September 28, 2020

Childhood memories: Which Ones Do You Treasure

The last post asked you to think about what you have to be thankful for in a rather miserable year. I hope some fresh thinking allowed you to dwell on some of some positives. Frankly, the comments helped me find some new light during a dark time.

This time, it might be fun to remember a time that wasn't bombarded by all sorts of nasty, adult-type news: your childhood. As summer comes to an end, I have been thinking of some of the more powerful childhood memories that defined this season of the year. Especially this year, thinking about good things helps us get through the uncertainty ahead.

My grandparents owned a 36-acre plot of land about an hour north of Pittsburgh. We called it "The Farm" even though nothing was planted or harvested, except memories. From the time I was four until an early teen, I spent two weeks every summer here with my parents, brothers, uncle, and grandparents. Some fifty-five years later, that time is still nothing but golden memories for me.

For a child of today, the conditions would seem unbearable. There was no electricity or running water. Cooking was done on a substantial wood-burning stove or over a fire pit. The bathroom was a rickety outhouse down a path. Water was pumped from a well.

A weekly bath involved heating buckets of water on the stove and dumping them into a large tin bathtub in the living room, not too far from the fireplace, which was also the only source of heat in that two-story house. The second-floor bedrooms could get rather nippy overnight, but no matter, we just piled on extra blankets.

Kerosene lamps were used after to dark keep downstairs pleasant. The adults read, played cards, or talked. My brothers and I would play with simple toys or listen to the stories my uncle would tell. Upstairs, a flashlight was the light source if a trip to the privy was required. I remember falling asleep listening to squirrels (or something small) run around in the attic above my head.

I would awake each morning to the smell of my grandfather boiling coffee and frying bacon over the outside fire pit. Coffee grounds and cold water would be dumped together in a pot and placed over the fire. Eventually, a robust smelling brew would be passed around to the adults to jump-start their mornings. The younger set settled for orange juice and cereal from the icebox (with a real block of ice).

Days were spent sitting under the large trees listening to the adults talk. Obviously, there was no television and only a battery-operated radio, so days were filled with conversation. I remember my grandfather had an outbuilding that was packed to the rafters with old tools and all the things needed to maintain the property. Being the oldest, occasionally, I was allowed inside the shed to watch him built or repair something with tools that probably came from his father.

My uncle was our primary source of entertainment. Not only did he tell great stories but helped us "improve" the land. Each summer, we would plan for some paths through the woods and fields all over the property and then proceed to lightly trim a path. We gave them names, like Lowry Lane or Munn Boulevard. Of course, each summer, these paths had to be rebuilt, but that didn't seem to bother us. The hard work kept us busy and produced tired little boys each evening.

Near the end of each year's stay, we would have our big adventure: walking to the small town of Mars for ice cream cones. Since it was five miles from the farm, for the first several years, we only made it part of the way. After an hour of trudging down the dirt roads with mom and dad alongside us, grandad would pull up in his car, pick us up, and take us to the general store for ice cream. Each year he'd tell us how far we had managed to walk in the allotted time.

Finally, when I was probably eleven or twelve, we managed to walk all the way to town before being picked up. We were so proud, though we were happy to accept a ride back.

Over the past several years, as close as I could get to the experience of the farm was RV travel. The campgrounds satisfied my need to be surrounded by nature. The freedom of rolling down a back road reminded me, for just a moment, of the walk for ice cream down a dirt road near Mars, Pennsylvania.

Mom and I salute the flag on the 4th of July at The Farm

What childhood memories come to mind for you?

September 24, 2020

The Summer That Wasn't: What Do I Have To Be Thankful For?

I have survived the last six months of Covid with my sanity and budget intact. For us desert dwellers, summer is always the toughest season, this year even more so. Normally, we have some diversions: movies in a chilly theater, plays, concerts, museums, restaurants, baseball games inside Chase Field. But, a quick review: closed, closed, closed, closed, closed, no fans. Vacations in cooler places? Nope.

