December 31, 2015

A Lack of Labels

I noticed an article in Huffington Post a few months ago that caught my eye. Coca-Cola had decided to eliminate all labeling from its cans for a period of time in several Middle Eastern Countries. The familiar red and white design remained, but all product names and logos were absent. The point the beverage giant wanted to make was a simple one: "Labels are for cans, not people."

We live in a world obsessed with labeling everything. Companies spend millions to cement their name and product benefits in our collective minds. In what will stand for many years as this concept on steroids, it has been impossible to escape Star Wars references, promotions, tie-ins, and products for the last several months. The movie is set to break all previous records for what a movie can gross, due in no small part to the massive marketing and branding job on its behalf. 

There are brand names, like Kleenex or Xerox, that are so common the names has become the generic terms for an entire product type. No one asks for a facial tissue or to make a copy of something, rather we want a kleenex or a xerox of something. Google has become the most-used shorthand for  "search for something on the Internet."  

Unfortunately, our familiarity and use of labeling extends to more than products and services. Now, it is just as common to describe people, politics, or a world view. If I say "the Liberal Elite," or "The Mainstream Media" odds are you instantly have a reaction, good or bad. Similarly, "Evangelicals," or "Conservatives"  prompts a response.

In today's super-charged political landscape, labels like immigrants, Republicans, Democrats,  pro-this or pro-that positions are designed to trigger an instant gut reaction. "Soft on crime," "soft on immigration, soft on ....anything is meant to disparage.

Labeling is a very human trait meant to simplify something. It can be useful when saying something is good, like the performance of a drain cleaner, or a movie. A restaurant labeled with poor customer service is likely to see a serious drop off in business. I think of my Honda as dependable.

But, labeling can become a serious negative when it is used to simplify something that is much more complex, like human beings. It becomes mental or emotional shorthand. It ends up painting someone with a brush that is impossibly wide. It projects an entire range of character traits on someone who may not resemble that description at all. 

Frankly, using labels in this way is lazy. It requires no real thought process, just the repetition of a word or phrase that has assumed a particular meaning. Too often it is used in a way to be hurtful and damaging. It is meant to diminish another person or position.

I am not sure when the idea of compromise, of learning from others, or of having an open mind became a negative trait. Having a firm opinion on something is not the problem; assuming that position is the only one that is right is what causes so much strife in our world. 

At one point virtually the entire human population was absolutely convinced the world was flat. Anyone who disagreed was either crazy or the devil. For hundreds of years, slavery was thought to be part of the divine plan and an economic necessity. Abolitionists were the scum of the earth. While a long way from completely eradicated, that mindset is no longer accepted.

The point is labels change. Labels are often wrong. Like everything on this planet, labels must evolve. When they don't, we have problems.

Coke was on to something with their "labels are for cans, not people." I wish their insight was shared by more of us more of the time.

December 21, 2015

Budget Building for 2016

I would feel lost without my budget. For the last forty-five years or so I have made it a point to plan my expenses for the coming year, matching needs and wants with income. Each purchase is recorded by category. Then, once a month I look at a report that compares my budget with reality. Sometime in December I do the planning all over again for the new year, based on actual expenses and projections for the new year.

I strongly believe this reliance on a budget and the careful tracking of expenses are part of what allowed Betty and me to retire as early as we did. Not knowing where our money went and hoping we didn't spend too much just wasn't in our genes. Now that we have inherited a portion of my parents' estate I really don't have to budget as religiously as in the past. But, I do. 

2015 was a year that made a bit of a mockery of the budget I developed a year ago. Our unexpected decision to move to a new home in May and all that entails with decorating and settling in, the reworking of our vacation plans, my heart attack in August, and a reordering of our priorities because we now live less than 5 minutes away from our grandkids forced major changes. Money was shifted around as certain categories were cut and others expanded. Even so, the expenses were only 4% higher than what had been planned for. 

I certainly expect 2016 to be a little more stable, though I thought the same thing for this year. Life is all about learning to adjust. A satisfying journey through retirement takes constant course corrections. A budget and careful tracking of expenses helps make that happen.

For 2016 I am expecting my income to remain unchanged. As a retiree with an IRA and investments to draw on, income is really the wrong word. Better would be to say the amount of money I will withdraw, coupled with Social Security, will be the same. 

One major change will be the withdrawal rate from my IRA: 0%. With tax free estate money now available, I do not plan on touching my IRA for years. Except for the minimum amount I must take out each year after I am 70.5 years old, there is a good possibility that the money in that account will (hopefully) compound and grow for the next few decades, untouched. It would be nice to have it available for our kids when the time comes.

I anticipate 2016 will be the year we finally cut back to one car. About to turn 13 years old, the car Betty uses for running errands is on borrowed time. We have decided to not put any more money into its repair and upkeep, except oil changes. It is driven less than 3,000 miles a year but is thisclose to having something important fail. Spending $20,000 on a replacement seems silly at this point in our life. 

With  our family so close to each other, gatherings at our house for meals, games, movie watching, and general merriment (!) have increased dramatically. So have our food and beverage expenses. The budget will contain a new category: Family meals and togetherness. Betty and I want to feel free to host as many get-togethers as we can without fretting over the costs, be it food, drink, or even lawn and board games that add to the fun.

