GratiTuesday: Great neighbors, great friends

I had a different GratiTuesday written and ready to go this week, but then I read the posts of several bloggers I follow and decided to change it. These posts explored different types of friendships, and, more specifically, the varying strengths of friendships, how they change over the years, and how it can be difficult to meet new friends as we get older.

Reading those posts reminded me of how grateful I am that I have dear friends who are also neighbors.

neighborhood_houses_144641

When my husband and I moved into our neighborhood over 20 years ago, we already had good friends who lived just a few doors away. In fact, they were the ones who alerted us to the possible availability of our house before it went on the market.

Then, these original friends introduced us to several neighbors who also became our friends and, over the years, we’ve been lucky to acquire even more friends as they have moved into our hood. Although we have a core group of four couples who socialize regularly, we often get together for celebrations, barbeques, and holiday parties with many of our other neighbors too. Several of us are retired couples, but there are also a few singles, retired and not, and younger couples, with and without children.

Over the years, we’ve watched neighborhood children grow up and get successfully launched, helped each other with household projects, celebrated milestones, mourned losses, watched each other’s houses when traveling, and always knew we could rely on each other when any help was needed.

Our neighborhood feels very much like the one I grew up in during the 60s. It’s the type of neighborhood I hoped for when my husband and I were looking for a home to purchase, and I feel so fortunate to be a part of it. Unfortunately, neighborhoods like ours have become increasingly rare in our modern world, especially in larger cities. I’m sure there are many reasons why things have changed, but I believe, whatever the explanations, the loss to our sense of community is profound.

I am so grateful for all most (our neighborhood is great, but not perfect) of my neighbors, but primarily for our core group of eight. I am confident that any of them would jump to lend a hand if we needed it, and I hope they know the same about us. I’m also grateful that, after all these years, we still have fun together and have never gotten tired of celebrating our friendship.

Finding my happy place

Last week, Sammy over at Bemuzin, posted a list of ten things she loves and ten things she hates. She had been tagged by a fellow blogger to participate in the Love-Hate Challenge, then she tagged ten different bloggers to pass the baton to, including me.

Fortunately, she didn’t list “procrastinators” as one of the ten things she hates, because I’m a bit tardy submitting my lists to the blogosphere.

Blueberries definitely take me to my happy place!
Blueberries definitely take me to my happy place!

For my lists, I’m going to change it up a bit (Sammy also didn’t include “rule-breakers” on her hated list, so I think I’m in the clear). First, few things rise to the level of “hate” in my life, so I will modify my list titles a bit. Second, I’m not going to tag a new group. But, give some thought to compiling your own lists, it was a lot of fun!

Ten things that take me to my happy place:

  • Beginning the morning lazing about and cuddling with my husband
  • Sitting on my deck and enjoying the sunshine
  • Taking walks with friends for exercise and conversation
  • Starting a new book and, after just a few pages, realizing that it’s REALLY good
  • Our blueberry bushes bursting with berries
  • All the yummies we make with our blueberry harvest
  • Small get-togethers with friends – good conversation, good food, and good wine
  • Road trips
  • National Public Radio
  • Coaxing a contented purr from a kitty by scratching behind its ears

Ten things that harsh my buzz:

  • Guilt-tipping (I talk all about it here)
  • When people post controversial things on Facebook without checking its authenticity
  • Drivers who endanger themselves and others by texting or talking on their cellphones
  • Mean people
  • Cooked carrots
  • When I forget someone’s name and have to fumble around in my brain to retrieve it
  • Missing Stephen Colbert and, soon, Jon Stewart on Comedy Central
  • Gophers
  • Ever-shrinking seats on airplanes
  • People who don’t pick up their dog’s poop

Death Didn’t Take a Holiday

We had a death in the neighborhood yesterday. Actually, we aren’t sure when our neighbor died. It could have been yesterday, but more than likely he had been dead for several days – or more – before being discovered. The last time his neighbor across the street saw him alive was on Thanksgiving. She later became concerned after noticing that his garbage hadn’t been brought curb-side for pick-up and that a flyer hung on his door hadn’t been touched.

We live in a fairly tight-knit neighborhood. We pretty much know everyone up and down both sides of our long block. There are a lot of long-time residents; one or two are the original owners of their late 1950’s era homes. It’s almost impossible to walk from one end of the block to the other without stopping multiple times to chat. It is the type of neighborhood many people want to live in—friendly, sociable, supportive, and connected.

John’s mother was one of those original owners. Before Audrey passed away several years ago, she put the house and a sizable amount of money into a trust for her son. She did this because she knew that John wouldn’t be able to care for himself because of his mental illness. Despite his violent behavior towards her and others, and his pattern of eschewing medication for his bipolar disorder and instead feeding his meth habit, she decided that the best place for her son was in our neighborhood.

