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 26, 2015

Finding Simplicity in A Complicated World

News FlashWe are facing a loss of predictability in a world with constant and accelerating change. I'm being just a bit sarcastic. These changes are not a news flash for any of us. It is a description of what we deal with every day. It would be difficult to live in the 21st century and not have to cope with this.

In many cases we have become immune to the constant shifting of what we take for granted and what we believe to be true.

The shift under your feet isn't just an earthquake, it is a societal shift. Consider a handful of examples:

  • For the first time on Black Friday , more shopping took place on line than in physical stores A few years ago this would be have been unthinkable. Not only were there substantially fewer on line choices, but how many were comfortable using a credit card on line? Would we ever be willing to order things without first touching or seeing them? The answer is, Yes. In fact, some marketing experts are predicting an end to the day-after-Thanksgiving insanity. Cyber Monday. (the Monday after the Thanksgiving Weekend) set records for activity last year.

  • Have you tried to find a cell phone recently whose primary function is a phone? It is virtually impossible. Except for a few very basic phones sold in magazines, smart phones (which can make you feel stupid) are the only real choice. E-mails, voice mail, and actual phone conversations have already lost the battle to texting. 

  • Desktop computers are an endangered species. Even laptops have lost favor. Increasingly, smart phones and devices like the iPad or various tablets can do everything the bigger, bulky computers can do, but are lightweight and hand sized. Storing everything on the cloud means a terabyte storage isn't needed on your personal device. Many don't even come with a DVD drive, either.

  • The promise of a pension or 401k being there when you need it is  not true anymore. As companies, governments, and unions try to handle future obligations they are cutting benefits and payouts. No matter what you were told, that retirement financial nest egg may look more like an omelet. Social Security and Medicare...who knows? So far, they seem to be OK, but their bankruptcy is on the horizon.

  • Health studies are produced every day that contradict what yesterday's said. Wait long enough and cigarettes and bacon will become health foods. Coffee is now thought to prevent some forms of cancer. Eggs are back on the OK list. My doctor told me to drink a glass of red wine every day to help keep my heart healthy. It is becoming increasingly difficult to know what to believe when so many experts have so many different opinions.

  • The political climate is unstable. Wild swings in legislation and philosophies make it almost impossible for business or individuals to make long term plans. What was law today may be abolished after the next election. As the non-stop shootings in America and around the world make clear, we are in a very dangerous period of history. The simple word, terrorism, seems to rule many of our waking thoughts and actions.

  • Even something as commonplace as repairing your own car requires specialized computers to diagnose many problems, and then computer-like parts to fix it. Changing your oil is still possible. Figure out what the check engine light means? To the repair shop you go.

  • Network and cable television are losing the battle to streaming and Internet options. Media streaming directly to your TV, phone, or iPad make every other form of distribution too expensive and too slow. A headline in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago seems very prophetic: Digital or Die.

So, what should our response be to this onslaught?  Can we do anything to get a sense of control back? Simple living or voluntary simplicity is a lifestyle choice that has several attractions. Cutting back on possessions and avoiding much of the material society in which we live have benefits that I have detailed in earlier posts. But, it really has little to do with a response to a complicated and uncertain world. Here are some thoughts to get your own creative juices flowing:

Put more stock in you.  Gather all the opinions you want. Do all the research on any subject that helps you get a handle on the issue. But, when it is decision time, trust you. You should not doubt your own abilities. Learn to trust your gut and intuitions. If something doesn't seem quite right to you, then it isn't. Will you make mistakes? Sure you will. But, guess what, you'll make mistakes even if you wait for others to tell you what you should do.

Personal responsibility must make a comeback. The time when we could safely outsource all our decisions to others is ending. Believing the experts almost brought down our economy. It should be obvious by now that promises to you by corporations or government aren't always  binding. You need to take on more of the load of managing and guiding your own life.

Decide what adds clutter to your life and reduce it. It could something as obvious as too much time on the computer or Internet. It could be too many possessions to repair, maintain and insure. It might be a house that is much too big for your needs. Maybe a three car garage doesn't need three cars. Over-commitment is a dangerous form of clutter. Are you the go-to volunteer for everyone? Determine what can be eliminated or cut back and do so.  Less clutter means less stress. Less stress means less complexity.

Learning and changing never stops; don't even tryIt is useless to dig in your heels and try to keep things the way they were (or are). Your life will probably be OK for awhile without rushing out for a 5G phone (yes, they are next). But, to refuse to consider change is a doomed strategy. Read, study, ponder. Try to understand how a change you've been reading or hearing about about may affect you.

In summary I believe there is one basic truth that gives us hope: the more we learn to handle complexity, the simpler it becomes.

Question: Am I overstating the problem of complexity and its affect on us? Have I missed a way to find more simplicity? I encourage your feedback.

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.