April 30, 2016

From Adversity Comes Something Special

This post is part travelogue, part inspirational story. It is about a place that was almost destroyed by natural disasters, but fought back to find new life and a new direction.

Betty and I just returned from a trip to Silver City, New Mexico. About five hours from our home, we were looking for someplace we had never been. A few friends had cautioned us to not expect much from this town. They told us it was another southwest hamlet that staked its livelihood on mining. Boom times made everyone happy. But, when the earth had been played out, or the thirst for silver or coal was done, there were few reason for many to stay and hold on. Population plummeted and most stores were boarded up and abandoned.

Silver City's demise was a little different. The gold, then silver mine, had never shut down. in fact, it remains in operation today. What almost killed the town was poor planning and a series of devastating floods around the turn of the 20th century. 

Cut in half  after a massive flood

Astride the Continental Divide, the area is prone to heavy, intense rain during summer monsoon seasons. Silver City was positioned so that all the runoff during big storms would be funneled straight down the streets of the town.

During a series of huge storms around the turn of the 20th century, the main street and all its buildings were literally washed away. In their place was a 55 foot ditch. Almost overnight, the town was cut in half and most retail establishments were gone. 

While people rebuilt what they could by turning the massive ditch into a channel for future storms and eventually a park for residents, much of the damage had been done. Silver City was in deep trouble.

Starting in 1985, a full 70 years later, determined residents began a community wide effort to save and rebuild the downtown area. The new center for shopping, dining, and entertainment was established one block west of the massive ditch that once was Main street.

I can report they have succeeded. Still housed in mostly original buildings, Silver City's downtown is alive and well. Dozens of restaurants, art galleries, coffee houses, bars, antique stores, and a bustling farmer's cooperative give downtown energy all day and well into weekend evenings when antique street lamps cast a warm glow. To its credit, most store fronts have been left alone, creating a fascinating mix of textures and appearances. Most sidewalks are from 1 to 2 feet higher than the street, making sure future flooding waters run harmlessly into the ditch.

The original movie theater has been completely refurbished while still maintaining its 1940's charm. In fact, its grand opening occurred the day we arrived in town following a community wide effort to bring it back from the dead. Three community theater groups and an active local university cultural and sports schedule make Silver City seem much larger than just the 10,000 folks who call it home.

Much to our delight the town is not overwhelmed by tourists. Walking across the major streets usually means waiting for one car to go by. There is a feeling of calm and contentment. No one is in a hurry. Everyone smiles and talks to friends and strangers alike. 

The retiree community must be fairly large. We saw enough gray hair to feel right at home. Pony tails on men and women, peasant blouses, well worn shirts and pants, and all variety of hats pointed to a town that relishes its hippie - 60's - not quite mainstream kind of feel. In fact, one of the restaurants we enjoyed is owned by a couple that decided to move here from the Bay area after a particularly memorable Grateful Dead concert. Doesn't get more granola than that!

We ate well at a  tremendous variety of restaurants. Several eye-catching items found at antique stores and art galleries now grace our home. We enjoyed music ranging from country to African and Brazilian inspired rhythms at pubs and breweries. 

Though we missed it due to a mistake on my part about the timing, a coffee shop around the corner from our hotel even had a harp concert at a funky coffee shop on Sunday afternoon. Harps and coffee - what an interesting mix.

In addition to a very enjoyable, memorable getaway in a town we fell in love with, is the message of turning adversity around. When a group of committed people decide something is worth doing, the outcome can be wonderful. A series of setbacks that could have destroyed folks' spirits instead allowed something special to develop. There is a lesson there for all of us. And, it shouldn't take a natural disaster to spur us to action.

Enjoy some photos of our visit

Unique art is everywhere

love this metal stand

so many textures and light plays

The Big Ditch is now a city park
shapes and colorful decorations

colorful wall as seen through grating

Coffee shop and art gallery

not sure I've ever seen one of these before

mix of buildings and colors

April 24, 2016

What We Teach Our Grandkids Matters

While we're on a brief vacation, I thought this post from 4 years ago was worth a re-posting.

