Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Personal History Revisited

It's as clear as yesterday: I was treading gingerly over an icy sidewalk as a fierce wind pierced through all my layers of clothing, chilling me to the marrow of my bones. And, as I was shivering, I was worrying -- worrying about money and whether I would be able to manage the increased tuition, whether I would be able to get a job in my chosen profession. I was worried about men -- why they valued me as a friend, but rarely romantically, whether I would find love, whether I would ever marry. So many uncertainties, so many possibilities -- both positive and dire. And I remember clenching my chattering teeth and muttering at that moment, when I was struggling to put myself through Northwestern University with ever-increasing tuition and never-quite-enough financial aid: "I will never, never forget how hard this was. Ever..."

And I haven't. Yet when I think back on that time of my life, I also think of the wonderful aspects of my college experience: the unforgettable lessons learned, both inside and outside the classroom; having a community of friends, all bright and motivated with youthful hopes and dreams; a supple, slim, pain-free young body; the limitless possibilities for the future -- that I read as uncertainty then, as opportunity now.

How often do we see the past in a new way -- not forgetting the past as we once experienced it, but now reviewing it through the prism of life experience?

How often have you given quiet thanks for an experience or a relationship that once troubled you?

How often have you viewed a period of your personal history that once felt confusing or unfair or even catastrophic as a valuable growth experience, a time in the continuum of your life that now makes sense, neatly fitting into the puzzle of your personal development?

How often have you looked back with love instead of old anger?

Not long ago, my brother Mike and I were talking about my memoir in progress -- a complicated tale of horror and humor and fear and love, the story, through my eyes, of our often -- but not unrelentingly -- horrific childhood.

"I just hope you will be able to convey the whole story," he said, cuddling his infant son Henry with a tenderness he rarely experienced in his own childhood. "I hope it won't look like our childhood was relentlessly horrible and scary, even though much of it was. I hope you'll be able to express the nuances, the other aspects, that also shaped our lives -- like the laughter, the fun, the poetry, the love..."

And, yes, that's the challenge of telling the tale of our growing up: remembering what was wonderful as well as what was terrible, the laughter as well as the fear, recreating the delicate balance of both that made our lives -- then and now -- unique.

Sometimes new views of the past come with changes in the present: a new understanding and appreciation for our parents when we become parents ourselves; a pure love and nostalgia for parents and other loved ones once we have lost them and are no longer dealing with the daily reality of the complicated people they once were; a warm look back at a time that was pivotal to our present -- a job that felt hard and unrewarding then but that was a vital step to professional growth or a relationship that seemed a failure that now looks like an important life lesson or turning point.

"Would you really want to have grown up in a different family?" my brother was asking me. "Would you want to have a different history? Be someone else?"

He kissed his smiling baby son and added  "I wouldn't."

I looked tenderly at this man, once an abused child, and marveled at the resilience of the human spirit and the value of time and personal growth in making sense of what once was and what is in our lives today.

The value of perspective, the seasoning of our views and emotions with the years of experience that life brings, is inestimable in helping us to see all the colors and shadings in the complicated rainbow of our lives.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Baby, It's Cold Outside!

Suddenly, I feel sorry for the Snowbirds: those traveling folk who winter in Arizona and otherwise live elsewhere. I've never felt they got a particularly great deal: Arizona gets cold in the winter! No one lingers in our gorgeous beach entry recreational pool with its chilly water. Golf takes a generous mix of dedication and stoicism as Arctic winds whip over our greens. People in this part of the state may not be shoveling snow, but we're turning up our thermostats and hunkering down this week for a record cold snap.

How cold?

Predictions are for overnight temperatures ranging from 19-23 F for the next five days.

Bring out the burlap! Our occasional ritual of wrapping our fragile citrus trees in burlap and sheets has begun. We're capping our more vulnerable cactus plants and throwing tarps over flower beds. We're wrapping up water pipes.

We're ready for winter Arizona-style.

                                       A decidedly different view from our patio

                                          Our newly ghostly backyard  

                                     New use for our leftover Christmas cups   

                                   Next door neighbor Larry gets his yard ready       

                          Joe and Marsha's yard is well-prepared for frosty nights          

I just got an email from my dear friend Tim, basking in an unseasonably warm Chicago (mid-50's), and happily advising us to stay warm. He gleefully offered to send us some flannel undergarments for our ordeal.

