November 29, 2019

Restating the Obvious, or Eat Your Vegetables Advice

Some blogs, web sites, newspapers and magazines love to hand out rather simplistic advice, delivered in bite-site portions: The top 7 ways to prepare for retirement, 10 ways to live a healthier life, 8 steps to declutter your home.

I call this "eat your vegetables" advice. It is common knowledge, it is obvious, and it is virtually useless. Not because top 10 lists are inherently bad or flawed. But, because most of these approaches assume that a "one-size-fits-all  actually works. I suggest it doesn't.

There is nothing more unique than your life. A list of possible solutions to your problems or opportunities can't hurt.  Over the 9 plus years of this blog I have offered my fair share. They might remind you of something you have neglected for too long. One of them could prompt you to action. But, there is no way anyone telling you the best 10 ways to do anything can really solve your problems. Life issues aren't that easy to fix. They certainly won't be resolved by scanning a list.

So, what do you do? Clearly I am not about to list 10 steps you should take to solve your problems. Rather, as we approach a new year, I am suggesting you do some heavy lifting and develop your own approach to what needs attending to. It may be finding a new passion or something that interests you, fixing or strengthening a relationship, deciding how you are going to simplify your life, or figuring out how you are going to solve the financial bind you find yourself in.

Some of us do better with learning more about a subject before we move forward. Taking a community college course or two may be all you need to feel comfortable enough to better manage your money. The library has books, audio, and video resources on virtually every subject. The Internet has almost too much information to choose from.

Maybe your personality thrives in a mentoring type arrangement. You find a friend or the friend of a friend who knows what you need to know. Develop a relationship where you get what you need (information), and the other person gets what he or she needs (feeling needed).

I know people who find answers through solitude. Turning off the cell phone and computer, staying at home or finding a place to go for a day or more allows the brain to mull over the issue at hand. The freedom from distractions and everyday responsibilities can be tremendously energizing. Try it. You may find yourself with new ideas. Or, you may simply find yourself relaxed and refreshed with no specific solutions to a problem at that time. Both outcomes are positives.

You may be the type that needs hard physical work to allow your creative side to be released. By doing a manual task that requires little active thinking, your mind is free to explore solutions. As a side benefit you finish something on your to-do list.

What works best for me is is usually learning more about a subject or quiet time to think about what I have discovered. I do tend to over-study a problem before moving forward...I'm working on that. Sometimes I will see an article in the paper or a phrase from a book that will grab my attention and give me an idea that I kick around for awhile. Then, I decide if it is worth pursing.

The point of all this is simple: a list that suggests it can help you have a happier, more fulfilling life by checking the items off like a grocery list is not going to work. Life's problems and needs can't be reduced to such an easy format. Put in the effort to discover the approach that works best for you and develop your own action list.

Oh, and eat your vegetables. They are good for you. That advice is true.

November 27, 2019

Thanksgiving 2019

Across America now is the time we gather with friends and family and give thanks for our blessings. This is my ninth Thanksgiving as a blogger, so it seems appropriate to take this time to give public thanks for your readership over the years and blessing of such a supportive community.

In today's polarized and divisive world, I know I am lucky to have such a positive group of folks who read and comment, with politeness and grace, even if disagreeing with me or someone else. Trust me, my need to delete very few comments over the course of a year is not all that usual anymore; bloggers I have known have been forced to eliminate all comments because of all the spam or hate. Others have given up and moved on to something less public.

Of course, a heartfelt thanks for my wife of 43  years, my two beautiful daughters, and my three grandkids. They make my life worth living. They make me want to be a better man and a better human. Every day is brighter because of them.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

November 24, 2019

Reading A Book A Week: Why?

For the last few years I have followed the practice of trying to read one book a week.  Sometimes life gets in the way and throws my reading schedule off, but then I climb right back on the saddle and pick up where I paused. I may have four or five books on the nightstand, but I make it a goal to start and finish one every 7 days. That’s a lot of books, especially when studies show the average person reads fewer than two books a year.

What do I read? Books on health,  biographies, spirituality, self-discipline,  time management,  goal setting, oil painting for beginners, writing, motivation, excellence, and creativity make up the bulk of my non-fiction choices. I read lots of fiction, especially espionage and murder mysteries, or those about technology crimes.

