Life’s a Beech

This post, with a few tweaks and updates, first appeared on my blog in 2014.

Like many people our age have done, my husband and I drafted our living trust, wills, durable powers of attorney, and advance health care directives. Over the last few years, we have witnessed the rapid deterioration in the health of some family members and friends, so we wanted to get this done while we are both in good physical and mental health. We do what we can to stay healthy but we don’t fool ourselves into thinking it can’t happen to us. Even if we live to 90 or beyond, these documents will be necessary to assure that our wishes are carried out.

Creating these documents was serious and time-consuming. There were a lot of details to think about and financial decisions to be made. I found the most enjoyable part of the process was determining where our assets will go once we were both gone. Since we have no children, we happily specified a few charities that are near and dear to our hearts. One decision that I had difficulty with was deciding what I want done with my remains. Although cremation is a given, where do I want my ashes to go?

When my mother passed away in 2000, I was relieved to discover that she and my father had made funeral arrangements many years previously. Because of this, my brothers and I weren’t faced with the burden of trying to guess what she would have wanted. It was a generous and loving act that we appreciated again when my father died several years later. Their ashes now lay side-by-side in a columbarium overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

After doing some research, I found the answer to my dilemma: tree urns. Planting commemorative trees is a practice that has been around for a while, but I discovered that there is a way I can actually become part of a tree once I am gone.

There are several companies that sell these urns, which contain all the items necessary for the process (“just add ashes!”): Bios Urns, EterniTrees, Spirit Trees, Peotrees, are a few that I found. The prices vary, but the concept is pretty much the same: one’s ashes are mixed with planting soil, nutrients, and a tree seed. Since ashes contain phosphorous, they contribute to the healthy growth of the tree. How great is that?! I have always considered myself a tree-hugger, but now I can actually nourish the tree. Rather than becoming post-consumer (as in me, the consumer) waste, I can contribute healthy Co2 to the atmosphere for many years to come.

Most of the companies that sell tree urns offer a choice of seeds. Beech, maple, and oak are a few of the options listed on one website. Living – and most likely dying – in Southern California, I’d probably choose a tree that’s drought resistant. Or, maybe a citrus. A lime tree, perhaps, so my tree’s fruit could be blended into pitchers of margaritas or muddled to make a mojito.

Since we are pretty sure we can’t take it with us, my husband and I intend to spend most of our assets having fun in our retirement (sorry, designated charities), leaving just enough for a heck of a Celebration of Life party for our friends. Although I’d like to think we will leave the world a better place, most likely our names won’t be remembered by generations far into the future, nor will they be engraved on a plaque or noted in a text.

Maybe my ashes could be used to propagate a tree planted in our back yard. Becoming a tree – a symbol of eternal life in many cultures – will allow me to live on, providing some beauty, a little shade, and perhaps adding a refreshing zest to the drinks of future homeowners. I hope they will raise a toast to my memory.

The changing face of retail

One of my fondest memories as a little girl was accompanying my mother downtown to go shopping. Going downtown often meant getting started early and catching several busses, but I considered it a great adventure. I loved getting dressed up and, best of all, having my mother all to myself for a day spent doing “girl stuff.”

There were several department stores to choose from, including Montgomery Wards, Sears, and Walker Scott’s. But, the locally-owned Marston’s was always our last stop because, when we finished shopping, we took the elevator up to the sixth floor to have lunch at the very elegant (at least to my young eyes) Tea Room.

Marston's Department Store
Marston’s Department Store

This was before 1961, the year our city got its first shopping mall. After Mission Valley Center opened, there was no longer a need to go downtown to shop. The Center not only had two large anchor stores, it also had lots of specialty shops and a food court that offered a myriad of dining choices (but, sadly for me, none nearly as stylish as my beloved Tea Room). Ease and convenience won out over elegance. Soon after the shopping mall opened, the downtown department stores closed due to a lack of business.

