Ten Things I Learned About Retirement from Downton Abbey

As I move towards retirement, I have gained wisdom and guidance from many sources. Books, blogs, articles, and especially friends who have gone before me, all have helped pave the way and have made me more comfortable with my coming transition.

Tonight, as I anticipate the start of Season 4 of Downton Abbey, I realized that even the Crawleys, along with their extended family and staff, can teach me a thing or two about the road ahead.

try new things

1) Don’t stay in a rut. Try new things – even if it involves wearing unattractive outfits.

entertain

2) Stay connected with friends and entertain often. Everyone loves a barbeque!

weekends

3) Don’t forget what a weekend is. It’s that thing at the end of those other days you’ll lose track of.

idle

4) Don’t be idle. There’s always something to do, even if it’s just getting lost in a good book.

still working

5) Don’t forget that others are still working. Be grateful and respectful of their time.

travel

6) There is so much out there to see. Travel as often as possible.

frump

7) No need to start dressing like a frump just because you’re no longer going to work every day.

excercise

8) Exercise often. Even better, exercise with friends.

technology

9) Stay current with new technologies, and don’t be afraid of getting out of your comfort zone.

you never know

10) You never know how long you – or those you love – will be around. Never miss an opportunity to tell someone that you love them.

“Life is short, live it. Love is rare, grab it. Anger is bad, dump it. Fear is awful, face it. Memories are sweet, cherish it.” – Unknown

The Vision Thing

“Vision animates, inspires, transforms purpose into action” Warren Bennis

I’ve never been a big proponent of writing New Year’s resolutions. The few times I actually wrote down what I resolved to do (or stop doing) in the new year, I would forget about the list by, say, January 5, and pick right up doing (or not doing) what I’ve done (or not done) all along. I am a creature of habit and it takes much more than a few words on paper to make big changes.

This is not to say that I don’t believe in setting personal goals or having a self-improvement plan. I just don’t think the arbitrary date of January 1 is necessarily the day to begin. I remember when I worked out regularly at a gym, I always avoided going the first few weeks of January because it was overrun with wannabe gym rats. I knew that by the end of January/early February, gym attendance would return to normal and I would no longer have to wait in line to use the machines.

As 2013 ends and the year that I will retire begins, I am going to try something different: writing a personal vision statement. I have written many vision statements over the years for various organizations, but I have never thought to craft one for my own personal goals, ambitions, and dreams. Although I know that, like New Year’s resolutions, just because something is written on paper doesn’t make it so, I think having a well-thought-out vision statement can help me stay focused on creating the future I want.

A simple Google search will yield tons of articles about writing a personal vision statement. Some have handy step-by-step instructions, some give examples of what one might look like. Most of the articles suggest that it be kept to just a few sentences and to write it in the present tense; as if you have already achieved your goals. Your vision statement can cover several areas of your life (e.g. health, education, and relationships) or focus on one particular dream or goal. The important thing is that it speaks to your soul and inspires you to move forward.

Before I started to craft my personal vision statement, I thought it would be helpful to make a photo collage that created a visual representation of my perfect future. I gathered up a pile of old magazines, a pair of scissors, a glue stick, and a poster board and started to cut out pictures and words that resonated with me. As I assembled the pictures and words on my board, I discovered four main areas of focus: health and exercise, travel and recreation, creativity and art, and friends and food.

Photo Collage

Using this collage as my inspiration, I will next capture in words the life I want to create for myself as I move into retirement and beyond. I may not share the final product with anyone but I will re-visit it often to draw inspiration and to make sure I’m doing what I need to do in order to live the life I want to live. If any part of my vision statement no longer resonates, I can simply change it so that it reflects my new path.

(Over)Thinking Things Through

A little over ten years ago, in preparation for our wedding festivities, my future husband and I purchased a barbecue grill. We were hosting our rehearsal dinner in our back yard and planned to grill and serve carne asada to our guests. At that time, our yard was just dirt – we had not yet poured concrete for the patio nor did we have any landscaping to speak of. Because our vision for the backyard included a barbecue island, the grill we purchased was a “slide-in” and didn’t include a stand.

Not to be stymied, my very resourceful and skilled soon-to-be-husband welded up a temporary stand to hold the grill for that night and, we figured, for several months to come.