We may not be quite ready for long winter underwear, but some things might help on this cold night.

Hot chocolate or steaming mugs of coffee.

Cozy quilts.

A warm cat -- or four -- as the cats recoil from their favorite screen doors in favor of huddling together on our bed.

                                  Bob settling in with some wonderfully warm cats 

And, of course, we have each other. Hmmm...chocolate, quilts, cats and each other.

We're grateful for all we share on this bright, cold, star-lit night.

                                          It's going to be a four-cat night!                        

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Whose Retirement Is It Anyway?

The buzz is all over the community -- the ladies locker room, the outdoor pool, and the community center's cyber cafe where groups of women -- and men, too -- linger over coffee and talk.

And the talk is that couples are finding themselves at odds over what kind of retirement they want now that retirement has ceased to be a dream and is now a daily reality.

And some of these realities were definitely not anticipated in anyone's retirement planning.

Many of the women I've talked with are frustrated with husbands who:

  • Are reclusive:  There are some women who want to be active in community social events that their husbands regard with horror. One neighbor started last July asking other women in the community if they are planning to attend the New Year's Eve dinner dance here and if so, would they have any objection to dancing together at the event from which some of their husbands were recoiling. "One of the reasons I wanted to move to an active adult community was to be active, not isolated," one neighbor told me. "But all my husband wants to do is to hide in the house and make hobby models. This isn't the retirement I had in mind!"
  • Don't do anything around the house "because I'm retired": This seems to hit particularly hard for couples where the wife has been a full-time homemaker or who has worked outside the home but has maintained a traditional lifestyle at home, taking on all the cooking and cleaning. "My husband won't lift a finger to do anything even, or especially, when I ask," one gym buddy complained the other day. "I always did do all the cooking and housecleaning before, but that was because his job was very time-consuming and he traveled a lot. Now I'd like to have a little leisure, too, and share responsibilities. But he says he's retired and shouldn't have to do anything. And he doesn't do anything. He watches t.v. He just sits and stares at the wall. But heaven forbid, he should pick up a broom or cut vegetables for a salad. My question is 'When do I get to retire and relax?"
  • Live to golf: There are some husbands who have built their new lives around golf -- and this isn't always a welcome development for their wives. "We never do anything together because he lives to golf and I don't really care for it," says one disgruntled wife. "When he gets home, he turns on the golf channel and watches that non-stop. And our socializing seems to be with other golfers who just want to talk about the game and nothing else. I envisioned us getting involved with some worthy causes and taking some fun trips that had nothing to do with golf. "
  • Are critical and hovering:  With husbands and wives home alone many more hours in retirement, things that escaped a husband's notice during his working life have now become major projects.  "I'm almost at the screaming point!" one neighbor told me. "As a homemaker, I've been doing housework and cooking for years now. But my husband the engineer and efficiency expert now is observing my efforts and telling me how I could be doing all these old tasks better: like how I could load the dishwasher more efficiently or the more logical way to mop a floor -- without volunteering for these duties, of course. Just telling me how I could be doing them better!"
And husbands, too, have their complaints that their wives:

  • Are too controlling and inflexible.  One friend at the gym envisioned increasing his technical skills and spending more time on the computer and online, but his wife gets angry hearing the click of the keys or when he wants to spend time on the computer instead of watching t.v. with her. Another complains that he and his wife moved to this community to lead active lifestyles -- or so he thought. But once here, she decided she didn't want to work out at the gym or hike or even take walks in the neighborhood -- and she resents the time he spends working out.
  • Are not sensitive to the limitations of retirement income: Whether it's a matter of a wife's compulsive shopping or gambling or wanting to move to ever more upscale neighborhoods, some men in this community fear that retirement savings are dwindling faster than expected and are wondering if they might face the prospect of having to go back to work in their seventies or beyond.  One friend who is in his late 60's and in poor health recently did go back to work because his wife, who is in her forties, so enjoys the retirement lifestyle here that she refuses to go back to work in her high-demand field as they had planned when they moved here. As he watched their savings dwindle and her resolve not to work persist, he finally gave up his long-dreamed retirement just to keep them solvent.
  • Spend too much time complaining about moving away from family and old friends. Some men here complain that their wives aren't open to making new friends or enjoying quality time together as they yearn for more proximity to family and old friends. "When we lived in Wisconsin near our kids and grandkids, we never had any time for the two of us," one friend told me. "We were always babysitting the grandkids or attending their activities or doing errands to help our adult children. Our time wasn't our own. Now that we're here, my wife is always planning trips to see the kids or to have the kids visit us. Don't get me wrong: I love our kids and grandkids. But now that I'm retired, I want to have time to do things I've put off for far too long and to spend time with my wife, reconnecting in a way we haven't since we became parents, then grandparents."
What can you do when your retirement realities are at odds?