Where does all this  lead? The real benefit comes not from what you read but rather from the habit of reading. When you read a new book every week, you condition your mind to keep taking in new knowledge. Your thinking remains fresh and sharp. Your brain is always churning over ideas looking for new distinctions it can make.

Every day you pour in more ideas which your brain must find a way to integrate into your existing knowledge base. With the world's known knowledge now estimated to double every 13 months, there is a lot to learn.

Reading is much like physical exercise. Reading is a workout for the brain. Author Pat Williams says, "the right books are a crowbar for the imagination." Just as toning your body requires the  habit of regular exercise, toning your mind requires the ongoing habit of reading. And just as a lack of exercise will cause your muscles to atrophy, a lack of fresh mental exercise will cause your mind to atrophy. The good news is within a few months of  working at developing the habit of reading, it will simply become part of your life. 

Reading a book a week is an enormously worthwhile habit. And it’s enjoyable, too. All that’s required is to set aside 30-60 minutes each day to sit down and read. You can also read (or listen) with physical exercise. I can read 20-30 minutes while on the treadmill at the gym. When I go for a 2 mile walk around a local park I can listen to part of an audio book I borrowed from the library. That is an additional 60 minutes of absorbing new ideas.

With such a routine, I usually have an abundance of possibilities for new blog posts and conversation with family and friends. There is a strong flow of interesting ideas going out because there’s a strong flow going in. Every week I’m making new distinctions as my brain integrates new knowledge with existing knowledge.

All of the above applies not just to reading of course, but to the general practice of absorbing new information, including seminars, audio programs, meaningful conversations, classes, etc. Reading articles or blog entries on line is also helpful, assuming you’re learning new ideas that challenge you and which make you think. If you forget it as soon as you read it, it won’t be of much value.

If you are looking for a book to read that helps "sell" you on the reason to read more, try Pat Williams' Read For Your Life. He presents eleven different ways for transforming your life with books. He has 19 children, was an executive in the NBA, and reads a book a day. I am guessing he has taken a speed-reading class or two in his life!

While I do listen to audio books, I am strongly in the "hold something physical in my hand" camp. I just like the feel of a book, turning the pages, and marking my place with a colorful or inspirational bookmark.

One of my daughters is mildly dyslexic, so audio books are her savior. She listens as much as 3 growing children will allow. Her kids, my grandchildren, are voracious readers, taking 50 books out of the library every three weeks, and finishing most. Few things make me happier than seeing them curled up with a book instead of an Xbox.  

Author and satirist P. J. O'Rourke said, "Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it."

Mark Twain said, " a person who won't read has no advantage over a person who can't read."

Set a goal for the new year to read (or listen to) a book a week. If you lifestyle makes that too big a stretch, how about a book every 2 or 3 weeks? You’ll love the results. If you'd like to recommend something you have recently read and enjoyed, please do so. I have become master of the Hold/waiting list at my library.

November 20, 2019

Declutter - Delete - Repeat

I would like to start 2020 with as clean a slate as possible: a house that is a joy to live in, not a maintenance and cleaning hassle, a day with obligations and appointments as required, but just as much time to simply live, enjoy each other and family, and my hobbies. Also, a decluttered mind that tries to avoid all the noise and distraction coming out of Washington, social media, and my own thoughts that aren't productive.

Besides getting rid of clutter in my home, garage, attic, and storage shed, I also want to launch myself into the new year with a renewed focus on cleaning up the clutter in my life and my mind. 2019 has been a tough year for many reasons: a few personal health issues, some financial concerns, and an almost uncontrollable anger over political stuff. Businesses that seem solely driven to profit off our fears and weaknesses (can you say Facebook?), or sell products that are knowingly deadly (Boeing?) aren't helping my mental state.

I can do little about that type of stuff, except to keep all of it an arm's distance away. Ignoring all our challenges isn't the answer, but neither is obsessiveness about it. 

So, how do I plan on making 2020 a better year?

1) I start each day reading the newspaper. The front section is filled with stories that can leave one upset, depressed, angry, or simply in a foul mood. So, generally, I read  the business, sports, arts, and entertainment sections first. I save the front pages for last. Even so, I get riled up.