The weather has started its agonizingly slow march toward more human-like temperatures. As I type this the next few days are predicted to be only about 100 or so. Some of the places and the events listed above are starting to spring back to life. Time in the backyard and walks around the neighborhood or nearby parks are only a few weeks away. Fall officially started a few days ago; the desert southwest is always slow to accept that fact. 

How about I focus, for just the next few hundred words, on the parts of my life that have been satisfying in an otherwise bummer of a year. Especially with the political nightmare that is building to some sort of climax in a little over a month, I could use a reminder of the little successes and pluses of everyday life. 

Miles and miles of hiking trails are just a few minutes away. I live within 10 minutes of three parks, just waiting for us (and the dog!) to enjoy a picnic under a tree, or simply sit and read while soaking up the sounds of nature.  

There isn't a weekend from early October until May that doesn't have at least a few festivals or special events somewhere in the Valley of the Sun. I just have to make a little effort to enjoy something different.

I am thankful my 11 year old car is still running well. The car was bought for cash so there has never been a payment. The air conditioner blows cold air in the summer and heat in the winter. It remains dependable and still has less than 95,000 miles on it. We did plan on replacing it with a more efficient hybrid last March but...

I am thankful for my hobbies and interests. After 19 years of retirement, I haven't run out of things to do. Guitar playing, oil painting (Thank you Bob Ross!) and ham radios keep me busy. Music on Spotify and old vinyl records with a turntable to play them have been a blessing. In the next three or four weeks, we will replant all the pots on the back porch and around the yard with six month's worth of color.

I have been able to read more in the past several months than in the last several years. Some of that is because there are not many options; otherwise, I love books and enjoy reading, especially murder mysteries and historical fiction.

We have a bird feeder in the back yard. Most months of the year there are winged visitors, eating up the seeds almost as quickly as I can replace them. Birds in our area aren't as colorful as other parts of the world, but they add their songs to my day. 

I have been married for over 44 years, to someone who is my opposite: we hold different opinions on many topics; as we get older I have noticed she is much less hesitant to point out when my thoughts are "wrong." But, we are committed to each other with full trust and love. I can't imagine how difficult the Covid lockdown would be like with someone who gets under your skin or is negative or unsupportive.

I am thankful that both of us enjoy the simpler things in life. We like finding a bargain at a second-hand furniture store. We get excited when we can re-purpose an old dresser or chair into a conversation piece for the house or yard. When flea markets reopen we will be there.

I am extremely thankful that my immediate family is close by, all feeling well, and enjoys spending time together. Our Sunday meals together are simple and satisfying. My youngest daughter's industry (business incentive travel) shut down in March. That is a bad thing. But, it has meant she is home instead of always on the road. We have spent more time together than at any time I can remember. 

A restaurant meal doesn't have to be fancy, it just has to offer us the time and place to be together, away from our own kitchen.

All of us, me included, tend to focus on the big stuff of life, this year in particular. But, isn't it the little things that make up a life that determines your mood. Did you do things that allow you to go to bed at night feeling satisfied with the day? The overall character of your satisfying retirement will be better. 

September 20, 2020

Where Are The Good Repair People?

After the post about higher education prompted several comments about the viability of a trade career, I thought the time was right to bring back this post from eight years ago. I have freshened it a bit to relate recent problems, but the bulk of the post remains unchanged.

Finding dependable repair people is not easy. Places like Angie's List, Yelp, or Google reviews may give us a starting point, but I take those writeups with a heavy dose of caution. I used to depend on friends or neighbors for ideas, but they tend to be as lost as I.

For the last six months, I have had a few auto repair disappointments when my long time favorite sold to a new company. Late last year, we contracted with a handyman to fix a closet door. He never showed up.

Our ice maker has been out of service since March; I am very hesitant to have someone come traipsing into our home while the virus is still a deadly concern. And, even when I finally feel it is safe, it will be a crapshoot to find someone who won't rip me off. He (or she) will see an old guy and figure they can tell me anything, even though I am pretty sure it is the water input valve. 

