Monday, February 29, 2016

I love Paris in the spring, but Bogota or Belize 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?

Monday, February 15, 2016

Geriatric Adolescence---Really?

  When I revised the blog heading a few months ago I was not ready to delete the tagline -- “A writer’s blog.” Thing is, I call myself a writer because I write---in the same way you may call yourself a golfer because you play golf, or a painter because youpaint. It’s what I do.
Of course, being a golfer doesn’t necessarily mean you play like Tiger. (Though that seems to be easier than it used to be.) Being a painter doesn’t mean you paint like Michelangelo or Rockwell. And being a storyteller, the label I prefer, doesn’t mean I have to write great literature. It means that I tell my stories because that’s what I like to do. And I’ve decided to spend my October and November doing the things I like.
So I’m a writer, and from the beginning I have viewed these blog ramblings as a way to explore and explain some of the storylines I have woven into my Tanner Chronicles narratives. Since I tell the stories I want to tell, this blog has become a very personal thing. Of course, I understand that my stories and the ground they cover are not everyone’s cup of tea. So don’t feel like you’re the only one shaking your head.
Truth is, the most fortunate of us October types remain in satisfying, time-tested relationships. I am blessed to be one of those, and very glad of it. I hope you are too. Yet we both know that too many seniors, our peers, are not so fortunate. They are alone, and too often lonely. 
Before you start throwing things at me, let me be the first to admit that a great many, perhaps most, of those October folks who are “alone,” are exactly where they choose to be. They have no need for, and no interest in, a new relationship. What they had, and have taken from that time, will carry them through just fine. They too are among the blessed, and I respect their feelings. But for others, the ones I depict in the Tanner Chronicles, the notion of facing their remaining years alone is not an attractive option. They want, even need, the affirmation and companionship of a new life partner. It is those “wanting” ones who are candidates for my stories.
As you might imagine, October relationships---the ones I write about---are something different than the March and April connections we once pursued so eagerly. If you’re an “October or November” type you don’t need me to tell you that. To begin with, there is an obvious difference in hormonal levels---nature’s sneaky and very effective way of continuing the species. In addition there are other priorities at work the second (or third) time around---other considerations that have become primary. 
At first glance it may appear that those “seekers” are replaying earlier experiences---ones they first encountered as teenagers. Yet the reality of their latest wanting, what I half-jokingly refer to as their geriatric adolescence, is not at all like that first time. In most every way what they seek and their measure of a prospective partner has changed. Appearance, status, income, even sex appeal, have become less important. The comfort of a caring companion means everything---someone who understands what a “special” person they are, someone willing to help them face the uncertain future that awaits us all. In the end the promise of undisguised affirmation and caring is apt to outweigh everything else.
A case in point. Johnny Blanton is one of my very favorite Tanner seniors. Fact is, he reminds me of someone I once knew rather well. True, some folks will find his laissez-faire life view a bit off-putting. Yet, given the person he is and the future he faces, his attitude strikes me as spot on. I suppose I even envy his willingness to accept the unvarnished truth of his sad situation.
In Best Friends and Promises Johnny has left the hospital after his latest heart attack to move in with Jan Pierce, a lonely and very caring librarian. Truth to tell, Jan hardly qualifies as an old friend. The two of them first met less than twenty-four hours before Johnny’s latest heart scare. Yet, for reasons she scarcely understands herself, she has invited him to spend his recuperation with her.