Most of the time, we were able to ignore John and his craziness. He could often be seen walking in the area wearing multiple layers of clothing (even in the summer) and large headphones, constantly talking to himself. Other than being odd, he was mostly harmless; he avoided us and we avoided him. Other times, though, he’d become enraged and verbally attacked those who lived around him. He was enough of a threat that a few neighbors took out restraining orders against him. It was not unusual to see several police cars in front of his house. We quickly learned, though, that it’s not possible to force a mentally ill person into treatment if he refuses. Even if he doesn’t have water or gas service because of unpaid bills. Even if it is obvious that his mental and physical health is deteriorating. Even if we think he could be a threat to himself or others. Even if.

John had a sister and two kids from an earlier marriage. All had been victims of his abuse and all had become estranged from him over the years. Once his mother died the only people who “cared” about him were those who could profit from him; the ones who took advantage of his mental state by crashing at his house, eating his food, or selling him drugs.

So, now John is dead and the neighborhood is breathing a sigh of relief. Whether he died of drugs or a heart attack; whether he had been dead one day or six before being found, we’ll probably never know.

What we do know is that he died alone and without a friend in the world. His kids – both now young adults and seemingly reasonably-adjusted – will live with a memory of a father they could never know. They also now have a house to dispose of- the inside of which is probably so disgusting a sane person wouldn’t live there. They have a lot of work ahead of them to get it in any shape to sell.

We are a neighborhood that looks out for one another. We help each other with house and car projects. We celebrate good times together and support each other when bad things happen. But, this one got away from us. We watched helplessly as John’s life careened out of control and spiraled down to its inevitable conclusion.

I admit that I wasn’t sad when I found out that John had died. His pain is over and his neighbors no longer need to be afraid of what he might do. I am sad that we can’t, as a society, do more to aid these tortured souls. Because of lack of funding and a few probably well-intentioned laws that had unintended consequences, we are often helpless to intervene.

I think we can do better.

Having a Cool Yule

Wow, here it is December 1, and I haven’t purchased a single Christmas gift. I didn’t leave the Thanksgiving dinner table and head to the mall. I didn’t set my alarm for o-dark-thirty the next morning so I could join the Black Friday throngs standing in line to save a few bucks. And now my Cyber Monday virtual shopping carts are empty.

Many years ago my brothers and I, along with our spouses, decided to stop buying gifts for each other. Every Thanksgiving, we’d each write our name on a slip of paper and put it in a bowl. Then we’d draw a name and that would be the only one of the six of us we bought a gift for. $50 limit. In addition to that gift, my husband and I bought presents for each other, our parents, a niece, a grandniece, and a couple of friends. Pretty simple.

This plan worked well for several years but, after awhile, even the one gift seemed silly. The $50 gift price limit soon became a gift card exchange which didn’t feel very personal… or needed. So, a few years ago, the six of us decided to stop exchanging gifts with each altogether. Now, with my parents’ passing my husband’s and my gift list has dwindled down to just a few people. For the most part, we don’t even exchange gifts with each other. Sometimes we’ll buy each other little things for fun, and we can usually identify an upcoming trip or a household need that becomes our joint “gift” to each other, but usually there’s not much under the Christmas tree… if we even have a Christmas tree.

I'm pretty sure some of these gifts under my family's 1964 Christmas tree are now on eBay.
I’m pretty sure some of these gifts under my family’s 1964 Christmas tree are now on eBay.

These decisions have helped to change the holiday season for the better. I don’t experience the stress I used to because now I no longer am focused on buying PERFECT GIFTS. My husband and I can stroll the mall and enjoy the hustle and bustle and the lovely displays, but not get wrapped up in the craziness.

Do I sound like a bah humbug? I’m really not. I love the holiday lights, decorations, music (as long as it doesn’t start before Thanksgiving) and the parties. I don’t love the crass commercialism and the media-driven expectations. I’m also not against Christmas presents; if I happen to think of the perfect gift for someone, I’ll get it. If not, I don’t spend time running around desperately trying to find something. I’ve never been particularly religious but the whole idea of Christmas gifts seems odd to me anyway. Why is the focus on buying things for each other when the “reason for the season” is supposed to be about peace and joy?

In addition to the stress relief, our move away from buying and receiving presents has been beneficial in other ways. At this stage of our lives we are actively working on getting rid of “stuff.” Thanks to thrift stores, eBay, consignment shops, and the landfill, I finally feel like we’re making progress. No gifts means no more stuff. Besides, instead of a friend or loved one spending their time searching for THE PERFECT GIFT for me, I’d much prefer they give me the gift of time spent together, enjoying each other’s company.

