Book Baggage

A few days ago I was chatting with a prospective graduate student. She would be applying in the fall of 2017, not this year. And as she rose to leave my office I said (automatically, as I do to every possible recruit), “Be sure to stay in touch and come by again when you are ready to apply.” This time, however, I had to pause, caught be surprise, then add, “but there will be a new graduate director to talk with next year.”

It is coming at me, in small ways, like in the exchange with this student. As Dr. Seuss told Marvin K., “the time has come. . . .” Next September I will not only not be the department’s graduate director, I will not be the department. And that is beginning to feel like the right choice.

So, what are the next steps as I phase into retirement? At the top of the “leaving the department” to-do list: I must find a home for the office library. It can’t move to my house, where there is already a library. No point in offering it to the VT library. Our library is dispensing with books altogether – they have begun to move almost all books to an off-campus storage facility from which we can “order” books and have them brought to our offices in a day or so (browsing is not an option). The library is being renovated as a huge meeting space and study hall. Desks and comfy chairs and lounges replace shelves lined with wisdom and knowledge (a curmudgeonly comment, for sure).

But getting back to the problem of how to clear out twenty-some years of the office collection. The advice of retired friends and colleagues: open the door and invite grad students to rummage and leave with armloads of treasures; use the department’s “free books” hall shelf; give what’s left to the public library and Literacy Volunteers book sales. As I think through this plan I hear my mother’s horrified voice, honed in the years of the Great Depression, “You will just give them away?!” Yes Mom, because books are no longer the valuable assets they once were, to be passed from generation to generation (just as, and the sarcasm kicks in, your extensive collection of glassware picked up at flea markets and garage sales, was not a secure retirement investment, it was just your hobby). The books and Marvin K. have to “go” and “go now.”

Soon after my exchange with the MA recruit, I unloaded the first office shelf to reload on the hallway “free books” shelf. No regrets when some of them left the office—they represented courses once taught, projects that never came to fruition, and impulse buys that should have stayed in the store. Others, however . . . gave me pause. Like lost loves rediscovered, those books engulfed me in memories. Where was I when I read this one? What was I doing when that one crossed my path? Can I part with a book that once brought such intellectual excitement even if it hasn’t come off the shelf in two decades? Or must I hold on for a few more years to these reminders of the life once led?

Perhaps letting go of books is a metaphor for retirement, a process rather than a project, something that will happen over time, many times and not just once. With that thought, today I will weed through another shelf, indulging myself in memories, and holding on to the best.

The Long Reach of the Teacher: Remembering Mr. Shaeberle

Once again I’ve been drawn to the past as I reflect on retirement from teaching. He was my third-grade teacher at Hartley Elementary School. He was a grown-up authority figure in my eyes, but in retrospect I see a young, very green teacher, fresh out of college. More important for the third-graders that year, Mr. Shaeberle was …a man. I am sure men had taught at Hartley Elementary before Mr. Shaeberle arrived, but he was the first one I’d encountered. And even more novel for the third-graders in his class, we were in a room with students a grade ahead of us. It was an exciting year! Nothing like the previous two spent with Miss Spotts, though that’s when I learned to read and had my first traumatic experience with academic failure (I didn’t follow the directions for coloring the picture!)

I don’t know why the classes were combined the year Mr. Schaeberle joined the Hartley teaching staff, because the following year, half-way through 4th grade we were once again assigned to single-grade classrooms. Louise, my very best friend in the whole wide world, and I moved across the hall to scary, mean Mrs. Bierbower’s room. Other 4th graders went to learn from Mr. Ness…yes, we now had a 2nd male in the teaching ranks! And then, oh joy, after enduring a long year with “Mrs. Beer Bottle” once again Mr. Shaeberle was teaching my 5th grade class. Of the many teachers who left marks on my life, I think none was more influential than Mr. Schaeberle.

There was the 1956 Presidential election. Not many Democrats among my classmates, but Mr. Schaeberle made it OK to buck the crowd. Fascinated with rocks, I took “samples” to school to ask for help identifying them. I’m sure Mr. Schaeberle knew as much about geology as I did but as we discussed the stone’s properties I learned it was OK to ask for help figuring out a problem. And then there were the social studies lessons. It was the year our lessons followed a family on a road trip across the country, starting in New England and stopping to explore geography and history along the way. Why am I a historian? I am sure Mr. Schaeberle was instrumental in planting that seed as his class mapped the route from coast to coast.

