Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Look Back With Love

I was in a hurry as I quickly read and deleted emails this morning.  There is so much to do today. But one email attachment stopped me in my tracks: it was a video from Northwestern showing the Class of 2017 during their first day on campus: hearing warm greetings from the student body president and the current president of Northwestern, celebrating as a group, learning Northwestern's songs, discovering the wonders of Chicago.

And suddenly, my eyes filled with tears when I remembered my own first day on campus 50 years ago.

That first day -- September 18, 1963 -- was a tearful day, too.

I had never flown before, never traveled alone, never been to Chicago, never set foot on campus, had never known anybody who went to Northwestern. I was excited, but frightened, lonely and filled with anxiety.

I spent much of the flight to Chicago weeping on the shoulder of a kind stranger, a sweet middle-aged woman, who told me, over and over, what a wonderful experience this would be for me. I burst into tears when a welcoming group of students greeted me in baggage claim at O'Hare. I cheered up considerably in the cab between two sophomores who reassured me that everything would be fine and advised me which classes were especially worthwhile. I managed a smile when a handsome young man ran up to me at the entrance to my dorm and offered to carry my suitcase to my third floor room.

Standing in front of the closed door of my dorm room, I took a quick breath. There were two names on the door - mine and my new roommate's. Cheryl Martindill. I hadn't known, until that very moment, who my first college roommate would be. I didn't know anything about her. I hoped we'd like each other. With a whispered prayer, I opened the door.

The first person I saw was not my roommate, but a stern and angry middle-aged woman. "Are you Kathleen McCoy?" she demanded. "Are you a Catholic?"

I nodded yes to both.

"Don't put your suitcase down," she said. "You're moving. We don't want our daughter rooming with a Catholic."

My stomach dropped. I felt ill. I wanted my mother. I stared at her, speechless.

"The dorm director is on her way up to settle this mess," she said.

I nodded.  "I'd like to sit down until she comes," I said. "I'm really tired."

"You can sit down, but don't get comfortable," the woman said.

I made my way to a desk with no adornments. The woman's daughter was at the other desk, her back to me, pinning pictures on her bulletin board.

I fished a copy of the Los Angeles Times out of my carry-on bag and hid behind it, crying quietly, as the dorm director arrived and curtly told this woman that Cheryl and I had been matched for a good reason and that we would be reassigned only if, after giving living together a fair shot, we decided it wasn't workable.

Cheryl's parents stormed out of the room, headed back to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I sat weeping behind the newspaper, trying to get a grip before my roommate discovered that she was matched with a crybaby. Cheryl continued to organize her belongings.

Finally, she tapped the other side of the newspaper gently. "I'm sorry about my parents," she said at last. "I don't feel that way. I'm glad we're roommates. I'm a journalism major, too, and I think it's so cool that you're from California. I never knew anyone from California."

I snuffled. "Really?"

"Yes, really," she said and then, after a moment, she said the magic words: "Want to go get a pizza?"

From then on, we were the best of friends. She said nothing about my red-rimmed eyes. We never discussed the first day for the rest of our college days, except to agree that her parents were impossible.

Twenty-five years later, I met Cheryl and her two delightful teenage children at a Scottsdale hotel where they were vacationing and had invited me to join them from L.A.  As we sat by the hotel's expansive pool that first day, Cheryl suddenly asked me a question that took me back through the years: "Were you crying behind that newspaper?"

I laughed. "How did you know?"

She smiled and took my hand. "Because you sat there behind it for two hours," she said. "And you never turned a page!"

We talked a lot that day about the past: about our friendship with Lorraine and Lorie, who would be our suite mates the next year: how beautiful and sophisticated New York native Lorraine was and what a sweetheart Lorie, who hailed from Georgia, was. We talked about our college lives and agreed that there were challenges, but many more good times. We agreed that we had been blessed, particularly with our lifelong friendship.

But Cheryl, Lorraine and Lorie were not blessed with long lives. Lorraine died suddenly at 42 from an abdominal aneurysm and Lorie from an auto-immune disease before she turned 60. And Cheryl barely made it to her 60th birthday, dying of colon cancer two months later.

It seems impossible that they're gone. They live so vividly, so vibrantly, in my memories of our sweet beginnings at Northwestern. It all came back to me as I watched the video of the ebullient class 50 years behind us.

Would I want to live it over again? Not really, though spending a day being young and in the company of dear friends long departed would be an incredible joy. I wouldn't want to be young and just starting out today. My heart goes out to young people who face such high tuition costs and such a ghastly job market. I feel especially sorry for those journalism students 50 years my junior who are coming of age in the twilight of the print media era with so many uncertainties for the future.