Mission Valley Center
Mission Valley Center

Over the years, shopping malls have morphed as tastes and shopping habits have changed. Anchor stores have been swapped out as former retail giants have merged or have gone out of business. Names of stores that I grew up with are gone completely, replaced by new and different ones. Even with these changes, most malls remained busy and vibrant.

But, something different is happening to today’s malls that can’t be fixed by tweaking their tenants. With the rise of online shopping and the hit that retail stores took during the recession, brick and mortar shopping centers have experienced major declines in sales. Just as the lure of the mall siphoned customers away from downtown department stores, the internet is making it unnecessary to enter a store at all. Traditional retailers are suffering and malls are dying.

One of the former giants that is feeling the effects of the new normal is Macy’s. What began in 1843 as a retail dry goods store in Massachusetts, Macy’s changed, grew, and acquired other retailers to become the well-known brand it is today. But, now it’s in trouble. After a 2016 holiday season marked by disappointing sales, Macy’s announced the closing of 68 of its stores nationwide, resulting in the loss of 10,000 jobs. I recently visited a location that is closing, and it was a bit eerie. It was like going to an estate sale after someone very old had died. Oh, and they were a hoarder.

 

This modern phenomenon of ghost boxes and dead malls that were once retail meccas is probably only going to get worse. As customers seek out new retail experiences and become more and more comfortable shopping online, the idea of driving to the mall, finding parking, then foraging through racks of stuff you don’t want to find something you do, will seem anachronistic.

Most of us have seen those lists of items familiar to older generations, but that younger generations don’t recognize; things like rotary phones, film canisters, and library card catalogs. It wouldn’t be too surprising if, some day, shopping malls could be added to those lists for generations to come.

Friendships beyond the bond of work

There are a few very special people I’ve met through work with whom I’ve maintained contact over the years. Some I met multiple jobs ago, and others I met at my last place of employment before I retired. Although it’s not unusual to have a variety of work friends while being employed under the same roof, continuing the relationships after the commonality of work is over can be difficult. Often you discover that work was the glue. Once the glue is gone, it is easy for the bonds to separate and disappear.

The workplace friends who are still in my life are there because work was the catalyst, not the glue.

One of these friends and I had been trying to arrange a get together for a while. She still works so doesn’t have the same flexibility as I do. Finally, we were able to arrange a time and date that worked for us both. It wasn’t until we met that day that she mentioned that it was her birthday.

This is a woman with lots of friends. She also has family close by. But, she chose to spend part of her birthday with me. How nice is that?

Overlooking Balboa Park, from the top of the California Tower
Overlooking Balboa Park, from the top of the California Tower

We chose to meet in one of our city’s most beautiful parks, on what turned out to be a gorgeous fall day. A perfect place and perfect weather in which to stroll, chat, laugh, observe, confide, and just be.

We rendezvoused at about 9 a.m. and we didn’t say good-bye until around 2 p.m. We spent the day enjoying each other’s company as we wondered around the park, visited a few museums, and had a lovely lunch on an outdoor patio. Our conversation easily flowed from one subject to another and we both mentioned how nice it was to spend the day without a schedule or an agenda. Other than encouraging her to retire at the first opportunity, very little of our conversation was about work.  It was a perfect day with a dear friend.

Happy birthday, my friend!
Happy birthday, my friend!

I am lucky that I still live in the community where I grew up and spent a majority of my working life because, like many people, I find it harder to make new friends as I get older. Children naturally gravitate to each other, school often brings kindred spirits together, and most working environments encourage engagement among colleagues. Now that I am retired, it can be difficult to build a new connection beyond superficial interactions. My blogger friend, Liesbet, recently wrote about the difficulties of making friends while living a less anchored lifestyle. If I were to move and start all over, I’m not sure how well I would do.

Fortunately, at least for now, I don’t need to worry.  I just need to get more of my friends to retire so we can get together during the middle of the week.

And not talk about work.

Don’t be a Ricky

I am rerunning a few of my earlier posts over the next few weeks. This one, about loosening up and having more fun, was from April, 2014.