Starting with this post, I am skipping the front section entirely. There is nothing on those pages that will make my day better, more productive, or more satisfying. Whatever is being reported is part of the past. I can't effect it or change it. Knowing about all the death and destruction, political stupidity, or man's inhumanity to man cannot add anything good to my day. If something really major happens, my various email alerts will tell me.

2) Even though we use cloth shopping bags for our weekly grocery shopping trip, we still accumulate plastic bags from all sorts of sources. I just learned that the store we frequent accepts the old plastic bags that our city does not want in the recycling can.  A local organization takes the returned bags and uses a process to turn them into blankets for homeless shelters. 

Along with the cloth bags, a week's worth of plastic bags will go with us to that store for recycling. It helps others and cuts down on the bin full of single-use plastic.  We have discovered a company that makes doggie poop bags that are 100% bio-degradable. According to their web site, over time the small bags break down and decompose into carbon dioxide and water.Obviously a bit more expensive than using normal plastic bags, but we still need something to clean up after Bailey, so this is our choice.

3) My goal is to delete at least 50% of the apps on my smartphone. Generally, they are sports or political in content. Others are for "productivity," yet they seem to have the opposite effect, eating away at my day. Still others that can go into the trash can are duplicates. I pay for a subscription to Spotify, which satisfies all my music needs. I don't need Pandora or Amazon music on my phone since I don't listen. Delete.

4) I have found great relaxation in my new-found interest in oil painting. I can see progress, marginal though it may be. More importantly, it quiets my mind as I only focus on the paints, the colors I am blending, the feel of the brush on the canvas, and even the process of cleaning up. Now that the weather is nice here in the desert, i have set up a table and supplies outside, which makes the time spent on painting even more enjoyable.

5) The attic holds past tax returns, receipts, and other unnecessary paperwork from years ago. Anything older than 7 years (except paperwork relating to the sale and purchase of properties) will meet their fate with a shredder. It is too easy to stash unneeded stuff up there.

6) It is time to sell several of my ham radios. Because of all the electronic noise and static our modern society generates, it is becoming increasingly difficult to reach other hams with a transmitter and antenna. Most of the time I use the Internet or my smartphone to talk with others "on the radio." So, decluttering my office and raising some extra cash makes sense. The hobby has changed; I must admit that and move on.

7) Betty will start receiving Social Security checks next year. We have discussed what to do with the extra income. The decision? Use some of it to undertake some needed home renovations. As we spend more time at home, making the space reflect our interests and tastes becomes more important. Some furniture that has been part of our life for 30 years has seen better days.

We will delete some of it and replace with pieces that bring us joy. Along the way there are a few things that simply take up space. Decluttering will remove them from our home. The kitchen is kind of drab. Betty says repainting the cabinets and  changed the counter tops will make the space more inviting. Oh, and she has hated the white porcelain sink since we moved in. Stainless steel would make her happy. 

8) Whenever I worry about my investments I will repeat to myself the mantra from a previous post: Retirement is a self-correcting process. My anxieties are most likely badly overblown. Whatever has, or will happen, I will deal with it. Frankly, my nature is to overthink things, so this will be a tough one for me. But, if I can keep focused on this core belief, 2020 will be a good year.

Declutter - Delete - Repeat: 2020 here we come!

November 16, 2019

A Retirement Reality That Is Important To Remember

On a regular basis, readers will leave comments that remind me of one important reality of retirement that doesn't seem to generate enough attention:

Simply put, retirement is a self-correcting process.

OK, that needs explanation. Regardless of what part of your non-work life we discuss, this principle remains the same. We constantly adjust to what is our reality at that point in time.

This should be quite comforting. All the worry we put ourselves through is because we get hung up on what we want to happen, or what we think should happen. That causes us to become fearful that the money we set aside will never be enough. Our health will fail us so completely we will be unable to do anything we enjoy. We will become bored silly. Our relationships will weaken, leading to divorce, no friends, and a solitary future. Looking back to a previous post, we will find ourselves helping to support or care for a grown child. Retirement will not be what we dreamed it would be.

I will say right now: retirement will not be what you thought it would be. OK, maybe you are one of the few who are living precisely how you want. Everything you planned for came true. You wish you had started years earlier. You are living your retirement dream.