Our fixed medical expenses will decrease in 2016. This year Betty was forced to buy health insurance on the open market and paid a lot. Next year, she will be able to use the Federal marketplace to get a much better rate. With Medicare and supplemental polices for me increasing only minimally, I have been able to trim that portion of our budget. Of course, no one can predict illness or injury, so doctor visits, pills, and even hospital stays could punch a huge hole in our planning - even with insurance. But, if that happens we will deal with it.

Baily, our dog, is getting to the age (now 4) that we need to plan for an increase in her health care. Cleaning human teeth is not cheap. Cleaning a dog's teeth is  worse. Her haircuts are almost three times more expensive than mine. The only kennel she will tolerate if we are gone on a trip without her costs over $80 a day. Her share of the budget will increase.

One of the best decisions we made when moving to our new home was to finally hire a house cleaner. Betty and I had been handling the chores since our first days together. Now, we felt our time and energy should be spent on other things, so we started using a service, twice a month, right after the move. It has made a tremendous difference to us, especially with family here so often. I think we would give up something else completely before we stopped that "luxury."  

Budget amounts for gifts, clothing, food and household expenses, RV costs, yard service, furnishings, charity, cell phones, and utilities all show slight adjustments, but everything balances out in the end with some judicious shifting between categories. I will take a final look at our 2015 expenses next week, and finalize the new budget on New Year's Day. 

2016: Bring it on!

December 17, 2015

Are We Really So Afraid?

I watched the Republican Debate Tuesday night. I was interested in what the candidates would say about terrorism and the state of our national security. Since this is not a political blog I have no intention of dealing with which candidate did the best or any of the policy proposals. 

But, after the 160 minutes of back and forth, I turned off the TV with a few questions. If I am to believe what was being said, the citizens of this country are in a near panic over terrorist attacks and threats to our way of life. We are as fearful as we have ever been as a nation. The barbarians are pounding away at our doors. In fact, many have already slipped inside with plans for our imminent death and destruction.

We are prepared to give up some of our freedoms and privacy, even partial Internet access, to protect us from the wall of doom headed directly for us. We can even think out loud about killing the families of terrorists if that helps protect us.

Politics is about grabbing headlines, playing to people's aspirations, and solidifying support with certain constituents. Exaggeration and hyperbole, both good and bad, are standard fare. Most of us have been around the block enough times to know that what someone promises to do rarely happens if that person is elected. Usually, the process is just too complex for a sound bite to be turned into reality.

But, in my lifetime I can't remember a time when we are being told we are terrified of leaving our homes. We are willing to ignore parts of the Constitution if that is what is required to keep us safe. Even after 9/11, the presentation of a nation in full panic mode wasn't anything like what was presented two nights ago. As a child I was taught to hide under my desk at school if the Cold War turned hot, but no one seemed terribly afraid on a daily basis.

So, my questions for you are quite simple: are you living with this level of fear? Are you terrified of terrorists in our midst? Are you prepared to do most anything to make you and your family safer? Does the threat of terrorism strike close to home?

I have absolutely no doubt that the threat posed by ISIS and others of its ilk are major problems for us. I could argue that the countries in the Mideast are much more at risk and the fight is really theirs. But, as events in Paris and San Bernadino make clear, international terrorism really has no boundaries. It does not respect borders. Our citizens can be hurt or killed by those who believe in a set of rules very different from ours. 

But, I am really wondering if the debate was reflective of reality. Are we ready to do anything to live a fear-free life? Do you see someone on the street or near a school who looks different from you and, if even for just a brief moment, wonder about that person's intentions? With a degree of shame, I admit that has happened to me.

If the debate on Tuesday accurately reflects the mood of the country then my writing about retirement is kind of silly. We have much bigger worries than where is the best place to vacation.

Please don't leave comments that are mostly political point-scoring attempts. Your feelings about our current president or any of the men and women wanting to replace him aren't what I am looking for.

I simply want to know if you believe we are living in a time when fear and panic are becoming the new norm. Are we literally in a battle for our way of life and the future of our nation?  

December 9, 2015

I Am Not Old - Just Well Seasoned

Recently, I read the results of a study asking people when someone was considered old. Not surprisingly, the answer depended on the respondent's chronological age. Youngsters placed those in their late teens as qualifying for that label. Young adults generally thought being 50 was the magic line. When reaching sixty, old became somewhere in the early 70's. Make it to 70, and one must be at least 80 to be considered old. All told, the average age for respondents was 68 - at that age one could be called old without too many arguments.

As someone who is about 18 months from that point, I protest. I am moving closer to my father's definition. He had determined that middle age extended until 125. Only then, did he or she enter old age territory. Dad died earlier this year at 91, still considering himself barely middle aged.

I am not willing to be quite that expansive, but those I know in their mid to late 60's are not "old age." They remain active, involved, fun to be with, engaged in the world, and many years younger in attitude than their actual age might imply.

I hate the overused "60 is the new 40" cliche because it is simply inaccurate. At 60 someone has much more life experience and maturity than a 40 year old. I would suggest the slogan should be the "60 is a new 60." To me that implies what we think of as defining a 60 year old must be scrapped and replaced with the new definition of someone entering their seventh decade. 

