Sharks circling the mailbox

Like many retirees, my husband and I have been focused on getting rid of the clutter around our house. Over the years we have managed to collect a lot of stuff; stuff that is no longer relevant to our lives. But, as we continue to offload piles of things we’ve acquired over the years, there continues a flood of unwanted and useless stuff through our front door, via the U.S. Postal Service. Despite our best efforts to keep on top of it, we often find ourselves drowning in annoying junk mail.

In addition to the grocery store flyers, coupon mailings, and offers of various types of insurance coverage, most of the remaining useless pre-trash fits into one of the following categories:

shark with stamp

Let us help you acquire more debt

Amid the destruction and turmoil the 2007-2008 financial crisis caused, we found one small ray of sunshine peeking through the rubble: no more unwanted credit card offers junking up our already junky junk mail.  Although nothing had changed about our personal credit-worthiness, all of the various banks, retail chains, airlines, etc. suddenly went silent. They no longer were anxious to offer anyone with a pulse the opportunity to accumulate debt by applying for their credit cards. When the economy melted it was as if a spigot had suddenly been turned off and we were grateful for the reprieve.

Unfortunately, judging from the mail that we have been receiving lately, that reprieve is over. Almost daily it seems that we get multiple offers of cards that will earn us airline mileage, free hotel stays, or cash back on specific purchases.

Just as they did before the financial meltdown, these offers go straight to the shredder. We have the cards we need (just one and a back-up) and we probably aren’t the kind of customers they want anyway since we pay our balance off each month.

Even though you already gave, please give us more

Also junking up our mailbox are donation requests from charitable organizations and non-profits that we already give to. It’s not unusual to send in our annual membership fee and, just a few months later, receive another mailing that looks surprisingly like an annual membership fee request. We have started to keep a spreadsheet listing the organization, what we gave, and when we gave just so we can keep everything straight.

You’d think that these organizations could save a ton of money by just mailing once a year, but obviously these ongoing solicitations must work or they wouldn’t send them. It bothers me to think that these organizations I think so highly of have, as part of their fund-raising tactics, a strategy to fool people into making more than one “annual” donation.

You have several years left on your magazine subscription but how about paying in advance for several years more?

Magazines have been employing the scheme of multiple solicitations for ages. Although I’ve cut way back on my subscriptions, I still receive a few print magazines. Choosing the multi-year subscription option will usually save money but I’ve also found that it gives them more chances to send annoying and confusing solicitations. Long before my subscriptions are up, I start to receive requests to renew, extend, and send gift subscriptions to friends.

And, these are just those mailings from the magazine company. Often magazine sales companies – with no connection to the actual publisher – try to trick subscribers into re-ordering their magazines through them. These are the mailings that are made to resemble legitimate renewal notices or even invoices. I’m fortunate to live in a state that requires magazine companies to disclose the current subscription end date on their renewal notices, but they do their best to camouflage them.

 

As annoying and wasteful as this type of mail is, I worry about a time in the future when my husband and I may be less able to keep track of what is legitimate and what isn’t. When I took over the management of my father’s household and finances as his health declined, I was shocked by the number of sharks ready to feed on those most vulnerable. Without an honest and diligent gatekeeper, it’s easy to get eaten alive.

Looking forward through the rear-view mirror

Rear View_edited-1

I began this blog almost a year-and-a-half ago, just about 6 months before my retirement date. I’ve always enjoyed writing and I knew I wouldn’t have many opportunities outside of work unless I created them for myself. I subscribed to several blogs so starting my own blog seemed like a great way to do this. Deciding on my blog’s focus was easy; I was headed into a big unknown. I wasn’t sure what my personal retirement would look like – I had some ideas, but no real plan of action – so I wanted to explore the social and psychological aspects of retirement as well as learn from others who had gone before.

Originally, I envisioned writing posts several times a week. I had lots of ideas for topics and I figured spending an hour or two each week writing, formatting, and posting would be easy peasy. Soon, after realizing I was being much too optimistic about the time commitment, I dialed my expectations back to once a week. Now, a couple of posts a month has become the norm.

