May 3, 2016

Being a Beginner - I Hate The Feeling

As I was reading a book I had been sent to review, there was a phrase that jumped off the page for me and became the basis of this post. I can relate completely to the concept of fear when beginning something new. I wrote about it from a slightly different perspective just a few weeks ago. Of course, that fear is silly. No one is born good at anything, except crying. But, as we age I think we forget that basic fact and miss so many great experiences.

I have started and stopped tennis because I couldn't put the ball in the corner after three or four lessons. Golf lasted longer, but my inability to develop instant muscle memory doomed me to once-a year-duffer stage when my brother visited town from Kansas. 

Playing the guitar? I have started and stopped and started again six or seven times. At some point, my inability to play chord transitions smoothly, or tackle a song with three flats leaves me feeling stuck in beginner mode. I slowly lessen my time each week with the instrument until it retreats to a corner of the room. Not being able to match what any 20 year old kid could do during the Beatle era leaves me disappointed. I don't push through that wall, I stop. I simply cannot handle being a beginner at a new skill. Irrationally, I think others are judging me for my lack of expertise.

The fear of being a beginner probably affects most of us at some time or another. Being a parent for the first time might top the list. No one, I repeat, no one is ever really ready to be a parent. All the books and advice in the world does not diminish that feeling of being completely unprepared for the responsibility of parenthood. You learn as you go. You and the baby are beginners together.

Your first real, "adult" job is another time when fear of being exposed as a beginner can be a common response. No matter how dazzling your resume, until the work actually begins and the consequences become real do you find out what you are capable of accomplishing.

Retirement: we all start as beginners. As I have written many times before, the journey we take will not be the exact one you thought it would be. We will be a "beginner" over and over, though we may not recognize it as such. 

So, why is being a beginner as I navigate my retirement journey OK but not in other areas? I have no idea, but I wish I could apply the same mindset to both situations.

The book I'm reading focuses on artistic and creative activities. For her purposes, the fear of being a beginner keeps someone from trying to paint or draw, play an instrument or sing in a choir, sculpt or throw a pot on a wheel, write a novel or a series of poems. She urges those with this limitation to simply take the first, small step, then the next. If that creative expression is pleasing, continue. If not, shift to something else. But, don't quit before giving something a real chance, just for fear of being less than perfect.

There isn't one creative or successful person who started out knowing it all. Each one started at the very beginning, stumbling and searching for the right combination of technique and skill. Practice, followed by more practice, losing a lot, failing often, and looking for a teacher that could help get over a hurdle was the path to "instant" success. 

I know all that is true. Then, how come I allow the fear of being a beginner keep me from trying something I might find I love? 

April 30, 2016

From Adversity Comes Something Special

This post is part travelogue, part inspirational story. It is about a place that was almost destroyed by natural disasters, but fought back to find new life and a new direction.

Betty and I just returned from a trip to Silver City, New Mexico. About five hours from our home, we were looking for someplace we had never been. A few friends had cautioned us to not expect much from this town. They told us it was another southwest hamlet that staked its livelihood on mining. Boom times made everyone happy. But, when the earth had been played out, or the thirst for silver or coal was done, there were few reason for many to stay and hold on. Population plummeted and most stores were boarded up and abandoned.

Silver City's demise was a little different. The gold, then silver mine, had never shut down. in fact, it remains in operation today. What almost killed the town was poor planning and a series of devastating floods around the turn of the 20th century. 

Cut in half  after a massive flood

Astride the Continental Divide, the area is prone to heavy, intense rain during summer monsoon seasons. Silver City was positioned so that all the runoff during big storms would be funneled straight down the streets of the town.

During a series of huge storms around the turn of the 20th century, the main street and all its buildings were literally washed away. In their place was a 55 foot ditch. Almost overnight, the town was cut in half and most retail establishments were gone. 

While people rebuilt what they could by turning the massive ditch into a channel for future storms and eventually a park for residents, much of the damage had been done. Silver City was in deep trouble.

Starting in 1985, a full 70 years later, determined residents began a community wide effort to save and rebuild the downtown area. The new center for shopping, dining, and entertainment was established one block west of the massive ditch that once was Main street.