An expression I hear occasionally is the title of this post. It probably comes as close as any to describe what might be the most accurate definition of someone who is truly on a satisfying journey through retirement. The human body decays. The thinning hair (actually by now a bald spot) on my head, the wrinkles, the brown "liver spots"  on my arms and face, mark me as someone who is "getting up there," as folks used to say. But do I think of myself as old? Will I think of myself as old when I turn 68?

No. I see myself as aging but not old where it matters: in my relationships, engagement with life, desire to learn new things, and the chance to stick around this earth as long as the good Lord deems it appropriate. When it is my time to move on, I want to be satisfied that I didn't leave too much on the table, make too many enemies, and loved my life.

Maybe I am like a chuck roast (if you are a vegetarian, just go with my example!). This is a cut of meat that is sometimes hard to chew. It often lacks much taste. It is relatively inexpensive and not considered a prime cut of beef. But, with the proper seasoning, spices, meat tenderizer and a lot of care, it can be made quite tolerable, even tasty and appealing. 

We are not old based on a calendar or someone else's definition. We are old only if we stop living a full life while adding seasoning to the world around us.

December 5, 2015

Bike Riding - a Skill You Never Forget?

Our new neighborhood, in fact most of the area, is bike-friendly. Dedicated lanes, signs urging motorists to share the road, and an extensive network of paths along miles of canals make bike-riding easy and inviting. With the temperatures in the perfect range for outside exercise, a new bike for both Betty and me have been added to our satisfying journey

After lots of on-line research and discussion, We decided on two bikes on the lower end of the price scale - about $150 each. Several folks suggested we shop at a dedicated bike shop and plan on spending at least $300-$400 for a quality piece of equipment. But, our choice was really a practical one. Betty's knees may not allow her to cycle very often or for long distances. My knees and ankles aren't the best either. By spending closer to $400 for the bikes and helmets, if it doesn't work out we won't feel too disappointed. And, the bikes will find a new home someday with two of our grandkids.

Mine is a Schwinn, a brand name that I remember from my youth,  though the company today is a shadow of its former self and no longer headquartered in Chicago. Called a mountain bike, the 7 speed model pictured above seems closer to a hybrid or comfort bike. The tires are appropriate for concrete and dirt but not overly nubby or fat to create a rough ride. I bought some extra padding for the seat; the one that came with the bike seems small and hard.

Betty settled on a cruiser-style. This has one speed and braking is applied by pushing the back pedal down. With a 24" wheel she can touch the ground and feels much more stable than on a standard size adult bike. 

After something close to thirty years since we had last ridden, both of us had some anxiety. Is the cliche about "a skill you never forget" really true? Luckily, helmets are now standard equipment. Skinned knees or hands, maybe even a sprained or broken ankle are possible. But, unless an inattentive driver hits you, the odds of serious injury are quite small, odds we are willing to take.

Actually, the saying seems appropriate. After a few seconds of getting my balance figured out, it was just like ....riding a bike. My body will have to get used to the physical work again. After a few rides around our block and then a quick mile to and from a neighborhood park I could feel it in my thighs. Even with a padded seat there was some...chafing, that I don't remember from my youth. Perhaps blue jeans aren't the best for bike riding, though spandex or lyrca are not going to happen. I have been told about bike short liners that sound like a good investment. Riding does provides a workout different from simply walking on the treadmill or doing the circuit at the gym.

After a week or so Betty and I have upped our riding to 2+ miles without any problems. That puts us at a path that extends for 5 miles along one of the canals in the area. Paved and smooth, it is a perfect place to stretch our legs.

Just one request: if you are in the Chandler/Gilbert,AZ area and see me and Betty, give us a wide berth. We are still getting my biking skills back.

November 27, 2015

A New Find on A Saturday Afternoon

Ask me what I know about olive oil and I might say that she was Popeye's girlfriend. That, of course, would be correct. But, the more common response would be an oil that is now used regularly in the majority of households in this country, and an even higher percentage in many other parts of the world.

A reader's suggestion (thanks, Mona) from a few months ago gave Betty and me a new place to explore: The Queen Creek Olive Mill, about 40 minutes from our new home. A week or so ago we downloaded a map and set out. I got lost. Or, should I say Google Map isn't always completely accurate, particularly in a rural part of the Valley. Roads that it thinks are connected, aren't.

No matter. Eventually, we figured it out and found a beautiful little corner of our area. The Queen Creek Olive Oil is the only place in Arizona that produces Extra Virgin Olive Oil. A market on site sells more types and blends of olive oil and vinegar than I knew existed. A coffee shop and fresh food restaurant are attached. On the other side of a stand of olive trees sits small stage where musicians perform on weekends. A combination grill and bar are also among the trees. serving cold beer and hot burgers. The day we were there a local vineyard had samples of Arizona wine available for tasting and purchase.

Enjoying a mid 70's, mid November day, we had a cheese board loaded with, you guessed it, olives and cheeses, roasted red peppers, honey, and crusty bread. A panini sandwich and prickly pear lemonade completed a perfect lunch while we listened to the music and watched a large Saturday crowd enjoy the setting.

Betty found a small Christmas ornament carved from an olive tree while I snapped some pictures. After an hour or so we headed back home, satisfied that our Saturday afternoon had been well spent.