Ten years later, the grill is still sitting on that stand. As a shout-out to the hubby, the stand is still solid. Rusty, but solid. The grill has been moved from place to place over the years and gets a lot of use, especially in the summer. He built one terrific temporary stand.

That situation is about to change. Over the last few weeks (OK, months), we’ve been building our permanent barbecue island. Its metal frame has been screwed together, the cement board attached, and we are ready to add the countertop and siding material. Once that is complete, we will carefully remove our grill from its home of ten years, place it on its new resting site, hook it to the natural gas pipes, and fire it up.

BBQ

My husband and I never do anything quickly. We agonize over every detail and question every decision. We’ve made many false starts then have backtracked when we decide to go another way. I guess the good news is we are just alike this way; one of us paired up with a quick and sure decision maker would probably lead to disastrous results, or, at least, abject misery for both people.

Despite this flaw in both of our characters, we’ve managed to make some pretty good decisions (or, maybe non-decisions) along the way. Because of our propensity not to take compulsive action, we didn’t rush out of the stock market when past crashes have occurred (as they will again). We ride the market down, than back up again, taking advantage of “cheap” buys along the way. We didn’t rush into our marriage (only after 13 years of “dating” did we tie the knot) and we are likely not to make compulsive, poorly considered choices that will threaten our relationship.

After the barbecue island is built, we have a few more big projects to finish. Topping the list is the cabinetry in our living room (our remodel was completed, except for this area, about 15 years ago), and a wall between our house and our neighbor’s (should it be a block wall, wood, metal. or, maybe a combination? to replace a rickety wooden fence poorly constructed by a former neighbor maybe 8 years ago. We also have plenty of smaller projects to keep us busy for a while.

My personal goal was to have all of our bigger projects done by the time I retired. I envisioned being able to relax and enjoy our fully completed home for a few months before starting to tackle some of the smaller “to-dos” on my list. This is clearly not going to happen.

When the area for the living room cabinetry was designed years ago, flat screen TVs didn’t exist so the space is deep enough to accept an old-fashioned tube TV. This change in technology has caused our original design to be scrapped. I hope that we get the project done before we are all wearing virtual reality headsets, making the need for a TV obsolete. I really hate the thought of having to start the project all over again.

Color is the New Black

I have always been attracted to colorful clothing. In high school and college, when many of my friends were dressing all in black, I went for the reds, blues, and purples. I remember admiring the chic, sophisticated, kind of exotic vibe those black-clad beauties exuded, but it just didn’t feel right on me.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have any black in my closet; it just wasn’t the dominant color. You won’t find much black in my closet today either. I confess to owning several pairs of black slacks and jeans, one or two sweaters, and, of course, the “little black dress” someone told us we should all have, but mostly my clothes are more rainbow, less goth.

Apparently even at a young age I was color-blocking!
Apparently even at a young age I was color-blocking!

Lately I’ve noticed that I reach for black less and less. And, when I wear something black close to my face, I don’t feel as energized as I do when I have on something more colorful. When I see pictures of myself wearing black, I think I look tired and drained of color. Not a look I’m fond of.

As I observe women around me who are around my age or older, I see a lot of black clothing. Some are lucky to have that striking “winter” complexion that looks great in black but most do not. Maybe they chose black because it was “safe,” or they think it makes them look slimmer, or they had admired it on someone else (probably a “winter”) and hoped to achieve the same result, or, worst of all, they wear black to help them fade into the background.

I know there are plenty of wonderful fashion blogs out there for women over 50, and I don’t intend for RetirementallyChallenged to be one of them, but I like to look and feel my best and I know that wearing the right colors for me makes me feel great. I also love to see a woman over 50 embrace her age with confidence, joy, and style. She knows which fabrics, colors, and cuts look best on her and she wears those regardless of current trends. She might even feel that she could lose a few pounds, but she knows that black isn’t really all that slimming anyway and, besides, why would she want to fade into the background?

I’ve made a decision recently that if I don’t love it, I don’t buy it. In addition, if I’m not feeling the love from a previously-purchased piece of clothing, it is on its way out too. Life is too short to wear clothes that I don’t feel good in.