I can report they have succeeded. Still housed in mostly original buildings, Silver City's downtown is alive and well. Dozens of restaurants, art galleries, coffee houses, bars, antique stores, and a bustling farmer's cooperative give downtown energy all day and well into weekend evenings when antique street lamps cast a warm glow. To its credit, most store fronts have been left alone, creating a fascinating mix of textures and appearances. Most sidewalks are from 1 to 2 feet higher than the street, making sure future flooding waters run harmlessly into the ditch.

The original movie theater has been completely refurbished while still maintaining its 1940's charm. In fact, its grand opening occurred the day we arrived in town following a community wide effort to bring it back from the dead. Three community theater groups and an active local university cultural and sports schedule make Silver City seem much larger than just the 10,000 folks who call it home.

Much to our delight the town is not overwhelmed by tourists. Walking across the major streets usually means waiting for one car to go by. There is a feeling of calm and contentment. No one is in a hurry. Everyone smiles and talks to friends and strangers alike. 

The retiree community must be fairly large. We saw enough gray hair to feel right at home. Pony tails on men and women, peasant blouses, well worn shirts and pants, and all variety of hats pointed to a town that relishes its hippie - 60's - not quite mainstream kind of feel. In fact, one of the restaurants we enjoyed is owned by a couple that decided to move here from the Bay area after a particularly memorable Grateful Dead concert. Doesn't get more granola than that!

We ate well at a  tremendous variety of restaurants. Several eye-catching items found at antique stores and art galleries now grace our home. We enjoyed music ranging from country to African and Brazilian inspired rhythms at pubs and breweries. 

Though we missed it due to a mistake on my part about the timing, a coffee shop around the corner from our hotel even had a harp concert at a funky coffee shop on Sunday afternoon. Harps and coffee - what an interesting mix.

In addition to a very enjoyable, memorable getaway in a town we fell in love with, is the message of turning adversity around. When a group of committed people decide something is worth doing, the outcome can be wonderful. A series of setbacks that could have destroyed folks' spirits instead allowed something special to develop. There is a lesson there for all of us. And, it shouldn't take a natural disaster to spur us to action.

Enjoy some photos of our visit

Unique art is everywhere

love this metal stand

so many textures and light plays

The Big Ditch is now a city park
shapes and colorful decorations

colorful wall as seen through grating

Coffee shop and art gallery

not sure I've ever seen one of these before

mix of buildings and colors

April 27, 2016

Can You Enjoy Doing Nothing In Retirement?

The short answer is, No. Can you enjoy doing nothing no matter what stage of your life? Probably not. But, I understand the questioner's intent: without work and a schedule can you simply relax and do nothing meaningful during retirement? It that an OK choice?

The answer is actually a bit more complicated than a simple, No. There is every reason to do very little (maybe even nothing) right after you begin the retirement stage of life. There is a natural need to decompress, to shake off the stress and pressures that were part of your life for decades of employment. Not having to commute, deal with clients, customers, or bosses, respond to an alarm clock too early in the morning....all those things stop, at least for a time, when the paycheck does. 

For most folks, this "kick back and let the world pass me by" period is one of the first, concrete signs that you are really retired. How long does it last? This depends entirely on you, but most people pleasantly wallow in the warm waters of inactivity for several months. Your body and mind need this break. Allow it to happen.

After a time, you will start to move to the next phase that begins to ask, "How am I going to fill all this time? What am I going to do all day?" These questions are your indication that your body has released the pre-retirement stress and is now looking for a direction and schedule. Okay, so how to move forward?

Importantly, one of the first things many retirees do after this initial period of lots of nothing, is too much. Suddenly the daily schedule is overflowing with volunteer commitments, coffee with friends, visits to the library and art museum, meals out, signing up for classes at the community college or university, helping family members with child care or babysitting, exploring new hobbies or starting up old ones again....there aren't enough hours in the day.

It is easy to go from feeling too unstructured to not having a moment left to simply be. Again, this is entirely normal. We are programmed to be productive, to contribute. Long term we are not happy unless we are doing things we enjoy. The trick is to find the proper balance between work and play, commitment and freedom. 