I still enjoy writing and I still have ideas for topics, but, because the perfect words don’t just flow out of my brain onto the screen, each post takes much longer than it probably appears it should have. I am the queen of edits and re-writes.

WordPress does a lot to encourage regular posts by offering a multitude of tutorials, challenges, and prompts. In addition, established bloggers invite others to join in on photo and writing challenges of their own. Last fall, I took part in WordPress’s Photography 101 challenge. It turned out to be a great way to share my photos of the Hawaiian vacation that coincided with the challenge and I managed to gain more followers because of my participation. Although I think these prompts and challenges can be quite helpful and fun to take part in, I find that, at least for my blog, they can dilute the main message and take the focus off what I want my blog to be about – life in retirement.

I will be celebrating my first retireversary next month and I am pleased to report that it’s going quite well. My husband and I have completed a few house projects, we’ve done some traveling and plan do a lot more, and we are discovering the joys and challenges of spending so much time together and being the masters of our own schedules.

I look forward to continuing this blog and I hope that I can be much more regular with my posts. I really appreciate everyone who stops by to read what I have to say, and I am especially grateful to those who take the time to add comments.

Although my blog is ultimately about retirement and “learning to navigate through my post-work world,” I imagine that it will morph a bit as time goes on, just as my life will change. There is so much to do, creative outlets to explore, and social interactions to enjoy. I want my blog to reflect all of this and more.

Is this when the wheels start to come off?

I have a friend who is battling colon cancer. She has undergone several series of chemotherapy over the past year and has yet to receive an “all clear” diagnosis from her doctors. Each time she thinks she is done, they’ve found new reasons for concern. After completing her last round of chemotherapy, she is now in a wait-and-see holding pattern and we are all cautiously optimistic.

Another friend is currently undergoing chemotherapy for Lymphoma.  She is one month into her treatments and after another 4 – 5 months her doctors will do another evaluation. She is getting a lot of support from her husband and friends, and we are cautiously optimistic about her outcome.

A neighbor who is also a good friend had a mastectomy a few years ago when a small tumor was discovered in her left breast. Recently, during a routine follow-up with her oncologist, it was discovered that her HCG levels were unusually high. High HCG levels are normal in pregnant women; high levels in a non-pregnant woman can be an indicator of ovarian cancer. She will get her test results later this week and her friends and family are cautiously optimistic that she will get a clean bill of health.

Then, just the weekend, I called a friend that I’ve known since grade school regarding an upcoming get-together. She told me that her attendance was up in the air at this time because her husband was recently diagnosed with severe Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS), a bone marrow disorder. In general, the prognosis for patients with advanced MDS isn’t encouraging, but she is doing her best to maintain a cautiously optimistic perspective for her husband and her family.

Hope

These four medical challenges are not the only ones faced by friends and acquaintances; I know a few who have battled cancer and won (at least for now) and several others who are living with MS and other long-term health issues.  But, these are the most recent and I can’t shake the feeling that there seems to be an uptick in the number of serious diagnoses received by friends, friends of friends, and their family members – all close to my age.

In general, when we reach retirement age, we are focused on our finances and our emotional well-being. Many also realize that it is important to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. When we think about the future, our concern is often how to ensure adequate care in our advanced age. I don’t think most of us put a lot of thought into facing an early death – of either ourselves or our loved ones.

A recent article in the New York Times titled Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer discusses how cancer is slowly overtaking heart disease as the number 1 cause of death. Due to an increased focus on the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet, and the availability of medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol, heart disease is less likely to affect someone between 55 and 85. Because of the way cancers develop (over time, due to errors in cell evolution), just the fact that we have lived a long time makes us susceptible to these cell mutations.

Although there have been a lot of strides made in the treatment of some cancers, preventing it in the first place seems to hold the most promise. Governments do this by improving sanitation, regulating and banning certain toxins, and promoting research and the development of vaccines. On the individual level, we can make sure we pay attention to what we eat and get plenty of exercise to keep our weight at a healthy level, stop smoking – and if you don’t smoke, stay away from second-hand smoke, and avoid excessive sun exposure. Of course none of this is a guarantee: not one of the four friends mentioned at the beginning are overweight or have poor eating habits, they don’t smoke, and none of their cancers resulted from too much sun exposure.