Talk with each other. Although it may feel safer and easier to complain to others, change isn't likely to happen unless you take a deep breath and talk with your spouse about what isn't feeling quite right or fair or what you had hoped.

We all have retirement dreams and plans. Some prove possible once we retire while others fade away in the light of everyday reality. There are bound to be disappointments and disagreements. But if disparities in what you want in your retirement and what your spouse wants are starting to erode your contentment and good will, it's time to talk.

While the best time to talk about expectations is before you retire, some realities don't surface until you're actually retired. Then, perhaps, you find that assumptions and unanticipated developments are leading to disappointment.

"I assumed that when we were both retired, we would share both the chores and the pleasures," one neighbor told me. "My husband has got the pleasure thing down. But he is allergic to housework, cooking or yard work of any kind. I feel like I'm spending my whole life doing the scutwork of our lives while he roosts in front of the television."

Once she was able to tell him about her assumptions for retirement and her disappointment, she was able to offer some alternatives: that he share in the housework and food preparation so that they could both enjoy more leisure time together or that they examine their budget to see if hiring a once a week housecleaning service made sense. When she stated that her greatest wish was to spend more quality time with him, pursuing day trips and new interests, he listened. And they arrived at a compromise: they would cut down on some impulse buying and meals out to hire a housecleaning service. And because they would be having more meals at home, he agreed to work with her in food preparation. They also began to make plans to see local sights and make some day trips they had long postponed. Six months into the compromise, they are both happier. There have been some adjustments: the housecleaning service comes once a month for the heavier cleaning tasks while the husband and wife are beginning to share more daily cleaning tasks -- in the interest of getting the work done so they can play and in having more disposable cash for local travel and meals out. 

Recognize that retirement takes adjustment and is a process of letting go of old ways and embracing new ones. Spending so much time together, structuring a new life free of old work and commuting routines sounds enviable from afar, but once you're living these changes, there is a period of adjustment. Women whose major domain has been the house may feel crowded and frustrated when their husbands are home full-time.

"What's the old saying 'I married him for better or worse but not for lunch?'" my friend Barbara confided a few years back after her CEO husband retired. Although they had a lovely home and plenty of money to do anything they wished in retirement, Barbara felt trapped. "I have this life of my own," she told me. "I'm on the school board. I'm president of the local symphony. I'm not ready to give all that up and sit home with him. He wants three meals on the table daily. He never lets go of the t.v. remote control. It drives me crazy. After traveling for work all these years, he isn't into travel. He just wants to sit home and be waited on -- by me!"

Retirement can be a major adjustment for those leaving careers and the power and perks of those careers behind. My former neighbors Linda and Jay used to make observations about "FIP (Formerly Important Person) Syndrome" that seems to afflict many in this -- and, I'm sure, many other -- retirement Meccas.  You can see it in the lost expressions of men (and some women, too) floating lazily in the outdoor pool for many hours on a summer day. You can hear it in the pontificating on world affairs in the Cyber Cafe. You can sense it in the imperious manner with which some people conduct themselves around mere mortals like community center employees or neighbors they deign to be less than...less successful, less fit, less affluent. And some are simply still straddling the past, still living emotionally in the careers they left while adjusting to life in retirement.

It reminds me a bit of the early days in my college dorm freshman year. When we were adjusting to being freshman again, to being little fish in a much larger pond and to making our way in a totally new environment, we talked a lot about who we had been not so long ago: the high school triumphs we clung to so relentlessly for a while to soothe our fright and insecurity.

It's not so different now. Some of us cling stubbornly to old identities and past successes as we face a new way of being without those professional props and titles, as we face, in a sense, the terror of not being.

