April 29, 2019

Too Much Of a Good Thing?

We could agree that there is such a thing as too much of something: ice cream sundaes and naps come to mind. An article I read recently presented a new type of "too much" that I must agree with.

Think back 15-20 years or so. When you wanted to stay home and be entertained you had a few choices: cable TV with premium services like HBO, over-the-air television, Blockbuster, or VHS tapes from the library. When Netflix began in 1997 it was strictly a competitor of Blockbuster's: DVD discs through the mail. Remember those red mailers?

Some of us had a VHS player/recorder so we could "time-shift" to see a program that we wanted to watch at a more convenient time. All the commercials were there, but at least we didn't have to rush home for the start of "Must See TV," particularly on Thursday nights on NBC.

It is hard to imagine, but streaming as an option began only a dozen or so years ago. Blockbuster started the transition, followed by Netflix in 2007 and Hulu a year later. Amazon Prime came along in 2011. Now, we tend to think of television entertainment as strictly an Internet-based function.

OK, so far, so good. Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV and others have changed how we are entertained. The time shift issue has disappeared, along with most commercials. Now, we can watch whatever we want, whenever we want, usually ad-free. The number of choice, even on one service, is overwhelming. And, with the big boys (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) cranking out hundreds of hours of original content, we are no longer at the mercy of only what television networks or major film studios want to produce.

The expense of cable TV or satellite is gone for many. Cutting the cord meant an end to paying for hundreds of channels that held no appeal, while watching our cable bill increase every time an entertainment company decided it wanted more money.

Now, we find we "need" several streaming services to fill our fix. Netflix has so much there is never the likelihood we would run out of things to watch. Hulu has The HandMaid's Tale and Casual. Prime is the place to binge-watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Sneaky Pete. We don't want to miss those. Game of Thrones? Pay for HBO Now or wait for the DVD version in a year.

Then, comes the news that Disney is about to start a streaming service. Most of the content from that company will leave Netflix, Hulu, and other places on the Internet. If you want Disney movies and series, you have to sign up with The Mouse people.

But wait, there's more. Apple is joining the fun with its own Internet streaming  service, pledging to spend tens of millions on shows that will get you to sign on their dotted line. Youtube has a premium streaming service, Sling TV allows you to watch what used to be only on cable, and record it all on a cloud-based DVR recorder. Never miss a Sunday football game because of church again.

Suddenly, you realize you will never have enough time to sample even a fraction of what is available. Your time in front of a television starts to creep up. You don't leave home as often for live entertainment, or even the multiplex. You even spend less time on social media, except to comment on an episode of House of Cards. 

Amidst this world of plenty a new problem has arisen. One media expert calls it "subscription fatigue." Every few months, there seems to be another service we "must have," another source of streaming entertainment that has bits and pieces of what we enjoy.

A just-completed study shows that nearly half (47%) of streaming-video customers feel there are too many services...and that is before Disney, Apple, and others pile on more. The typical customer pays for three services, but some as many as eight.

Guess what? As the streamers splinter into more and more separate services, we are paying nearly as much as we did in the good old days of cable. Suddenly, we are faced with the need to prune what we are willing to pay for each month. We have too much of a good thing: endless entertainment, no commercials, accompanied with an ever-increasing bill and a feeling our lives are spent in front of a (large) box.

I am not against streaming video: I am a user, more so than is probably healthy. We have Netflix, Prime, Sling, Roku, and free options like Kanopy. But, I am facing even more when Disney makes its debut. With an entire family of Disney lovers, it is a given that service will join our lineup.

How about you? Is the abundance of streaming options like an all-you-eat buffett...eyes too big for your stomach? Do you have a hard time justifying the costs or time? Or, is your total bill still less than cable ever took out of your wallet, so no problems yet.

The entertainment world has shifted under our feet. Are you still standing?

