyone was born after I graduated from college . . . oh, come on, how can they possibly be experienced enough, and seasoned enough, to take on the responsibilities of leading our country in these turbulent times? So for anyone born much after 1970, I'd say, go get some more experience, then come back and try in four or eight years.

     In other words, in my opinion the ideal candidate would be a younger baby boomer, or else perhaps an older post-boomer. (So far we've had four baby boomer presidents, with I admit mixed results). But whether you agree with me or not, as the presidential season gets underway I thought it might be fun to see who among our prominent politicians, and people running for president, is a baby boomer, and who is not. No comment on anyone's political leanings or personal qualifications.

     Baby Boomers
     Politician     State    Year born

     Bill Clinton (NY)   1946       
     George W. Bush (TX)  1946 
     Donald Trump (NY)  1946     
     Hillary Clinton (NY)  1947   
     Mitt Romney (NV)  1947       
     Elizabeth Warren (MA)  1949 
     Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY)  1950
     Gov. Jay Inslee (WA)   1951     
     John Hickenlooper (CO)  1952   
     John Kasich  (OH)   1952         
     Howard Schultz  (WA)  1953   
     Oprah Winfrey (IL)  1954       
     Mike Pence (IN)   1959           
     Sen. Amy Klobucher (MN)  1960
     Barack Obama  (IL)  1961     
     Michelle Obama (IL)  1964   
     Sen. Kamela Harris  (CA)  1964 

     Not a Baby Boomer
     Politician     State    Year born

     Too old . . .
     Nancy Pelosi  (CA)  1940   
     Bernie Sanders (VT)  1941 
     Joe Biden  (PA)   1942       
     Sen. Mitch McConnell  (KY)  1942
     Mike Bloomberg (NY)   1942

     Too young to be a boomer . . .
     Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (NY)  1966
     Sen. Cory Booker  (NJ)  1969 
     Sen. Marco Rubio  (FL)  1971 
     Nikki Haley   (SC)   1972 
     Beto O'Rourke  (TX)   1972
     Julian Castro (TX)   1974
     Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI)  1981
     Mayor Pete Buttigieg (IN)  1982

     As a follow-on to this thought, I read recently that some Democratic presidential candidates, including Cory Booker, want to set term limits or age limits for Supreme Court justices. Do you agree with that? I could see how it might make sense, based on the reasoning above.

     Other candidates propose lowering the voting age to 16. This makes less sense to me, again, based on the reasoning above. Do you really think your grandchildren are mature enough to vote?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Can You Bear to Wait for Spring?

     March is a busy time of year. There's March 14, also known as pi day because the numerical value of pi is 3.14 etc. There's the Ides of March on March 15, the date that Julius Caesar was assassinated.

     Then of course, we celebrate St. Patrick's Day, whether we're Irish or not. And the first day of spring, when the sun crosses the equator from south to north, falls on March 20.

     My favorite March moment is the first day of spring (which this year happens to coincide with a full moon). We've waited for so long, and now the snow has finally melted. The birds have arrived, the daffodils have started to come out, and the trees have begun to bud. But I dunno. Do bears come out in the spring?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Dreams of a Second Home

     B and I have been going to the same barrier island outside of Charleston, SC, for three years now. We've rented several different places -- one on the beach, one in town, one by the river. We especially liked the townhouse we rented this year, so as we left I contacted the rental agency to see if we could book it for next year. They said they'd contact the owner and get back to us.

     We've been going for the month of February, which is out of season, so we got a pretty good rate this year. Then we heard back from the rental agency. The owner would be glad to sign us up for next year . . . at a 10% increase. Now, granted, we got a mid-winter rate this year, which was probably a 10% discount from the regular rate. But February will be out of season again next year, too.

     So we declined the 10% offer, thinking we'll take our chances come next winter. But it also got us thinking, once again: maybe instead of renting, we should buy a place. Why not? A lot of retirees, if they haven't moved to the Sunbelt full time, have a second home in the sun that they can use when they want, and rent out when they're not using it.