This outcome is not unheard of, but not the norm. Just one caution. At some point it is likely one of the three stool legs that are supporting you: finances, health, and relationships,  will break, or at least wobble. Are you confident in your ability to adjust? My message is, you should be. 

Maybe the whole experience is completely different than what was in your mind's eye. Maybe it is so much richer, full of experiences that make your days fly by. You have discovered new facets to your personality and talents that you never knew you had. You couldn't plan for what has unfolded because your dreams didn't expand that far.

Or, it is certainly possible that this phase of life will throw enough struggles your way that you are thinking of renaming yourself Job. Nothing is how you planned it, and that isn't good. You wish some parts of your life were different, or at least easier, but that is not how things are going.

No matter in which of these three scenarios you find yourself, the truth that retirement is a self-correcting process remains. We have the remarkable ability to take what we are given and make it work for us, the best it can, at that moment.

Retirement is self-correcting. I wish I had understood that much earlier in my journey. Now that I do, my worry meter is dialed way back. I am confident I can, and will adjust as circumstances present themselves.

So will you.

November 12, 2019

Hidden Treasures In A Closet

While going through a closet for our fall declutter project, I stumbled across two interesting items we removed from my  parent's apartment years ago when dad moved to assisted living. One was an envelope stuffed with index cards. On both sides of each mom had listed every book she had read from the mid 1990's until her eyesight started to fail in 2004.

Included was either a star for a good book, or a emphatic "No" for the ones that didn't please her. Fiction was her favorite, especially crime mysteries and historical romance novels.

I found it fascinating to look at her choices. I made a list of all the non-romance books she liked and have started my own list to read through them. It will be nice to know she and I are sharing some of the same experiences.

I also found a complete set of travel journals. Mom and dad loved to take road trips - everything from a few days away to 45 day marathons. Mom recorded her reaction to every day of every trip, even to the point of listing the cost of the meals and gas fill ups.

 As I reviewed each journal I was reminded how often they were on the road. Beginning in 1994 and continuing until early 2002, I was hard-pressed to find more than two months between entries. Even if it was just a quick overnight trip to Tucson, mom and dad were most happy driving somewhere. 

During that period they went to Europe twice. Just like the road trips, mom recorded her reactions to everything, both good and bad. While I think they enjoyed their time overseas, I sensed both were happiest inside the Toyota putting miles between them and home and then back again. 

As I read each journal mom's health decline was quite obvious. Toward the end of the 1990s she began referring to the use of a wheelchair or walker. Trips to an emergency room happened with regularity as she battled chronic knee and back pain, or her congestive heart failure symptoms became more apparent. I was unaware of dad's various fainting episodes on these trips until I read about them. My parents never wanted to worry Betty or me, so most of their medical issues during these years were their private secret.

As I progressed through the  nine years of trips I became aware of a few important messages I was receiving from mom a decade later. Obviously, that wasn't her intent, but that is what has happened. 

1) Certainly, of primary importance, is one's health. It was very clear that her enjoyment of traveling declined along with her strength, mobility and eyesight. The journal entries from 1994-1998 contain very few references to health problems. That began to change during a trip to Europe. Her limitations and their impact on my dad were obvious. As I read through the next few journals, there were:

...more references to her wheelchair or walker and how tough it made enjoying a trip

...memory lapses meant forgetting to bring essential items on a trip. 

...becoming tired and irritated at things that earlier she would have joked about

...trips being canceled at the last moment due to her health

...several trips to the emergency room and hospital stays while away from home along with a desire to get home to her regular doctor.

...Dad's fainting episodes.

2) Their long driving trips were recorded honestly as a mixture of boredom and joy, mundane activities and beautiful sights, bad meals and hard beds, or a good steak dinner and pleasant room at the end of a long day of driving.

In fact, as I started to make notes of what she had written it became clear that a good bed, a nice meal, a pretty sunset, a simple card game at the end of the day or sunshine after rain were enough to interrupt a gloomy narrative. Travel is no different than home life. It is a blend of good and bad, exciting and boring, uplifting and depressing. The trick is to notice life's small joys and blessings and dwell on them. 