In talking with our spouses about our fears and disappointments, it's essential to hear what the other is saying without judgment or jumping to the conclusion that you are being criticized. Particularly in the early years of retirement, it's important to be compassionate with each other as you both struggle with this major life transition and find what works and doesn't work for you as individuals and as a couple.

Give each other space, remembering that retirement is "yours, mine and ours".  We all need the time and space to live our own retirement dreams as well as experiencing the ones we have together. One of the major assumptions about retirement that may need some revising is the concept that constant togetherness is desirable. If your interests differ, if your tolerance for social interaction doesn't match with your partner's, find ways to compromise so that each of you can pursue your passions and meet heartfelt needs.

Bob and I have differing needs for social interaction and have worked out a routine that meets his needs for solitude and my needs for socializing. If there is an open house or party that I really want to attend -- and he doesn't -- I simply go. If he wants to go see a horror film with a male friend, I happily plan a day of writing. We share a passion for reading, but Bob has more extensive hobbies that he is free to pursue. I spend a good amount of time writing, but also share his enthusiasm for working out and for day trips around Arizona. We've made a vow to spend more time together exploring Arizona in 2013.

We have also worked out our different needs in terms of old connections.  I am more tied to our previous life in California than he is. So every two to three months, Bob happily stays home with the cats while I fly to L.A. for a few days to visit my friend Mary whom I miss so much and with whom I take walks on the beach and visit old haunts. This arrangement works out well for all of us.

Keep your sense of humor -- and perspective.  Because retirement also coincides with growing older, there are some surprises that can change some of your plans and dreams. I never imagined that I would struggle with some physical decline early on -- arthritic feet and knees, significant hearing loss -- that change some of my active retirement scenario -- even as Bob continues to dazzle those in the gym with his jump roping, weight lifting and running abilities. And yet, because of side effects of his lifelong epilepsy, he is feeling more vulnerable emotionally these days. We find that humor helps. We joke with each other about our lists of physical complaints and our increasingly noticeable limitations of aging and find both comfort and security in our mutual acceptance of these changes in ourselves and each other.

It's also important to keep the fact of being able to retire together in perspective. So many people we know never got that chance. Some aren't financially able to retire. Some have retired as widows, widowers or late-life divorcees. Being together and sharing this life experience is a blessing -- even when daily reality falls somewhat short of one's retirement dreams.

Create a new, revised compromise retirement lifestyle. Building a new life together and crafting a retirement lifestyle that pleases you both much of the time isn't always easy, but it's possible.

I've seen couples discover new interests and hobbies -- both together and apart. I've seen those who have the courage and commitment to talk with each other, to say what they want to do and ways they're willing to compromise create new harmony out of early retirement conflicts.

Creating a new, reasonable retirement lifestyle can be as simple as learning to tolerate the clicking of computer keys (or buying earplugs) if spending time online pleases your spouse. I've seen "golf widows" unite and enjoy lunches out or local excursions together. For some couples, who had hoped to travel more but find that diminished savings preclude this, making home more inviting -- with hobbies, a new pet, redecorating together, creating special spaces in the home for the interests of both partners -- has proved to be a suitable compromise. For other couples, both focused on differing pursuits, compromise may mean carving out time for shared leisure, for little excursions, for good talks, for discovering new interests together.

Caring, commitment and compromise can lead to a shared retirement lifestyle that brings more joy to your days than any of those pre-retirement dreams ever could. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Turnstile Time

Shortly after a friend of mine lost his father -- his last parent and last parental generation family member -- recently, he looked at me, suddenly tearful, and said "I'm stepping up to the turnstile. It's my turn now."

I understood his feelings of grief, vulnerability and dread. I reached the turnstile nine years ago today when Aunt Molly, my last parental generation relative, died suddenly, a partially completed New York Times crossword puzzle on her lap. After your last family elder has died, you really do experience a major transition as you become the family elder (or one of the elders) and have a new sense of mortality.

And after awhile, it's hard to imagine life being different.

During a dinner with several neighbors not long ago, someone mentioned a mutual friend who was in L.A. to visit her 50-year-old daughter who is experiencing a personal crisis. My next door neighbor Louise said "I know how her daughter feels. She feels bad and wants her mother. That's how I still am. If I feel bad or if I am feeling especially good, I reach for the phone and call my Mom!" I was intially startled. Then I remembered that Louise, who is 70, has a mother who is 95 and doing well for her age. Imagine!