Several years ago, I cut out and thumbtacked to the bulletin board in my office a section of an article about relationships. The article must have contained a list of “dos” and “don’ts” because this one was labeled “No. 16.” I have no memory of numbers 1 through 15, nor any that followed Number 16, but this one stopped me mid-read, and prompted me to get up and grab my scissors.

No. 16 Don’t Be the Ricky

On the 1950’s sit-com I Love Lucy, Ricky and Lucy Ricardo had very different ways of approaching life. Lucy was always doing crazy stuff and getting into trouble. Ricky was always there to bail her out of whatever disaster she got herself into. The premise of Number 16 was that people tend to either be Rickys or Lucys.

Ricky and Lucy4

Rickys are practical, responsible, and live life relatively conservatively. In a relationship, they are the caretakers; the ones who make sure the bills get paid, the finances are in good shape, and plans are made and followed.

Lucys, on the other hand, are crazy, fun-loving, and charmingly irresponsible. They have a “live for today” attitude. They are the ones who are out having fun and not paying too much attention to the consequences.

Number 16 warned about being a Ricky (who is stuck being responsible) while your partner is being a Lucy (forever starry-eyed, wacky, and impractical). One person is Homer, and the other Marge. One is Hans Solo, the other Princess Leia. The message was that one was having way more fun than the other.

I have a dominant Ricky gene. My husband also is a Ricky. We know how to have fun, we enjoy being silly, we even can be pretty creative (after all, Ricky Ricardo was an accomplished singer and bandleader) but, for the most part, we have a vision of what we want to accomplish and we take the steps necessary to get there. Most likely, being Rickys throughout our working lives has helped us get where we are today: being able to retire relatively young.

That’s not to say that Lucys are all screw-ups who have great fun but are ultimately destined to be financially unsound or be dependent on Rickys to save them. Some people I love and admire are Lucys. I imagine that many brilliant multi-gazillionaires are shoot-for-the-stars Lucys. Who knows, when I decided to cut out and keep that article, if I had been more of a Lucy I may have had the crazy idea to create some sort of an online bulletin board that people could, I don’t know… maybe “pin” interesting items to. And, throwing caution to the wind, I may have sold everything and taken out ill-advised loans to fund that insanity… that I might have cleverly named Pinterest.

Ricky and Lucy5

My husband and I got where we are today by saving more than spending, economizing more than splurging. That’s not to say we haven’t had great adventures or wonderful experiences, but we have said “no” to opportunities more than we would have liked, and probably more than we needed to.

Suddenly becoming total Lucys is probably not possible or desirable. Rickyness is in our DNA, and that’s not a bad thing; it will most likely keep us out of trouble as we get older. But I think we have reached a point in our lives when we should start channeling our inner Lucys regularly. We need to say “yes” more often, seek out some crazy adventures, and do a few marvelously impractical things that may leave the Rickys out there scratching their heads.

Opening our minds to skepticism

I am rerunning a few of my earlier posts over the next few weeks. This one, about critical thinking skills, was from February, 2014. I thought it was especially relevant during the current U.S. election cycle.

All too often, we read stories about people who are duped by scammers. Sadly, the victim is often elderly and, tragically, large sums of money – money that they can’t afford to lose – are frequently involved.

As my late father’s physical and mental health started to decline, I worried about him falling for the various come-ons he received in the mail and on the phone. He had a good, analytical mind when he was younger, but I could tell that his aging brain was becoming less and less able to discern fact from fiction. Fortunately, I was able to protect his bank accounts and credit card before anything happened so he and his finances were safe.

Scams_ComputerScammers continue to devise more sophisticated and devious ways to separate people from their money, but there are still plenty of victims responding to notices of large lottery wins, promised riches from Nigerian princes, and a variety of phony phishing emails. My innate skepticism will help protect me from falling for these scams now, but I worry that when I am much older, will I still be able to avoid being taken advantage of?