Maybe not surprisingly, many retirees are deciding after they stop work, they want to start again. Some can't figure out how else to bring structure to the day. Others are a bit more positive in their motivation: starting a business or turning a hobby into a money-making venture is now possible. Part time work is a viable option for many. Extra income, staying in touch with people, and feeling needed are reasons often cited why part time work is attractive. Whatever your motivation, re-working or un-retiring is a valid choice. And, this time around, you control what you do and how long you do it. 

So, you don't want to work and you don't want to do nothing. What to do to stay busy and motivated? Until actually living the life you won't really know what might unfold. My suggestion is to make plans. Get excited about doing the things you have not done during your working years. That might include travel, visiting family members, painting or playing the guitar, writing poetry, building a bookcase, restoring that old Harley in the garage, tutoring kids in math...virtually anything that has interested you in the past or present. 

Then, remain flexible. Be prepared to make corrections in your direction. Be OK with deciding one thing you thought you'd love isn't the answer, but something new you just discovered may be.  

If you'd like to see what others are deciding to do with their new life, check out this blog post. You might find the motivation and idea you are searching for right here: So What Do You Do All Day?

April 24, 2016

What We Teach Our Grandkids Matters

While we're on a brief vacation, I thought this post from 4 years ago was worth a re-posting.

A few days ago Betty, my amazing wife, and I were talking about the power of a parent's or grandparent's words on others. After my mom died I discovered several notebooks filled with recaps of vacation trips she and my dad had taken from 1996 until 2001. They included day trips, long weekend jaunts, weeks-long driving trips, and a few vacations overseas...all part of their satisfying retirement. Mom was a detail person: virtually every meal and every experience was recorded. Some were good, some bad, some just average daily events. But nothing escaped being recorded in her journals. 

In reading them Betty and I were reminded of how much mom and dad loved to take road trips. They wouldn't let more than a month pass without a trip somewhere. I hadn't remembered their 6 week long driving excursion to the East coast and back home to Arizona through the deep south and Texas.

We also noted mom's health decline as each year passed: trouble walking because of numbness, then the transition to walkers, and eventually rarely getting out of the car. Trips to emergency rooms for heart problems or dizziness were recorded. At this time she was in her mid 70's, really too young for so many issues. But, as Betty and I talked about why she had slipped physically so fast we came to an important conclusion: she was at least partially a product of what her parents taught her.

My maternal grandparents did not believe in much physical exercise. Walking was to be avoided by ladies if other transportation was available. A cook and maid took care of household chores. Vacations never involved much exertion. While summers were often spend at their "farm" north of Pittsburgh, most of that time was spent sitting in easy chairs while talking or reading. 

Apparently, my grandparents also had one firm rule that I believe directly contributed to my mom's health problems: they rarely drank water. The beverage was banned from the dining room table at all meals. Coffee was believed to provide the liquids needed to function. An occasional glass of wine or scotch and soda was just an added liquid bonus when one reached the right age.

Living in Arizona for the last twenty some years of her life, mom continued to do as she was taught: avoid water. To survive in the desert drinking water isn't a refreshing choice, it is essential to prevent serious dehydration. With an average humidity of less than 10% the human body loses hydration rapidly. Without replacing that liquid all sorts of health issues can occur.

Team up that choice of parent-taught aversion to water with a belief that ladies didn't exercise or exert themselves and mom's too-soon physical problems were a foregone conclusion. Genetics certainly played a part in what happened to her, but I firmly believe her quality of life failed her at least a decade before it had to because of some "lessons" she learned from her parents.

Unfortunately, my father is following in some of her footsteps. After living with mom for 63 years, he adopted the same reluctance to drinking water. He simply refuses, except to swallow pills. When I try to remind him that certain problems he is encountering are likely related to dehydration he puts on his stubborn face and tells me his three small glasses of skim milk a day are plenty.

