June 25, 2012

If I Had An Expiration Date

You see them on the side of milk containers, on prescription pill bottles or the tops of canned goods. The "best if used by" date is when the manufacturer has determined than a product is past the time when you should consume or use it. Like most of us, I fudge a bit. A can of mixed fruit probably won't kill me if the date was a month or two ago. But, any more than that I prefer to toss it in the trash.

A while back I read something on a blog I enjoy (I think it was RJ's but I'm not positive) that got me thinking in that weird way of mine: what if humans had a "best if used by" date stamped on our can (butt), or somewhere on our body? How would that affect how we live our satisfying retirement?

I like this question because there is no correct answer. In fact, the question is answerable only in the abstract. To decide what I would have done differently for the past 63 years if I knew when I was going to expire on a certain date is simply an interesting mental exercise, isn't it?

Another version of this would be, "what would you do if you knew you had one year to live?" My answer (and more importantly, yours) gets to the heart of what we have decided is important to us. It helps us clarify what we have learned makes our life worth living. With an expiration date we have no more fantasy about the lie we tell ourselves that "there's always tomorrow" or "I have all the time in the world to do that."

If I had an expiration date or just discovered my "best if used by " stamp what would I do differently? I few thoughts may get you to ask yourself the same questions and entertain us with your answers. Of course, how long in the future I have until I expire affects my answers. So, just for sake of argument, let's assume it is 5 years in the future:

* My to-do list each day would look a whole lot different.

* I would see all the sights I have promised to see "some day."

* I would cut way back on computer time.

* How I spend my retirement money would change.

* My spiritual life would deepen and strengthen.

* I would leave a book of my life lessons for my children and grandkids.

Because this is just a fantasy (I hope!) it is hard to say what else might  be on this list. But, the last item jumped out at me as probably the most important. Regular readers know my wife is a photographer. We have tens of thousands of analog and digital photos filling a linen closet and a few computer hard drives. So, forgetting what I look like and the times we all spent together wouldn't be a worry for those left behind.

Of more lasting value may be what I can pass on to my kids and their kids. Like you, I have had my troubles. I have been fired, seen the dark side of some financial reversals , watched a business I built fail, had family members die, and struggled to be the kind of husband I promised to be 36 years ago.

Even so, I take the Satisfying Retirement title of this blog very seriously. If my life hadn't been one of learning and growing, of solving problems, and moving forward my retirement wouldn't be so satisfying. I wouldn't write a post three times a week for over 2 years and pretend I had it figured out. 

That should mean there are some life lessons that someone else in my family can benefit from. I feel obligated to tell them what I know to spare them as many stumbles as possible. So, I would spend some of my remaining time writing down what I have learned from this journey that has been my life. Hopefully I would honestly detail my failures and missteps as much as my successes.  In that way, the things I have learned would not stop when I had reached by due date.

After all, shouldn't life be more lasting than a can of peaches?


  1. Hi Bob, yeah I am the culprit who gave you that idea. http://rjscorner.net/2012/05/31/living-too-long/ but you have put much more thought into it than I did. Mine was just a typical "off the top of my head" type thing :)

    Writing a book of life for your heirs is an interesting idea. I don't have any heirs so I would have to find a different audience I guess. But, of course that is something you don't have to have an expiration date on your can to accomplish.

    Speaking of cans, given that I volunteer in a soup kitchen I know for a fact that eating food beyond its expiration date is not harmful as that is one of the major reasons we get donations, especially from the manufacturers and retailers.

    It is going to get up to 100 degrees here in the Midwest this week. I wish you would close the door down there so it stays in your area!!

    1. So it was you. That means my short term memory is still functioning.

      Up to a point, I assume the expiration date is like shampoo instructions to wash, rinse, and wash again. That is meant to sell more shampoo, not to insure cleaner hair! Even so, I hesitate to eat something in a can with a date more than 6 months old.

      We are down from last week's 112 degrees...today only 106. Maybe that missing 6 degrees found its way to you!