The same critical thinking skills that make me disregard offers that are “too good to be true” lead me to question much of what I read on the Internet and in social media. I can always count on a handful of “friends” posting items on Facebook or forwarding me emails (along with protestations of outrage) with a story sent to them by some equally outraged person. Most don’t pass my “smell test” and, after a quick search on various fact-checking sites, the stories turn out to be just that, stories.

I don’t think these people are stupid or especially gullible but when they read something that fits very neatly into their political or ideological mindset, they tend not to question its authenticity. This is how hate, lies, and rumors are spread; one unquestioned falsehood at a time.

We live in a society of people who self-select their news. If one source’s slant doesn’t lean in the right direction, simply choose another that does. We also tend to socialize, and even live in communities, with like-minded people. That way we don’t have to question our beliefs or, god forbid, alter them in any way. I guess this makes us feel  comfortable in our convictions, but does it make us better citizens? Does listening to only one side of a story before deciding on its merits support our intellectual integrity? I think most would agree that it does not (although we still do it because, really, it’s others who need to open their minds, not us… right?).

Non-critical thinking makes us more vulnerable to scammers. If we trust a source so completely that we never question its accuracy, why would we question the authenticity of an “exclusive offer” from the same source (or one of its advertisers)? Even better if the offer is also couched in language that supports our biases. If we are distrustful of something or someone, are we not more likely to respond to something that reinforces our  suspicion?

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”  - Mark Twain
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” – Mark Twain

Less incendiary, but maybe in some ways worse, are the “innocent” but untrue items that are re-posted virally. If the poster had done some quick research or applied simple logic, they would have realized that the story doesn’t make any sense. In this category are those emails/posts that promise riches/good luck if you continue the chain (and usually include dire warnings if you don’t), and urban legends like entering your ATM PIN backwards will summon help. Although new myths are being created all the time, many have been around for years and are repackaged and posted over and over again.

When we get in the habit of using magical thinking in place of critical thinking, we make ourselves more vulnerable to hoaxes and fraud. Best case, we just irritate our friends and end up looking stupid, but worst case, we open ourselves up to scammers and thieves.

Recent studies have shown that changes in the brain as we age make the elderly more trusting. The negative “gut feelings” a younger person might experience aren’t felt as strongly by an older person. For this reason, we must be alert when caring for an older adult to protect them from unscrupulous individuals and businesses.

Fortunately, there are things we can do as we age so we aren’t as likely to become victims. We can actually practice our critical thinking skills, learn to be more analytical, and train our brains to question when something just doesn’t ring true.

The enemy of scammers and hoaxers is common sense, questioning, and research.

Be their barricade, not their bridge.

Shared memories… or not

memories

Yesterday marked the 26th anniversary of my husband’s and my first date. I probably wouldn’t remember that specific day if it hadn’t occurred on Cinco de Mayo. My husband? He wouldn’t remember it at all if I didn’t remind him.

After 26 years together, we have mountains of shared experiences. We’ve been on numerous trips, attended countless events, and celebrated many, many milestones. We’ve also remodeled two houses together, dealt with several family tragedies, and supported and cheered each other through life’s ups and downs.

We’ve been through a lot together over the years; what I find fascinating is what each of us remembers… or not.

I guess there is only so much we can cram into our cranial cavities before some of it leaks out. What sticks tends to be what, for whatever reason, resonates with us; what doesn’t stick becomes jetsam that our brains jettison to lighten the load.

In addition to the date of the first time we went out, I remember other bits and pieces of relatively useless information that has long-abandoned my husband’s brain. I have a fairly vivid memory of the layout of most of the houses we looked at before we decided to purchase our home. I remember restaurants where we ate years ago, and often what each of us ordered. More useful, I have a much better memory of all of our vacations, where and when we went, what we did, and who we met.

