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.