A few days ago Betty, my amazing wife, and I were talking about the power of a parent's or grandparent's words on others. After my mom died I discovered several notebooks filled with recaps of vacation trips she and my dad had taken from 1996 until 2001. They included day trips, long weekend jaunts, weeks-long driving trips, and a few vacations overseas...all part of their satisfying retirement. Mom was a detail person: virtually every meal and every experience was recorded. Some were good, some bad, some just average daily events. But nothing escaped being recorded in her journals. 

In reading them Betty and I were reminded of how much mom and dad loved to take road trips. They wouldn't let more than a month pass without a trip somewhere. I hadn't remembered their 6 week long driving excursion to the East coast and back home to Arizona through the deep south and Texas.

We also noted mom's health decline as each year passed: trouble walking because of numbness, then the transition to walkers, and eventually rarely getting out of the car. Trips to emergency rooms for heart problems or dizziness were recorded. At this time she was in her mid 70's, really too young for so many issues. But, as Betty and I talked about why she had slipped physically so fast we came to an important conclusion: she was at least partially a product of what her parents taught her.

My maternal grandparents did not believe in much physical exercise. Walking was to be avoided by ladies if other transportation was available. A cook and maid took care of household chores. Vacations never involved much exertion. While summers were often spend at their "farm" north of Pittsburgh, most of that time was spent sitting in easy chairs while talking or reading. 

Apparently, my grandparents also had one firm rule that I believe directly contributed to my mom's health problems: they rarely drank water. The beverage was banned from the dining room table at all meals. Coffee was believed to provide the liquids needed to function. An occasional glass of wine or scotch and soda was just an added liquid bonus when one reached the right age.

Living in Arizona for the last twenty some years of her life, mom continued to do as she was taught: avoid water. To survive in the desert drinking water isn't a refreshing choice, it is essential to prevent serious dehydration. With an average humidity of less than 10% the human body loses hydration rapidly. Without replacing that liquid all sorts of health issues can occur.

Team up that choice of parent-taught aversion to water with a belief that ladies didn't exercise or exert themselves and mom's too-soon physical problems were a foregone conclusion. Genetics certainly played a part in what happened to her, but I firmly believe her quality of life failed her at least a decade before it had to because of some "lessons" she learned from her parents.

Unfortunately, my father is following in some of her footsteps. After living with mom for 63 years, he adopted the same reluctance to drinking water. He simply refuses, except to swallow pills. When I try to remind him that certain problems he is encountering are likely related to dehydration he puts on his stubborn face and tells me his three small glasses of skim milk a day are plenty.

I remind him one of the reasons he had to give up his independent lifestyle and driving was due to several fainting instances, directly related to dehydration. He has digestive problems also tied to his fluid intake. Even so, he says water makes him full and he doesn't need it. He learned his lesson well from mom and isn't about to change now. (note: my dad died in March 2015, so he survived a long time in spite of his health choices).

All of this is to make an important point: what we say and teach our children and grandkids can affect them for the rest of their lives. If they learn unhealthy eating and personal care habits, they will likely follow suit. If they see us doing what will help us live a happy, satisfying retirement the odds are good some of that will rub off.

We carry an important responsibility. Little eyes and ears (and not so little) are watching us. How we take care of ourselves, how we treat others less fortunate than usand how we show love and affection are not actions performed in a vacuum. Teachers are not just in classrooms.

April 21, 2016

Feeling One Step Behind The Technology Curve

credit: wikipedia
An enduring image from Star Trek: moving at warp speed. Whether from the original TV show, one of the spin-offs, or from all the movies that boldly went where no man had gone before, warp speed was always available to escape something, or get to a destination in record time.

The real world often feels to me like things are moving at this fictional warp speed. Just when I get comfortable with one new piece of technology, there is something new that is faster or more efficient. Desktop computers gave way to laptops years ago. Then, for about two or three years, tablets were the rage. Almost as quickly, smartphones with larger screens had enough computing power to leave a 10 year old computer in the dust.

