Thursday, July 23, 2015

Have you ever been in that place?

Chances are you know how it feels. We may not like to admit it, but if we have been around long enough we know it is true. Whether it has been calm and cushy or littered with trials we would like to forget, we understand that our October is only a way-station on the road to November. Which means that even at our age, we still need to keep our eyes on the road ahead.

There was a time, in the olden days, when I made my living as a Business Manager. Actually, in one form or another that was what I did for the whole of two different careers. An important part of that work was looking ahead and planning for what came next. As you can imagine, that works best when you know where you are now, and where you want to go.

Ten years ago, as I started off on what would become Career Path 3.0---a wannabe writer---I thought I knew where I was. It was a place I called “October.” But at that point I had no plan at all. Why would I? I had written a single novel-length story thirty years before and nothing since. I was six years into retirement, struggling to find a reason for getting up each morning. From my perspective October was not going so well. I’ve covered that ground before---how I was flunking retirement. 

Have you ever been there---that place where you are not sure what you want to do or which way to turn? I know from experience that those unsettling doubts---so many questions and so few answers---make planning ahead a tricky thing. It is hard to navigate such uncertainty at any time, but especially in the uncharted landscape of late-life.

I know that in my case, when I finally turned my attention back to that earlier storytelling interest, I was more than a little skeptical. It was, after all, a passing fancy that had come and gone before---one of those things I might try again some day, or so I told myself. But everyone does that. Right? We all have a story we want to tell, or some other dream we hope to play out. But how many of us get around to doing that? So much for planning ahead.

Yet, no matter what our goal, we all know how good it feels when our “wanting” actually leads to “doing.” There I was, a month or so before my fiftieth high-school reunion, ready to put pen to paper. But what would I write about? I asked that question a time or two before settling on a likely answer. Without looking back, and with only the most basic of plans, I began the Harris brothers’ story---two books that started with their fiftieth reunion. I had told myself I could do it, and I was. I liked the way that made me feel.

From the beginning I was telling up-close and personal stories of what I call the “October” of life, about real people dealing with late-life reality. Was the writing great? Not so much, though it got better with time. Besides, I had not set out to create literature, but simply tell my stories.

Along the way I populated those stories with a collection of ordinary, yet very special seniors---whom I imagined into being and came to care about. In the course of ten books those friends of mine have faced a litany of October challenges---good times and bad, illness and accidents, poverty and depression. There have been life partners lost, first-loves rekindled, second-loves found and sometimes lost. For ten long years I wrote about October, mainly because it felt like the time of life that described me.

Then it finally dawned on me. Who was I kidding? Times were changing, and so was I. Having spent all that time in October, it was time to consider a new reality---one that waits out there for most everyone. There is only one way to avoid it, and I’m not willing to settle for that. So here I am, ready to move on to what I call “November.” Though it’s a label I have steered clear of in the past, I’ll admit it seems descriptive of the guy I am becoming. 

Like my Tanner friends, and perhaps you too, I am graduating to the next level. Though I do so with a certain reluctance, I know it’s what comes next. We can’t hold back November any more than we can return to September. Though it feels a bit like losing an old friend, the time has come to say goodbye to October and get acquainted with November. 

I have carried on about “change” for years, how October means change---in myself and the stories I tell. Now I’ve reached the point where October doesn’t work so well any more. It is too limiting. Think about it for a moment. All around us friends and acquaintances are adapting, trying on a new time of life---sampling new possibilities and facing new challenges. They are increasingly content to tend their flowers, grow their veggies, and lose themselves in a good book. They choose cruises over backpacking, and prefer the comfort of their own bed to a big-city hotel. Bake-at-home pizza sounds better than a fancy restaurant. For some, financial planning has become less about high-yielding investments and more about keeping what they have. And always, lurking in the background, are the troublesome health questions we would rather not think about.

And then there is family---the children who have become parents, the grandchildren who are having kids of their own---a new generation for us to spoil. We love them to pieces, even though we don’t understand half of what they say and do. My God, there are times when they make Last Tango in Halifax sound like a documentary. And of course, when it comes to computers, television remotes, and cell phones they are the ones we call.

