June 24, 2017

A Reality Check

I have been lucky. Throughout my life I have had few health problems. I went to a doctor for checkups and an occasional medical bump in the road. Even spending 150 days  each year in airplanes and hotels rarely resulted in more than a cold or occasional case of food poisoning.

Things started to change about three or four years ago. Slowly, I began to notice strange pains, OK , strange to me. Some of my fingers seemed a bit stiff when I first woke up. A twinge in my lower back wouldn't go away after a hot shower. I had some shortness of breath after a bit of yard work.

Two summers ago things got a little more serious during a trip to Portland: I ended up in the hospital for a few days with a cardiac episode. It wasn't a heart attack, but a small vein was blocked, resulting in pain and a small area of dead heart muscle. Scary for me, my wife, family, and friends, but eventually under control.

A year later, sharp pains in my lower left side wouldn't respond to my normal treatment method: take some aspirin and ignore it. I ended up in the emergency room with diverticulitis, painful but easily cured with antibiotics.

Then, this spring I caught a whopper of a cold. After two months, still coughing and feeling weak, I sought a professional opinion. Based on my description he thought bronchitis was a logical choice. Twenty days of steroid pills later, the cough and weakness still present, he decided to try antibiotics. Maybe my sinuses were infected and that was causing my problems. Nope.

Thinking it was time to up my game, I secured an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. If nothing else, I wanted a doctor to actually look at something up close and personal. A scope of some kind was threaded up my nose and down my throat; everything looked fine with only a slight swelling on one side of my vocal chords. Of course, that could be from all the coughing, but he thought it might also be caused by some acid reflux problem. So, a new set of pills to take. Some unpleasant side effects and a slight, temporary improvement didn't indicate he was right. 

Frankly, by now I was becoming a bit depressed. I began to see my future: endless trips to doctors, all taking guesses but never really solving the nagging aches and pains of  aging. Slowly, but surely, body parts and functions would begin to slip, just enough to be constantly there, never bad enough to prompt a real investigation, but just enough to sap my spirit and strength. I had been through that with my parents and didn't want it for me.

Then, after four months of this problem, the cough began to diminish, from being my frequent companion  to only an occasional visitor. My mood lifted, my energy returned enough to allow me to start going back to the gym, and life seemed brighter.

Had the cold and its effects finally gotten tired of playing with me and left to move onto someone else? Had I completed my 40 days in the wilderness (more like 120 days) and was freed from this test of patience and faith?  I doubt a medical professional knows, I certainly don't.

But, this experience reinforced a few important realities that this 68 year old man must face:

1) My future will contain problems  like this, and worse. The approach of benign neglect that worked so well for the first 64 years of my life is over, finished, no longer on the table.

2) We say doctors "practice" medicine because the human body is too complex for anyone to be able to arrive at more than an educated guess about what may be wrong. I am seriously grateful that the medical profession exists and that I have insurance that allows me to benefit from that  knowledge, but doctors are not always right. Sometimes, they are wrong. 

3) My wife has lived with constant aches and pains for the last 30 plus years. Because of a hypersensitive system she must avoid most pills or medical options. Importantly, she rarely complains. She certainly doesn't give into the disabilities, but works right through them.  Instead of shutting down and bemoaning my fate, I must try to emulate her approach.

4) Ultimately, I am in charge of how my body's treated. If what a doctor gives me doesn't seem to be working, I will not stay on that course. I will ask him to look at other options, i will find a specialist, I will look for second opinions. I will do my own research.

5) As time progresses  I must learn to adjust to more limited choices. Hopefully  I will continue to see the glass half full, but accept that aging has consequences.

We all learn so much on our retirement journey. Some of it is hard to accept, but accept we must. I think what makes the difference is how we deal with the inevitable.

June 21, 2017

Retirement Vacations: Worth the Time and Money?

First posted almost 6 years ago, it seemed appropriate to bring back my thoughts on the staying power of s vacation as we move through the summer season. This seems especially relevant because I have a busy set of vacation plans for 2018.

Betty and I returned from an 18 day glorious vacation on Maui a little over two weeks ago. Even now we are still sorting through the 2,400 photos. I have yet to wear all the T-shirts and Aloha shirts I bought, but the new flip flops are still getting daily use. We had perfect weather and a time of total relaxation. 

Several friends have asked what was my favorite part and the answer is always the same: sitting in a folding chair and watching the sunset every night from a different beach, until all the color faded from the sky and it was dark...the perfect end to a satisfying retirement vacation.

Virtually each evening, we were given a spectacular exhibition of  streaks of vibrant oranges, pinks, yellows, and various shades of blues. The show lasted almost 30 minutes after the sun was below the horizon.