The Klondike Big Inch Land Company: A Tale of Puffed Rice and Deflated Dreams

My two brothers and I are very lucky to have been raised by loving, involved parents who made sure we were well equipped to become successful adults. They made sure we studied hard in school, ate right, and we were encouraged to get plenty of exercise by playing outdoors with our friends.

But, they realized that all this may not be enough. Just having a good education, eating a healthy diet, and rocking at Kick-the-Can and Hide-and-Seek would only get us so far in the world. We needed something else, something that could give us the financial wherewithal to fund our dreams. Some parents might have purchased savings bonds for their children; others might have invested in Disney stock.

Our parents bought us land.

Well, they didn’t exactly buy us land. What they bought were boxes of Quaker Oats brand Puffed Rice. This wasn’t just any old cereal, mind you: nestled inside each box was a Deed of Land granted by the Klondike Big Inch Land Co. Inc.; specifically a deed for one square inch of land in the Yukon Territory.

Yep, I became a land baron before I was out of diapers.

Inch FrontInch Back

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was old enough to truly appreciate the significance of my Deed of Land – not only for its tremendous future dollar value, but also for its ability to make my best friend jealous – I put the document in a protective plastic sleeve and placed it among my other valuable possessions. I occasionally brought it out when I wanted to dream of my future wealth or I needed to up my cred among my friends, but, for the most part, it remained tucked safely away until the day I would lay claim to my land and the prosperity it represented.

Given the significance of the document, I’m not sure how it managed to lay forgotten for many years until it was discovered when I was going through a box of childhood stuff.  There, along with my grade school class photos, Troop 202 Girl Scout sash, and Presidential Physical Fitness Award patch, was my Deed of Land.

Holding the slightly yellowed document in my hands, the dreams began again.

Maybe, over the years, someone discovered oil under my inch. Or, miners had unearthed a lucrative vein of gold running through it. Or, perhaps a developer had mistakenly built a shopping mall on my land and now I could claim a percentage of the total value (including back interest, of course). If land size inflated in the same way currency does, that square inch would now equal a whopping 8.7 square inches. Certainly that Deed of Land extracted from a cereal box many years ago would be worth a sizable sum today. Oh yeah: my ship had just come in!

Before contacting an attorney or hiring a wealth manager, I decided to do a quick Google search to get some idea of the volume of money that would soon be flowing my way. I also wasn’t quite sure where the Yukon Territory was or the location of the closest airport since I knew I’d have to venture up to the Great North to assert ownership of the square inch that was rightfully mine.

Big Inch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only it wasn’t… mine, I mean.

It was all a gimmick. What has been called one of the most successful ad campaigns in advertising history was a gimmick designed to encourage kids to pester their parents into purchasing Quaker Oats brand Puffed Rice cereal.

Back in the early 50’s, a brilliant advertising executive, Bruce Baker, developed a promotion tied to a popular Quaker Oats-sponsored radio show about Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his trusty dog, King. Mr. Baker convinced Quaker Oats to purchase 19.11 acres on the west bank of the Yukon River for $1,000. The company divided the land into 119,870,000 square inch parcels and printed over 21 million Deeds of Land. Each one was individually stamped with a unique lot number – mine was L-595729 – and placed in boxes of cereal.

The promotion’s success went way beyond the company’s wildest dreams.  Pretty soon boxes of the bland, unexciting cereal were flying off the shelves.

Unfortunately for the millions of us now-graying kids who once dreamed of one day laying claim to our square inch of rugged paradise, the Quaker Oats never formally registered the land. The company determined that it would be a logistical nightmare to register the deeds to millions of children. Even if it could be done, it would have cost the company a fortune.

Not only do we not own our square inches now, apparently we never owned them.

To add even more insult to injury, the Klondike Big Inch Land Co., Inc. was dissolved in the 60’s and the Canadian government repossessed all the land for nonpayment of $37.20 in property taxes.

Years ago, a Quaker Oats spokesperson explained that “the deeds were not meant to have any intrinsic value, but rather to give the consumer the romantic appeal of being the owner of a square inch of land in the Yukon.”

Yeah, tell that to my lawyer.

Puzzling Together the Pieces

With only eight short weeks remaining before I leave the 8-5 work world and begin my next chapter, I am experiencing an array of emotions. Excitement and enthusiasm, yes, of course, but also… not quite fear… more like apprehension and just a little unease.

Barring a huge economic downturn (which we now know can happen), I feel in good shape financially. Health insurance—at least for now—is available and budgeted for. Because I have a pre-existing condition due to an illness many years ago, without the Affordable Care Act I’d be concerned about the possibility of not finding coverage.