We know the change I am talking about will include new lessons to be learned. For instance, there was a time when I assumed that October, and certainly November, would be bleak and boring, a fate to hide from. Watching my own parents and grandparents deal with that time of life---living their own late-life routines, dealing with kids and grandkids who had no idea what their elders were facing---I never realized that along with bleak and boring, there would be frustration and pain, as well as pleasure and excitement. Though at the time I had no clue of what life was like for them, I see now that what was their life has become my life. 

It’s true, you and I have learned a lot in the course of a lifetime. Is there any reason to think our life-lessons have ended? Whether we see ourselves in October or November, life goes on. Every day arrives with its own expectations and challenges. November’s “to-do” list may look different than October’s, but it is no less demanding. And though it may not qualify as ‘planning ahead,’ it seems that life has a way of preparing us for the future. Until, in its own time, our December arrives. In the meanwhile, why not devote ourselves to thriving in our own October and November? That is what today’s new blog title is meant to encourage.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Beware, IT is lurking in the shadows, waiting to impose its will

    I’ve made the point before. Our October Years are a time of change. Just think how crazy it gets sometimes. Is this what we imagined when we first looked forward to our calm, quiet, and hopefully eventful Golden Years? 
    For years, even decades, you and I have looked ahead, thinking a little or a lot about this time of life. I hope the reality you are living matches the dreams you’ve dreamed---though of course we know it’s not that way for everyone. And too, even if you are among the fortunate ones, there is always the chance of being blindsided by some innocent appearing event you had never considered a threat to your peace or sanity. 
    I am willing to count Roma and myself among the lucky ones. We’re as healthy as seventy-eight year olds have a right to expect. Our offspring are doing well and out modest retirement seems both satisfying and secure. By all accounts life was good. At least that’s the way it looked to us, until IT raised it’s ugly head.
    Perhaps like you, we had spent a lifetime accumulating “stuff”---all matter of “stuff.” We had things we just couldn’t do without at some time in the past, reminders of family times and growing children, mementos of special events and places. Year by year we wrapped ourselves in bits and pieces of our own history, filling our closets and corners with evidence of whom we had been and what we had done. There were times when our home groaned under the weight of stuff. A time or two it even spilled out into a rented storage space. 
    That was all well and good until IT happened. By then there was no avoiding it. The signs were everywhere. It was time for us to slow down a bit, to shift to a lower gear. That happens, you know. It’s like that for lots of October folks---that time of life when the big house and all that goes with it becomes too much to deal with any longer. Some folks will decide to relocate, perhaps finding retirement more appealing in a Sun Belt location. For others it may be the reality of health issues or October economics that dictates a change. Whatever the reason that time will probably come---the time to DOWNSIZE
    At first blush we may actually look forward to the process, with its promise of blessed freedom---liberation from so much stuff. The reality, however, can be something very different. As always, it is about choices. First were the choices we made in some earlier time, when we decided to keep some memento or reminder, that bit of stuff worth saving. Now we are about to face a new round of choices---what to keep, what to let go. 
    The gist of it is simple enough. For whatever reasons you have decided to make-do with less, to part with some portion of your carefully accumulated treasures. But which ones will you do without? There are so many---all of them with their own special meaning to one or both of you. What are you willing to give away? Which of your memories are disposable? And who gets to make those choices? Finally, what if the two of you don’t agree?