To top off the day we went to dinner at an excellent Mexican restaurant in Old Town Gilbert. As we finished the meal, who comes around the corner but our grandkids with mom and dad in tow. The group spots us and rushes in for hugs and conversation.

A perfect end to a great day.

November 21, 2015

Is Leaving a Legacy Under Our Control?

What is a legacy? Most dictionaries define it as a gift of money or property for someone after you die. The second way to think of a legacy is something that has been achieved that continues to exist after someone's death. That is the form of legacy I'd like to explore as you move through your satisfying journey.

It would be a very rare person who doesn't want to be remembered after he or she is gone. As we age we understand how short life really is and that there are few opportunities for do-overs.

I have one life. What am I making of it? How would I like to be remembered?  Do I know what I would like to leave behind for others? These are questions that all humans ask themselves at some point. We have a very basic need to believe we have made a difference. A legacy is just that: something that can be pointed to that confirms you were here and you mattered. A satisfying retirement is great, but a strong legacy is something really worth striving for.

There are two basic types of legacies. The first involves tangible accomplishments. If you are an artist that's easy. Your paintings, sculptures or photographs will hang on a museum wall or grace people's homes for years into the future. If you are a singer, actor, or writer you will live on in your music, performances, or words.

Maybe your financial status is such that you can create an on-going scholarship at a favorite school or an endowment at the university you attended. You might be able to donate enough money to help fund on-going research into a serious disease. Maybe you established a volunteer organization that continues to help people for years into the future.

For someone who is handy with tools, maybe you built a vacation cabin in the woods, or a canoe that cuts gracefully through the water. Your family and relatives can enjoy what you made and think of you whenever they do.

The second type of legacy is the intangible kind. You have instilled a set of moral and ethical values in your children. You have treated loved ones and friends in such a way that when people remember you those memories are full of joy and fondness.

You have demonstrated through your life the importance of giving back to others, of leaving your little corner of the world just a bit better for you having been here. You have modeled a life worth living and are remembered by your actions, big and small, your beliefs, and your steadfastness. Years after you are gone, someone will mention your name and there will be a smile, or a fond memory, or a confirmation of how you spent your life's time. Maybe there will be the ultimate compliment when someone declares he would like to be like you were.

While both types of legacies have tremendous value, I think most of us have a better shot at creating a life worth remembering when we focus on the intangible characteristics. The good news: it is not too late to start. The bad news: too many of us never start.

The goal of a legacy can't be selfish. If so, it probably won't be very long-lasting. Even the person who donates $5 million to establish a scholarship fund is doing it because she believes her money can benefit more people if she uses it in this way. Will her name be associated with something good? Sure. But, that is not the primary motivator.

If you are remembered for teaching your children how to be responsible, caring, loving parents to their kids your legacy is worthwhile. If you instill a sense of civic responsibility in a child who goes on to help others for the rest of his or her life, you have created a legacy that is worthwhile.

Maybe your legacy is the guy who always smiled, who was always there to help someone when he was down, who loved others unconditionally. Maybe you were  the first to volunteer whenever your church needed help. You couldn't take off 2 years to join the Peace Corps so you always helped restock the food bank at an inner-city school. You were confined to a wheelchair after an accident. But, instead of being bitter and withdrawn you remained positive and upbeat. You affirmed that there were others in much worse shape than you.

All of us will be remembered for something. How would you like to be remembered for what you do while on this earth? How would you want your memory to affect others? Most of the answers are within your control. A legacy is built on beliefs and attitudes that are translated into actions. Turn whatever time you have left into a long-lasting legacy. Start today.

November 17, 2015

Update: So, You're Retired: What Do You Do All Day?

A post I wrote a little over five years ago remains the most-read one on this blog. In that time, almost 36,000 folks have clicked the link to take a peak inside the life of a retiree. Fresh comments are still left on a regular basis by someone who just discovered that post and wants to be part of the discussion. I love to see that; it means what has been written is still relevant.

So, You're Retired: What Do You Do All Day was written just a few months after I starting blogging. If I wrote that post today it would be quite different. In the five years that have slipped by I have changed my attitudes and understanding of a satisfying retirement. I have a better understanding of what leaves me feeling fulfilled. I have a much clearer picture of what is meaningful.  I have a better handle on the concerns that have turned out to be not important or worth the worry.

The path to my satisfying journey is available in previous posts available in the archives. I invite you to take some time to see if anything resonates with you and your needs. And, I do encourage you to email me if you have a specific concern or problem that you'd like my thoughts on. 

What I'd like to do with this "reboot" version is to take a quick sample at what the last few years of some national studies and authors have written about retirees and their use of time. Then, I ask you to comment on how well what has been described matches your day. I will bet there will be some very interesting and important differences!

One nationally respected source lists these three top "activities:"

  • Reading
  • Resting
  • Watching TV
A little farther down the list are:
  • Sleep
  • Shopping
  • Chores
  • Volunteer work
What seems to be missing are some rather important activities for retirees. Even though the number one concern of the vast majority of us is the state of our health, this list does not indicate that physical exercise or staying active is even in the top ten. Finding an activity or hobby to become passionate about is also missing. Spiritual development is something that many retired folks find is much more important in their lives; it isn't noted.