My tears today are ones of tenderness for those first sweet college friends and for my scared but resolute younger self. The tears are for what is irrevocably lost: the seemingly endless future, the special people, the hopes and dreams that seem so innocent now.  So many of our dreams did come true, though not always in the way we could have imagined when we --the Class of 1967 -- were the new students on campus. But time flies and life can be cruel and I grieve the disappointments and heartbreaks so many of my dear college friends have had and the fact that an alarming number of them died so young.

The tears come because they are still so present: I can see Lorraine so beautiful and sophisticated and wise, Lorie laughing so warmly and readily at my dorm-room antics and Cheryl so loving and tactful during my tearful first hours as her roommate, offering friendship and pizza as she pretended not to notice my tears on that special day so long ago.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Some Things to Consider Before You Retire

The email was happy, newsy and wistful: my former co-worker Claudia has changed jobs happily and is doing well, but she dreams of retirement on a daily basis. "I guess it's a matter of looking at maybe nine more years of working and having the sense that it feels like forever," she wrote. "I can't imagine the wonder of taking my 401K and running off to a desert resort like yours. It's a dream and sometimes it feels really far away."

I could hear much of my pre-retirement self in Claudia, remembering how I had envisioned absolute bliss in a place far away. I wanted to inject a note of caution in my reply to Claudia without dampening her spirits or her dreams for the future. Now more than three years into retirement,  the dreams have leveled out to daily reality.  This reality is terrific overall. But there are some considerations I'd like to run by Claudia -- and anyone else dreaming of retirement -- at a point when such information might make a positive difference.

What would I encourage Claudia and other pre-retirees to consider?

Carefully weigh money vs. time. When you're living on Social Security and savings, money dwindles faster than one ever imagined. Assuming that you're healthy, it might be wise to think about working an extra year or two if that is an option, to get a higher Social Security monthly payment and to build savings. It's a highly personal decision. If you feel time urgency, due to health concerns or ominous talk of company layoffs, on the other hand, time may mean more than money. It makes sense to plan your exit strategy carefully.

Think financial diversity. Savings  and investments should be diversified among taxable and non-taxable savings. The disadvantage of having all one's savings in a 401K is that these funds count as income when withdrawn. This may lead to the taxing of your Social Security benefits if this money withdrawn causes you to go over the quite modest income limit for a tax-free Social Security benefit. Money taken from a Roth account or regular savings is not taxable and doesn't cause that income spike.

Realize that what looks good on the surface may not wear well. An active adult community may feel initially like a fantastic resort but the appeal can fade when you realize you're not a joiner, find people largely tiresome, have little interest in activities offered and use the recreational facilities less and less as you age.

You may find that you prefer to visit resorts in various locations for vacations. Life in an amenity-filled active adult community can be wonderful if you actually use the facilities. It can be great if you prefer the company of peers rather than a more age-diverse community.

But if you find being around a lot of people your age or older depressing, this will not be a good choice for you. Also, if you envision having grandchildren visit frequently, check the rules about length of stay allowed and children's access to the recreational facilities. At some over-55 communities, children are allowed in community pools only certain hours of the day. At our community, children are not allowed to use the Sun City pools at all, having to go over to the all-ages side of the development and pay to use the pool there. It's advisable to know the rules -- and to realize that these are generally very firm rules -- before you make a commitment to buy.

Don't be hasty about moving to a new location. Try retirement out where you're currently living first. Life in your current location might be quite different when you're not working. When Bob and I were imagining retirement, we could hardly wait to get out of our suburban planned community that seemed to be focused on young families while marginalizing seniors. We felt isolated, despite having lived in the same home for 29 years. Neighbors were so busy commuting to distant jobs that there didn't seem to be time to socialize. We felt we had to move in order to live in a more elder-friendly environment. And so we moved to a new Sun City in rural Arizona.

Yet, looking back, there were a number of people we knew who had retired to our former hometown, sometimes to be near children and grandchildren and sometimes to take advantage of all the close by amenities in a very walkable city.