The push to get an antenna to pick up local digital signals barely made a ripple before streaming video took over. HD radio never had a chance even if the sound was better than FM. Cable cord cutting is so common-place to not be worth a mention. A 40" TV screen is marketed for small apartments.

Read a newspaper? Really? Why? Everything is free, or almost so, on the Internet. And that news and information is instant, not printed last night before landing on your doorstep (or bushes).

Remember the exciting day when your family bought a 26 volume encyclopedia to help with schoolwork? 

I was thinking back to some of technological changes in the last 20-30 years of my life and I realized something: I was always at least one step behind:

1) During my career as a market researcher I had to construct questionnaires for respondents to answer, either in person or over the phone. These were usually on legal-sized paper, anywhere from ten to twelve pages in length. While the world had begun to shift to a computer to handle this task, I insisted in carrying my hand-written yellow legal pad notes to a woman who typed everything up. Even though she made a few mistakes every time that required a re-do, I continued to avoid computers for this task for several years after it would have made sense to do so.

2) I believed Beta would outlast VHS. How else do I explain boxes of taped TV shows and movies that couldn't be played because no one manufactured Beta machines after the VHS format won that battle? I picked Beta after the battle for supremacy was well underway. Darn it, they were going to prove my choice was right. Not so much. Oh, I finally dumped the last of the VHS tapes a year ago when we moved. 

3) Years after most folks had ditched vinyl records for CDs, I continued to insist on sticking with my scratched, fingerprint-smudged, large, black LPs. I was in radio and that's what I used to play on the air. That's where music was found! Until it wasn't. 

4) Streaming music services, like Pandora, made even CD's seem unnecessary. But, ever on the lookout for the latest trends, I finally bought an Ipod when the world had already decided recorded music was passe. I probably spent months transferring hundreds of hours of music from CDs to the nano Ipod. Now, I rarely use it.

5) There was little disagreement that flat screen TVs produced a better picture, Well before HD became a reality, television manufacturers had shifted from producing the huge box-shaped sets with the slightly curved screens. Never one to rush into a trend, my family and I lived with with the old TV until everything looked a little green around the edges. When finally ready to make a change, I leaped into the past with a 32" flat screen TV. Well, it was bigger than the 28" version we had used for years.

6) Don't even get me started on smartphones. I used a flip phone until the flip part broke off. Then, the only real choice was a phone several sizes too big for my pockets. I even stuck with a pager long past its "no one has one of those anymore" stage. 

I am sure you have examples, like mine, where you have found yourself on the wrong side of technology. Has it ever really mattered? Was the quality of your work or life negatively affected? But, now that you have been dragged into the present would you ever want to go back?

By the way, Verizon, I know I have been eligible for an upgrade for 11 months. For now, thanks, but no thanks. My three year old LG phone works just fine.

So, what was so wrong with Beta anyway?

April 18, 2016

Phoenix Film Festival

This is becoming a trend.  Betty and I spent the first week of the New Year in Palm Springs for the International Film Festival. Last week, we took part in the growing Phoenix Film Festival about 35 minutes from our new home. Palm Springs is fun every year because we meet good friends, Mike and Tamara Reddy, enjoy different restaurants, and see some fascinating movies.

I must admit it is nice to be so close for the Phoenix version. It is held in Scottsdale, very close to where we used to live. So, we re-visit favorite restaurants in the area as well as explore new ones before or after each screening. And, driving home to sleep in our own bed each evening is nice.

Not as big or as well known as its California cousin, there are still plenty of films to choose from. This year 150 different screenings were offered, some premieres, some on the film festival circuit, and others festival officials screened, liked, and added. Several were products of the Arizona film community.

Attracting around 25,000 film buffs over the 7 days of the festival, there are never huge crowds. Unlike Palm Springs where it is wise to get in line at least 60 minutes before a movie starts, here 20 minutes is about right. But, just like most film festivals, directors and actors are often available for Q & A sessions right after each screening.