Seriously, have our standards really fallen this low? Have all the people who are good at repairing problems around the home retired? Since there hasn't been much work for the last several months, have all the home contractors forgotten how to do their job? My wife and I have just about given up on finding anybody, at any price, coming from any source, who knows what they are doing or committed to doing it well. This lack of skilled workers is starting to mess with our satisfying retirement.

At one point we had a handyman come to the house to repair and re-tile a portion of a bath. He and his "helper" mis-cut the green board but put it up anyway. Then he proceeded to put so much adhesive on the tiles that they stuck out a good 1/8 of an inch from the undamaged tile. He left enough gaps in the grout and caulking to defeat the purpose of the repair job. To make sure we really appreciated his work, he got the rows of tile crooked. The effort was so sloppy we had him rip out half the tiles he had just installed. Against our better judgment, he promised to return the next weekend to finish the job. Of course, he never showed up, nor did he answer his phone. The only good news? He didn't get paid.

During that same period, we decided to install a new toilet in the same bathroom. It was purchased from one of the big box stores, along with an extra fee to have it installed. The day of the installation arrived, and the plumber appeared at our door right on time. That was the last good thing that would happen. He took one look at the old toilet and said he couldn't help us. The old toilet had a line of grout between it and the tile. He said he was not allowed to even attempt to cut the grout for fear of damaging the tiles. If we cut the grout ourselves or hired a tile man (see above!) to loosen the toilet, he would come back to install the new one.

Even though he was more than 6 feet tall and at least 250 pounds, I suggested in words and tone that were probably not appropriate for a good Christian man that he get out of my house...NOW. After storming up to the store and ranting about the poor quality of "professionals" they used, I got my money back for the installation. The new toilet is still sitting in the upstairs hallway.

Before moving out of one of our previous homes five years ago, we had a contractor install wooden steps in place of the worn-out carpet. Not cheap by any means, his crew was sloppy enough we had to retouch the stain and the paint on virtually every step and support. Half the stairs squeaked because they had been cut incorrectly, so they were taken out, re-cut, and reinstalled, which resulted in more marred paint. As a final insult, one man cut the carpeting upstairs wrong, so there is a nice rip in the rug. 

Go back 4 months before that, and another two men, with good references, did such a crappy job painting the inside of the house that my wife (primarily) and me (a little) spent almost a week afterward applying touch-ups to the places they missed or over-painted. 

You get the picture. No matter how we search and research, what passes for quality work is not. It is average, marginal, or substandard. The people doing the work are always baffled when told what they have done doesn't meet our expectations. They genuinely believe the type of performance cited above is suitable.

So, what are we to do? Things will need to be repaired, fixed, painted, or replaced. We can't just stop all maintenance. After thoughtful consideration of our options, I have decided to go to a technical college and be trained as a handyman.

No..that isn't the choice we made. I am fortunate to be married to a woman who enjoys tackling projects that many people wouldn't touch. She may not have ever replaced tile before, but as this picture shows, there she is, in the bathroom repairing the mess made by the handyman and learning as she goes.

Guess what...when finished, it will be better than anyone else could or would do because she has pride in her work and will do it until it is perfect.

She has decided we will replace the toilet. Our wooden front door is badly worn and starting to crack. With a replacement door costing almost $3,000 or a refinishing of the current one nearly $2,300, Betty has said we will do it ourselves. We will take the door down, sand it, wood putty the cracks, sand it again, and then paint it. The sidelight panel will have a similar treatment. Our cost will probably be less than $300.

We have remodeled the powder room downstairs, including ripping out the counter, refinishing the cabinet, repairing tears in the drywall, and faux-finishing the walls. She has built a three-level rock waterfall in one of our backyards and a brick accent wall in the front yard. I could cite a dozen more examples, but the bottom line is: I trust her to do a better job at virtually anything we need to have done (minus biggies like a new roof or repainting the house) than anyone we could hire.

She shouldn't have to do all this. Yes, on one level, she enjoys the hard work. But, it takes away from things she would rather be doing and wastes time spent on cleaning up after others. Unfortunately, with the current state of sloppy, uncaring, or under-trained repair people dominating the marketplace, we have been burned too many times to trust again.

