September 14, 2019

Is Retirement Really About The Little Things?

Being happy is an important part of living a satisfying retirement. Life is too short to be spent grumpy and out-of-sorts. If you have figured out what brightens your days and makes you smile you have taken important steps toward an enriching retirement lifestyle.

The fascinating thing about this subject is the list of happiness-producers is always unique to you. If you try to copy someone else's path to joy you will be disappointed. These triggers must be figured out by you. It is also quite true that things that make you the happiest aren't usually big things. Sure, winning a lottery will probably put a smile on your face (until you see the tax bill). Landing a major sale from your hobby-turned business or the birth of a grandchild are  good things.

But, what about the small stuff that can brighten any day? What are the little things that, when they happen, make you feel pleasure and contentment?  Are you missing moments of happiness because you are thinking too big? Maybe you need to shrink your focus. Discover some happiness triggers that you can lean into whenever you choose. From my life here a few examples to get you started:

Hot cocoa and a fire. Since I live in a place that is hot a good part of the year, when things turn cooler my wife and I get excited by the simple pleasure of a log crackling away in the fireplace and a cup of hot cocoa while we snuggle on the sofa to watch a favorite movie or read quietly side-by-side. We are happy and content when the wind blows (sort of) cold air from the North and the whipped cream in the cocoa sticks to our lips.

Sunshine on the patio. For almost 330 days a year, Phoenix enjoys sunny days. You might think the simple joy of sitting on the back patio in the sunshine would have worn thin by now. Not by a long shot. I can enjoy watching the birds at the feeder, listening to the fountain.  and watching the shadows move across the floor. Overcast days make me sad. I live where I do because sunshine makes me happy.

A giggling child. My grandkids have the greatest laugh. It is physically impossible to listen to one or both start to giggle and not smile and laugh right along with them. Their obvious joy is instantly transferred to me. 

A puppy. Is there a puppy alive that can't charm a smile out of even the grumpiest old man? Is there any way to not be happy around something that so blindly loves you and wants your love and attention? 

Yes, there is extra responsibility and those occasional messes to clean up. But, overall, aren't puppies happy-producers?

Fixing a problem with a computer. Though not an expert by any means, I do enjoy helping friends when something has gone wrong with their computer. After performing the necessary cleanup of software conflicts or deleting unneeded programs, I love seeing the smile of their faces when everything works the way it should. It takes very little of my time, but makes someone else's life just a bit easier and it makes me happy to help.

A mystery book you can't put down. Reading is one of the great pleasures in life. A well-written novel can take you anywhere whenever you want a getaway. I love mysteries for their ability to weave a complex set of clues through a few hundred pages, finally tying it all together at the end. I rarely figure it out early, but the challenge is there.

A thoughtful comment on this blog. Someone taking the time to leave a comment makes me happy. It shows I have written something that caused another person to take a few minutes to read and react. Seeing there is a new comment on one of these posts makes me smile.

I could have added bigger things to my list like a paid-off mortgage or next year's cruise to the South Pacific. Certainly a clean physical exam makes me happy. Those triggers are obvious.

Maybe not quite so obvious is to focus on the small stuff, the everyday parts of your life. If you can put just a few of your own happy points in your day, your life will feel blessed, content and delighted. And, that is a satisfying retirement.

September 10, 2019

How to Retire

That seems like an odd title, doesn't it? How to retire is simple: stop working. Well, no, that isn't quite the case. If over 1,000 satisfying retirement blog posts have taught me anything, it is that this is a complicated journey. It is unique to each of us. Sure, there are general guidelines and certain steps to take to improve your odds of retiring well. Even so, I am struck again and again by how each person approaches this process in a slightly different way.

Retiring cannot be reduced to a series of specific steps. Yet, How to Retire is one of the most Googled terms in the area of retirement information. It only lags a little behind retirement financial calculators and retirement pensions in the total number of hits. So, there is a real hunger for help, a desire to find some guidance. Not being one to shy away from a challenge, let me try to summarize in a way that anyone will find something to work with.

1. Why do you want to retire? You've had a bad week, or month at work. Your boss or customers are annoying. You are tired of the daily commute. None of these should be enough to make you decide to retire. Trust me: retirement carries the same bad days, the same annoyances, the same routine. That is what living includes.