Another author was a bit more thorough. Financial concerns and management take up parts of a typical day. Working on relationships may not seem like it needs to be on a list of what retirees do during the day, but the author (and I) would certainly suggest it is vital. Nothing can make a 24 hour day a miserable experience than being with another person, all day, every day, and being unhappy or argumentative.

One writer used a phrase I understand, but I have a problem with because he is probably right more often than not: "Retirement takes place at the margins." He is implying that a typical retired person lives a life not that different from his or her working years, except in some of the spare time that now exists. Watching TV, eating, sleeping, doing household chores, shopping......a day after retirement looks like a day before.

Certainly, there are basic activities and duties we all must perform regardless of our employment status. I do agree that there are a lot of retired folks who fill their time with just more of the same. But, the comments left on hundreds of blog posts over the last 5+years, the research I conducted for my last book, my relationship with other retirees, and my personal experience tells me that a retirement that "takes place on the margins" is a wasted retirement. 

If the only way to tell if someone is retired is the the lack of regular paychecks or a daily commute, then that is a sad. For many of us, retirement will last almost as long as the years spent employed. If we are careful to watch our money we are not likely to "run out." If we take care of our bodies and minds by staying active and engaged, we will have productive decades ahead of us.

If we find a passion, nourish our relationships, give some part of ourselves to others, and understand that there is something greater than us watching over us, a satisfying journey through retirement is not only possible, but likely. 

Each day is a day full of possibilities and promise. What do you do with that time?

November 13, 2015

Taking the Time

This post first ran over 4 years ago. As I re-read it, the message seemed to be worth repeating, and to fit with several recent posts I have written about schedules, freestyling during retirement and making sure I don't let opportunities pass me by. Even though some of the descriptions are of the house we sold 6 months ago, the message remains the same: a satisfying journey is my responsibility.

My schedule is not as busy as it was when I was running my radio consulting business. I no longer travel half of each month. I don't have to worry about making payroll, government forms, marketing, or keeping clients happy.

But, retirement is not a walk in the park. And, that is part of my concern. It should be. Literally.  I live about 1/2 mile from a very nice park complete with sports fields, picnic tables, and a large play area for kids. A full walking circuit from my house, around the park and back is exactly 2 miles. Without pushing it that is about 35 minutes. There is no earthly reason why my wife and I shouldn't walk around the park, or have a picnic dinner, or simply sit and watch the kids at play on a regular basis. Unfortunately, it is rare event in our lives.

I have written before about our backyard. Lots of planting, a fountain, a Ramada, a shaded porch, an eating area....sounds even better to me as I describe it. What a perfect place for starting the day with breakfast and a book, for lunch, or simply relaxing at the end of the day. Again, like the nearby park, this oasis is underused.

There is one part of my office that holds the equipment for my hobby, ham radio. There are eight different radios and various amplifier or power supplies, microphones, and enough wires and cables to open a Radio Shack. The roof  has several different antennas sticking up above the roof so I can hear and transmit to places all around the world. Amazingly, last week was the first time in almost a year that I actually used a few of the radios to make contact with fellow radio operators in Minnesota and Washington state. Thousands of dollars of equipment have been gathering dust for 11 months.

So, what's the problem?  I certainly have the time. While my schedule is pretty full with blogging, volunteer work, exercising at the gym, meetings at church, and the normal work required to maintain a house and family, it is rather flexible. I can fit in something that is interesting or enjoyable if I so choose.

The problem is I don't take the time. I think of something interesting or pleasant to do, but let excuses at the last minute derail the idea. I keep putting it off until the moment is gone.

Phoenix Art Museum outdoor cafe
A few weeks ago this flaw in my satisfying retirement lifestyle became evident, even to me. An interesting art movie was showing on a Sunday afternoon at the Phoenix Art Museum. The movie was free, so my budget was happy. Show time was several hours after church so we could go without a problem.

At the last moment, Betty and I decided to leave early so we could enjoy lunch at the museum's restaurant. It was a lovely, breezy day...perfect for having a spur-of-the-moment meal on the outside patio before the movie began. Lunch, a walk around the neighborhood, the movie, and then a brief look at the latest exhibit at the museum made for an absolutely delightful 4 hours.

As we were driving home, the thought struck me that my retirement should be filled with many more moments like this. At a certain age you realize putting off something until later may mean you have missed an opportunity that may not come around again.

Taking the time to embrace happiness, to do something different, and to experience the world around you doesn't require being retired. All of us, at any stage of life, can fill our lives with those special moments that can brighten our daily life.

But, being retired and relatively free to do what I want when I want, removes all plausible excuses. Taking the time to live and not just exist should be our goal.

November 9, 2015

Uniting With a New Passion

A few months ago I wrote about The Stigma of Being Poor and asked about our responsibility to change our world for the better. In that post I mentioned my personal search for a new way to become involved beyond just writing about our society's problems. I want to actively do something about them.

After several years of personal counseling through the Stephen Ministry program, and five years deeply involved in prison ministry, I have taken a two year break. I needed a breather and the time to decide where my particular talents (or, is that peculiar talents?) might lead me.