As my wardrobe makes the transition from being work-focused to being ready for anything retirement might bring, I know that my business clothes are on their way out. In addition to those items I will no longer have any use for, my favorite second hand store will be on the receiving end of my remaining black clothes.

When I’m there, maybe I’ll look through their racks for a new little black dress… in red.

Our Tax Dollars at Work

My husband and I decided to take a leisurely route on our drive home from Sacramento a few weeks ago. On our trip north, we took Highway 5, which runs up the middle of the state – it’s the best choice for getting from here to there in a single day, but there’s not much to see along the way. For our return trip, we opted to take Highway 1, which has to be one of the most beautiful highways in the country, if not the world.

I’ve traveled on this road many times; on family vacations, riding along with my parents and older brother when they delivered him to the University of California, Santa Cruz where he went to college, and then again when I attended UCSC, and a handful other trips over the years. Each time, I have been transfixed by the breathtaking beauty along California’s rugged coastline. As I got older and became more aware of these things, I marveled at the level of planning, engineering, and construction expertise that must have gone into creating this ribbon of asphalt that hugs the coastline.

This time, because we began our journey in Sacramento, we had to negotiate a number of freeways before we were able to connect up with Highway 1 in the city of Santa Cruz. From Santa Cruz, our journey took us south through Capitola, Castroville (the “artichoke capital of the world”!), Monterey, and Carmel, before we began the approximately 90 miles of highway that winds along the coastal area known as Big Sur.

It is difficult to capture in words how stunning the scenery is along this route. To the north, the highway passes through a lush pine forest, then, as it winds south, the road turns toward the coast, offering views of the turquoise blue Pacific Ocean meeting a rocky shore that rises abruptly to become the Santa Lucia mountain range. Because we were traveling south, our lane was on the outside, close to the edge of the cliffs. Great for taking in the views, but a bit harrowing as we wended our way along the curvy road. Fortunately, there are many turnouts provided along the way so travelers can stop for a closer look and to take pictures.

Up until the 1930s, this part of California’s coastline was relatively inaccessible. In 1921, state and federal funds were appropriated for the ambitious project of constructing a road from Carmel to San Simeon. San Quentin Prison provided much of the unskilled labor, paying the prisoners a whopping 35 cents a day, and the promise of reduced sentences. Because of the area’s topography, 33 bridges had to be constructed, including the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge.

Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge

After 18 years of construction, aided by New Deal funds during the Great Depression, the paved two-lane road was completed and opened in June of 1937. The road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honoring the current President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1939, it was redesignated as Highway 1, and, in 1965, became the first State Scenic Highway.

Several areas along the route are prone to landslides and the road has to be shut down from time-to-time to clear the path. Fortunately, I have never experienced one of these slides in progress – I can’t imagine how frightening it would be to have rocks and boulders suddenly rain down on my car and the road in front of me.

One of many landslides at Pitkin's Curve
One of many landslides at Pitkins Curve

In one area where a large number of landslides have occurred, the California Department of Transportation is completing an ambitious project designed to protect both travelers and the fragile coastline. At Pitkins Curve, they have realigned the road by constructing a bridge that juts out from the side of the cliffs, thereby allowing future landslides to pass under the bridge and not fall onto the road. They are also building a “rock shed,” which is I can only describe as an exterior tunnel. The theory is that rocks and boulders will fall onto the roof of the shed, rather than on the cars and cyclists on the road.

Construction of the rock shed. Image by the California Department of Transportation.
Construction of the rock shed. Image by the California Department of Transportation.
Entering the amazing rock shed
Entering the amazing rock shed

The original construction of the highway (even with the poorly paid convict laborers) was extremely expensive and could have only been done with tax dollars. I am so grateful that, back in the early part of last century, the federal government and the citizens of California wisely saw the value of such an ambitious project.

I can’t say that I enjoy paying taxes, and I certainly disagree with a lot of things my tax dollars fund. I also understand that there is a lot of waste and a certain amount of fraud in the system. It’s not perfect, but I do know that it takes a lot of money to keep all of the moving parts of this great country operating smoothly. When I travel on roads built long ago because the government and voters at that time thought it was important to dream big and create a legacy for future generations, I realize that the decisions we make today will reflect the values we hold.