Mr. Schaeberle died a few weeks ago. I had not seen him in decades, had not thought of him in many years. His obituary noted his career in educational administration and the doctorate he earned well after those first years at Hartley. I remember, in contrast, a young teacher who made me want to learn, and for his enthusiasm and encouragement I will always be grateful.

Those of us who teach should all be so fortunate if somewhere there is a former student for whom we might have been a Mr. Schaeberle.

The Retirement Bookshelf: Two Uppers and a Downer

Approach something new and unfamiliar…my knee-jerk response is research.  Gather, read, process, and because it’s usually some aspect of history, write about it to understand it, put it in context, and file it with the familiar and known.    Retirement has kicked this approach into gear.  And I am building the retirement bookshelf – the books and articles that will help me make sense of life without the department and the office (and the paycheck).  In the past few weeks I’ve picked up three additions, each viewing retirement and aging with a different lens, but each with useful messages about managing the late years of life.

Finances, as many earlier posts attest, scare me.  So I am always on the lookout for helpful guides to 403(b)’s, Social Security, and other assorted post-paycheck income sources. (The bookshelf contains more than one “Dummies” book on the subject). How to Make Your Money Last by Jane Bryant Quinn is a godsend.  A clear explanation of finances for folks like me…with retirement savings (but definitely not wealth) and a terror of having to organize and spend it.

Quinn begins where many finance books do, with advice to make a budget and gather records of all income sources.  It’s a dose of realism…most of us will likely have to reduce some items on the budget debits list to live within our new means.  Her recommendations, however, go beyond the platitudes that tell me I will no longer need “professional clothes” and I won’t have the expense of a daily commute.  (I teach at a school where jeans can occasionally be professional attire and the commute is 2.5 miles one way.  Not likely the changes here will be cost-saving.)  And her advice does not foster the fear that bubbles up whenever someone mentions downsizing.  Instead Quinn talks about “rightsizing,” a word that captures positive changes to address myriad needs – health, family, lifestyle, and yes, the budget.  Rightsizing requires some imagination; it also asks me to prioritize needs and wants.  Rightsizing lets me entertain the idea of moving from house to smaller unit, shedding maintenance expenses and taxes.

Along with “rightsizing,” “simplify” is the second word that shapes Quinn’s approach to retirement.  Collapse, consolidate, make it easy to see where the money is in order to create a familiar paycheck-like structure for taking money from retirement funds.  Thanks to Quinn’s clear explanations words like “annuity,” “reallocation,” and “RMD” make sense. Having absorbed her discussion of “bucket” investing, for example, I think I now understand the relationship between stocks and bonds and the place of each in my “retirement portfolio.”  (You can grasp here just how truly ignorant of the finance world this near-retiree is.) Picture my retirement stash in 3 buckets – one with liquid assets for emergencies, one with stocks, one with bonds.  Her explanation of how to decide from which bucket to make annual withdrawals was for me worth the price of the book!   Given my Pennsylvania Dutch farmer ancestry, I can understand buckets.

Quinn isn’t talking off the top of her head; her advice comes from years of writing about finance (her columns appear in AARP publications among other venues) and she builds her advice on the work of other researchers. There’s much more in this book than I’ve described here, and it is likely one I will go back to often in the next few years.

My second read was recommended by an acquaintance met at a talk I gave to psychiatric personnel at the Salem Veterans Administration Hospital.  This woman, about to retire herself, told me to check out How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie J. Zelinski.  Zelinksi says his book provides “retirement wisdom that you won’t get from your financial advisor.”  And it is certainly retirement for a different perspective! His message:  retirement is the last chance I will have to “remake” myself, and deciding in advance what that identity will be is crucial to creating a retirement with a “purpose” but one that is free of the workplace-generated “need to achieve.”  The upbeat motivational approach to the “active retirement” can be a bit over the top at times, and Zelinski has aimed his advice for folks whose retirement age seems to be far younger than my own.  Nonetheless, his suggestions for list-making resonate with this academic’s approach to making order from chaos,  my need to prioritize activities and choose which activities to prioritize!  Zelinski identifies “boredom” as the number one enemy of a happy, wild, and free retirement – the retiree must not allow retirement leisure to be defined by “the couch, the TV, and the fridge.”   Not much here that can’t be found in many other guides to surviving the transition from work to retirement.