I’m not sure what the takeaway from all of this is. I don’t want to live my life in fear of what could be waiting around the corner. I am fair-skinned but I love the being outdoors, so I slather on SPF 50 and go out and enjoy myself. Although I’d love to be able to encase my husband in bubble wrap when he goes on one of his routine 50-mile bike rides, I know I can’t. We both try our best to avoid unhealthy food but, sometimes, something bad is just the thing that makes us feel so good.

So, we do our best. We try to get as much out of this life that we can, love the people who we hold close as hard as we can, take as good care as we can of our frustratingly aging bodies and minds, and always strive to treat others with patience, kindness, and respect.

We remain cautiously optimistic about the future.

59 Candles

I hate my birthday. Actually, it’s not so much my birthday – as a child, I loved the attention and getting presents – it’s the month that my birthday falls in that I dislike.

Growing up, I was always so envious of my friends who had birthdays in late spring and summer. They got to have beach parties, and pool parties, and parties in the park. Because my birthday is in January, my parties always had to be held indoors. It was cold outside and sometimes wet; not exactly party weather.

HB4Not only is my birthday in what is often the coldest month of the year, it is in early January… just days after the holidays. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard a version of this joyful birthday greeting: “Oh great, it’s your birthday. Jeez, we just had Christmas and now I have to think about your birthday?” Um, sorry?

 

Fortunately, my parents always made a big deal about my birthday, just as they did for my two brothers. I never had to open a combined Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday gift or was made to feel that the timing of my birthday was inconvenient (after all, it was kind of their fault, right?). In fact, it was the year they forgot my birthday that I knew something was terribly wrong and my brothers and I needed to step in and become their vigilant care givers.

In just a few days, I will enter the final year of my fifties. The year I turned 29, 39, and even 49, didn’t have much significance for me. Those 365 days ticking down to my next decade didn’t seem like they were leading to anything terribly transformative. For some reason, 59 feels different.

According to several dictionaries, “middle age” is considered to span between the ages of 40 and 60. Before turning 40, a person is considered to be a “young adult.” Once that person turns 60, according to the definition, he or she has now reached “old age.” OLD AGE?? I can’t speak for everyone in my age range, but I certainly don’t feel like I’m just one short year away from being of “old age.” I have a lot of friends who are several – some who are many – years older than I am and I don’t consider them to be of “old age” either.  Some are still working and some are retired. They travel, they volunteer, they are involved with their families, friends, and their community.

I wonder if we need to create another definition for the years after 60. I’m not in denial that, at some point in the future, “old” will be an apt description of my age, but it sure isn’t what I’d define myself as being now, or a year from now, or, I hope, for many years to come.

Over the next 365 days, I might put some thought into coining a new phrase to describe the years following my 60th birthday. Even better, I think I’ll just continue to be active, engaged, creative, and connected, and let my reality define my age.

Construction Zone

Our living room has been in disarray for a couple of months as we’ve been working on our latest home improvement project: removing our old fireplace, reframing the wall, installing a new fireplace, tiling the surround, and installing new cabinets. While working on this project, we have completely reconfigured our living room and dining room furniture to get it out of the way of the mess and allow room to work. We hope to be done with everything before the end of the year.

The toilet in our master bathroom is currently sitting on its side in the middle of the floor. Also, all of the items that usually reside under our kitchen sink are now out of the cabinet and in the garage.

Lovely, huh?
Lovely, huh?

Although the living room project was planned, the toilet and kitchen sink were a complete surprise. When we returned home after being away for several weeks, we discovered water where it shouldn’t be; first around the toilet, then under the sink… totally independent, totally unexpected, and totally not what we need right now. Although there wasn’t a lot of water, any water where it shouldn’t be can’t be ignored.