This post is not a good example of what makes a satisfying retirement lifestyle. But, it is an accurate representation of what homeowners face today. 

The last tile fits!

Bring back apprentice programs and incentives for those handy with tools to produce quality workmanship!

September 17, 2020

Shifting Priorities

Over the ten year life of Satisfying Retirement, I have written a lot about changes, both mine and yours. In most cases, they are essential adjustments, discovering new passions and interests, working after retirement, how to 'survive" being home with your spouse or partner all day...things that take effort and work. These changes usually come as a result of understanding more completely the consequences of no action, or habitual behavior that produces unsatisfactory results.

In some cases, what happens is a shift in priorities. What seemed very important is now less so. Either we change, or our circumstances do. What are some examples of shifting priorities? Let me count the ways!

Worrying about Retirement Finances: Like most new retirees, this concern was probably #1 on my worry list when I stopped working. No matter how many times I crunched the numbers, there was a nagging fear, I forgot something important. There was no way I was prepared correctly.

Almost twenty years later, this fear has completely disappeared from my priority list. In fact, I would guess that this particular concern was not terribly worrisome after four years of retirement. That doesn't mean that some economic bump or stone wall isn't in front of us.

But, after weathering everything the economy could throw at us over two decades, we trust our ability to survive and stay happy. Of course, we have made cutbacks and adjustments to our expenses and plans. But, those changes actually fit our current lifestyle very nicely. I am not naive, just confident in our ability to weather any storm.

How I Spend My Free Time. I love to read. Retirement provides many hours a day to indulge in this pleasure. While working, I had little time to simply pick up a book or two (or three) and clear the time to dive in. That is no longer the case. I read at least one book a week, with usually two or three different genres going at once (historical fiction, non-fiction, murder mystery, spiritual)

Our backyard is an enjoyable place to be. Enough plants and trees, grass for the dog to run and play, colorful pots with flowers in bloom for 7 months of the year, and a small fountain fashioned out of an old pump and basin that adds the cooling sound of falling water all help draw me outside. However, in one important sense, I have noticed a priority change in the last three or four years. In the past, I would be sure all the pots were filled to the brim with flowers in full bloom, even in the summer, when it is hard to keep things from burning up. Plants would be trimmed every week, and weeds would never live to see a second day.

But, now, my priority is to enjoy what we have even if almost all pots remain barren during the heat of summer. Weeds are noticed here and there, and I don't obsess about them. A few patches of grass are kind of barren; the sprinklers don't provide full coverage. Spending hundreds of dollars to fix that deficiency doesn't seem worth it. Maintenance has taken a back seat to enjoyment.

Time in Nature. We live in a part of the country that experiences very few natural disasters. Tornadoes, earthquakes, mudslides, blizzards, or ice storms are virtually unknown to the Phoenix area. Our winters are mild and benign. While forest fires can be deadly in parts of Arizona, Phoenix is safe from the type of disaster that the West Coast is living through.

Of course, searing summer heat of 100+ for five months can be deadly if you aren't prepared. But, after seeing pictures of the damage from tornadoes or Hurricanes like Laura just caused,  I'll take hot anytime.

Like many Phoenicians, I tend to spend a lot of time inside. Over the last few years, I have begun to force myself outside more often. Embracing nature a bit more have affected my attitude. I also enjoy being in the sunshine and fresh air. At 71, I know I don't have an endless future. The ability to enjoy outside is now. This priority is rising rapidly. 

Staying Up To Date On World Events. Partly because of my job and somewhat because I liked to stay in touch, I used to be a news and current affairs, junkie. Two daily newspapers, a dozen different magazines, an hour or two of CNBC a day, and another hour surfing the Internet keep me on top of what was happening in the world. I was stimulated and engaged by following everything so closely.

I don't know if this is a function of retirement or simple burnout of the current political craziness,  but I find myself much less interested in following all of that. I am aware of the big stories of the day. It is impossible to not be mindful of the dysfunctionality of the U.S. government and polarization. 