Our first film was one that does what movies are supposed to do: it moved me to tears, made me angry, sad, empathetic, happy, and questioning what I would do in a similar situation. Since: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 is a documentary about the terrorist act that resulted in 259 people being blown out of the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988, as well as killing eleven folks on the ground. The flight was taking holiday travelers from London to New York and Detroit when it disintegrated at 30,000 feet. I had not realized that there was a large contingent of student from my alma mater, Syracuse University, on that flight. 

One of the first major terrorism act against civilians during the post Cold War era, the story is chilling in its details of the effect of the crime on the survivors, both in America and Scotland. The film presents the view that the governments of The United States and Great Britain were uninterested in solving the criminal aspect of the crime due to the importance of Libyan oil. 

Lucky U Ranch was quite a bit easier on the emotions. It is the story of two youngsters, thrown together by a mix of circumstances, in a 1950's Arizona trailer court. They form a bond of friendship, with each supplying what the other needs. 

I found the pacing too slow and the acting by the two lead youngsters to be weak, but the adult actors were competent, the music score was excellent, the cinematography good. Mainly shot around Tucson, I felt at home with the mountains and terrains.

The two child actors were present at the screening Betty and I attended for a Q&A session. Both have grown considerably in the two years since  Lucky U Ranch was filmed and couldn't pull off those parts today.

Patagonia Treasure Trail is set in one of our favorite small Arizona towns. An RV trip there a few weeks ago had to be cancelled at the last moment for health reasons, so Betty and I were doubly happy about this movie's setting.

It was a dud. I will say the horses acted well in this movie. Otherwise, it had serious flaws in acting, editing, musical score, pacing, and plot. Even Betty who rarely says anything bad about something agreed this was not worth our 90 minutes.

For something completely different, our final choice was a fascinating look at what happens after fame and fortune leave one's life. Colin Hay: Waiting For My Real Life is the look at the life of the lead singer of the 80's band, Men at Work. After the band fell from favor and broke apart, Colin was faced with decades of life without a clear direction or purpose.

This film is an inspiring look at a man with lots to prove, but no clear path to do so. He reinvented himself as a solo act and songwriter, on the road continuously because of his need to perform and his love of connection with others. This is a documentary that I would watch again.

That was it for our participation in the 2016 version. At one point I suggested to Betty we travel the country to visit film festivals throughout the year. That might be a fun adventure!

April 14, 2016

Teddy Roosevelt Nails It

One of this country's more colorful figures, Teddy Roosevelt, summed up the difference between a talker and a doer very well. In a speech in France in April of 1910, he said, 

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievements, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those timid souls who know neither victory or defeat. "

Today, our culture tends to listen more intently to the critic, the person who says something or someone else is wrong and flawed. We delight in stories about people failing and falling from great heights. While we have a celebrity-worshipping mindset, we can't wait for that celebrity to stumble. 

I could argue that the critic versus doer is as good a description as any of the fight each of us has in crafting a satisfying retirement journey. Our internal critic says we should do something, or we can't do something else. We build our own box around our dreams, looking for reasons to not move forward. A spouse, partner, or friend may say something that makes us doubt our ability to accomplish what we dream of. Even louder, is the voice in our head that says, "No, don't risk it."

I will have a post soon about how our fear of being less than perfect at something keeps us on the sidelines. Teddy's quote says the same thing, but with more flair and power. 

This is a short post, but one I hope will cause you (and me) to stop and think for just a moment. Do we play the critic with ourselves and others, or are we a doer, or supporter of one? Does a friend want our unqualified backing, or our unending cautions? Which would we want?

Pick carefully. Your choice has amazing power.

April 11, 2016

Doing The Very Things You Fear

credit: emaze.com

Fear is the mind's way of warning us of a threat or possible pain and injury. It can trigger a fight or flight reaction, meaning fear is manifested both psychologically and physically. It is an important protection for our safety and well-being.

It is also a limiter. Fear can prevent us from trying something new or different. It can keep us locked in a cycle that no longer serves a purpose. It can hold us in a rut that stifles our growth. It limits our potential.

This second category of fear is what this post is about: the fear that can squash our creativity and development, can restrict our fun and happiness, can make us miss so much in life.

