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Monday, October 20, 2014

More on Geezer Ghettos

The following article by Marvin Hoffman, former associate director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Ed Program, appeared first in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune.  It reminded me of several of my own posts on why we want to avoid Geezer Ghettos, both for ourselves as advancing geezers, and especially for those coming up behind us, no matter how far behind us.

Here’s an excerpt from Mr. Hoffman’s piece:

I don't believe age automatically imparts wisdom, but I do believe that being around a while longer than others gives you access to a larger bag of tricks. I also think that because of the dynamics of their own family situations, children need a variety of options for building adult relationships. Having geezers around may actually be useful to some kids, who are confronted with a sea of 20- and 30-somethings.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Living Lean, Pt. 2

Full Disclosure:  My friend Diana’s mother once said, “I think Carol was born without the shopping gene.”  This followed an afternoon trip to a local mall where the three of us browsed the goods.  I lasted about 30 minutes before leaving Diana and her mom to carry on, instead returning to the car to wait for them, to sit and read my book.

Which is all to say that most of the time living lean is not such a hardship for me.  I’m more of an experience junkie than a dedicated consumer of stuff.  Whatever money has come my way I’ve more often used to do things rather than buy things.

Not that experiences don’t cost money, of course, especially the ones that involve traveling.  There was the year I went to a writing conference in New Mexico where the poet W.S. Merwin presided. And the one I went to in Missoula, Montana where several of my writing heroes were in residence, including Barry Lopez and Rick Bass.

Last year I took myself to London for the very first time to pay homage to Samuel Johnson, to sit in the garret where he assembled the first official Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.

In the day-to-day living, though, I seem to require little in the way of stuff, though much in the way of friends, animals, books, Mexican and Thai food, writing, teaching, walking and biking the streets of a big city, and schmoozing with strangers along the way.

All of which probably saved me when the recession hit in late 2008.  To revisit that grim experience—and to remember that sometimes living really lean does have its benefits—I am re-posting (a slightly edited) “Recession Lessons,” which appeared on one of my earlier blogs in 2009.

It’s a reminder to me how important the important things really are:

Recession Lessons

1.  Most of the best things in life really are free—including those described by author Willard Spiegelman in Seven Pleasures:  reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing;

2.  When friends pick up the tab during lean times, pick up theirs when you’re flush;

3.  Be grateful for friends who pick up the tab during lean times;

4.  Be glad you’re self-employed; no one can fire you;

5.  Be glad you’re self-employed; you’ve been through this before and have learned to sleep through the night;

6.  When you can’t afford a grande and cranberry scone every couple days, they taste doubly delicious when you can;

7.  Be grateful for cranberry scones;

8.  Handing over cash instead of swiping plastic is a different neural experience (Oh, so this is what a jumbo bag of taco chips costs.);

9.  Fruit, particularly blue, is a necessity; dark chocolate muffins a luxury;

10.  Leafy green vegetables are a necessity; honey-fried chicken wings a luxury;

11.  Be grateful for dark chocolate muffins and honey-fried chicken wings;

12.  Cheap coffee goes down easier than cheap wine;

13.  Cheap chardonnay goes down easier than cheap cabernet;

14.  Be grateful for sample sizes of anything;

15.  Be grateful for New Yorker cartoons; they make you laugh out loud;

16.  Be grateful for public transportation and for your battered old bike;

17.  Be grateful for public libraries, and especially for the free DVDs and museum passes the Chicago Public Library provides;

18.  Take especially good care of yourself during these challenging money times: meditate, pet a lot of dogs, enjoy the sight and sounds of kids at play, talk back to that ratty old squirrel in the tree outside your window, moisturize your feet, especially the bottoms;

19.  Be grateful for dogs, kids, squirrels, and feet;

20.  Offer to mentor a young(er) person;

21.  Don’t take your money angst, anger, or anxiety out on anyone: not the “customer service” rep at the bank, not the cashier at the grocery store, not the slow pedestrian ahead of you or the pushy bus passenger behind you.  Not anyone.

22.  Take good notes.  Next time you hit a rough patch in your life you’ll want to know how you made it through this one.

[Note:  for more on the value of experiences vs. stuff, click here:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Work Stories: What's Next?

Unretirement, Reinvention, The Second Stage or Third Act—no matter which label we attach to living our post-50’s, it’s all about re-imagining a new or different life, one we now feel freer to dream up, whether in work, travel, hobbies, or relationships.

Time’s a-wastin’ and so we best get on with creating our next (and not necessarily last) self.

The following article by Chris Farrell, “Second Career? They're on Their Third and Fourth,” suggests—at least in the area of work—that we think not about changing jobs, but careers, at least a couple more times before we call it quits and hit the golf course or join the garden club, i.e., before we stop with the endless reinvention already.

Reading this piece put me in mind of my lifetime of reinvention, in both work and careers, a habit of easy leave-taking of one sort of work for another.  I even wrote about in my book, Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories, in Chapter 5, in the exercise “Work Stories.” 