    Though we are veterans, perhaps “survivors” is a better word, of that trying process, rather than bore you with our own mundane experience I’d like to offer a couple excerpts that depict my take on two very different sorts of downsizing.
  First, in Breathing Underwater, the Camdens are contemplating the need to move to a smaller, less expensive home---which will necessarily mean getting by with less space.
    At that moment Jim and Anita Camden were sitting on folding chairs in the middle of their two-car garage. The car had been moved outside to make room for their work. Around them, on both sides of the open room, long shelves held an eclectic assortment of cardboard boxes, each one a repository of some bit of their personal histories, the remnants of forty-nine years together---of the two of them as newly-weds, the satisfying family years, raising Larry and Ann in their comfortable Tanner home, and finally the empty-nest years that had led to their present quandary. 
    They were effectively surrounded by their own past. As always it would be about choices, Jim reminded himself--- suddenly captured by that insight. The persons they had become and the lives they had created were the results of choices made along the way. Now, awash in unexpected anxiety, they were about to come face to face with stark reminders of that past.
   Each of those boxes concealed the evidence of earlier choices---reminders of some once-special time that he or she had thought important enough to transport into their future. As they prepared to revisit decisions made for reasons they perhaps did not remember, they sensed the ghostly presence of times past.
    The task itself, as Jim had explained, was simple enough. It would involve a new round of choices---deciding what to keep, what to give away, and what to consign to the trash barrel. It would take a while, but it was time to begin---at least until Jim watched his wife’s head sink into her cradling hands.
    “How can we do this?” Anita whimpered. “We ought to keep it all. Every bit of it is important.”
    It was not a time to be debating the logic of what must be done. He knew better than that. Instead, it was time for kid gloves and going slow, allowing her to proceed at her own naturally-reserved pace.
    Best Friends and Promises, on the other hand, illustrates a very different sort of downsizing. Aaron Peck’s wife has been moved to an Alzheimer’s ward and the big house must be sold to pay for her care. Again, it was about choices---choices he must make for the two of them---choices he wished he did not have to make.
    In early March the house on Elm Street, their home for forty-eight years, was sold. For Aaron the troublesome process of selling---meetings with the realtor, leaving the house when it was being shown, the final round of paperwork---triggered a renewed sense of loss. For days he sorted and packed, urging the girls to select the mementos they wanted for themselves. In the end he avoided the weekend garage sale they held to dispose of the remaining items. It was more than he was willing to bear, watching the remnants of a lifetime with Leona being sold off as casual collectibles to unknowing strangers.
    Finally the dreaded day came. The home where their life together had been lived belonged to strangers. The girls went back to Portland and Aaron sat alone in the cramped living room of his Samson Street apartment, mourning the loss of what had always been their home, and the reasons that had made it necessary.
    Downsizing---some of us will avoid that trial and all that goes with it by doing nothing, leaving family and friends to deal with that after they are gone. For the rest of us the process will be a bitter-sweet visit to earlier times---a return that is bound to include hard choices and occasional regret.
    Finally, if you know someone who is or might be facing their own downsizing challenge you might pass this on to them. Perhaps they need to know that the choices will be hard, they may not agree about what is worth saving, and once they are done the remaining doubts they feel are quite normal. In the end it is a matter of life-balance---one way or another we are destined to part with all that stuff we have saved to remind us of what once was.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