To really want to retire voluntarily the reason has to be two-fold: you have reached the end of the line in terms of enjoyment or satisfaction with your work. You dread getting up every morning and facing the same old things. Your dissatisfaction has been building for quite some time, not just because of a rough patch.

The second reason is you can't wait to tackle a new phase of your life. You have plans and dreams, you itch to try something new, you can't wait to tackle whatever is next. You feel you have talents and energies that must be tapped.

Retirement isn't running from something, it is running to something else. Any other reason is probably not sufficient.

2. Are your prepared financially? Trust me, none of us ever feel we have enough money to retire. The thought of no more regular paychecks is sobering. But, there is a difference between not being ready and being ready but still being concerned or cautious. The average 50 year old American has less than $50,000 saved for retirement. That person is not ready, no matter how much he downsizes and simplifies.

I don't believe in set dollar amounts for retirement. There are too many variables. But, common sense says that even with a decent Social Security check each month you are likely to need quite a bit more to live for another 20 or 30 years. If you live within your budget, understand how to use credit, don't treat your home equity (if you have any) like a piggy bank, and understand the concept of delayed gratification, you are well on your way.

3. Are your prepared emotionally? Do I mean to accept all that free time and lack of deadlines? Am I ready for a stress-free life? No, that's not the issue. Emotional preparation means the loss of your personal identity. Most of us see ourselves as valuable and defined by our jobs. "What do you do?" is the first question asked when you meet someone. Who will you be when the answer is "nothing." Can you find meaning and purpose when you have to create it yourself? Are you mature enough and secure enough in defining your life by who you are instead of what you do?

4. Is your primary relationship strong enough? Being home full time with another person is a major adjustment. I'll say that again: this is a big deal. Retirements end with one or both partners going back to work simply because they can't stand being together full time. Divorce is a growing issues with older, retired folks. In fact, the largest percentage increase in divorce comes from those 50+. The time to work through differences and decide on the balance of we and me time is before work stops.

5. Do you have ideas on how you will use your free time? At first blush, an unstructured day seems like heaven. Each 24 hour period stretches before you with no commitments, no deadlines, no pressure. The reality is very different. After financial worries the biggest fear of those getting close to retirement is how they will use their time. What will they do all day? With 30 years filled with a job or career, there has been little time to develop any outside interests or passions. As point #1 above notes, retiring into nothing means you aren't ready to retire.

The most pleasurable retirement happens when someone has things to retire to: hobbies to pursue, new interests to explore, travel to take, grandkids to visit, books to write, volunteering opportunities to accept......things that bring meaning and purpose to your days. These are the things that cause you to get out of bed full of energy and enthusiasm. For those faced with another day of puttering around the house, reading for hours at a time, and ending the day falling asleep in front of the TV, retirement becomes a type of prison, locked into a behavior whose only goal is to get from morning to night.

6. Are you ready for the time of your life? As someone whose whole existence was defined by his work, who did a poor job of relationship building and who entered retirement unready emotionally and without real goals, I have finally arrived at a place where I can honestly state that this has become the best stage of my life. I stumbled badly for several years. I read too much, watched way too much TV, spent too many hours surfing the Internet, and longed for the security of my former high profile career.

Then, I found my stride. I stopped worrying about finances. I found passions that ignited me. I discovered the thrill of giving back and making a difference through meaningful volunteer work. I allowed my spirituality to blossom and define why I am here on earth. I rediscovered the thrill of a relationship that is growing and respectful.

I wish I had sen a post like this 18 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of wasted time and frustration. Retirement is just another part of life. It takes work, You will make mistakes. You will occasionally throw up your hands and ask yourself why are you doing this.

But, then, suddenly you will find the correct light switch. You will figure it out. You will have what it takes to live a satisfying retirement.

September 7, 2019

Highs and Lows

I know regular readers enjoy posts that feature pictures of places Betty and I visit. If so, you are in luck.

A few weeks ago we headed north for a 4 day trip to revisit a few places we enjoy: Flagstaff and The Grand Canyon. With temperatures predicted to be around 110 at home, even the mid 80s up north seemed pleasantly cool. 

Flagstaff was our first stop. Surprisingly, we were a bit disappointed this time around. The downtown had several more vacant storefronts than we remember. Our favorite place to eat is gone. Another that offered nice dinners on an outdoor patio had become the home of fast-casual type meals. The homeless population has increased while the streets and parks are less clean. Overall, things just felt more frayed at the edges. 