  2. My mother worked hard her whole life. At the age of 58 she took her first vacation. Three weeks after taking her first vacation she was diagnosed with a rare but terminal cancer and given just three more months to live. I remember distinctly sitting with her on her death bed yet I was able to look outside the hospital window. Outside the window was the hustle and bustle of New York City. Life, I said is outside this window. Life is what I want. My mother represented death. I vowed right there and then I was going to live and enjoy my life. Not work and sacrifice like my mother did! For what?
    I did whatever I wanted to do in my life. I took whatever risk or fancy my heart desired. No regrets. No turning back. I wasn't going to suffer for anyone ever again. Not a kid, husband or a boss.
    My kids paid their own education and college bills, their own weddings and their own lives. No husband ever told me what to do, where to go, how to invest or to give up any dream or quest I wanted to do in life. No boss ever controlled my precious, valuable time. I often said I would rather stick needles through my eyes than work for the 'man'.
    I never thought I'd live longer than my mom. Now, at 61 I can honestly say I have lived a life well lived. No regrets. Just happiness at all I did and accomplished. Now, I can sit back and just coast.
    Excellent lesson learned.

    1. I see from your blog you love beaches...another great part of enjoying life.

      Living whatever life you choose with no regrets probably puts you in the minority. That is certain one definition of a satisfying retirement.

    2. Your post made me think. So, I wrote about it and you today:


    3. Thanks for the link and mention on your blog today. I just had the chance to scan it but certainly go back and read it fully after seeing your statement that you and your husband only work 5 days a month. I hope you explain how you make that work!

      Keeping up with the Joneses is an amazing waste of money and your precious life blood, time.

    4. Nice to see you back Morrison!

  3. Well I know I and we all have an expiration day stamped somewhere on us because God's word says He has numbered our days. He knows the date we don't. I don't get to live my life to the fullest, and never have, because of a lack of funds and because there are others in my life who have to be considered. But as I get older and older I realize that living life to the fullest is living for God and doing for others and trying to be content with what I have and can do.

    And BTW when I was a kid we didn't have expiration dates on our cans or food packages. We didn't know they had expired unless we saw mold or it tasted old. So going beyond the expiration date is usually not bad it just means it isn't as fresh as it might have been.

    1. Good point: God knows exactly when we will expire and expects us to live every day to its fullest to the best of our abilities. Thanks for that important perspective, Sue.

      Is the expiration date on a can meant to prevent law suits or to sell more product? Personally I am glad it is there. It is too easy for those peaches to be pushed to the back of the shelf and sit unused for too long.

  4. I LOVE the idea of a book to pass along to the kids/grandkids :) Granted I am one so I am a bit biased.... :) But between you writing a book and mom taking pictures, my kids will be able to learn from all of your years of wisdom and experience! Love you so much (and I pray your experation date is a long way off!!)

    1. Thank you, daughter! I like the book idea, too. I'll start to give it some thought.

      I hope my "can" isn't stamped for quite awhile. See you all at Kassidy's birthday party this weekend!

  5. This is why I try so very hard to live in the moment. We have no idea when our # is up. This moment is all we have, so to speak. As for leaving a book for my kids... between almost 20 years of journals and my blog I think they're covered. ;)

    Expiration dates are primarily for the retailer. They need to remove the product by that date.

    You do keep everyone thinking Bob! love that.

    1. Hi, Barbara,

      Besides RJ's post, we are in the midst of our twice a year project to check on our emergency food storage, so the whole idea of expiration dates was suddenly fresh on my mind. We store a few weeks of canned goods, water, spaghetti, sugar, etc in our pantry. if there ever is a gas cutoff or some other emergency that prevents the stores from being restocked for a week or two we will be OK. Once every 6 months we go through that pantry and pull out the cans that are coming up for expiration, use them, and replace them with new stuff. I've always wondered how firm those dates are.

      Glad I could make folks think....even on a Monday!

  6. "If I Had An Expiration Date", I do, the only problem is I can't read it...

  7. If I knew my expiration date, the foggy future would come into focus. I could see the edge of the earth and, by judging the speed of my movement towards it, I could quickly get my things in timely order for the fall. There are many good things about this level of situation awareness, such as the ability to maximize time spent with each one of those I love, the ability to redistribute my earthly assets in a controlled manner, and so forth.

    It would change my life from the way it is lived now but I won’t state the obvious about how that would be. At the moment, what interests me is that a precise expiration date focus would allow me to live life with less concern. For example, do I need to be too concerned about exercising for hours each day? How confident am I that I have enough income to no longer be too concerned about managing it? What concerns do I need to have (now that I know) about relative quality of the food I eat or the changing quality of the well water I drink? And so forth.