There is a part of me that can't imagine having a mother. My parents both died when I was 35. It has been more than three decades since I heard my mother's voice. And, before I turned 60, I had lost every member of my family's parental generation -- all of my aunts and uncles. While still in my fifties, I was experiencing turnstile time.

What does turnstile time mean to me?

It means being more in touch with my own mortality. I can imagine dying now. It has happened to a lot of people I love. Our parents are a barrier of sorts between us and the inevitability of death. When death happens to them, it takes on a whole new reality for us.

I think about what I want to leave behind to improve the lives of others, family members or dear friends -- like money or special items or simply the feeling that they were dearly loved and valued.

I think about what I don't want to leave behind -- piles of junk and excess belongings for others to dig through, distribute or dispose. Bob and I spent an entire year shoveling out my parents' 1000 square foot home and then my brother spent another year making the house liveable.

And on most horrid day of our marriage, Bob and I did a major overhauling of Aunt Molly's house after her death.

Our real estate agent had held a disastrous open house the weekend before. Potential buyers, one after the other, made negative comments about Aunt Molly's wall of bracket and board bookcases lining the small living room and the Monterey coast wallscape in her den. The agent called us with a directive to remove the bookcases, patch and paint the walls and also paint over the wallscape in the den. Sighing deeply but with firm resolve, Bob and I drove the 100 miles to Molly's house the next Saturday, expecting a very full day of work.

In the middle of our efforts, the agent called again, telling us in a panic that a potential buyer was coming over the next day, and that he had a special concern. Another complaint people had voiced during the open house was that the carpeting smelled faintly of cat pee. This potential buyer was concerned that even the foundation of the house might smell of cat urine. So the agent had a further directive: tear up and remove all the carpeting from the house and then swab the concrete slab with bleach. And then buy and install new carpeting. Bob and I looked at each other aghast -- suddenly realizing that, in order to do all this, we would have to -- just the two of us -- remove every stick of furniture from the house. We did it. But it wasn't pretty. We screamed at each other. We cried. We sweated. We cursed. We embraced and apologized. But we did it. The house -- clean, bright, newly painted and carpeted -- sold for an excellent price several weeks later.

Since then, Bob and I keep vowing to each other that we don't want to put any of our survivors through such a major clean-up. We cut down on many of our possessions when we moved from California to Arizona nearly three years ago. And I am still in the process of sorting through things I personally treasure to determine what might be junk to someone else and what might best become a digital file.

We have completed power of attorney, medical directive and legal directives regarding our pets in the event of our disability or demise.

We know it's not a question of if but when.

We've made a resolution to write directive letters for immediate survivors and friends with instructions as Aunt Molly so thoughtfully and wisely did. It isn't a matter of being morbid, but being prepared. I have a friend whose spouse won't even consider thinking about a will or trust (at 62!). He doesn't want to think about dying.

But it makes sense to entertain that notion long enough to execute a will or trust, power of attorney and health directives. Then -- in a very real sense, you're free to go on with living your life to the fullest.

Awareness of our mortality and the fragile nature of life that comes as we step up to the turnstile is also evident in other ways: thinking about how we will manage -- or not -- when we are older and need assistance with the tasks of daily living. Does long-term care insurance make sense? A move to a continuing care community? If, at some point, neither of us can drive, will continuing to live here in rural Arizona be feasible?

These aren't constant pre-occupations but thoughts and questions that occur to us now that our elders are gone,  now that we are living our retirement dream, now that 70 isn't that far away, now that we have friends in their eighties and nineties who are experiencing some challenges and limitations. While we can't possibly know what the future holds for us, we need to consider all the possibilities. Although every one of my elders on both sides of my family succumbed to sudden cardiac death -- with very little disability or illness preceding death -- I can't necessarily count on having the same good luck, preferably some years hence.

Then there are moments when we consider our proximity to life's turnstile with more positive thoughts and questions: what do we still want to experience and accomplish in our lives? Which people, what places do we long to see?

Now is the time to make happy plans to do the traveling we long to do, to pursue the interests and projects that mean the most to us, to tell those who matter just how much we love them.

There is no better time than right now.