Not consuming all the information like I once did doesn't mean I am in the dark. I just find it more beneficial to read the analysis or maybe someone's thoughts on what a particular event means to the big picture. 

In switching most of that input off, my attitude, happiness, and ability to develop other interests have increased dramatically. The point is not that staying looped into news and information is a mistake. It is that my priorities shifted, and I was able to drop something that had been an integral part of my life and swap it out for other things.

Retirement isn't the only time of life when you find yourself making changes. That happens continuously, whether you are 8 or 80. The important message is to recognize when something is no longer feeding you what you need and change your diet. It is much too easy to become stuck in a rut and settle for consistency. It is counterproductive to stick with a priority in your life after it is no longer a real priority.

Retirement is about finding  new peaks to scale

September 13, 2020

Is College Right For Everyone?

My alma mater: Syracuse University 
A while ago, I was contacted by a fellow who works for an Internet training company. The CEO had just posed a provocative question on their web site. The question asked was whether a college education is worth the money. Is there enough of a return on the investment of tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars for everyone who goes?

The author, Dave Dunn, cited figures that projected the costs of sending his three children to private colleges several years into the future. The totals were over $1,000,000. He used that million-dollar figure to raise the issue.

Aside from the obvious fact that no one has to go to the most expensive private universities (unless on a full scholarship!), his point is still one that we, as parents and grandparents should ask. The mess that has become the college loan industry has been in the news. We are probably quite aware that the cost of college education, even at a state-run university, averages close to $40,000 for in-state students, and $100,000 for out-of-state attendees. Triple that for a top-flight Ivy League or private college, and there is serious money involved.

Now, with Covid shutting campuses, or forcing them to operate partially on-line, the question becomes more relevant. I have not read that any universities are cutting costs for a less-than-normal experience. Maybe dorm charges are not being enforced, but higher learning institutes are suffering a tremendous loss during the pandemic, so who knows.

When I was in high school, it was expected that everyone who could afford to do so would go to four years of college after graduation. For those with limited means, two-year junior colleges (now community colleges) were an option. Technical schools were available for those with mechanical interests. But, in my neighborhood of suburban Boston, college was simply a given.

As post-high school education became increasingly expensive, folks began to ask the question: is college right and necessary for everyone? Well, for some professions like doctor or lawyer, the answer was, and remains, yes. But, how about for other careers or job paths? How many require a four-year degree versus shorter, specialized training and experience? How many of us actually used a lot of what we learned for those expensive four years?

Betty's school: West Virginia University
For this post, I raise the question because grandparents are sometimes asked for help in sending a grandchild to college, or of their own volition, establish a college fund for a child's child.

If the money is available, is college always the best option? Do we accept that a high school graduate may leave college already seriously in debt?

As the graduate of a well respected private university, I will add two thoughts:

1) I have freely admitted that the money my parents spent on me was largely wasted. I had decided on my career path while barely a teenager. My chosen profession did not require a college education. During my last two years, I worked almost full time at a radio station in town, learning my craft and improving my future prospects. My college classes were an interruption. In my case, college was somewhat wasted on the young.

2) I wish I could have gone to college when I was older. I would have possessed the maturity and intellectual curiosity to have made full use of what college is meant to do: teach one to think and learn critically and independently. 

Continuing one's education after high school is essential for the development of many of the skills for success in our technologically oriented world. High School graduates face a daunting task to survive and thrive. When used to its fullest, those extra years of schooling can be a building block to a full and satisfying life.

But, with college education becoming something that is being priced out of reach of all but the well-to-do, we should ask if a traditional college is always the best choice. And, as grandparents, whether we pay part of the bill or not, we should ask if a four-year institution is in the best interests of the young adult.

What do you think? How critical is that diploma? Is the amount of debt often required justified?

What about on-line schools (even during non-Covid times) degrees, where most of the work is done, at home, with only limited classroom time required? Technical colleges are readily available for virtually any career choice. Community colleges have developed well past just being a feeder system for four-year schools. 

Is the time away at school vital in one's development as an adult? Is it more than just classes and study?

Your feedback is encouraged.