It seems like my husband and I have at least one home project in the works almost continually. Sometimes big, sometimes small, but almost always it (or they) becomes a focus in our lives for far too much time. After the living room is done, there are at least two more good-sized projects I can think of waiting in the wings. This doesn’t include the normal house maintenance projects everyone has (our water heater should be replaced, the living room needs repainting, bushes need trimming, etc.).

We claim that we don’t want to keep taking on these projects, yet, for some reason, we do. We say that our idea of a fulfilling retirement includes more focus on fun, travel and hobbies, and less on construction, dust, and upheaval, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

One of the problems is that we (and by “we” I mean my husband) are pretty skilled at do-it-yourself projects. And, because we (my husband) know how to do these things, we like them to be done a certain way. In addition, we (that would be both of us) are relatively frugal and have a hard time justifying paying someone else to do what we can do ourselves.

Upon returning home from our latest trip, we walked into the living room we left. The one wall was still just bare studs; the brown craft paper was still taped to the floor; the furniture was still topsy-turvy. We didn’t expect HGTV to visit our home and finish everything while we were gone, but the contrast of where we just were (on vacation: pure leisure for three weeks) and what was in front of us was striking. It was good to be home – we love our home – but we had a hard time facing the work we still have to do.

We’ve recently talked about our habit of taking on too much and agree that we need to make some changes in our approach to large household projects. We want to be more realistic about what REALLY needs to be done and, if we decide the outcome is worth the effort and expense, be more open to paying someone else to do the work. Then, after receiving a tradesperson’s bid, the (usually shockingly high) estimate needs to be evaluated against the physical and psychological costs of doing the work ourselves. Are we willing to have our retirement filled with days (weeks, months) of labor? How about the little quarrels that often occur when we are tired and stressed? And then, of course, there are the aches and pains we most likely will suffer because we are no longer 30… or 40.

When we take everything into consideration as we compare one cost to the other, I expect that often the value of freeing up our time will be worth the expense.

Words Escape Me

Literarily.

I can be having a perfectly normal conversation with a friend when suddenly the next word I want to say will just vanish. Gone. When this happens, I flail around for a moment (hoping my friend won’t see the look of panic on my face) and then usually come up with another word or two that will more or less substitute for the one I’ve lost.

Or, I might be writing a letter, email, text, or blog post (or a report, back when I was working). Things are going great. I know what I want to say and I’m putting together a string of words that convey my intent and that are clear and coherent. Everything is flowing along. Until it stops.

Damn, what is that word I’m looking for?

imagesGPABTEBM

Often what I have lost isn’t an especially completed word. It could be something like “inclusive,” or “detail,” or “standards.” It’s often a word that I’ve used hundreds or even thousands of times with no problem. A word I’ve been familiar with since grade school. A word that just seconds earlier I could have effortlessly found floating among my brain cells. But, now, at the moment I need the word, it’s not coming to me.

If this happens when I’m writing, I’ll just type a big red X in its spot so I can come back to it. Usually, a few minutes later when I revisit what I’ve written, I can easily retrieve (OK, I momentarily lost that one) the elusive word, replace the X, and move on. No one is the wiser. Unfortunately, when I’m speaking, my transitory vocabulary lapses aren’t as easy to cover up.

I’m not too concerned that this affliction indicates an early-onset of dementia or other age-related brain deterioration. Although it has gotten a bit worse over the years, I’ve had this problem for as long as I can remember. I’m sure it’s one reason I’ve always preferred writing to speaking. It’s much more comfortable to deal with a big red X than it is to experience the embarrassment of becoming suddenly mute as my brain goes searching for the word I’ve lost, or, failing that, to find a reasonable substitute.

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Possibly related, but not quite the same, is my tendency to get “right” and “left” mixed up (best not to ask me for directions) or, sometimes, “yellow” and “pink.” I am fully aware of what each word means, I just say one when I mean the other. Or, I routinely forget the name for something. When I was working I had a brain stall every time I tried to find the words “case study.”  It’s a term used often in my profession but one that, for some reason, I had trouble with.