There are a lot of reasons we're happy that we moved: some lovely new friends, a larger, nicer home for half the price of the old one, wide open spaces, little traffic.  But there is a dark side: except for a supermarket, bank, Starbuck's, McDonalds, a UPS store and a nice little Chinese restaurant, which are a mile away, and two excellent libraries within 10 miles, we're a good 25-50 miles from many of the services that were within walking distance in our former community.  The distance isn't a particular issue right now and, as the economy improves, some essential services may start to pop up nearby. But if this doesn't happen and we get to a point where driving is difficult to impossible, we'll be marooned.  This area doesn't offer the handy senior bus service that was readily available where we lived before.

If we were doing this over, we might still very well move here. But we also might have waited a year or so to see how living a retirement lifestyle might play out in our previous community. Everything was walking distance or a very short drive. City buses and senior vans abounded. It was, in hindsight, quite a good place to grow old.

Think about what it would mean to live at a distance from long-time friends and family. Fantasies of your loved ones visiting may be largely that: people have busy lives and limited budgets.  They may not choose to spend all their vacation time with you.

And some people, because of frail health or financial constraints, aren't able to travel at all.

Bob and I have a separate guest house just for visiting friends and kin. In over three years, that guest house has been occupied for perhaps a total of two weeks by a sparse assortment of family and close friends.

In order to help my friend Mary, whose husband is slipping into the throes of dementia and whose caregiving tasks are ever more demanding, I've been flying over to Los Angeles at regular intervals. It's a win-win situation: I want to help and I love seeing Mary and John.  But what I am able to offer from a distance is much less than I would be able to help if I still lived nearby.  And there are times when Bob and I miss family and old friends more than we ever imagined.

A sense of loss can sneak up on you. The emotional impact of stepping away from work life into a whole new life is often larger than one expects. You may have feelings of loss you never could have imagined when you were working.

I've seen many newly retired people feel a sharp loss of identity. Sometimes this is truly unexpected. Bob, a former hydraulic engineer, could hardly wait to retire from commuting, office politics and long hours of doing what he thought he didn't love. Until he stopped doing it -- and found that he had enjoyed being the go-to person for complicated pump applications, a guy even competitors would consult. He was widely known as The Pump God. (In the pump business, most competitors are friendly and share ideas and resources regularly.)  He could have continued to work part-time or have taken advantage of some consulting work post-retirement, but said "No" to all offers before realizing that he rather missed it.

This is not to say that he doesn't enjoy retirement thoroughly. He is one of the busiest people I know with his exercise, his music and his reading as well time spent with his friends Theo and Wally. But there are times when I sense a bit of wistfulness and a wanting to be useful to others in the way he was before.

There are other people in this community who look like lost souls: they don't know what to do with themselves now that they're no longer working. They play golf and then they come home and watch the golf channel. Others just sit in front of the t.v. all day or play endless card games and complain about how long the days are.

I would caution would-be retirees to consider available part-time work or consulting options with their present employers. Recent surveys show that while many new retirees plan to work at least part-time in retirement, it can be difficult to get hired at our ages and in this economy. If you're thinking about keeping your hand in your previous career, check out opportunities with your current employer before your retirement plans are firm.

Also, I would advise anyone contemplating retirement to rediscover long-ago interests and hobbies set aside in the busy years of working or to discover new interests somewhat before retirement so that there is always something to do, to learn, to look forward to on a daily basis.

Claudia and others now seeing retirement as a distant prospect may be stunned to find how quickly the years fly by. These can be years to plan and prepare so that their retirement will turn out to be an even happier, more rewarding time than they're imagining!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Growing Older (Not Necessarily Better)

"Sometimes I just can't stand people!"

I was stunned to hear this from a cheerful, outgoing woman I'll call Ginny. We were winding up a community HOA board meeting here the other day when she brought up an issue she found troubling: a dear friend and neighbor of hers is putting her house on the market because her next door neighbors have made life unbearable.

Her friend has severe asthma, Ginny told us, and all kinds of smoke can trigger an attack. Her neighbors have not only started a Cigar Club, whose 20+ members meet and smoke in the back yard more evenings than not, but also her neighbors have a wood-fueled fire pit that burns and smokes for hours every evening, even summer evenings where the temperatures linger in the triple digits well after dark. This woman cannot enjoy her own patio any longer and is finding the smoke seeping into her home. For her health, she needs to flee the premises.

The manager for our developer (our community is still being built) looked puzzled. "Can't she just talk reasonably with her neighbors?" he asked. "So often, these disputes can be worked out if the two parties sit down and talk."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Obviously, that has been tried and it hasn't worked," she said. "Because her neighbors are selfish assholes who think that their rights to do anything they wish trumps another's right to breathe and to enjoy her own home. I never cease to be amazed. You'd think that people would get kinder, mellower, more considerate with age. But some people...." She trailed off, disconsolately.