Vacation home ... what's it worth?
     Indeed, for a lot of people having a second home is part of the retirement dream. You can stay in your hometown with friends and family, but also have a small bungalow at the beach or a condo on a golf course. And then if you own a property you no longer have to spend countless hours rooting through the hotel sites or the home-share sites searching for a place you can afford that's available for the time you want to go.

     The problem is that you kind of tie yourself down to one place. If we owned a place in South Carolina, then we're probably going to South Carolina for vacation, whether we want to or not. Unless you have very deep pockets, it's hard to justify -- much less afford -- an alternate vacation to Europe, Mexico or anywhere else.

     But we're not big travelers, and we have no ambition to go on a cruise (trapped on a boat with nothing to do but eat ... yuck!), or buy an RV (driving a big lumbering rig and living in cramped quarters ... ugh!) or go on a tour to see the sites of Europe (and being herded around like a bunch of tourists? Not for us!). Besides, with two grandchildren in Charleston, chances are we will be going there on a regular basis. And we like the idea of owning our own place, feeling that we belong there rather than just dropping by as occasional visitors. Also, as an owner, we could invite family and friends to join us, or even let them use it by themselves when we're not there.

     But one problem, for us, is that we'd still be responsible if something goes wrong, even when we're not there. Just like owning your own home, we'd be the ones who'd have to step up when a window gets broken, the roof springs a leak or the refrigerator gives up the ghost. Also, we may be held liable if someone gets hurt falling down the stairs or slipping in the shower.

     Even so, we might still be able to make some money renting out a second home. In February I played golf with a doctor from Chicago. He told me he'd bought a house on the beach about three years ago. According to him, he rents it out for ten weeks in the summer and that pays for the whole thing. Anything more than that is a profit. And meanwhile, he can use it when he wants; and his son who lives in Washington, DC, usually takes his family there once or twice a year ... for free.

     Some people rent out their place by themselves. All you need is an account on airbnb or homeaway. We probably wouldn't do that. We know the people at the real-estate company on the island. They offer a rental program that, yes, would cut into any profit we might make, but would also relieve us of a lot of the responsibility for renting and maintaining the place. One thing we know. We do not want to purchase a second home ... and find out that all we've done is buy ourselves a new job.

     Another plus is that you can decorate your vacation home the way you want it and keep it nice. You can also leave your stuff there, and spare yourself the trouble of jamming your car full of sports equipment, beach chairs and other paraphernalia every time you go on vacation. And we would never have to pay airline fees for extra baggage if we decided to fly instead.

     As you've probably figured out by now, B and I are going through the pros and cons of owning a second place versus renting. It's a complex decision that requires careful thought. So maybe B and I should sit down and decide, realistically, how often we would use it, and for how long. If we're going to use it for two weeks, it might be better to keep renting. If we're going to end up going there for two months a year, it would likely be cheaper and more comfortable to have our own place.

     It would certainly be more convenient if our island paradise was closer to home. As it is, it's either a two-day drive, or else one very long, grueling day. If something goes wrong that would require our presence, it would be a major inconvenience. Maybe our son would want to help take care of it. But he's got a job; he's going to school; and he's got two kids. The last thing he needs is another responsibility loaded on his back.

     It would also be hard to keep up on the local happenings that might affect our property. Is a big tax increase on the horizon? A road construction? A flood management system? And B worries about global warming. If we buy a vacation unit that's five feet above sea level, how long before it's five feet under sea level?

     As you can see, we have a lot of thinking to do. The bottom line for us, for anyone, is: How much are you willing to pay in order to get that free vacation?

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Are Baby Boomers Just Lucky?

     I like to think that as we age we baby boomers are leaving the world a better place, at least compared to the way we found it half a century ago. The economy has grown; rights for women and minorities have expanded, new technology has brought many benefits, consciousness has been raised for all kinds of issues including peace, love and global warming.

     But then I occasionally get a comment on my blog -- maybe you get them too? -- excoriating me for being a smug, self-satisfied baby boomer. A recent one charged: "You baby boomers are literally the most evil generation ever to exist. You destroyed your own children's future, destroyed the economy, and then you sit back and smugly laugh about it." And then it went on to suggest that we baby boomers die off as fast as we can.