My unease stems mostly from two questions that I can’t answer yet:

What if this is the wrong decision?
Although I could probably find another job if I discover that I absolutely hate not working full time (something I doubt very much), it would be hard to match what I do now – both in salary and in satisfaction. Because my intention to exit work has gone from concept to commitment, I am feeling the finality of my decision.

A part-time job could provide some structure without a major time commitment, but then I would lose the freedom to pick up and go anytime my husband and I wanted to. Consulting? Maybe, but I’d have to spend time marketing my services, which doesn’t sound like much fun.

How will I replace the social network that I’ve developed at work?
Knowing that this was one aspect of retirement that my husband had a hard time with, I’ve become acutely aware of the large and small interactions that occur throughout the work day. Even simple greetings and casual conversations add to my enjoyment and I know that I will miss the easy comradery of being a member of a well-functioning team.

Over the years, I have developed varying levels of friendships with co-workers. Some of them I see outside of work, and I hope that will continue, but most are those types of friendships that are based on our shared circumstance. I imagine that most of these relationships will fade away soon after we are no longer working together. Our intentions might be sincere, but it will really take an effort—most likely mostly on my part—to stay in touch. Because they will still have the constraints of a full-time job, it will be up to me to arrange get-togethers that fit around their schedules.

Bucket

I know that the most effective way to mitigate my concerns is to start putting in place several items on my “bucket list” of activities I want to enjoy in retirement; the ones that I find difficult to do now because of time constraints. A few that come to mind are:

Find—or start—a book club
I have “test-driven” several established book clubs over the years, but have yet to find one with the right combination of serious and social. Great books and stimulating conversation, enjoyed in a social atmosphere that includes shared food and wine… that is what I’ll be looking for.

Identify exercise buddies
Soon I will be able to go to the gym, power walk, ride my bike, take yoga, etc. anytime I want so I need to find others who are on a similar non-schedule. There are lots of things I like to do alone, but friends can make exercise more enjoyable and help maintain the motivation.

Sign up for some classes
After years of reading longingly about classes, workshops, lectures, etc. that I couldn’t participate in because of my work schedule, I can now attend! Although I expect that my desire to learn new things will be ongoing, I want to identify a few possibilities right away so that I am inspired to get up, get dressed, and get going.

Volunteer to usher for a local theater
There are a lot of worthwhile causes and organizations that need volunteers, and I hope to identify several to give my time to. By ushering for a theater company, I not only provide a valuable service, but I will see performances I might otherwise miss. Because these opportunities are seasonal, and most likely have waiting lists and specific training schedules, I want to be sure I don’t miss a deadline.

Old Globe

Between several of these activities, all the projects that need to be done around the house, and a couple of trips we have planned this year, I should be quite busy. I hope that soon whether I made the right decision and how I will create a new social network will no longer be in question.

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.

Being “Rich” Then, and Being “Rich” Now

This coming weekend, my high school class will be holding our 40th reunion.  Although I missed our 30th (I was busy getting married that weekend), I have attended the others, including a hastily put together 35th held at a local bar.

Because this is a big one, it is being held at a yacht club located in the same community in which I grew up. I was never a member of this yacht club – or any other yacht club – but I had friends who were.

I grew up smack dab in the middle of the kids who came from very rich families and those whose families were struggling.  Although I remember admiring the beautiful homes and bountiful wardrobes of my better off friends, I don’t remember resenting them for what they had.  Nor do I remember them treating me differently because of my lack of societal status.  I’m sure I didn’t get invited to certain events, but either I didn’t know about them or I didn’t care.

I also had friends from families facing economic challenges, whether they were from struggling single-parent homes (which were much less common in the 70’s), or who had parents (usually just the father back then) that faced unemployment or underemployment.  Just as with my better off friends, as long as we all liked each other and had similar interests, we were pretty agnostic about each other’s social and economic status.

I understand that this was just my experience. I’m sure others experienced hostility, bullying, or the pain of feeling like an outsider.  Maybe because I was lucky enough to have good solid family unit that was neither rich nor poor, my memory of my high school years is, for the most part, positive, and my circle of friends fairly economically diverse.

My expectation is that the forty years since graduation will be a great equalizer.  Certainly many of my financially well-off friends, whether because of their own hard work or the luck of their birth, will still be well off (and probably members of the yacht club). I think, though, that there will be a lot of surprises. As we get older (and, hopefully wiser), being rich, poor, or somewhere in between, may be less a description of the money we have in our bank accounts, and more a description of our health and happiness.  Using this barometer, I hope we are all rich beyond the wildest dreams of our younger selves.