We returned completely refreshed and relaxed. That feeling lasted...... about 36 hours. Then, the real world made itself known and pushed the euphoria of Maui to the sideline. There was nothing dramatic: no bursting of pipes or a major illness. None of our family had a problem that needed addressing. My dad weathered our being gone for an extended period just fine.

It was simply a case of commitments and meetings, chores, bills, computer glitches, and putting things away from the trip....real life....sucking the air out of the vacation glow quite quickly. It felt as if we hadn't gone anywhere. This vacation wasn't unusual in this regard. I remember the same thing happening after trips to England, Ireland, and Italy. So, the question is why? Are vacations destined to have little or no carryover benefit once someone arrives home? If so, is all the money worth it? 

When I was younger I seem to remember a great vacation had a much longer shelf-life. Whether as a youngster with my parents and brothers, or as a young married guy with my two daughters, I remember that afterglow lasting at least several days, sometimes even weeks. The work and home pressures were just as great, if not more so than they are now. But, the warm, post-vacation feeling lasted longer. Why? Was it because there were four people to remind each other of specific events or moments? Was it because there were more memorable moments when a young family is involved? Was it because I was younger?

Is a good vacation one that allows you to accomplish whatever the goal was for that time away regardless of the let down afterward? If I totally relaxed for those 18 days but fell right back into the daily routine almost immediately, was the vacation still a success? 

Looking at all the photos Betty took can bring back memories of where we were and what we were doing when the pictures were taken. 

But, as soon as the digital album closes, the real world is back. Maybe that is the way it should be. Stop the world, I want to get off, for a little while. But a really satisfying retirement requires me to be active and productive. A permanent life on the beach just isn't my style. A long visit every once in a while is just what the doctor ordered, even if the medicine wears off rather quickly.

Has this been your experience after a great vacation? Does the real world force its way to the foreground more quickly than you'd like? Does that mean all the money invested in time off was worth it? Enlighten me!

June 18, 2017

Why Civility Is In Decline

I wish I knew. More to the point, I wish it would stop. As the recent shooting at the baseball practice in Washington demonstrates, things seem to be escalating in a very dangerous way. 

An article in Psychology Today said,  "There seems to be more and more rude, demeaning, insulting, and aggressive language and behavior in our society."  That sums up what most of us experience on a too-regular basis. The question then becomes, why?

Civility is defined as courtesy in behavior or speech. I'm pretty sure we all know it when we experience it. From holding a door for a stranger to helping someone reach a box of cereal on the top shelf, from disagreeing without disrespect to making a fresh pot of coffee after taking the last cup, civility makes life more pleasant and satisfying.

So why does civility seem to be in decline, maybe even dying from disuse?  I can offer a few possibilities. Your (civil) additions to my list are encouraged!

1) Social media

Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat didn't start out to be uncivil. I imagine the inventors thought just the opposite. People could connect with others anywhere in the world to share ideas, photos, thoughts, and feelings. What was not anticipated was the anonymity of the Internet giving some people the freedom to insult, demonize, and degrade with no personal consequences. 

Those first hurtful comments seemed to open the floodgates. Decency and respect were swept away. Nice comments didn't get retweeted or reposted nearly as often as the hateful, inciteful ones. The lack of any boundaries seems to have encouraged a certain type of person to flourish while those repelled by the verbal vomit stopped participating. Politeness was buried under waves of disrespect. Of course, it is possible to avoid this stuff on your feeds, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

2) Political Correctness

I dislike the term, political correctness. It has come to mean something very different from its original meaning, which was to avoid words or phrases that denigrated certain people based on differences, disabilities, sexual or racial matters. Because of the extreme nature of some PC zealots, the whole idea of being sensitive of those different from us has become a reason for pushback. Being politically correct has become a negative.

This allows for some of the worst traits of humans to be expressed under the banner of being freed from the abuses of extreme PC.  Rebellion has allowed the pendulum to swing so far to the other side that marginalizing the "others" has become acceptable to many. Civility is one of the victims of this mindset. 

3) 24 hour news cycle

Most readers of this blog grew up in the era of three networks on television and a morning newspaper. Whatever happened in our town, state, nation, or the world, would only come to our attention if it was part of the 30 minute Huntley-Brinkley or Walter Cronkite newscast at 6pm, or on the front page of tomorrow's paper. Radio newscasts were about the same: hog and wheat prices, a local robbery, or whatever the networks in New York could fit in a 5 minute update at the top of the hour. Everything was slower. Reactions were muted by time and distance.

No more. Hundreds, if not thousands of sources, rush to inform us of whatever they deem important in a continuous flood. Something that happens in Paris or Moscow, New York, Washington D.C., or Phoenix is before our eyes or into our ears with virtually no delay. The time to verify facts or put something in context is no more. On the plus side, we can be much more aware of what is happening in the world around us. On the other side of the ledger, the tsunami of stuff simply washes away our ability to process all this information. More often than not we react with emotion, not consideration. Blame, anger, and condemnation are too often the first responses.  