April 25, 2019

All Aboard

I love train travel. Unfortunately, I live in a city without regular Amtrak service. Even when Phoenix had trains at the Union Station downtown, there was just one train each day, in each direction. Years ago, when Salt Lake City was my home, I was in train heaven: Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Portland and L.A. were served several times a day.

With a little bit of effort, though, I can still get my train fix. About two hours away is the Verde Canyon Railroad. Originally built to transport copper ore in 1912, it now welcomes a million visitors a year on a four hour round trip through the rugged, spectacular Verde Canyon. There are stunning views, bald eagles, coyotes and occasional mountain lions. Though a daily freight train shares the same tracks, the tourist trade from this excursion has a major economic impact on the area. 

My youngest daughter gave Betty and me a pair of tickets as an early birthday gift for my 70th. A few weeks ago we packed up and headed north for a short, but needed, two day break from routine and my train fix.

The trip leaves and returns to the small town of Clarkdale. Just a few miles west of Cottonwood, a 15 minute drive from the hillside wonders of Jerome, and about half an hour from the red rocks of Sedona, this is a rugged and dramatic part of my home state.

The birthday present placed us in the first class section, complete with champagne toast, a buffet of light lunch items, a cash bar, and bottled water (very important in the desert!). We had two easy chairs for seats as well as a private table between us for the food and drinks. Huge picture windows allowed for watching the deep canyons, bald eagles, and rapidly flowing Verde River.

Even better, just one train car behind us was an open air car, with benches, shade, or the chance to lean on the railings and watch nature in all its up close glory. With a length of a quarter mile, 18 cars and two engines, this is real railroading. 

Betty took hundreds of pictures and several videos to help us remember this special trip for years to come. Here is a small sampling to allow you to armchair travel!

The Verde Canyon Railroad station in Clarkdale

Toasting our adventure

A long, long train

6" clearance entering a 600 foot long tunnel

A pair of  bald eagles high above the cliffs

For the return trip, the engines moved to the back of the train to pull us home

The end of a perfect day

April 17, 2019

9 Simple Keys To A Satisfying Retirement

My time away from blogging gave me a new appreciation for keeping things simple. Retirement is not complicated, it is not difficult, it is not that tough to be satisfied most of the time. 

No great insight here...just a review of the basics, contributed by author Julia Valentine:

1. Aging brings wisdom, not decline

It has been said that what you think about, you bring about. Telling yourself you are going to flourish in retirement can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the very least, you might take slightly better care of yourself and, in turn, find your way into the virtuous circle of feeling better emotionally and physically, doing more interesting things, and ultimately enjoying yourself more. 

2. Age is just a number

Chronological age is merely the number of candles on your birthday cake, while psychological age is your perception of how vital and vibrant you feel. Since the latter is a subjectively experienced age, you have a great deal of latitude in constructing beliefs that will either help you or limit your ability to flourish after 50.

3. Creativity helps design your lifestyle

Discovering and exploring your everyday creativity is going to make a difference between boredom and the pure joy of being alive. Everyday creativity is invoked when the object of your creative efforts is your own life. It taps into our deepest need to feel useful and valuable. A creative life approach fosters flexibility and resourcefulness, helping you choose new pursuits, evolve with the changing times, and design a satisfying lifestyle.

4. Fulfilling true needs is essential 

Knowing what you want and, more importantly, what you need is difficult but critical. You cannot be happy without it. Research shows meeting one’s personal needs is essential for psychological health and, consequently, for more profound happiness, serenity, and a high quality of inner life. 

5. Know your motivation

Knowing why you do something is important because it will motivate you to go through with the action. Motivation is how we access the energy necessary to do anything, whether that means saving money, acquiring new skills, or staying fit to enjoy life after 50. Understanding your own intentions and desired result of any decision or activity will result in clarity, less frustration, more of what you want, and less guilt about foregoing what doesn’t meet your needs.