I have found the answer. The local United Way organization has invited me to be a member of a steering committee for a new volunteer initiative that focuses on retirees in the Phoenix metro area. With life skills and experiences, a desire to give back to the community, and the time to do so, many of these folks are simply looking for information and the opportunity to help.

The Valley of the Sun United Way has been serving community needs in the Phoenix area for 90 years. Within the past four years it has made a major adjustment to its approach. 

 Previously, VSUW (Valley of The Sun United Way) collected donations from tens of thousands of individuals and hundreds of businesses. That money was then distributed to appropriate agencies that would apply the funds to the immediate needs in the community.

After some serious research and thinking about their overall role, the VSUW moved to a model where the donated money becomes the funding for programs with the direct involvement of the United Way team and cooperating businesses, agencies, and volunteers. In this way, problems such as homelessness and hunger, increasing the financial stability of families and individuals, and finding ways to help children and youth succeed in life can be dealt with in a more comprehensive and and long-term manner.

82,000 households in Maricopa County (Phoenix's county) experience chronic hunger. One in five Arizonans lives in poverty. Tens of thousands of kids come to local schools hungry each morning. With problems this extensive a concerted effort to look for solutions must be made.

Feeding someone who is hungry or finding a family of four clean beds for the evening are vital. Helping the individuals and families find solutions to these problems to get them off the same track is even more important. The new model that the VSUW is now following, allows for both short and long term commitments to finding solutions. Other United Way organizations around the country are looking at the success of the Phoenix model and making adjustments that allow them to better serve their own communities.

I am excited and energized over the chance to become part of an organization that is doing so much good for my hometown, and has the foresight to evolve its approach to the problems that affect so many. After attending the first steering committee meeting last month I have become involved in helping the new program develop promotional materials. I am helping to secure a presentation at a major retirement community in the Valley where I hope many of the residents find new outlets for their desire to serve. At some point I have been told I will become part of a speakers' bureau, to help spread the word about Retire United.

Over the next several months I will have some additional posts about this new chapter in my volunteer life. If you live in the greater Phoenix area, I urge you to check out the Retire United group. For everyone else, I urge you to always look for ways to serve others and your community that satisfies and nourishes you. 

November 5, 2015

Infrastructure Care and Maintenance

courtsey CNN

Much of the infrastructure in this country is decaying or in poor repair. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that nearly 1 in 4 bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete. Highway congestion drains $100 billion from our productivity every year. All of us have regular contact with potholes and roads that are literally unsafe to drive. Some of us deal with power brownouts during heat waves because the electric grids are old or too small to handle the demand.

When the enlarged Panama Canal opens soon only 2 out of fourteen East Coast ports will be able to accept the larger vessels. Meanwhile, Cuba is busy building a giant port to accept these new ships and satisfy a need that U.S. ports can't. 

This post isn't about the damage to our present and future living standards due to the failure to maintain and improve basic infrastructure. Rather, the article caused me to think about another infrastructure: ours. The good news is we don't have to wait for Congress to act, or the utilities to expand capacity. We are in charge.

The dictionary definition of infrastructure is: the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. For us that would include our health, our minds, our living environment, and our relationship with others.

I am beginning the process of planning and writing a new book. Building a Satisfying Retirement is almost 5 years old, while Living a Satisfying Retirement will have been on the market for three years next spring. Both continue to sell on Amazon, but a fresh compilation of my thoughts is probably due.

This concept of our internal infrastructure prompted me to think about a focus for a new book. Like a bridge needs a solid foundation or a roadway needs quality ingredients to last, retirement should have certain elements in place. As I reviewed my life over the past decade and a half, as well as several years of posts and comments, I have identified 9 building blocks of a satisfying retirement. 

Importantly, these components aren't unique to retirements. Some of them are part of our life from the day we were born. But, for our purposes, I believe they take on increased significance as we age and move through this next stage of life. They are the infrastructure that we depend on for a satisfying journey.

My writing schedule should mean the new book will be finished and available by late winter or early next spring. 

So, the next time you drive around a pothole or wonder if the workers will ever finish repairs on that freeway near your home, think about your internal infrastructure and what shape it is in. Then, I hope you will compare your results with what I come up with when the new book hits the market!

November 1, 2015

Can You Lead a Life of Significance While Still Nurturing Yourself?

How is that for a post title. Is it a rhetorical question or do I have an answer? And, what exactly is a "life of significance?" Is it diametrically opposed to a life where "self" is protected and nurtured?

Immediately, here in paragraph number 2, I will state that the question is not rhetorical. I will also note that I don't know if I have the answer. But, it seems like a question or dilemma that should be asked. So, let's see where the discussion takes us.

This potential dichotomy is not one that exists exclusively during the retirement years. Of course, as infants and young children the whole world is about us and our significance. Periods of loud crying and temper tantrums pretty much work to keep mom and dad focused on our wants.

Once we realize that the world is round and big and we are not at its center, hopefully we begin to incorporate the feelings and needs of others into our world view. Sharing, consideration, and compromise are skills that become necessary for our social survival.

If we look at our society over the last decade or two, I could argue that those precise skill sets of compromise, consideration, and sharing are falling into disuse as we age. How else to explain the extreme polarization in our world? 