4) Lack of shared visions

The word bipartisan could join civility in the endangered column. Extreme political divides, believing the other party is not only wrong but evil and doing the devil's work, seems to be par for the course. Why that matters is two-fold. Firstly, governing in a representative democracy requires working together. It isn't simply nice and more productive in the long haul, but it is required. Even if one party controls all branches of the government, without working together on major initiatives, the out-of-power party will just do their best to gum up the works and bring governance to a halt.

Secondly, the dysfunction in Washington spills well beyond its borders. Citizens find little reason to participate in building something; tearing down and obstructing become the new norm. We stop seeing ourselves as part of a whole. There is little shared vision of what made us who we are, and what is needed to maintain and build upon the successes and learn from the failures. Being civil when a person views others as a threat is impossible. It is very much a Lord Of The Flies worldview: survival of the fittest.

A little over a month ago I wrote A Different Way To Think About Politics. As expected, there were some comments that suggested my plea for moderation and civility in political matters was naive and dangerous. I expected that; I rarely write about politics because that isn't what this blog is about and most readers don't want to find it on these pages.

This post really isn't meant to be political.  Point #4 above, The Lack of Shared Visions, happens in part because of politics, and I believe rubs off on our everyday life. But, civility and its importance in making life more pleasant is one that transcends donkeys and elephants, as the previous three points emphasize.

I am very interested in your observations in this area. Also, I am hoping you have some suggestions to improve our situation. The post on the positive power of affirmations, A Force That Powers The World might shed some light on how we deal with this problem, too.

OK, that ends my thoughts. I politely and respectfully ask you to add to this discussion!


June 15, 2017

How To Guarantee a Satisfying Retirement

If only that were possible. Except for knowing you will die at some point, life doesn't come with a guarantee, and that includes retirement. 

After 17 years of experience, there are a few key concepts I'd be glad to share. Maybe I can help you eliminate some of the risks involved, though there is no guarantee.

1) Numbers

All sorts of numbers will determine the extent to which your retirement is satisfying: figures in your budget, income, outgo, the size of your investments and pension or IRA, the age you decide to start Social Security, and how you spend the hours in a day.

Not completely under your control but still important is how long you will have good enough health to do what you like to do. Days and nights spent in front of a TV or in an easy chair aren't very satisfying if you have other options. 

2) Assumptions
No one really know what the government will do with Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security payments, or what will happen to the health insurance markets. Inflation, deflation, interest rates, the end game with terrorism, all will affect retirement. Being frozen into inaction by uncertainty is not a good choice. Waiting for complete clarity means waiting forever.

The only way to approach these unknowns is to make basic assumptions and move forward. Until something definitive happens, plan on the social safety net remaining intact for you. Assume that interest rates will rise and fall, but in ways that won't place your retirement in jeopardy. Assume that terrorism will continue for the foreseeable future, but realize your odds of being struck by lightning are substantially higher than being harmed in some sort of attack or bombing. 

Your attitude and approach to each day are under your control. Assume that, too.

3) Flexibility

Flexibility is in your willingness to adjust things as you move through retirement. A plan is important; entering retirement without one is not advised. Sticking to that plan without allowing for changes based on finances, interests and desires, health, or family situations is just as dangerous. Show me someone who claims he or she developed a plan for success after work and has followed it to the letter, and I will show you someone whose original plan was severely lacking in details. 

Odds are good you showed flexibility when you were raising a family. Dr. Spock was good but didn't have all the answers. If you have ever been the parent of a teenager, I know you learned to be flexible. It is quite likely you were flexible in how you fulfilled your responsibilities at work. You adapted to changes as needed. You changed employers when required. You made do when that was required. 

Retirement is no different. Flexibility is a show of strength, not weakness.

4) Luck

I'd be less than honest if I didn't note that sometimes luck plays an important part in your retirement. Through no fault of your own the economy slips into a serious recession, taking a chunk of your savings with it. An impaired driver slams into you at an intersection, putting you tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt.

You try your hand at building your own business, and you just happen to tap into the hottest trend in the world. It succeeds beyond your wildest dreams and Google buys it for 10 billion dollars. My mom's chance visit with me in tow to a local radio station resulted in an interest and career that stuck with me for almost 40 years. My going with her that day was pure happenstance.

Luck is when you and reality intersect in a way that helps or harms you in a way that you can't predict and can't avoid. A dictionary definition is, "success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions." Many religious traditions would say that God is ultimately in control, there is no such thing as luck. In that case, I could define luck as what happens when we can't explain what God has decided to do (or not do).

Get a warranty for the new solar panels on your roof or the repair work on your car. Get serious when planning for your retirement. That is the best guarantee available.