I write this post primarily for my benefit, though I hope you will find something here to stimulate you, too. Too often I allow fear of extra work, or trying something new and a bit challenging to keep me locked into a familiar pattern. In those instances where I finally break through the self-imposed barrier, I find a tremendous benefit on the other side.

Examples? Well, Satisfying Journey for one. Even though I like to research a subject and then write about it, and I am inclined toward teaching, it took me at least a year to launch this blog. The fear of public failure, of not having much to say, of running out of enthusiasm for the subject, all delayed things for too long. Once I hit the publish button and worked out the initial stumbles, it is obvious to me how much I would have missed had I listened to the voice of fear in my head.

An important hobby of mine is ham radio. I have had fun talking to others around the world for over ten years. But, fear of all the things that this hobby requires kept me on the sideline for too long. It can be an expensive hobby so I was afraid of wasting the money. A federal license is required to become involved in ham radio. Could I learn enough to pass?

This is a hobby primarily for those who know electronics and like to build transmitters or receivers from scratch. That is not my strength. As I researched the hobby I discovered that many hams are like me: they buy equipment from dealers and enjoy the conversation or "thrill of the hunt" more than the technical side of things. Ham radio clubs are always looking for those who like to lead meetings and organize outings; after just a year of attending I put my leadership skills to work and served as president of a local club for three years.

If I had given up before I began over the possibility of failure, my irrational fears would have kept me from a very enjoyable decade of experiences.

RV travel is another good example of a fear that almost kept Betty and me from a tremendously pleasant part of our life. Buying an RV is not something anyone should do without a lot of thought and study. We bought a used unit for just under $30,000, inexpensive by RV standards. Newer, larger motorhomes can easily cost well over $100,000 - sometimes several times that amount. Fuel, maintenance, camping fees and insurance can add up quickly. Driving a 30 or 40 foot RV through traffic, into the mountains, or even into a gas station is not for the timid. 

About four years ago we faced down our fears and hesitations and bought R.T.(Road Trip)  the RV. The freedom and joy that decision has brought us has been priceless. We don't travel as much or for as long as we thought we might, but we have found a good balance. While the grandkids are young we like staying close to home most of the time so we can enjoy them and their family whenever we choose. As they enter their teen years and have less time and interest in sleepovers and time with gran and grandad, R.T. will start to rack up more serious miles and time away from home. 

Prison ministry was an important part of my life for 5 years. As I have written before, the first time going behind prison gates is terrifying. The facility I visited the most has been the scene of two major disturbances over the past few years, luckily never when I was there. Stepping past the fear to begin to minister to some incarcerated fellows was an important part of the growth of my faith. I trusted God was putting me in a position that I was meant to be. That didn't guarantee my safety but quieted my mind.

Fear can keep one safe from physical danger or risky behavior. It can bring our senses to full alert. It can also cause us to cower when we should leap forward. It can build a wall around us that doesn't keep us safe, it just fences us in.

April 8, 2016

My IRA and My RMD - What?

I learn something new every day, when I am paying attention. In this case, the knowledge will help me, and maybe you, reduce what the IRS grabs.

I thought it best to take money out of my IRA, only when the law forced me to - at age 70 1/2.  Because of income from my parent's estate, I don't really need to tap into those funds for several years. Let it continue to grow, tax-deferred, for as long as possible. Sounds reasonable.

Well, maybe not. While delaying taxes on whatever monies are in a regular IRA, SEP, 401(k) or other similar investments is usually the goal, at some point the government wants their cut. That is when something known as the Required Minimum Distribution, or RMD, comes into play. 

I am aware of the RMD and knew that in five years it would begin to affect me. Recently, though, I have learned that I am better served by taking money out of my personal IRA before I am forced to. Why? Tax savings.

Caution: I am not a financial advisor so what I am describing comes from my advisor, for my situation. However, she and others note that this strategy is something most folks should at least consider. 