    Some people would not want to know their end date. But don’t count me among them. I would have many fewer concerns if I knew. But I’m in no hurry to cross the finish line, either.

    Post script: Philosophically, it’s interesting to note that the logical way to live is to expect death at any time and to be ever-ready. We already know with certainty that (a) we are going to die, (b) barring suicide, we don’t know when we will die and so it could just as easily be sooner rather than later, and (c) every second moves us closer to that moment. So, the deck is tilted in the direction of living as if we are already on borrowed time; our expiration date was yesterday. It’s just a question of when we spoil.

    1. I don't think I'd want to know my expiration date. No matter how I changed my approach to life that fact would always loom so largely on the horizon that I think I might unable to not have it dominate my thinking.

      Thanks for a very interesting overview, Nik.

  8. I dodged my expiration date once. It sped up my life and I missed so much that happened around me day by day.
    Now we live the opposite extreme.
    Thank you for reminding me that living for today and tomorrow makes living for a certain expiration date irrelevant.
    On another note
    My grandfather left us each a record of his life. Listening to it give not only a sense of how his life went, but the smoothness of his voice and inflection of why he did what he did. A different way of leaving your lessons for generations. I wish my dad had done the same thing.

    1. Recording your story is a great idea. The power of the spoken voice is amazing. My mom recorded a book she read for my daughters when they were quite young. It is the only example we have left of her voice and it brings back strong feelings. Since my career was in radio I am quite comfortable in taping myself. Thanks for an excellent idea, Janette.

  9. How interesting. I just had breakfast with a friend and former colleague. We were talking about the legacies we leave at work. I told her quite honestly that when I retired, I knew my legacy would be short lived. In a graduate school where there is a three year turnover for all students, it won't be long before the students will no longer recognize my name or know anything I did there. I'm okay with that.

    Families are different, of course. But still, there is a rhythm of life that absorbs our energies in various ways after we're gone. Some people have known roots going way back for generations; others barely know their grandparents' generation. The truth is that a can of peaches can sometimes last longer than a person's memory after they are gone.

    I think part of our path as we age is to make our peace with this rhythm. We can leave behind whatever we want, but once we're gone, it's out of our control. All the more reason to "be here now" and treat every day as the precious gift it is.

    By the way, I've been away from my blog reading for a few days. I just spent some time reading your last posts. Happy Blog Birthday!

    1. I have never been one of those folks who wants to trace my relatives back umpteen generations, but there some people on my wife's side that have dedicated major time and effort to their genealogy. What does that difference say about me and them and the importance of family? I don't know if it is anything profound. Family is crucial to me, but the family I interact with everyday, not a long-gone cousin twice removed.

      It is odd to think that when we are gone our tiny ripple in the pool of life will very quickly become still water again with little to mark our presence. That could become very depressing unless one can take your approach of making your mark now, while you are here and can have a positive effect on others.

      This is getting way too deep just a few days before our vacation!

  10. Mortality is a topic that creeps into my consciousness on occasion - especially when a friend or family member passes on and little or no tribute is paid by the heirs. It makes me feel sad to think that in the end our time here really has very little significance.

    I like to believe that what matters is that I have lived my life well, I have few regrets and I have accomplished some good during my time here. In the end only my daughter will care that I existed.

    I have kept a personal journal for over thirty years, have countless photo albums and now a blog of my retirement life to leave to my daughter. The journal was for my own personal growth and understanding but I think she will learn some things about who I am and how she came to be from my efforts. One day I will summarize them to eliminate the mundane and highlight the "life lessons" so that she won't be bored to tears when she reads them.

    As for living my life differently if I knew my expiration date - probably not so much. I might worry less and take more risks. Or maybe I'd care less about what other people think but mostly I'd live pretty much the way I already do - in the moment, appreciating every day and feeling at peace that I am not in control.

    1. Very nice addition to the discussion, Suzanne. Making a "book" of this blog would be an interesting way to leave something behind. Like you, I have lots of journals but most are too personal or mundane to want others to read.

      "Feeling at peace that I am not in control" is such an important lesson for all us.

  11. AHHHH...a good old fashioned meme came to mind. You asked the question we need to make our own list of things to do if we could read the expiration date on our can! I did just that. Thank you for the inspiration.

    I think that Suzanne said it all though...giving up control a sooner might be a good thing. I think our children and grandchildren benefit from our letting go little by little.

    See you soon.