Now that I have retired and no longer need to make public presentations or utter the words “case study,” I have found that this personal peccadillo has become less of an issue for me. Fortunately, many of my friends are retired too and are less of a hurry to get anywhere. They are perfectly content to pause the conversation while I go rummaging around my cranial attic for a word that has escaped my grasp.

I, in turn, smile and nod when they go on to tell me the same story they told me last week.

Resiliency

Even those who deny climate change (or, at least the impact we humans have had) must have a hard time ignoring the wild swings of weather conditions the United States—and the world—has experienced over the last several years.

Those of us on the West Coast are in a severe, multi-year drought while those in other areas of the country have endured record cold temperatures. Now, I’m reading news stories about torrential rain and flooding on the East Coast.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Here in San Diego, fire crews are just finishing battling nearly a dozen individual wild fires that burned around 26,000 acres and required over 125,000 people to evacuate. Although California has had wild fires throughout the state’s history, this mix of low humidity, triple-digit temperatures, and hot, dry Santa Ana winds in May is most unusual… and troubling. No one is naive enough to think that we’ve seen the worst of it. This is just the earliest start of our fire season in decades. What we used to brace ourselves for in September and October could now be a threat year-round.

Our home was well away from the fires, but, along with so many others, we watched the scenes of the firestorms on the TV; cheering the heroics of the fire fighters as they battled the blazes in their attempt to save homes and lives. Because of their efforts, “only” around 70 homes were destroyed and no lives were lost (contrast that to 2003, when 2,232 homes were destroyed and 15 people died, and 2007 when 1,500 homes were lost and 9 died).

Now that most of the fires are fully contained the focus has switched from fighting the fires to mopping up and surveying the damage. It is heartbreaking to see the bewildered faces of people standing in front of what once were their homes. It is the same look seen after the devastating hurricanes, super storms, tornados, earthquakes, and so many other recent disasters we’ve witnessed.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

As I look at photos of the fires’ destruction, I wonder how the people who have lost their homes will be able to bounce back after such devastation. Most of them say—and it’s true—that it’s only “things” and they are lucky to be alive, but I know how much all of the “things” that are in a home can make us feel safe, connect us to our past, and help us define who we are.

A word that I am hearing more and more in the aftermath of these disasters is “resilience” as it relates to systems, nature, and people. Andrew Zolli, the author of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back described resilient systems as being able to “sense and respond to their own state and to the state of the world around them, compensate or dynamically reorganize themselves in the face of novel shocks, decouple themselves from other fragile systems when necessary, fail gracefully, and have a strong local self-sufficiency.” I think much the same thing could be said of people who are resilient.

I don’t believe that we either are or are not resilient. Some who are perceived as fragile by others can exhibit great resilience when faced with a personal challenge or devastating loss. Others, who may appear to be strong and stoic on the outside, might not be able to bounce back as well. Not everyone reacts in the same way to traumatic and stressful life events, but there are steps we can take to become more resilient in the face of adversity. A resilient person will still experience difficulty or distress, but their resilience can influence their ability to recover, persist, or even thrive amid disruption.

We all experience traumas in some form, whether because of a natural disaster, the loss of a loved one, the ending of a relationship or a job, or because of health challenges. What is important is to develop the tools—behaviors, thoughts and actions—now that will help us when we are faced with adversity. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), these attributes can be learned and developed by anyone. In order to increase our ability to be resilient, the APA suggests that we foster these important personal foundations*:

• Cultivate caring and supportive relationships, both inside and outside the family
• Nurture relationships that create love and trust, provide role models, and offer encouragement and reassurance
• Develop the capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
• Maintain a positive view of one’s self and confidence in our strengths and abilities
• Develop skills in communication and problem solving
• Learn to manage feelings and impulses

We all will face increased challenges as we age; the death of loved ones, decreased physical capacity, perhaps a serious illness or even a natural disaster. Building our resilience now will help us better respond and adapt.

heart2

“If your heart is broken, make art with the pieces”

– Shane Koyczan

* This list paraphrases a list from the APA’s brochure The Road to Resilience.