It's true. As you age, you become more of what you were before.

Like any community, we have our share of jerks who ooze obnoxiousness and probably always have:

The grizzled guy who guzzles coffee daily at the community center while hitting on the young women at the Fitness Desk as if he were doing them a giant favor.

The bombast who holds forth daily in the community center lobby. His idol is Rush and his political philosophies, loudly voiced, veer sharply toward conspiracies of all varieties.

The bully who amused himself by terrorizing a female neighbor, living alone, who was grieving the unexpected end of a long marriage, fighting overwhelming depression and, for a time, had a very short temper fuse. He loved stirring things up, upsetting her to the screaming point and then calling the police to report that he was living across the street from a crazy lady.

The gossip who has nothing good to say about anybody and who considers herself to be the world's expert on all matters.

It isn't just the easily identifiable jerks who threaten to become pains in old age. The rest of us have our moments.

There's a little of the jerk and the bore in all of us. One of the challenges in this stage of life is to tame the jerk and let one's best qualities shine through. We do have a choice.

It's a choice we can make on a daily, hourly, minute-to-minute basis

Just for today....

I promise not to tell anyone more than they really want to know about medical concerns, about work details, about my own struggles.

I promise not to get mired in my own troubles and concerns. When I have low moments and look around, I'm ashamed as I consider possible confidantes: Mary, whose beloved husband is disappearing further into dementia and who has vowed that every day he has left will be at home in her care; my friend Phyllis, who is receiving both chemotherapy for late stage colon cancer and thrice weekly dialysis for kidney failure; my friend Jeanne who has been battling health challenges for some time and who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I don't think so. I have my health. Everything else is small stuff.

I promise to listen, without judgment, when someone tells me a very different life story or who has opinions that differ considerably from mine.

I promise not to grouse about texting when I get a text -- and just answer it.

I promise not to keep score of how often I hear from loved ones and simply celebrate when I do get an email, a call or a visit.

I promise to tackle projects and just do what I planned to do -- instead of boring those close to me by obsessing about the details, over and over, in advance.

I promise to put down my work, the newspaper, the latest book and smile and reach out to those I love at regular intervals today.

I promise to throw away or give away at least one unused or unwanted item.

I promise to walk by the kitten and cat adoption center at Pet Smart without wondering aloud if adding another abandoned feline to our brood would be reasonable. It's not reasonable. Five cats would be total insanity. Our four cats are wonderful both with us and together. I won't mess with that.

I promise to stifle the urge to accumulate altogether too many cat pictures on my new iPhone.

I promise not to fall into rosy remembering of how life used to be when we were young, when I was slender and pain-free, when people actually wrote letters, when people said "You're welcome!" instead of "No problem." Life then had its tough challenges. And life today has so many joys.

I promise to think more of others, less of myself; to reach out, even when it's uncomfortable or inconvenient.

I promise to be kind in any way possible.

Just for today.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Surprises of Aging

It's more, much more, than looking in the mirror and seeing my mother's face.

It's much more than waking up, mentally ready to spring out of bed, and then discovering that everything hurts.

It's much more than a shrinking Christmas card list, with more names of deceased family and friends disappearing every year.

It's more than answering a survey and finding oneself checking the last age box -- 65+ -- or finding that the women's magazine no longer offer makeup advice for your age decade.

The surprises are, like the rest of life, filled with positives as well as negatives.

You feel new comfort in your aging body. Yes, along with the pain and limitations, comes a new acceptance. Gone is the tendency to focus, laser-sharp, on defects both real and imagined: those "thunder thighs" that the magazines decry (on perfectly normal weight young women), that nose that is distinctively yours. The reality of a bad hair day ceases to be an emergency and reason to hide from the world, and is, instead, a reassurance that, at least, you still have enough hair for it to look bad.

You feel new ease with the person you are. It's so much easier and more pleasing to be who you are -- simply and authentically. You worry so much less about making an impression, about what other people think. And, with this ease, comes a singular beauty.

I was struck while reading a feature in The New York Times Magazine yesterday about the actresses who had been prominently featured in James Bond movies dating back to the early 1960's. All were slim and more attractive than average, even as they reached 70 and beyond. Some were obviously dressing and grooming themselves to look like much younger women -- and the results were at best, a little sad and, at worst, ridiculous.

The most beautiful woman of all was Honor Blackman who looked like a 70-year-old woman who took good care of herself, dressed in simple classic lines and radiated joy and self-acceptance. Those qualities defy time in preserving or creating beauty.