I can recommend, however, two take-aways from this one:  the “Get-a-Life Tree” and Road Scholar.  Why have I not heard of Road Scholar: Education Travel and Learning Vacations? For someone who has always said “travel and explore” would be part of retirement…and quaked at the thought of how to make it happen…this program might be a solution.   It is definitely on my list of necessary retirement information to gather sooner rather than later.  The “Get-A-Life Tree” is a mind mapping exercise to identify and draw my attention to interests that somehow got lost as I was creating the historian’s career, interests that can be rediscovered once the “career building/maintaining” demands have been put aside.   At the center of the map – a box labeled “options for retirement” with lines branching out for:  current activities I want to continue;  activities that “turned me on in the past” but haven’t had a place in my life recently; and new activities I’ve thought about doing but haven’t tried yet.   Zelinski recommends putting at least 50 leaves/activities on these three branches.   It’s an engaging exercise for my pre-retirement stage—helps to visualize (and organize!) the swirling mass of thoughts about how I want to shape living after work.   And has very much made me aware of how much I have allowed the demands of work to narrow choices and possibilities.

If Quinn and Zelinski construct “retirement” as something to pursue, something to embrace, and definitely not something to fear, Susan Jacoby provides the reality check to their optimism.  In Never Say Die; the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age she reminds me that while retirement is a social and political construct, this stage of life is also bounded by the physical experiences of growing old.  Advertisements and commercials have created a model for “successful aging.”  Actors are vibrant, fit, active, often look far younger than the age group they supposedly represent.   It is a concept sold in many guises, and I’m guessing that includes books like Zelinski’s.  And while our “success” is dependent on a marketable product, nonetheless, these ads tell what our “senior” years will look like. As Jacoby interprets the ads and the advice, however, successful aging “means only that a person has managed to put on a happy face for the rest of the world” smiling through the physical aches and pains, hiding memory loss, and demonstrating “a consistent willingness to try anything new.” To age successfully we must never “voice any fear about future dependency,” or show too much need for companionship (just as we must never be content to be alone), and we must not display strong emotions, passion being a privilege of youth (xii-xiii).

This book shows how our emphasis on successful aging  is reinforcing an untenable image of “old age” as a single stage of life (an image equally promoted by the idea of “retirement years” I might add).  A stage that marks only the first years of being “old.”  It is preventing us, individually and as a society, from addressing directly and creatively the problems of “old” old age, or even acknowledging that they are painfully real.   “The reality” she writes, “is that we are all capable of aging successfully – until we aren’t” (xii).   There is a time between this new-style successful aging (“young” old age) and death when a retirement of independence, leisure, and a need to counter boredom will likely become a period of frailty and dependency when physical care trump other needs. “As a people,” Jacoby admonishes us, “we need to face reality and base both our individual planning and social policy on the assumption that by the time men and women reach their eighties and nineties, not the best, but the worst years of their lives generally lie ahead” (5).

As I processed Jacoby’s sobering chapters (and there’s much more to the book than recounted here), this baby-boomer, about-to-retire, still physically fit reader really needed the soothing tones struck by Quinn and Zelinski.  But wishing it weren’t so only works in fairy tales, and so as I create my 3 retirement finance buckets, and draw my “Get a Life Tree” I will remember the difficulties faced by my parents and my neighbors in “old old age,” berate myself for being less understanding than I could have been, and hope that Jacoby’s optimistic prediction has merit:  that as we grow older, we baby boomers (raised in a spirit of social activism) who are now coming into young old age will demand a political response to  the problems attending those who have reached  “old” old age, the problems that face us in the future.

The Bookshelf:

  • Jane Bryant Quinn. How to Make Your Money Last;  The Indispensable Retirement Guide.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
  • Ernie J. Zelinski. How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free. Edmonton: Visions International Publishing, 2015.
  • Susan Jacoby. Never Say Die; the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.

 

Weighing the Transitions in a Life

When I began this blog I wanted to use it to record “observations” about the start of old age, the approach of retirement, and what these changes mean – to me, to others, and in history. In 2014, the observations were infrequent. Deciding to postpone retirement for a few years made the reflective project less urgent, even though the changes kept creeping into consciousness. Recently I’ve been thinking again about when and how to retire, and also about how we mark and celebrate transitions like retirement. There’s the proverbial gold watch, the retirement party, the application for Social Security benefits, the plans for moving to a new location or a smaller home, or moving on to a second career. In a description of the year preceding her retirement (“The Forever Professors,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 21, 2014) Laurie Fendrich wrote of her awareness of “the last time,” the bittersweet feelings aroused as she finished with talking to a class of students, grading an exam, going to a department meeting… Cognizance of the many last times foreshadowing retirement is surely one of the rituals marking this transition.