By then Jan Pierce was struggling to make sense of the sudden and dramatic changes in her normally pedestrian life. At sixty-four, she had always thought of herself as stable, to the point of boring---given to cautious deliberation, cautious expectations, and cautious actions. An impulsive one-night affair was not her style, any more than inviting a man she scarcely knew to share her apartment. Why then was she feeling so comfortable, so committed to her unlikely choice?
Truth to tell, Jan was not accustomed to having a man in her life. She had not been a cute baby, and had never grown into that condition. From her perspective the only constant in her life had been weight, too much of it. She had never married. As far as she knew, no man had ever considered proposing. Over the years there had been a few casual liaisons, including one that lasted for several months, largely because she had been willing to settle for the minimal affirmation it offered. 
Then, just days before, in the course of a single night, a worn-out Johnny Blanton had accepted her caring as something special. Later, during his days in the ICU, as she waited to learn whether he would live or die, she had felt that caring grow.
Now, back in her apartment, Johnny was seated at the end of the sofa when Jan returned. He patted the cushion beside him and nodded for her to join him. “You know,” he said. “I really appreciate this---letting me stay here. I’m not sure what I can do to make all the trouble  I’m causing worthwhile.”
“Just be yourself. That’s all.” Resting her hand on his knee she leaned against his shoulder. “We’re much too old to be playing silly games. I want you here. That’s enough reason for me. After all, it’s not like I’ve ever had men chasing after me.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“You should,” she nodded. “The thing is, from the first time we talked---about my scotch-on-the-rocks of all things---it was like I was visiting with an old friend. It just felt right. And too, I like being able to help. It’s been a long time since anyone needed my help.” 
“You’d better believe I need you and your help. And not just because I’m feeling so puny.”
She looked over into his weary, deep-set eyes. “So tell me, Mr. Blanton. Why does this work for you?”
“Well, to begin with I’ve never been very good at being alone.” How blunt should he be? “But, at the same time, I’m not everyone’s idea of good company.”
“Why would that be? What’s not to appreciate? Is there something I should know about?”
“Oh my. How can I describe it?” Was there a polite way to explain, in words that would not be graphically offensive? “I’ve been called ‘undisciplined’ and a ‘free spirit.’ To some folks I’m a ‘loose cannon.’ And there have been other descriptions I don’t repeat in mixed company. All that stuff is pretty negative, but I suppose it’s partly true. It's just that I’ve never cared much what people thought of me.
“But there’s another side to that,” he continued, reaching for her hand. “The part I want you to know about. When I’m on your side I’m there one hundred percent, no matter what. That’s something you should know. I’ll be here for you in any way I can.” There was a moment of quiet as he searched for a way to spell out his final concern. “But there is something else.”
“What’s that?” 
For the first time Jan was witnessing what seemed to be Johnny’s blushing embarrassment. “You may have noticed,” he said. “Based on our one night together, that I am no longer the youthful love-machine my mind tells me I once was.” There, was that subtle enough? Had he made his point?
Jan stifled her laugh and poked playfully at his ribs. “Do you recall hearing any complaints?” 
“You were very kind not to bring that up. Actually, my situation has changed a bit since that first night. For the worse, I’m afraid.”
“Well, after another heart attack, I should think so.”
“When we were kids we used to joke about wanting to die while we were making love. If we had to go, that sounded like the best way. Just so you know, that’s not my goal any more.” He paused to let Jan’s soft laugh wash over him, sensing that it was exactly the tonic he needed. “I just don’t want to misrepresent my reasons for moving in.”
She leaned over to wrap her fragile old man in a most affectionate hug. “Don’t you ever worry about that. I want you here with me. You want to be here. What other reasons do we need?”
Johnny Blanton was weak and tired---there was no doubting that. Yet in the midst of his weariness he settled back in the sofa, soaking up the pleasant knowing that he was wanted. That could only mean that he was exactly where he belonged.

And that is precisely what each of us wants, isn’t it? Even this late in the game, in spite of the baggage we drag along behind us, in the face of the existential quicksand that keeps getting deeper and hills that grow steeper---we want to believe that we are “exactly where we belong.”
For some of us that place where we belong, may look and feel different than any place we’ve been before. It may even include a new “someone.” In that case they will have to set aside their outdated “April” qualifiers and focus instead on more-relevant “October and November” attributes. Perhaps their situation even calls for a modest dose of geriatric adolescence. In that case, they could do worse than seek someone like Jan Pierce or Johnny Blanton to share their remaining years.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

If retirement is so easy--why did I nearly flunk it?

As seen through younger eyes retirement has the look of an easy, carefree time of life. One of our grandsons is certain that it must be “the sweetest thing ever---you can play computer games all day and all night if you want.” Of course, those of us who have reached that time of life know the truth is something more than that.