Even so, the weather cooperated, with clear sunny days. We decided it was a good time to ride the ski lift to the top of Snowbowl ski resort, about 20 minutes north of town. During the winter, several hundred inches of snow blanket the slopes and the 55 different trails.

Our visit was much more to our liking: low 70's and nothing but wildflowers, green grass, and towering trees. The 25 minute trip up the lift travels to 11,500 feet. Though still 1,000 feet below the highest peak,  the view is amazing. We saw the Grand Canyon some 70 miles away,  mountainous volcano cones in every direction, beautiful meadows, and even the beginnings of a forest fire on a distant ridge. The Forest Service was aware of the blaze and letting it burn, but the sight was still a little unsettling. 

Here are some pictures that don't really capture the total quiet and peacefulness, but give you a chance to armchair travel (without the effects of rather thin air over two miles above sea level).

Less than two hours north is the Grand Canyon. A mile deep in some places, covering well over 200 miles from end to end this is a really big hole in the ground. Even though the distance from the popular South Rim to the less-visited North Rim is just 10 miles, to drive from one to the other takes five hours;  there's this wide chasm in between, you see.

This is one of the few places in the country where the majority of people are not starting at cell phone screens. To walk along the trail near the edge of the canyon does not lend itself to distracted strolling. Instead, thousands are using the built-in cameras or simply enjoying the breathtaking beauty and power of the place.

Another thing we noticed were the number of languages being spoken by the clusters of people walking by us. German, Japanese, Italian, Greek, Polish and others we didn't recognized filled our ears. English was very much in the minority.

Obviously, this little fellow has done this before

Beautiful sights, a great time to reconnect as a couple, and some lasting memories. Thanks, Northern Arizona.

September 3, 2019

Being a Beginner is Not Natural... For Me

I've written before about my dislike of feeling like a anything. For some completely irrational reason, I believe I should go from not knowing how to do something to being proficient within a month or two. Not being good at something for a long period of time just has never worked for me.

Ask Betty how long my various attempts at dancing have lasted. Two lessons and I want to leave the moves to Fred Astaire. Tennis? Don't ask. Guitar? I think I have finally found a course of study that is slowly working for me, but it has been at least half a dozen failed attempts up to now; I get to some point and become discouraged with my lack of progress. Oh, and my dogs and family find places to hide behind closed doors when I practice.

So, it was a powerful mark of either boredom or emotional growth that I started oil painting a few weeks ago. If you name one skill I do not believe I have, painting would top the list. I used to joke that I couldn't draw a straight line with a ruler. Even my stick figures have to be explained. So, why am I subjecting myself to being a beginner in every sense of the word? 

Oil paints are different from acrylic? What is a fan brush? Is there such a thing as odorless paint thinner? How much does paint cost? How about canvas..can I use a less expensive choice? Landscape, still life, portrait, abstract...good gracious, you mean there several different approaches I can screw up?

I am slowly learning the answers to most of these questions. I am also learning that Bob Ross makes the whole process seem much less difficult than it is. Bless his long departed soul, Mr. Ross had a voice and presentation style that would convince anyone with a pulse that painting is as simple as breathing.

I fell for it. First was a trip to some crafty-type stores. One thing I quickly learned is that the people who populate these places love to talk to the checkout clerk, apparently about every single thing being bought. 10 minutes per customer is not uncommon. And, there is always a line and too few clerks.

Anyway, with Betty's help and the all-forgiving Mr. Ross, I settled on oil paints, mainly so I could follow each step of his video lessons. Oh, and the answer to a few of my initial questions is: expensive! A tiny tube of Prussian Blue (doesn't that sound pretty!) is close to $10. Mr. Rose requires I have 9 different colors plus something he calls Magic White, which is some special type of base coat that is spread all over the canvas first. It is not easy to find and not inexpensive.

One of the stores was having a sale on canvas and easels so I loaded up my shopping cart. Then, the hunt for brushes. Mr. Ross insists on natural bristle brushes; I couldn't find any labeled that way. I finally settled on an assortment that had bristles of undetermined origin. 

I have publicly displayed my first attempt on an earlier post. I am pretty sure my grandkids could have done better. I recognize some shapes as tree-like objects and a smear of blue as probably water. Otherwise, forgettable.