My husband has almost no retention for the dates of past events and his memory of the homes we visited is almost nonexistent. If we are sitting in a restaurant we’ve dined at before, he will often have no recollection of having been there. When I tell him what he ordered, his usual response is, “did I like it?” Often, when I mention a shared experience from many years ago, he will look at me blankly.

My husband, on the other hand, has a much better memory for specifics of presentations we’ve attended, conversation we’ve had or been party to, and movies we’ve seen. When he recites snippets of a presentation or a conversation, I desperately try – often unsuccessfully – to rummage around in my temporal lobes for the same memory. He’ll harken back to a movie we saw months ago, recalling the plot and, often, reciting the dialog. I’m lucky if I can remember the name of the movie we saw the prior evening.

As far as we know, neither of us is experiencing age-related memory loss… it’s always been this way. Each of us is just better with different types of memories. I find that my memories tend to be more emotional and visual, his are more verbal. One’s not better than the other—both tend to be filled equally with useful and useless tidbits of information—they are just different.

After 26 years together, I think that it is safe to say that we’ve forgotten more bits and pieces than we can remember. Fortunately, it really doesn’t matter if he forgets the details of our first date or I can’t remember a movie we saw two months ago. What is really important is that we continue to make memories together. That and maybe we both should take notes.

GratiTuesday: Happy National Teacher Day, Miss Miller!

Today is National Teacher Day, a day set aside to honor those who make special contributions to the education of our society every day. Although I have had many wonderful teachers over the years (including those who teach the adult learning classes I attend now), one of the most inspirational teachers I had was my first grade teacher, Miss Miller.

Miss Miller was the kind of teacher any kid would be lucky to have. She was energetic, creative, patient, challenging, loving, and so much fun. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be faced with a classroom of 7- and 8-year-olds, most who hadn’t mastered the ability to sit still for any length of time, few who understood the concept of using their “inside voice,” and even fewer who had any idea what to expect and what was expected of them. Because our class had a combination of first and second graders, her job must have been even more challenging.

First Second 1963a

Although we entered her world with different childhood experiences and varying skill levels, on that first day we were all lumps of clay. Over the school year, Miss Miller skillfully worked her magic and slowly molded us into 30 young humans who, in addition to our academic lessons, learned to do our best, be nice to others, play fair, and to find joy in the process of acquiring knowledge.

I met some of my life-long friends in Miss Miller’s classroom. We made our way through grade school together and many of us went on to attend the same junior and senior high schools. Although our individual circumstances have changed over the years, the bond is still there.  One was my Maid of Honor, I was a guest in another’s home in Hawaii for 3 weeks, and I recently traveled to La Paz with still another.

From one of those friends, I was thrilled to learn that Miss Miller was still living in the area and was as healthy in mind and body as ever. I asked my friend if she could set up a lunch for the three of us so I could see my favorite teacher again and tell her how much she meant to me.

Out of that lunch came the germ of idea: we would gather together as many students from our first grade class as we could for a Thank You Miss Miller celebration. We figured that we couldn’t be the only two who remembered Miss Miller with a special fondness.

We reached out to as many of our classmates as we could and asked each one if they were in contact with any others. Pretty soon, we had about 20 email addresses. Out of those 20, we were able to get commitments from 10 – not bad from a class of 30 students who, over the 50+ years in between, certainly had moved on, both figuratively and literally. Happily, we discovered that we all still shared an appreciation for our teacher.

Group 2

The luncheon was a splendid success. Miss Miller (who will always remain Miss Miller to us even though she tried to have us call her Cynthia) was thrilled and touched by our show of gratitude. Her students—most of us now in our early 60s—had a delightful time catching up and sharing memories. As a special memento, we presented her with a book that contained thank you notes from each of us and our pictures, from first grade and now.

I am so grateful not only that I had the privilege of having Miss Miller as my teacher, but that I was able to thank her in person so many years later. How many 60-year-olds get to hang out with their first grade teacher?

Happy Teacher Day to all the amazing and dedicated teachers out there. You have made a difference in our lives and we are forever grateful to you!