6. Fail to plan, plan to fail

Research proves that a successful, happy retirement is impossible without planning based on self-examination. People who plan end up with twice the wealth of people who do not. Beyond financial planning, it is imperative to take time to figure out what lifestyle needs must be fulfilled to make you happy, and then find specific ways to ensure those needs can be met. Retirement lifestyle design then becomes the driver for making good choices and building the foundation of physical, emotional, and financial health that ensures joy and fulfillment after 50.

7. Evolution beats fear 

Do not be dragged along by the changing times when you have the freedom to preside over the process. While evolution may not always mean improvement or progress, life’s progression is certainly an inevitability that should be embraced, not eschewed. Change should be revered, not feared, as with change comes new learning and growth experiences — new opportunities and ways to contribute, to be significant, and to create meaningful experiences for your self and for the people around you. 

8. Joy requires harmony

A joyful life can only be truly achieved if your inner and outer worlds are in harmony – the alignment of your life’s needs and direction (which you can set to Joy, Meaning, Abundance, Fulfillment, or anything else you desire) with your inner resources, like attitude, abilities, talents, skills, experience, and personality traits. People wholly integrated at this level are conscious of their needs, emotions, impulses, pleasures, and pains. They enjoy an amazing quality of life with frequent peak experiences, are more at peace, and are less split between an experiencing-self and an observing-self.

9. Quality of life requires more than money

It is easy to mistake comfort for quality of life. An astonishing quality of life encompasses both material comfort and joy. To live with joy, it is imperative to not only identify and understand your emotional needs, but to actively work to meet them. Do this and the second half of your life will be even better than the first.

Keeping it simple is usually the best choice.

April 12, 2019

The Mueller Report

I am not going where you think I might with this title. While I have strong opinions about the subject and the underlying issues, I will leave that discussion to other blogs. But, there is an important takeaway that relates to our lives. It is a problem for me, and likely you, too. 

No, I am not the subject of a Federal probe. However, I do fall prey to expectations of future events. My know what I want to happen. I have plans based on past experiences. I project my desires forward. 

Life, however, often makes other plans. Not all my expectations come to fruition.  What I thought would happens doesn't. What I want to happen remains a wish. What seemed predestined to occur doesn't.

I think there are a few reasons for this to be the end result. One, my expectations or wishes may be unrealistic. Just because I hope something happens has nothing to do with the actual outcome.

As I have written before, wishing something to be true doesn't make it so. The universe operates under a very strict set of rules.  Things happen because they are the only outcome possible at that moment with those circumstances. My desires are just that: wanting something to happen regardless of the circumstances.

Secondly, just because I believe something to be true doesn't mean it is. There might be millions of people who think like I do. There might be all sorts of support for a particular belief in a specific outcome. Yet, all that energy is not built on any foundation stronger than a wish. When what is real unfolds, disappointment, frustration, maybe even anger is the end product.

Of course, a rational analysis points to the simple fact that what I want to happen has no chance of influencing what ultimately does happen. My image is just that, an illusion. My god-like power to shape the future is rather limited.

Does this dash of cold water mean I am relegated to the sidelines? Is my only role to sit and wait for something to unfold before I react? Absolutely not.

In so many parts of my life, I do have more than just a desire or a wish that something turns out the way I want.  I can treat my body like a delicate instrument with amazing powers of recuperation and self-repair. If I treat it like a disposable toy, I will pay the price. A health-related health crisis may still arise, but it won't be because of something I could do but didn't.

I can plan for travel that feeds my soul, allows me to interact with others, both inside and outside of my cultural comfort zone. True, a 737 Max-8-type issue might mess up my careful planning, but eventually I will get where I am pointing, and trust that the plane or car (or train) will get me there safely.

I can decide I've always wanted to study the history of democracy and international relations, and do so. Maybe not inside a classroom, but there are enough resources to enable me to achieve my goal. All that knowledge may have no practical application, but I made happen what I wished would happen: I became better informed.