Yet, as I look back on the major transitions in my life over the past 50 years, I do not remember thoughts of the “last time” as markers of change. Rather I’ve become aware that each of my transitions has involved weight! Occasionally weight gain, as in pregnancy, but more significantly, weight loss. Dieting…that is something I associate with the big changes of divorce, applying for that first tenure-track job, and now, retirement.

I thought the determination to focus on food and exercise this past summer and fall were related to the potential for health problems revealed by the last annual blood analysis. Underlying this immediate “threat,” however, I now see this decision to diet as a powerful change-coping strategy. Every transition, including my preparation for retirement, involved feelings of loss as well as an awareness of possibilities. Apparently, accepting and assimilating those feelings requires that I visualize them – on the bathroom scale. I am turning each loss recorded by the digital readout into a symbol of what will be gained from this impending transition.

As I write these thoughts, I wonder if I am alone in calculating transitions in body weight. It requires more effort than accepting a gold watch, but the gains promised are so much greater. (And that includes an excuse for a new wardrobe!)

Downsizing

My former student Cat has made a career from blogging about personal finance for young adults. I like to follow her blog budgetblonde.com – pride in the accomplishments of one I shepherded through our graduate program and fascination with the creative ways she is balancing a business and a family. One of her recent posts really captured my attention: “How I Decluttered Thousands of Belongings” (http://www.youngadultmoney.com/2014/02/26/how-i-decluttered-thousands-of-belongings/)

Cat calls her weeding-out binges “decluttering.” For my age group, it is called “downsizing.” And her blog post got me thinking about what downsizing means at this stage of my life. How to approach this project and what to do with all the stuff — academic stuff, family stuff, and just plain stuff? This downsizing is different from the sorting and discarding that went on each time I moved. Then there was no question that almost all of the books, all the files, and all the objects with all the memories would find their way into the packing boxes. Now, however, I need a different set of guidelines.

So, what is “downsizing?” Google search > “downsizing definition” – companies “downsize” by reducing the number of workers. Not helpful, unless I think of my retirement as a downsizing of my department. Google search > “downsizing” — I can choose from downsizing my home, my life, or my government. And yes, there are downsizing blogs where I can “downsize to happiness” or “downsize in style.” Thinking about downsizing is about as complicated as understanding all those books I read last summer about how to “achieve financial security in retirement.”

Downsizing grows even more complicated when, like me, Mother was a hoarder who saved everything because someday she might need…the 2 feet of thread left on the spool; the Styrofoam egg cartons that could be turned into jewelry trays, and the yards and yards of scrap fabric that could be made into a quilt, someday. I am my mother’s daughter. Though there are no egg cartons in my stash of the stuff I could reuse or recycle, there are boxes and boxes of yarn scraps that I’m saving to make into knitted toys for a grandchild, someday!

For sure, there’s plenty of advice on downsizing and it’s just a click away. I started with wiki:How to Do Anything (http://www.wikihow.com/Downsize-Your-Home)
In ten easy steps you can move from a house to a mouse hole. Step one: Assess your actual needs. What counts as an “actual need?” Something I use every day? Something I use every week? Once a month? Only at tax time? Do I “use” the stuffed animal that reminds me of my daughter’s childhood? The pictures of my sister and me growing up? My parents’ wedding photograph? OK, the bed is probably an “actual need” but what about all the plants I’ve nurtured for 20 years? I feel the stress level rising; it may take the three years til retirement to come to terms with the meanings, the implications of downsizing. (And as I ponder downsizing, I understand more fully why some retirees, like my parents, resist the move from a house to smaller, more-manageable-for-the-elderly “independent living” apartment.)

Skipping ahead to a later step in the downsizing advice: the suggestion to use plastic containers to pack stuff for storage. But isn’t downsizing about letting go? Why downsize if I need a storage unit to supplement my new mouse hole?

And what’s to keep me from upsizing after I downsize (other than that financial insecurity stuff, of course)? Downsizing, I fear, is like weight loss – getting it off may be easy; keeping it off may require more discipline that what’s available to those of us who came of age in the prosperous ‘50s and were encouraged all our lives to accumulate material goods as the emblem of happiness.