     The source of these kinds of comments is always anonymous, and usually angry, so it's easy to dismiss them as the rantings of some disaffected outcast. Still, I sometimes wonder, if I were in my 20s or 30s, what would I think of baby boomers?

     Would I believe that baby boomers are smug, self-satisfied people who just don't know how fortunate they are, enjoying a growing economy and good jobs for most of their lives, as well as lots of benefits like Social Security (which only started paying benefits in 1940) and Medicare (which only began in 1966), all at the expense of future generations?

     Meanwhile, according to the polls, some 60% of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction, while less than 40% say it's on the right track. And a solid plurality has lost faith in prominent public institutions, and believes that both major political parties are an impediment to real progress. Or perhaps another way to put the question: Are baby boomers just lucky enough to be living in peak America?

     I happened to catch an interview with Jeffrey Gundlach, ceo of the investment firm Doubleline. I'm sure some of what he says is self-serving, but he is also a smart, well-educated financial expert, so I wouldn't dismiss his views quite as quickly as those of an anonymous blog commenter. Gundlach asks us to look at how much we spend on old people as opposed to how much we spend on young people. According to him, the ratio is seven to one -- how much of the U. S. government budget goes to paying for things for people over 65 compared to paying for things for those under age 18. Is it fair, he asks, for old people to gobble up government resources and leave their children and grandchildren with table scraps?

     "And if you're investing in dying people," he adds, "and not investing in the future, you don't have a very great future." He claims that baby boomers have all the money and the millennials don't . . . "I mean, they can't afford a house, they have student loan debt. They're starting to believe that they kind of got screwed by the system."

     So have we screwed our children, leaving them with huge student loans and massive government deficits, unable to buy a house or afford to have children? Have we screwed our children by leaving them with a dirtier, warmer world as we continue to drive our SUVs at gas-guzzling speeds and crank up our air conditioners to keep ourselves from ever breaking a sweat?

     Gundlach also thinks there is no way we can fulfill our promises to future retired people. The unfunded amount of state retirement funds runs into trillions of dollars (according to Reuters, Illinois alone has an unfunded pension liability of $133.5 billion), and he says the toll to pay for that would cause economic chaos. So some of these people will not get paid. Not us baby boomers. We'll get paid. But our children and grandchildren. The funds will either go broke, or else they will have to scale back payments by limiting the amount of payouts or else taxing payouts to get the money back.

     He also seems to think the same thing about Social Security, which is already paying out more than it collects in taxes, and will deplete its trust fund in about 15 years. If nothing is done, Social Security will be forced to cut benefits by about 25% to match the money it brings in. So Gundlach predicts something will have to change -- that the retirement age will have to be lifted, and that some people will be cut out, presumably more affluent people who perhaps don't "need" the money but who paid in their entire working lives with the promise that they would collect benefits, but who in the end will never collect anything as their share will go to poorer people.

     We're all familiar with the ways to "save" Social Security. The problem is that we can't agree on what should be done, and the politicians won't touch the issue for fear of losing their jobs.

    I don't mean to get into the politics of this. But I wonder: Are we stealing from our children's future by sucking up all the government benefits and leaving them with nothing but a mountain of debt? Or can we can get out of this by taxing the wealthy and issuing more and more debt? And in the final analysis -- as a final Baby Boomer report card, if you will -- are we truly bequeathing to our children a better and more affluent world, one that is more equal, more peaceful, more comfortable, and more fair?

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Art of Self-Care

     Winter is drawing to a close, but is spring really in sight? It sounds to me as though people are worn out from the cold weather and lack of sunshine, and maybe even suffering from SAD. So this is the time of year when we need to turn to self-care . . . and maybe even self-preservation.

     As for me, just this morning I was appreciating the benefits of calidus hydrotherapy. Or, in English, a hot shower. If you're cold it warms you up. If you feel stiff it loosens you up. If you have sinus problems it clears you up. And if you're dirty and stinky, it cleans you up. In other words, calidus hydrotherapy cures almost everything.