Bottom line:  Getting angry or depressed when the world doesn't react exactly like you want is a waste of energy. However, we have amazing capabilities to influence the shape, direction, and outcome of our life and the space we inhabit. 

Change, shape, and direct what we can...accept with good grace the rest. 

April 7, 2019

The Kindness Diaries

I have fallen in love...with a show on Netflix. So much so that I watched the first season two times in a row before moving to season two. With only a few more episodes to go I am already like a Game of Thrones fan: dreading the end. Season three is in the works, but when will it be available?

Hosted by an Englishman named Leon Logothetis, The Kindness Diaries is a desperately needed break from the murder, terrorist, widow, disaster shows that seem to dominate my watchlist. For 23 minutes, I am transported to an alternate world, one where kindness, altruism, caring about others, and living the way I believe we are meant to live dominates.

A former London stockbroker and now resident of Los Angeles, Leon travels the world depending entirely on the kindness of strangers to feed and house him. Season one had him journey around the world, in an old motorcycle with sidecar, named Kindness One. For season two he "upgraded" to a 50 year old yellow Beetle, dubbed Kindness Two, to drive from Alaska to Argentina. 

Each episode is one day in his life: getting total strangers to put gas in his vehicle, feed him, and allow him to spend a night in their home. Occasionally, he strikes out and must sleep in the motorcycle sidecar or back of the Bug. 

Obviously, with only 12 or 13 episodes large portions of each trip are not shown. But, I am convinced he accomplishes, more often than not, what he wants: to show the power of kindness, both receiving and giving. As is usually the case, those with the least resources are the ones most likely to share their meager food or home.

At the end of each episode he gives back, in a massive way, to someone who has been kind to him and, more importantly, the community in which they live. His gifts have ranged from free rent to a family for 3 years, to helping a young lady set up a charity. 

He has given enough money to an eye surgeon to perform 100 free sight-saving operations. He has provided a full year's worth of food to a man who hosts immigrants in his home every week. A homeless man  received housing and the money to complete a program that allowed him to become a chef. A retired couple in Panama pointed Leon to a man and his family who couldn't afford to even put a roof over part of their home because they refused to turn away anyone who needed help, spending what little money they had on others. Leon built them a new home.

Where does the money come from? Originally, it was all his own money. He has given away $200,000 from his own pocket so far. Interestingly, his family owns a billion-dollar shipping company but The Kindness Project has come only from Leon.

Now, based on the success of the Netflix show and several well-received books he has written, he has the resources to spread kindness on a scope that one man couldn't do on his own. Yes, there is a camera crew that accompanies him but doesn't appear to share the humble lodgings Leon often does. But, that does not make the premise and the impact of what he is doing any less real or moving.

Seeing the smiles on the faces of those who are so willing to help him makes me smile, too. Seeing the utter bliss that overcomes the person or couple who receive the gift at the end moves me to tears. It leaves me feeling so much better about the future of humanity and the power of love for others.

My only gnawing frustration is wanting to follow his lead, spreading kindness in whatever (more humble) way I can. So far, I have yet to figure out how. Traveling around the world or giving away $200,000 worth of kindness is not part of my world.

As The Kindness Diaries makes clear, the openness to listen to and care about others is really at the heart of the issue.

If you haven't experienced the rush this program can cause in even the most callus among us, please watch this trailer and then start binge-watching. You might be motivated to become your own kindness project where you live.

And, if you have any suggestions for me, I would be very appreciative. I really want to do this.

April 2, 2019

Keeping A Financial House In Order - Can We Help?

If HGTV had a show like Flip or Flop or Fixer Upper that dealt with keeping your financial house in order, maybe many of us would be better off. Watching craftsmen and decorating experts transform an OK house into a showcase home has lots of appeal. We realize the process isn't quite as seamless as a 60 minute TV show makes it look. Anyone who has been been through a house remodeling knows it is messy, expensive, and frustrating.