One could make the point that some of us have regressed back into the young child mode of self being the only motivator and "what I want" becomes the mantra. There is no debate that our innate sense of self worth and preservation are powerful motivators. But, if we let those feelings rule all our decisions I contend we (and the world) are the worse for it.

Certainly, one of the most pleasing aspects of my satisfying journey through retirement has been the growth in my need to connect more with others and lend a helping hand when I can. I enjoyed what I did for a living for all those years. But, there was little time or motivation to do much for anyone other than my immediate family. They were my focus and the beneficiaries of my work and thoughts. 

For me, retirement has allowed me to see the deficiencies in that approach to life. The freedom of time and change has opened up parts of my self that were well hidden for years. My spiritual growth has made it abundantly clear that I was too self-centered and too concerned with the pleasures of the material world. Family is a blessing, but we are made to do more.

A life of significance is one in which an individual does more than is required, more than is expected, more than is simply expedient. It may mean volunteer work. It may mean using skills from your working years to help others now. It can mean clearing a large chunk of your schedule to be a caregiver for a family member or relative. It could mean getting deeply involved in a cause or subject that moves you or you believe has an importance beyond just yourself.

At the same time, you are nurturing yourself. You are likely to find parts of your character or personality that you didn't know existed. It is certainly probable that you will find a sense of fulfillment and joy that eluded you in the past. You will be more connected to the world around you, becoming stimulated and enriched in a way that would much more difficult if you were isolated and only focused inward.

Please, don't simply accept what you have just read without some serious thought on your part. You may disagree with some (or all) of what has been written. But, if you think about the subject and come to a way forward that works for you, then this post has served its purpose.

Note: did you remember to change your clocks this morning? Daylight Savings Time ended at 2 am Sunday, November 1st.

October 28, 2015

Freestyling During Retirement

A few months ago a newly retired reader left a comment that included a phrase I love, one I told him I would "borrow" for a post. As his life unfolded he had decided to take a freestyling approach to retirement. From that I believe he meant he would not be adverse to new experiences, new activities, and new challenges. After a life time of restrictions at work, it was time to sample everything at the buffet table to see what he enjoyed. He would improvise as needed. He would add what he liked and discard what he didn't from his day without being concerned about a previously set schedule.

Two weeks ago I wrote about my need for a schedule to accomplish what I wanted to each day. Over the last few years I had come to realize that too often I would put something off for no valid reason, except that I could. It was just too easy to say "I'll do that later" and then never get to it. Having a time slot for writing, exercise, and guitar practice increased the odds that I would accomplish what I have determined is important to me. 

Most of my day is not "on the clock." When the spirit moves us Betty and I will decide to see a movie, have lunch at a new restaurant, take Bailey to the park, or simply read a good book while sipping coffee on the back porch  But, for the three things I noted above, I have found that a set time during the week works for me.

Hold on. Isn't that the opposite of freestyling? Isn't my need for some structure too rigid to allow me to improvise or do something because I feel like it? No, I don't think it is. In fact, the scheduling of certain activities frees me to take on new things or change how I approach a problem or challenge. I don't worry about skipping something that is important because I know I have that covered. In a counterintuitive kind of way having a set schedule for certain activities is actually quite liberating. 

I imagine I am not in the majority with this approach to a satisfying journey through retirement. Having even a partially set schedule doesn't seem to fit what most people envision when finally freed from the working world. 

I am very interested in your reaction to the concept of freestyling in retirement and what that phrase might mean to you. 

October 24, 2015

Social Security, Inflation, and Seniors

I received the following press release from the Senior Citizens League a few weeks ago. It highlights a situation that affects many of us who receive Social Security benefits. I ask that you read the following and then respond to a few questions I have added:

(Alexandria, VA) Social Security beneficiaries have lost 22 percent of their buying power since 2000, according to the 2015 Survey of Senior Costs by The Senior Citizens League (TSCL).  The findings show a dramatic drop in inflation over the past year, due almost entirely to the drop in oil prices.  “The deflationary trend, while good news for some consumers, spells trouble ahead next year for retired and disabled beneficiaries who depend on Social Security for most of their income,” says TSCL Chairman Ed Cates.

In most years, Social Security beneficiaries receive a small increase in their Social Security checks, intended to help them keep up with rising costs.  But according to the 2015 TSCL survey of typical senior costs, since 2000 the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) has increased benefits just 43 percent while typical senior expenses have jumped 74 percent.  Recently the Social Security Trustees confirmed that there would be no annual COLA for 2016 — which TSCL earlier forecast in May.

Inflation has been at historic lows in recent years and seniors received a COLA of just 1.7 percent this year.  “While there’s been some temporary improvement in the buying power of Social Security benefits recently, the drop in inflation is now so large that there is no COLA expected for 2016,” says TSCL Chairman Ed Cates. 

Going without any COLA has long-term consequences resulting in lower total retirement income,” Cates says.  “This problem also affects military retirees and others who receive COLA adjusted benefits.,”

According to the TSCL survey, people with average Social Security benefits in 2000 received $816 per month, a figure that rose to $1,166.30 by 2015. However, those individuals would require a Social Security benefit of $1,419.00 per month in 2015 just to maintain the same buying power they had when they first retired, the study found.