Since then about every four days  I pull out a new canvas, or canvas board, watch a video, set up my paints, easel, and dropcloth, and give it a go. My representation of the sky and fluffy little clouds is slightly more recognizable. Mt. McKinley in Alaska, not so much. Apparently, using a palette knife takes even more skill than a 1" paint brush.

But, I guess here is the important lesson I am learning: being a beginner is not a fatal condition. I have not hurt myself nor damaged the house or the carpeting. Even though my family tends to hide when I strum the guitar, occasionally I hear Betty singing along with the tune, so what I am doing must be somewhat recognizable. 

Being a beginner and a bit of an obsessive perfectionist is a dangerous combination. Both the painting and guitar fly in the face of my self-image and how I usually conduct myself.

Maybe that is a good thing. After all, I have managed to stay married to the same marvelous human being for 43 years, and I was a total beginner when that journey started (probably still am, in some regards).

So, bring on the paints and tune up the guitar. Just don't expect me to show you what I have done or play a song for you for quite some time! My comfort level with beginner status does have its limits.

August 30, 2019

A Closet Full of Memories

I bet you have a bunch of old photos stored away in boxes or drawers somewhere in your home. We certainly do. In our case it is an office closet filled with photo albums. Since a digital camera didn't replace our film cameras until 15 years ago, there are a lot of memories in that space. If there was ever a fire I'm not sure if my wife would grab me or some of the pictures first. They are important reminders of the journey we have been on together.

Like many people, the pictures were taken and stuck in a closet or some empty shoe boxes rarely to be looked at again. The change to digital means these old photographs are often too much trouble to haul out, and that's too bad. There is a lot more than old photographs in that closet.

Places I'd forgotten I'd been. We have been lucky to travel rather extensively in the United States, and visit several countries in Europe. I was looking over the album titles last week and realized all the places we visited that I had forgotten about. Fall foliage in upstate New York,  the pink beaches of Bermuda, a cute B&B outside Salt Lake City, the horse country of northern Florida, a castle in the lakes district of England and The Quiet Man setting near Kong, Ireland. Looking again at the scenery brings back the sights, some of the friendly folks, and lasting memories. It felt good to look back and remember.  

Places that were an important part of our family life. We had a few time share condos near Sarasota, Florida that were the center of family summer vacations for almost twenty years. To look at the girls from our first visit with their grandparents, to our last when they were grown up is a rather vivid reminder of how fast life passes by. The 2 Christmas vacations we spent on Maui don't seem like almost 30 years ago, but they were. The pictures bring back all the details that made those trips so special. There is some sadness in the process, but overwhelming pleasure at seeing the joy on those young faces again.

How fast time goes. When were my wife and I ever that young? Why did I wear my hair in that silly, uncombed mop? Whatever happened to all the people in those photos that left our life when we moved? Is that renovation we made to the first house in Cedar Rapids still there? Old pictures allow you to relive fabulous memories. But, each page you turn in the album is like a ticking clock. It is important to remember that each moment captured in that particular photo will never be repeated. Today will never come again. Time is too valuable to not squeeze the most out of every minute. The photos make that time passage very real.

Remember when parents were with us and vital. I have written a few posts about the difficulty of watching loved ones age and decline. Our photo closet is full of visual reminders. My wife's parents have both died, so our memories of them are fixed in pictures when they were playing with our girls, or enjoying themselves at our various homes. My parents are both gone, too. It is important to see them when they were active and physically fit, joining us at the beach, our cabin in the woods, or Disneyworld. It is good to see them walking together, holding hands, in the woods of northern Arizona, without a care in the world.

Winter....Ugh! After 35 years in Arizona I could never go back to where I grew up. Pictures of me shoveling snow off the roof of our home in Iowa, trying to find my car in a snowbank in Syracuse, or shivering in cold rain in Boston are stark reminders of my dislike of cold and snowy weather. But, I lived in that climate for my first 30 years so it was important in my life. Looking at some of the pictures reminds me of why I don't live there now!

Dogs were a big part of my life. I had forgotten how much pets were part of my life until just a few years ago. I grew up with dogs in the house. During our married life we have had five dogs. Each one of them is memorialized in the photo albums. There are loving memories and lots of smiles as we remember the unconditional love each one gave us.

If you have some time this weekend can I suggest you pull out your photos and look at them. All those memories and all those important timelines in your life aren't doing any good locked away. Some of the memories will be bitter sweet and some bring tears to your eyes. Isn't that the reason you took them all those years ago?