     On a more more cerebral level, Kathy Gottberg of Smart Living 365 tells us she recently suffered a nasty cold. No sooner had she started to get better than she also started to beat herself up for lying around for over a week, and for her lack of productivity. "Rather than practice what I now understand to be self-compassion," she writes, "I jumped into criticizing myself for taking too many naps, watching too much television, and doing not one bit of exercise. I even berated myself for getting sick in the first place." But in Productivity, Worthiness and Thoughts on Self-Compassion she finds a way to let go of her critical self and accept that she doesn't have to "do" things to justify her inherent value and find self-compassion.

     In the same vein, Laura Lee Carter visits the issue of "cognitive reframing" this week. In How We Steal the Bright Side from Ourselves . . .  she recognizes that choosing a different perspective is not always what people do naturally, and she offers a way to turn negative interpretations of life into positive ones.

     Jennifer Kolsak wonders if you know how to say no. This week in Unfold and Begin she shares the importance of saying no when other people are trying to burden you with projects that really hold little interest. In Disappoint Others by Learning How to Say No she reminds us that the secret is to learn how to take the time to differentiate between the things you want to do and the things you really don't.

     Meanwhile, Carol Cassara points out that as we age the losses tend to mount up. Things we took for granted when we were young are now almost privileges. And of course, eventually we must all keep company with grief. We know that "stuffing" those feelings only prolongs them, but maybe we just can't talk about them. At A Healing Spirit she offers some suggestions on how to cope with loss in her post The Power of Expression in Times of Grief.

     Rita Robison, for her part, is focusing on more practical aspects of self-preservation. Every time a data breach occurs consumer groups recommend that people put a freeze on their accounts at the three credit bureaus so identity thieves and scammers can't open new credit cards or get illicit loans. Now in Consider Putting a Freeze on Your Credit Bureau Accounts Robison goes through the process herself and walks us through the steps of safeguarding our credit accounts.

     And finally, to circle back to Kathy Gottberg's issue about caring for yourself, without feeling the guilt, Meryl Baer talks about one of her favorite activities. She does this activity without self-criticism, self-recrimination or feeling any guilt. In fact, in Sleep Soundly Long and Often she veritably brags about her natural talents and abilities to accomplish this daily task.

     As she points out, her guilt-free approach to what I'll call somnus therapy has many health benefits . . . including, it seems, keeping a sense of humor about the vicissitudes of life as we slog through these last gasps of winter.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Mixed Feelings

     We're going home tomorrow, after spending a month and a half in the South with relatively warm weather and mostly sunny skies.

     On the one hand, it will be nice to get back to our regular life. Real life, as B says, not the vacation life of our time away. We'll see our friends. Go to a couple of doctor appointments. Get our hair cut at our regular places. B will get back to her church. We'll start classes at our local Center for Learning in Retirement.

This morning in SC
     On the other hand, we're headed into an abyss. There's a storm coming to the Northeast later this weekend. Depending on the track of the storm, it could be rain, it could be mixed precipitation, or it could bring six to eight inches of snow. Isn't it fun to travel when the weather threatens to upend your plans?

     Many Snowbirds stay in the Sunbelt a lot longer than we do. The typical trajectory seems to be: leave after New Year's, come home sometime between the end of March and the beginning of May. On the other end of the spectrum, we know one couple that lives in Florida from October to June. They come north for just a few summer months.

     B and I have considered buying a place in the Sunbelt, and spending more time here -- splitting our lives between the north and south. Right now, looking at the weather report, I'm certainly envious of my friends who are staying here another month or two.

Tomorrow in PA?
     But when all is said and done (and cost aside) we don't like the idea of dividing our lives in two. We like having one home; and then taking a vacation. That way we're centered, and we're around long enough in one place to take advantage of all the activities and opportunities that home has to offer. 

     If we stayed five or six months in one place, and five or six months in another, and then took a vacation or two when we were in neither place, would we really feel part of a community? We couldn't take our classes, wouldn't get to know our neighbors. Would we stay close to our friends? Who would be our primary care physician? And leaving a house or even a condo empty for all that time . . . I think we'd worry about it.

     Or, am I just trying to make myself feel better about returning to the cold and the bad weather? I can't believe that today I went to the beach. Tomorrow, I may be shoveling snow.