Here’s how I introduce that exercise:

I was raised by a man who graduated from high school in 1929, the year of the infamous and devastating Crash. When I learned this about my father, suddenly everything fell into place, explaining his near hysteria every time I casually quit one job and sailed easily into another.

He’d taken a job right out of high school with a company he stayed with for 40 years. I, on the other hand, raced like some prairie wildfire through an endless succession of jobs and careers: mailroom clerk, secretary, waitress, social worker, college instructor, office temp, and academic counselor.

I worked for a shower curtain company, three universities, a political campaign, a beauty supply company, two hospitals, a half-way house for the mentally ill, a camera store, and an upscale restaurant before finally settling down as a writer and a teacher.
Not surprisingly I’ve acquired some pretty good work stories along the way, not only about the getting and quitting of jobs, but also of bully bosses, psychotic colleagues, and office romances gone (real) bad.

I feel after all this professional uproar and mayhem that I am finally entitled to stop reinventing, at least this part of my life.  BUT, I very much encourage those who have lived a much more settled work life than myself to give it a try.

And to report back to me with the results.  Please. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Monday's Poem

Here's a lovely poem by Ted Kooser, former U.S. Poet Laureate, with a brief intro by its author:

“To celebrate my 75th year, I’ve published a new book of poems, and many of them are about the way in which we come together to help each other through the world.  Here’s just one:"


On a parking lot staircase
I met two fine-looking men
descending, both in slacks
and dress shirts, neckties
much alike, one of the men
in his sixties, the other
a good twenty years older,
unsteady on his polished shoes,
a son and his father, I knew
from their looks, the son with his
right hand on the handrail,
the father, left hand on the left,
and in the middle they were
holding hands, and when I neared,
they opened the simple gate
of their interwoven fingers
to let me pass, then reached out
for each other and continued on.

(NOTE:  Each Monday, a poem arrives in my inbox, courtesy of this website, which is curated by Mr. Kooser.  It’s a great way to start a week.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Living Lean, Pt. 1

Not long after I began teaching writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I knew it would be a short-term gig.  It was 1990 and I was a newly minted master’s in English.  And while I loved teaching, I did not like teaching 18 year-old college freshmen, most of whom lacked basic skills in their own language.  It didn’t help that l was nearing 50, had been taught by the nuns, and loved diagramming sentences. 

In sum: a bad match.

And so I decided to go rogue as a writing teacher, seeking out other venues wherein to ply my trade.  In the process, I soon realized I’d need to live pretty close to the bone financially, at least at the beginning of my freelance life—and maybe for the duration.

What had to be struck from the budget then?  Especially from the big ticket items? Not housing, certainly.  I was already living in a pretty modestly priced and appointed apartment.

As for health insurance, there were very few affordable options for the self-employed at that time, so I mostly went without, paying out of pocket whenever a doctor’s visit or medical test was called for.

Then, about the time I was playing with all these decisions, I heard a radio report about how much it cost annually to own a car—beyond the purchase price.  It was calculated to be $5,000, which covered insurance, maintenance, and gas.

I’d recently sold my car and was intending to get another.  But now I wasn’t so sure.  Did I want to pursue work that mattered to me?  That involved some financial risk?  Or did I want to own a car?

On some level, it seemed a simple choice:  Which did I want to support more?  The dream or the car?

I was lucky to live in a city--still do--with one of the better public transit systems in the U.S., and so this really was a no-brainer.  I've not owned a car since and, for the most part, have never looked back.

I thought of that long-ago decision while reading the following article on the Next Avenue website, about a retired couple who live on $30,000/year.  If you’d like to live a little leaner in your life—retired or no—you might get some good ideas about how to manage it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Composing the Last Day

I’ve written before about my journal writing workshop, Composing a Life, and of the several writing exercises I assign people, including having them “compose” a day—just one day they think would best represent a life more to their liking.  Starting with waking up—including the preferred hour—I tell them to write their way through the day as if they were in charge of it.  Who did they see?  Where did they go?  What did they do?

I thought about this while reading the very powerful opinion piece by surgeon and writer Atul Gawande in the October 5 issue The New York Times (link below).  In it, he describes someone well known to him, a woman in her 60s dying from cancer, who opts for hospice over more invasive medical treatment, and, in the process, gets to design her best possible day.  Best possible day, one that does not ignore the realities of her current life, but works within it to make that day happen.  

I wrote an essay recently in which I described what I wished had been my mother's best possible day.  It was 1964, and she was in a lifeless, sterile hospital room, in a coma, dying of breast cancer at age 50.

In that imagined day, I manage to bust her out of there, take her home, and, as I knew she would want, place her gently on terra firma in her backyard garden.  It was spring, you see, and her flowers would be in wild bloom, life in all its varied color and urgency would be surging all around her.