In 2020, I will have to start utilizing the RMD tables. For tax purposes, they project I will live another 27.4 years. A doctor would probably tell me I have another 15-20 years, but the IRS is a little more forgiving. In any case, at that point, I must divide the total amount in my personal IRA that existed on December 31st of the previous year by that 27.4 figure. The result is my RMD, the amount I must take out before the end of the calendar year. 

If I don't start withdrawing before then, the amount in the IRA will continue to grow. Obviously, that means the required minimum distribution will be higher because the total in the account is larger. That could easily push me into the next tax bracket. By allowing the account to sit, untouched, for another 5 years, the larger amount required for an RMD distribution could also mean I may have to pay more taxes on a bigger portion of my Social Security income each year.

Because I have a beneficiary IRA from my father's estate that also has an RMD, the combination of both IRAs would mean I'd be forced to accept more money each year than I really need to live on. Sure, I can reinvest what I don't need but the tax bite has already been taken. And, I will pay taxes again on any investment growth. I could also open a ROTH IRA, which has no RMD requirements, but that doesn't avoid the original tax bill.

So, I have been urged to begin tapping into my IRA now. Yes, I will still pay taxes on that withdrawal, but I have a bit more control over its effect on my tax bracket since the amount I take out is determined by me, not the law.

All this sounds somewhat counterintuitive and confusing, but the rational makes sense. If I have to pay taxes on what I have been putting away since my early 30's, I would like to have some control over the timing and damage.

Live and learn.

April 4, 2016

Walking & Texting: A New Health Hazard

There is a garage in San Francisco that has become an trap just waiting to grab someone. During a typical day last month, Geoffrey Fowler, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, watched five people being saved by a bystander from serious injury or even death at this one parking structure. Within a few blocks of the garage another 70 or so folks narrowly avoided a trip to the hospital while staring down.

What was the problem? These oblivious folks were texting or watching videos while walking across traffic lanes or streets with lots of cars. The government reports visits to the emergency room involving distracted pedestrians is up over 100% in the last few years. Six people die every year after strolling into the path of a car or truck while checking their smartphone and thousands are injured.

The article mentioned two phrases to describe this behavior that seem on target: "inattentional blindness" and FOMO, the "fear of missing out." These two factors are responsible for cities starting to put up signs warning drivers of distracted walkers; posting signs for the smartphone texters would go unseen. According to the article, New York City has reduced the speed limits on some thoroughfares to lessen injuries, while San Francisco is banning cars completely in parts of downtown to protect its distracted citizens.

None of this surprises me. Watch any group of people and the majority are probably staring at a smartphone or thumbing a message to someone. The average American spends 4.7 hours per day looking down at an electric device in their hands. Once the folly of the young, now anyone of any age is just as likely to be seriously wrapped up in their phone.

A few weeks ago Betty and I were enjoying happy hour at a restaurant with a beautiful, sunny patio. There were four folks, probably our age, seated at the table near us. Except to order more drinks, not once in 45 minutes did any of them talk to one another or enjoy the weather. Their full attention was focused on the 3" screens in front of them. 

Arizona is one of the 25 states that continues to allow texting while driving, except within the city limits of Phoenix and Tucson. So, I am used to seeing someone steering a 3,000 pound hunk of metal while staring at a screen to read or respond to something too urgent to wait. My response is to change lanes or slow down enough to give myself enough time to avoid an accident. But, combine a distracted pedestrian and driver and the stage is set for something bad to happen.

The cell phone industry is looking for ways to protect its customers from themselves. One possibility is a GPS app that locks the screen and warns you to look up when you are close to an intersection. I'd suggest speakers at all crosswalks that yell, "Look Up" or sing "Look to the left, look to the right, look to the left one more time." Hey, it was good enough for your mom to use to keep you safe as a kid. 

I don't have any particular suggestions to protect us from our own self-absorption. As Jimmy Buffett once said, "there is no dumb-a**" vaccine."  Just know that if some person steps off the street corner in the path of your car, the odds are good that you will be to blame, even if he or she was playing Candy Crush. 

Update: a German city has decided to install traffic lights at sidewalk level for people too distracted to keep from hurting themselves and others: Click here

credit smartsign.com