I love Paris in the spring - but Bogota or Bangkok in October?

I’ve mentioned before how, as a spoiled and self-indulgent boss’s son, I sometimes took advantage of my dad and his willingness to let me “find myself.”. From time to time, however, I am reminded that he too was capable of his own sneaky tricks. For instance---in spite of all the good things he did for my mother, brother, and me, the old guy managed to bequeath to me a particularly troublesome bit of himself---an itch that I have never completely overcome. You see, I was the one who inherited the Old Man’s lifelong curse---a pesky and persistent infection he called “wanderlust.”
In my case the symptoms apparently surfaced at an early age. By seven or eight I was spending hours at a time leafing through the big Rand McNally World Atlas the folks kept under the coffee table. From map to map to map---one colorful country after another---I toured the world. I tried my best to sound out the strange names and imagine the people who called those far-away places home, while wondering what it would be like to live there. 
Those questions grew more urgent until, at age thirteen I ran away from home, determined to see the world for myself. In the end I saw a bit of Eastern Oregon and the inside of the Umatilla County Jail. That was a letdown for sure, but not enough to dull that travel itch. Truth is, it’s something I’ve never outgrown. Later, Roma and I were fortunate to visit and even live in some of those places---as many as our resources and family situation would allow. Those were wonderful experiences, but not enough to cure an advanced case of wanderlust.
Then in my mid-sixties, I retired and we moved on to our own October Years. And surprise---it was still there, that undiminished urge to see the world. And now we had the time to indulge those fantasies. We began as tourists---twelve weeks revisiting old haunts in England and Europe. By then I was mulling new possibilities. What if we made our retirement home in one of those far-away places?
But though we now had the time, how much travel could we afford? Certainly, those with a hefty pension and fat IRA had more choices than we did. They could decide that “home” ought to be in Arizona or Florida or Europe---any place they wanted.
Yet what about those of us without those resources? Are we left out in the cold?  Those are very real questions. We read every day about the multitude of seniors who will not have saved enough to fund their “dream” retirement---at least not in the USA. Fortunately, in this new globally-connected age we live in a certain portion of that population, the ones inclined to create their own retirement adventure, now have a whole new range of options. For them the low-cost possibilities of “overseas” living, with its substantially reduced cost of living and  health care, can make “offshore” retirement an option worth exploring.
For those of us who fancy ourselves as bold, even at our age, there are new ways to scratch our travel itch in retirement. Today’s internet world offers possibilities at every turn. One of my favorite “wanderlust” fixes arrives as an email every few months, as it has for years. As near as I can tell the message has never changed in all that time. I have only to open the email and recite the first sentence or two to have Roma heading for another room.
“The hibiscus are in bloom,” the message begins. “As they are every month of the year. The gardener watches over them and the rest of the grounds, while the maid/cook maintains order in your bright and airy home. Just months before you would never have dreamed that the two of you could retire in such luxury for less than $1,800 a month. But now you know what so many others do not---that the good life and affordable health care are well within your reach.
You’ve probably seen the pitch, telling how you can afford the retirement you dream of---somewhere. And perhaps you are one of those who find a certain satisfaction in dreaming about that. I know I do. Besides, the idea itself is not so far-fetched. For decades our fellow Americans have been taking advantage of low-cost foreign retirement, especially in Mexico and Central America. Lately, in the face of an increasingly harsh economic environment, that trend seems to have taken on new and novel forms.
In this brave new world of ours an up-to-date list of well-publicized retirement havens might be enough to send us back to the atlas---asking retirement questions most of us had never considered. For instance, take a moment to ask yourself what it would take to make Colombia a viable place to live out your Golden Years? Or Peru, or Thailand, or Uruguay, or Belize? I see e-mails ads for $300 seminars that will provide all the information you need to establish a home and live the good life in any of those countries---at a fraction of the cost you’ll pay here in the U.S. The sponsors claim they can make the case for that. Could they convince you?
Of late, the articles I come across online are most often touting two particular retirement destinations---Panama and Belize. Certainly Panama has a long history of dealing with and providing for US citizens. Belize, on the other hand, was formerly a British colony. It is the only Central American nation where English is the official language. Each of those countries already hosts a sizable ex-patriot population.
But in the end we’re left to decide what “retirement”---the label we assign to life-after-work---means to us. For a wanderlust junky like me the lure of inexpensive living in some exotic, out-of-the-way locale is a bit seductive and hard to ignore. But then, about the time those exciting possibilities have me thinking like a kid again, another of those pesky, hard-to-avoid October realities kicks in. “Is it practical?” I ask myself. 
Perhaps like you, we are a family-oriented family. How would it work to have Grandma and Grandpa living on the seashore of sunny Belize, thousands of miles from the clan, following our grandkids on Facebook or Skype, perhaps visiting them every year or two? And even if we could manage that, both Roma and I are kind of set in our ways. How would we adapt to a very different culture and lifestyle, no matter how inexpensive it was or how adventurous the challenge? When it’s all said and done we’ve decided to settle for the wilds of the exotic Willamette Valley, and the lifestyle we’ve lived for all these years. But don’t think for a moment that I’ll stop day-dreaming about the sunny beaches of Belize or Panama.
How about you? Do the possibilities of tropical splendor on a shoestring resonate with you? Or does “Is it practical?” win out?