The study examined the increase in costs of 34 key items between 2000 and January 2015.  The items were chosen because they are typical of the costs seniors must bear.  Of the 34 costs analyzed, 22 exceeded the amount of increase in the COLA over the same period.  The selected items represent eight categories, weighted by approximate expenditure.

“This study illustrates why budget proposals that would cut the growth of COLAs would put millions of older and disabled Americans at risk of insufficient income to cover more growing expenses,” says Cates. “To put it in perspective, for every $100 worth of expenses seniors could afford in 2000, they can afford just $78 today.” A majority of the 59 million senior and disabled Americans who receive Social Security depend on it for at least 50 percent of their total income, and one in three beneficiaries relies on it for 90 percent or more of his or her total income.


The COLA situation may not affect you, or maybe it does quite directly. The effect of inflation, even the "official" low level of the last several years, takes its toll. No one is unaware of the increased medical costs for prescription drugs, insurance premiums, copays and deductibles, even for those on Medicare.  A couple should expect to spend an estimated $245,000 (in today's dollars) on health care in retirement, according to Fidelity’s 2015 Health Care Cost Estimate, as reported in Forbes Magazine.

The costs at the grocery store are just as dramatic. Ground beef has increased 130% since 2000,  a dozen eggs are up 117%, even a loaf of bread is 63% more expensive over the same time period. Electricity is up  63%, real estate taxes 127% higher.....for those on fixed incomes these increases can be very damaging.

So, my questions to you are these:

1) Realizing that so many seniors depend on Social Security for a major portion of their income should the government use a calculation that insures monthly payments at least keep pace with the inflation of the true cost of living?

2) Because the system will be in serious financial straits at some point in the not too distant future, is this something that Social Security simply can't afford, even if the result is real loss of buying power over time?

Frankly, I am not sure what my answers would be to these two questions. One part of me says if we can afford a half a trillion dollar defense budget, or to send a spaceship to Mars, then maybe our priorities toward the most vulnerable part of our society need adjusting. Many seniors cannot reasonably find ways to increase their income, so they are truly stuck. Official inflation calculations do not take into account the dramatically increased costs that are part of our daily life. 

On the other hand, it is not just those on Social Security who have to deal with wages that have barely budged over the last decade. Is it fair to make those on Social Security a little better off while wage earners are not made whole? 

What are your thoughts? What is fair and compassionate? 

October 10, 2015

White Mountain RVing

This has not been a good year for RV travel. Except for a week long trip to Palm Springs in January, the RV has been sitting, unused, in a storage yard about 15 minutes from our house. Two short adventures and our summer-long trip were cancelled for reasons detailed in earlier posts.

So, it was with a great sense of satisfaction that Betty, Bailey, and I loaded up R.T. ( the name of the RV - Road Trip) and spend three nights at our favorite state park in Arizona, Follows Hollow, just outside Show Low. At 6300 feet the area is 20-25 degrees cooler than our desert home, a blessing.

The camping sites are spaced far enough apart for a very private feeling. Situated above the beautiful blue and shimmering lake, it is hard not to relax. A picnic table and fire pit are perfectly placed for meals and evening fires. Bailey has miles of trails to explore and smell new smells. 

Betty getting the fire ready
She is loving it
At night we experienced a sight that is almost impossible at home: untold thousands of stars and even the white smear of the Milky Way overhead. The slight reddish tinge of Mars, the North Star, and both dippers were easy to spot. There is complete quiet except for night time insects and the crackling of the fire.

During the day we hiked, read, talked, napped, played games and made plans for our grandson's upcoming birthday party. In the evening, fire pit time was followed by more game playing or a movie brought from home. Winds were gusty, sometimes reaching 30 mph during the day which made for the constant rustling and swaying of trees.

Importantly, I had the time and stillness to think about adjustments to my schedule and direction this fall. I saw this time as a end to summer and the beginning of the new season with all that might entail. I came home feeling as though I had flipped the calendar page to a fresh start.

A while back I wrote about my "need" to become involved in some volunteer activity, to do something that served those who are less fortunate or somehow marginalized in our society. My initial step is to become part of a steering committee being formed by United Way to find ways to get seniors more actively involved in service opportunities. The first meeting is next week, as part of a Connect day, a regular event when hundreds of folks get access to help with housing or medical issues. 

My time in the mountains also helped clarify the importance to me of a schedule. I am finding it much too easy to drift through a day, putting off chores or activities for no particular reason than because I can.

I am going to take a page from my business days when I had to juggle dozens of different responsibilities and deadlines: have a daily schedule that has definite time slots for various things that I know are important to me: exercise/gym/bike riding time, writing, and guitar practice. 

It might seem strange that retirement requires a more rigid schedule, but that is what I think will be best for me at this point in my satisfying journey. I will let you know how it works.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit, even for just a picnic and a hike, I can't say enough good things about Fools Hollow State Park. Arizona may have some problems with governance and its budget, but Betty and I have yet to be at a State Park that wasn't clean, well maintained, and well run. I am guessing the dedicated and friendly volunteers who man these places are responsible for much of what we experience. 

In the meantime, enjoy these photos:

Our home away from home

View of fire pit and lake

Stored until Spring

If we caught any fish, Betty was ready!

The family that camps together........