3) Mom always over-packed. It was a rare trip that she didn't mention she had brought too many clothes for both of them. They did occasionally use the laundry facility in a hotel, but apparently were afraid of running out of clean clothes. So, they dragged around (or, rather dad dragged around) much more than they needed.

4) As she became more physically challenged, mom became more easily irritated and angry. To her credit, she didn't shy away from venting on these journal pages, though I doubt she considered that anyone else would ever see them. I would guess that her various limitations were increasingly frustrating to her. Never one to ask for help until she simply couldn't manage on her own, the closing in of her world made her more prone to lash out at things.

Besides seeing some sides of mom I wasn't aware existed, I did take away a reinforcement of a few important life lessons:

*Travel whenever and wherever you can while you are healthy enough to enjoy the experience. Soon enough, physical ailments will make trips more difficult and, eventually, unpleasant.

*Especially on longer trips don't expect every day to be great. Travel is just home life but in a different place. Accept the bad as part of the journey and relish the small stuff that can brighten an otherwise rotten day.

*Under-pack. No one cares (or will even notice) that you wore the same sweater and jeans three days this week. Don't spend time and energy lugging excessive belongings around. And, there are virtually no places you can't find a laundromat if needed.

*Fight the natural tendency to become an angry, crabby, old person. Not only doesn't anyone else want to be around you, but it brings you down, too. Getting angry at your declining health is pointless. Instead, get even: do all you want before that happens!

Thanks, mom. I found it fascinating get this glimpse into your life all those years ago. Even now, almost nine years after your passing, you are still teaching me lessons.

November 4, 2019

Helping an Adult Child: Pitfalls and Positives

I have noticed a lot of web articles recently that deal with the issue of grown children and retirement. A descriptive phrase like "boomerang kids" is common. "Helicopter Parents" is usually used to explain overly involved parents during a child's educational career, but I guess it could fit here, too.

The adult child has to move back home due to a lost job, or medical condition. The grown child needs help to pay for additional education to reenter the job market. A divorce may mean that child brings along his or her own children when moving back home. This is not a rare occurrence. One survey I found showed that 44% of jobless 18 to 34 year-olds live with their parents. Almost 25% with jobs are still at home.

Some of the articles take a firm position As parents, you have already done your job. The grown child is on his own. The money saved for retirement is not going to be used to solve someone else's problems. Maybe a small loan here and there, but no full scale bailout. You are not going to become a full time babysitter for your grandkids. The house is no longer set up to handle an extra person, or two or three.

The flip side to that is your child needs your help and you are going to provide it. When you became a parent you believe your responsibility doesn't end after a certain age, regardless of the circumstances.  You do what you have to do to provide shelter and food, or money for an education or a car to get to work, or whatever. If your retirement savings take a hit, so be it. Family comes before your portfolio.

So, what do you do? Cut the cord and tell the robin to fly, or provide support, both emotional and financial, as long as needed? How much should your own future be adjusted for an adult child?

Here is another toughie. I received an e-mail from a fellow a month or so ago asking for feedback and ideas from readers on another adult child-parent issue. His youngest daughter was into her final year of  college. She had done her part by getting scholarships and taking on a rather sizable student loan. Even so, helping her with college tuition put mom and dad further behind each month. Saving for their own retirement had to be delayed and their own debts were increasing.

This couple is within a few years of retirement. They are worried that the financial hole they have dug for themselves means retirement may be just a dream. The fellow's question was a simple one: if you have committed yourself to doing what you must for a child, do you have to accept that retirement is not a likely scenario? Is working well into the future the only option? They willingly helped their daughter and are not interested in abandoning that promise. Yet, they wonder where they are headed.

These are not easy questions. Society continues to change, making the answers and solutions less obvious. When we were a rural society this type of problem rarely arose. Everyone stayed close to home or accepted that each family member was responsible for the well-being of the rest of the family regardless of age or circumstances. That model no longer exists for most of us. Multi-generational living is still the exception rather than the norm.

Do you have any experiences in this area to share? Can you give some solace to the parents who have put their own retirement in the deep freeze for their daughter? Do you have feelings about where and when the obligations of parents ends...if it does?  Would the door to your home and bank account be closed or open in a similar situation?

Are you helping or hurting a grown child if you provide support and lodging? How much enabling is too much? 

Toughies, I know.