I remind him one of the reasons he had to give up his independent lifestyle and driving was due to several fainting instances, directly related to dehydration. He has digestive problems also tied to his fluid intake. Even so, he says water makes him full and he doesn't need it. He learned his lesson well from mom and isn't about to change now. (note: my dad died in March 2015, so he survived a long time in spite of his health choices).

All of this is to make an important point: what we say and teach our children and grandkids can affect them for the rest of their lives. If they learn unhealthy eating and personal care habits, they will likely follow suit. If they see us doing what will help us live a happy, satisfying retirement the odds are good some of that will rub off.

We carry an important responsibility. Little eyes and ears (and not so little) are watching us. How we take care of ourselves, how we treat others less fortunate than usand how we show love and affection are not actions performed in a vacuum. Teachers are not just in classrooms.

April 21, 2016

Feeling One Step Behind The Technology Curve

credit: wikipedia
An enduring image from Star Trek: moving at warp speed. Whether from the original TV show, one of the spin-offs, or from all the movies that boldly went where no man had gone before, warp speed was always available to escape something, or get to a destination in record time.

The real world often feels to me like things are moving at this fictional warp speed. Just when I get comfortable with one new piece of technology, there is something new that is faster or more efficient. Desktop computers gave way to laptops years ago. Then, for about two or three years, tablets were the rage. Almost as quickly, smartphones with larger screens had enough computing power to leave a 10 year old computer in the dust.

The push to get an antenna to pick up local digital signals barely made a ripple before streaming video took over. HD radio never had a chance even if the sound was better than FM. Cable cord cutting is so common-place to not be worth a mention. A 40" TV screen is marketed for small apartments.

Read a newspaper? Really? Why? Everything is free, or almost so, on the Internet. And that news and information is instant, not printed last night before landing on your doorstep (or bushes).

Remember the exciting day when your family bought a 26 volume encyclopedia to help with schoolwork? 

I was thinking back to some of technological changes in the last 20-30 years of my life and I realized something: I was always at least one step behind:

1) During my career as a market researcher I had to construct questionnaires for respondents to answer, either in person or over the phone. These were usually on legal-sized paper, anywhere from ten to twelve pages in length. While the world had begun to shift to a computer to handle this task, I insisted in carrying my hand-written yellow legal pad notes to a woman who typed everything up. Even though she made a few mistakes every time that required a re-do, I continued to avoid computers for this task for several years after it would have made sense to do so.

2) I believed Beta would outlast VHS. How else do I explain boxes of taped TV shows and movies that couldn't be played because no one manufactured Beta machines after the VHS format won that battle? I picked Beta after the battle for supremacy was well underway. Darn it, they were going to prove my choice was right. Not so much. Oh, I finally dumped the last of the VHS tapes a year ago when we moved. 

3) Years after most folks had ditched vinyl records for CDs, I continued to insist on sticking with my scratched, fingerprint-smudged, large, black LPs. I was in radio and that's what I used to play on the air. That's where music was found! Until it wasn't. 

4) Streaming music services, like Pandora, made even CD's seem unnecessary. But, ever on the lookout for the latest trends, I finally bought an Ipod when the world had already decided recorded music was passe. I probably spent months transferring hundreds of hours of music from CDs to the nano Ipod. Now, I rarely use it.

5) There was little disagreement that flat screen TVs produced a better picture, Well before HD became a reality, television manufacturers had shifted from producing the huge box-shaped sets with the slightly curved screens. Never one to rush into a trend, my family and I lived with with the old TV until everything looked a little green around the edges. When finally ready to make a change, I leaped into the past with a 32" flat screen TV. Well, it was bigger than the 28" version we had used for years.

6) Don't even get me started on smartphones. I used a flip phone until the flip part broke off. Then, the only real choice was a phone several sizes too big for my pockets. I even stuck with a pager long past its "no one has one of those anymore" stage. 

I am sure you have examples, like mine, where you have found yourself on the wrong side of technology. Has it ever really mattered? Was the quality of your work or life negatively affected? But, now that you have been dragged into the present would you ever want to go back?

By the way, Verizon, I know I have been eligible for an upgrade for 11 months. For now, thanks, but no thanks. My three year old LG phone works just fine.

So, what was so wrong with Beta anyway?