In our current climate of tax resistance and reduction in government spending regardless of the societal cost, I wonder if we would have the vision and commitment to the common good to fund a project like Highway 1 today.

Mapping our lives

Several hours and a few hundred miles away from home, I realized that I had forgotten to bring my beloved road atlas with me on our trip to northern California. My husband and I have driven these freeways many times before, and it’s a pretty straight shot, so getting lost was not a worry. Both of us have smart phones, so both Google Maps and the ability to call for help and directions were both readily available. Still, I wanted a map.

I like being able to plot our progress; I want to see what little towns are up ahead, and, during the especially boring parts of the journey, to see how much further we have to go before something more interesting will appear. What’s the name of that lake over to the left? Which turnoff did we take last time when we visited that great little winery? Have we passed from Kern County to Kings County yet? Without a paper map, I am left with a blue dot moving through the state on my iPhone screen. Empty and soulless.

I inherited my love of paper maps from my father. He kept a large stack of them on his bookshelf – many were of often-visited locals, some he picked up on his and my mother’s journeys around the country and the world. He found it difficult, if not impossible, to throw any of them away – even when he picked up newer versions of ones he already had. This made it harder when I was clearing out his home for sale after his death. I discovered that I not only had inherited his love of maps, but also his reluctance to throw them away. Each was a souvenir of a trip taken and a physical memory keeper of his and my mother’s journey together.

The California road atlas I had inadvertently left home last week was one that belonged to my father. It is dated 1986 and contains notes he had written on many of the pages. Not all of them are trip-related; on the detail street maps showing the city of Los Angeles, he made notes indicating where the 1992 L.A. riots were occurring. I can picture him sitting at his home in San Diego, watching the news on television, the map book opened to the pages showing the parts of L.A. that were on fire.

map

As my father’s mind slowly slipped into the fog of dementia, and his earlier memories were clearer to him then recent ones, I discovered that he had adopted a ritual using the local newspaper’s daily US weather map. Every day, he mapped his journey – across the country, and then overseas – that he took as a young recruit during the Second World War. Every day, he plotted his movements, from Cincinnati, through Denver, to California (where he met my mother), to Las Vegas (where they married three months later), to New York. Then he drew an arrow to the right towards Europe.

I don’t know much about his experiences during the war, but I do know that he was one of the lucky ones. He avoided the worst of combat and came home physically and, I believe, mentally unscathed. What he plotted every day on the newspaper map were memories of a great adventure. I wish I had kept one of those sweet, precious maps.
It’s probably time to buy a new California road atlas (assuming they still make them). I know that many roads have been added to the state since 1986 and a newer one would be more useful.

I also know that I will not throw away the old one that belonged to my father.

More than a paycheck

When my husband retired a little over a year ago, he quickly realized that many of the things he took for granted over the 40+ years he was in the corporate world were no longer easily available to him. You might think this realization could probably be placed in the “No Duh” file, but I can imagine, until one actually makes the jump from working full-time one day to not working at all the next, it’s impossible to anticipate all of the changes to come.

In addition to the easy social network that is left behind (several post topics in itself), problem-solving help, IT assistance, data, and other useful information that used to be a stroll to another cubicle or simple phone call away, are no longer as accessible. Because he was employed by a pretty large corporation (where I continue to work), he probably had more resources than many who work in smaller companies – surely more than those who are self-employed. But, I imagine that many new retirees from companies of just about any size not only miss their work friends but also the perks of shared resources.

One of the largest gaps in our knowledge base involves things technological. We own three computers, two smart phones, and one tablet, and, as long as things are working smoothly, we are fine. As soon as we experience a glitch, we are lost (for instance, just recently, the “back” button on my desktop mysteriously stopped working for the most part and I have no idea how to fix it). I am savvy enough to know that I can often find the answer to my latest puzzlement by Googling my problem in the form of a question. Unfortunately, just as often, rather than the simple answer I was hoping for, I find that my limited technological knowledge doesn’t include what is necessary to understand the solution.

As long as I continue to work, I’ll have fairly easy access to people who can help solve whatever IT problem we throw at them. When I join my husband in retirement, we will either need to put the Geek Squad on permanent retainer, or find a bright 15-year-old in the neighborhood that we can bribe with treats in exchange for help.