Even so, millions of us watch the dream unfold before our eyes, wishing Chip and Joanna would pay us a house call. So, I wonder what would happen if there was a Financial Flip version. A household with decent income but marginal planning skills and the inability to resist the lure of of consumer society finds itself deeply in debt, just when college costs loom, retirement beckons, and the credit cards are bending under the weight of excessive debt.

In fly the experts, who in 60 minutes, right the sinking financial ship, find painless ways to fund important needs and erase all that nasty credit card debt. To celebrate their new-found financial wellness, the family takes a 7 day Caribbean cruise while the TV hosts way goodbye!

OK, that last bit is a little snarky. Celebrating financial fitness by taking a $10,000 cruise would be stupid. But, in the wonderful world of television fantasy, it would make perfect sense.

In the real world, not the one visited by TV stars putting everything back where it belongs with little pain or sacrifice, financial wellness actually takes work. It requires someone to adopt a long term mindset, one that doesn't mesh well with an instant gratification culture. It is built on a solid understanding of consequences, of the impact on tomorrow of decisions made today. 

To be able to retire and live a decently comfortable life doesn't require rich parents, a six figure income from a prestigious career, or living a deprived life beforehand. It does require at least a dollop of luck and fortuitous timing. What happens in the world's economies, the political climate at the time, even the state of one's own health at that moment, can play an outsized role.

Finally getting to my central thesis, your financial house must be constructed on a solid foundation. This is where I suggest retired folks can help. We have a lifetime of experience: mistakes, successes, missed opportunities, and decisions that turned out well. It should be our job to be the Financial Flip resource for younger generations. 

I teach Junior Achievement classes to 4th and 5th graders in a lower middle income neighborhood not far from my home. The kids are intelligent, street-smart, welcoming, and grossly unaware of how the monetary system that controls their lives really works.

As I explain the basics of our economics, I can see eyes open wide. When we talk about saving for the future, using education to help them achieve their goals, the importance of STEM knowledge, it is a new world for them.  They sense this awareness gives them more of control if, and that is a big "if," they understand how much of what they do today affects tomorrow.

They know how to navigate the Internet much better than I. The online world is where they live. But, that world places value on everything being instant and available now. That world does not teach knowledge, it teaches reaction.

I would venture to guess too many of those in the 20's and 30's, raised in that world, also lack a real understanding of how the way they treat money and their resources today will impact their 50s', 60's, and beyond. Most understand that Social Security will probably be a crippled version of itself by the time they require some assistance. Even so, saving for retirement is not on their horizon. Working forever, assuming "things will work out," I'm not sure what they are thinking. Obviously, there are financially smart younger people around. I contend they are more likely to be the exception rather than the rule.

But, it is not too early for those school kids, nor is it too late to help our children's generation. I suggest we have the responsibility, the time, and the life-experience to make a difference in the financial wellbeing of the generations that will follow us.

How? Well, Junior Achievement volunteering is one path. So is talking to your grandkids about money, how credit works, and what siren calls of society they should tune out (get the parent's permission first !). Offer to present a Basics Financial Literacy class to a Boy or Girl Scout Troop near you. Most churches offer financial counseling and seminars. Can you help? Since it is never too late to make some sort of course correction, look for a chance to mentor or counsel at a Senior Center.

For those of us with some wear on our tires, it is common to bemoan the lack of financial education younger folks seem to possess. More beneficial and certainly more productive is to share what you know.

You may think you are not financially savvy enough to help in this way. I disagree. If you are retired, relatively comfortable in whatever income and living standard you have chosen, then you are a winner in the world of financial decision-making. Don't downplay what you know and what you can pass on to others.

Find a way to pay it all forward (without using a credit card!).

Note:after spending over a month trying to get Wordpress to do what I want, I have shelved the move away from Blogger for now. I don't want to add a bunch of features, places for advertisements, and interactive options...something WP excels at. So, for now, I'll leave things be.