It begins with Retirement 101---the first grade of a brand new and different kind of school. There are probably a million roads leading to that space. Each of us has followed our own unique path. Yet no matter how we approached it, as we grew nearer to that goal the thought of it became more seductive. Now, having arrived, some of us are disappointed to find that the fact of it is something less than expected. Actually, as I have confessed before, I very nearly flunked retirement.

Chances are we have spent years dreaming our dreams of that special prize waiting at the end of our career journey. “The Golden Years” we call them, the ones I’ve labeled October Years. If we are the kind to do that, we have painted glowing mind-pictures of how it will be---the things we’ll do and the places we’ll see. For many the fortunate happenstance of being born into the “pension plan” generation, with its generous payouts, will make those dreams financially feasible---assuming they can agree on which dreams they want to follow and stay healthy long enough to enjoy them. 

Beyond that I must admit that I am reminded, sometimes rather forcefully, that for those whose career centered on the never-ending need to keep house and feed the family the retirement dilemmas I describe may have the ring of false distinctions and cosmetic change---like the same old play being performed on a new stage. (In Family Matters I tell the story of a couple who can not agree on retirement dreams.)

Yet, within the confines of those realities October life leaves prospective retirees, the ones who are actually changing jobs, with an elemental set of choices---deciding how to use the time their new status provides. Though it may sound like the least of our worries that can, in fact, be a serious challenge. The fortunate ones began their preparation years before---cultivating interests and capabilities that would help them adapt to a time when the structures and strictures of employment were removed. The rest of us were left to deal with the burden of empty, unstructured days.

I can assure you that the giddy exhilaration of sleeping in every morning soon wears off. Without a plan retirement can become a matter of empty hours, days, and weeks, waiting to be filled. But how? At that point the real test begins. For the unprepared it will have the feel of a clean slate or, if you are a writer, a blank page. No matter how you describe it, your new “retirement” job will include filling in those blanks. 

For some the process of “retirement renewal” is a matter of finding something that draws them beyond themselves. In my case I was pulled deeper within myself. Wherever it takes you, the answer you seek will be a very personal thing. I happen to believe the right “something” is waiting out there, in one form or another, for everyone. If so, it is a matter of exploring the possibilities to find what works for you.

Looking back, I can see that I started my own search for a viable retirement lifestyle with only the vaguest of guidelines in mind. I was searching for something I would look forward to doing---ideally something that provided a means of creative expression I had never found in my work. I told myself it was time to be bold, to take chances, even risk failure---behavior rarely expected from a school administrator. But things were different this time. If my work pleased others, that was fine. But in the end I intended to be the primary judge of my sometimes dubious results. I didn’t need to satisfy anyone else---only myself.

That I finally stumbled onto my storytelling, the thing that works for me, was primarily a matter of “try, try again.” The wife’s gardening didn’t suit me. I just couldn’t get interested in woodworking. It was hard to get excited about something as pathetic as my golf game. Not until I came across a thirty-year old manuscript, a story I had written and set aside, did it dawn on me that perhaps I had found my retirement project.

In time story telling and blogging came to fill my personal retirement void, taking me places I never expected to visit. Today’s technology can make that possible. How else could these geriatric ramblings of mine be read from Maine to Alaska and beyond. (I can more or less understand the consistent England readership. But Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan? Why do they show up every week?) No wonder I have a hard time getting my mind around the reality of this internet world.

Take it from someone who very nearly flunked retirement---it can be a daunting change---one that requires serious attention. We begin the process with grand ideas of how it will be, but precious little experience in actually living that new life. 

Still, we mustn’t be intimidated. Having waited a lifetime to get here, why shouldn’t we let retirement be a liberating experience? For perhaps the last time in our life we have the opportunity to choose our future. The goal is simple enough---to settle on a life and lifestyle that suits us, that holds our interest, perhaps even help us grow. However we choose to pursue that goal, it deserves the best effort we can muster. After all, it’s the rest of our life we’re talking about.

Back to the question of where this post is being read. I for one would like to know where you are as you read this. I hope you'll take a moment to "Post a Comment," below. Just fill in your city and country, nothing more. Thanks.