You lose your insulation against mortality and gain a new appreciation of life.  Time seems infinite when you're young. You can't imagine -- not really -- losing parents and, especially, friends. These losses happen to other people, but, deep down, there is this lingering delusion that it can't, it won't, happen to you.

My delusion was challenged relatively early in life when one of my closest college friends was murdered in a horrifying act of domestic violence. The crying and the shaking that marked my days in the immediate aftermath had mostly to do with the loss of a treasured friend and horror at what had happened to her. But a part of that was a realization that life is a fragile gift and that death for all of us is a matter of when not if. This realization gained clarity with the loss of both my parents when I was 35 and when, by the time of my 40th college reunion, three of my four college roommates as well as ten of my other close female friends from college, had passed away.

The reality checks have gathered momentum as I age in a community of peers. One neighbor, who had never had a day of illness in his life, ended up in the emergency room the other day, bleeding from a previously undiagnosed perforated ulcer and, at the same time, suffering a heart attack. He is currently in the hospital, in ICU, getting blood transfusions and awaiting triple bypass surgery. My neighbor Phyllis is getting chemotherapy for cancer and, three times a week, has kidney dialysis. The dialysis treatments are both life-saving and life-limiting, preventing her from doing the traveling she used to love. But she accepts this new way of life with gratitude, realizing that her only other alternative is to let go of life.

With these experiences of friends and neighbors I know and love, I realize that my own health, now robust in comparison, will fail. I will have pain and limitations. And someday -- maybe tomorrow, maybe some years from now, I will die. Having death closer both in time and possibility has brought a new appreciation for each breath I take, each day of good health, each day of life.

You learn to let go, savoring memories and finding new passions. When I was young and lithe, dance was my passion. I wasn't an especially talented dancer but I loved dancing and kept taking lessons in ballet and tap well into my thirties. When I started gaining weight in midlife, I stopped dancing and went on to other forms of exercise that didn't exacerbate my worsening joint pain. But I always dreamed of losing the weight and getting back to this passion. However, time took a toll that even losing much of that weight couldn't undo and I found, to my disappointment, that it isn't possible to do the kind of dancing I so enjoyed earlier in life. But I love exercise -- swimming inspires me. I emerge from an hour of lap swimming feeling refreshed and, more often than not, with some good ideas for writing or for living. I'm finding that I have more of a passion for animals now than I did when young. And how much I love admiring the strengths and adventures of others. Generativity kicking in is part of it. But I also enjoy being inspired by the wisdom, emotional generosity and caring of friends both old and new.

You gain perspective on what really matters.  Gone are the junior high-esque ruminations about cliques, exclusion, mean girls and no invitations to the prom. You gain new ease with aloneness. When you see aging cliques or mean girls, it's a surprise and you feel a little sad that some people have not been able to grow past power plays and exclusion to the joy of inclusion and discovering the courage and the integrity of others -- whether or not they're like you. You may be less concerned with whether a friend or neighbor is a Democrat or a Republican, whether he or she shares your religious beliefs, your ethnicity or your socio-economic status and more about the content of their character.

My next door neighbors seem, at first glance, to be the most unlikely of friends: they're conservative, Republican and evangelical Christians. But... they're conservative Republicans who work tirelessly on local campaigns, evangelical Christians who live their faith with love rather than judgments. They have become two of my favorite people in this community because of their passion and integrity, both of which I respect greatly. I love and admire who they are beneath all the labels. I enjoy their caring, their humor and their acceptance of who I am, albeit liberal, Democratic and agnostic.

As time goes on, I find myself much less concerned with whether I made a good impression and more focused on what matters. Was I helpful to another? Was I kind? How can I help someone else to feel his or her own strength and wisdom by seeing these qualities through my eyes?

Living mindfully in the moment comes easier. When you know that this physical life isn't forever, savoring the moment becomes easier and more pleasurable. When I was younger, I found myself puzzled watching Aunt Molly exclaim over a perfect rose or a lovely sunset or the delicious shock of being drenched by a cool Pacific wave. But now I find myself immersed in the joy of a warm, velvet desert evening, a dramatic sunset, a timeless afternoon laughing with a friend, the joy of a purring cat, the deep pleasure of hearing loving words or seeing love in the eyes of another. After years of racing through days, through seasons, through years of unnoticed beauty in ordinary and extraordinary moments, it's a blessing to have moments when time stands still and the beauty of living in that moment is all.