Just Quit Already!
Day-by-day through Year One of Retirement
Day 32, Sat Aug 1: Got up, pulled on an old worn-but-not-worn-out white Bellevue College T-shirt – the place I worked running the communications & marketing shop for the past decade or so — and brown shorts, had pancakes, OJ, coffee and a podcast of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” for breakfast, took a four-mile walk more or less around the neighborhood, checked off some house chores, lounged around. At mid-afternoon we will drive into Seattle for a wedding of Enid’s colleague, Traci. Enid went to the bachelorette party the other night.
If you believe, as I do, that love is a beautiful thing, then you probably enjoy weddings, too. This one is pitched a little younger than last week’s, as the happy couple is (I’m guessing) in their later thirties. The event is on the lawn at a lakefront house just south of Seward Park looking out onto the majestic expanse of Lake Washington. A lovely ceremony is conducted by Traci and Todd’s friend Greg who is funny, veers awkwardly close to roast-style bro-comments about Todd, then just in time gets sincere and saves the moment.
I’m sentimental, so when Traci starts to cry while she’s saying her vows, I cry, too, and have to walk to the tables at the back and find a cocktail napkin to dab my eyes.
For the dinner part, we sit at a really entertaining table with Traci’s opinionated older brother who is a guitar player in North Carolina; with a solidly-built adult lacrosse team mate of Todd’s; with Joe, who teaches French at the International School along with Traci and Enid; and with a couple who tell us they moved to Seattle last year from a small, Sonoma County “gay redneck” town where they were the only two young lesbians. “No,” says one of them, “there was another.” It’s not clear if this is a punchline or just a detail.
I wear khakis and a crisp white button-down shirt. I debated with myself about whether to wear a tie, but it was pretty hot so that didn’t happen. This will turn out to be one of only a handful of occasions this entire year that I will “dress up,” by which I mean any variation of long pants, collared shirt and actual leather shoes. As it turns out, lots of people dress casual for summer weddings – a few guys have on shorts with Tommy Bahama-style shirts.
Music-wise, the DJ selection is retro-hip and very enjoyable to me: “Secret Agent Man,” “Take 5,” “B-A-B-Y.” No disco. No ABBA. Yes “Brown Eyed Girl.”
Day 33, Sun Aug 2: I sleep until after 11! Most likely it is because my body just needs to recover since I’m on the tail-end of a three-week episode from a chronic health condition I have: cluster headaches.
These things are every bit as dreadful as the name suggests. They are in some ways – their completely debilitating effect — a relative to migraines but without any of the popular brand recognition, or research funding or treatment insight. When you google cluster headaches you find a lot of “they’re bad but we don’t know much more than that” plus a ton of chat boards with desperate sufferers sharing their experiences. I’m one of the desperate sufferers. The bulletin boards are actually helpful if only because misery loves company.
I’ve been getting clusters since my mid-twenties. They come on without any warning or apparent trigger. You basically then get one a day for about three weeks (thus “cluster”). For some people they are at the same time every day – mine are more randomly spread around the clock. The first occurrences are relatively mild, then they build up in intensity to where the middle week is good old icepick-behind-the-eyeball pain. The tears flowing from the eye. The incapacitating vice around the temples. They hit one side of the head, in my case the left eye. Nasty.
I’ve had a bunch of meds prescribed for this over time. A couple of years ago Dr. McCandless set me up with an injection version but I couldn’t deal with the whole rigmarole of needles. Swallowing a capsule is just easier for me. My current treatment is tablets of something called Sumatriptin Succinate, supplemented by giving myself a few squirts up the nose of Sinol. (It’s homeopathic capsaicin – basically the active ingredient in tabasco sauce; I’ve got a friend who got on her arms in a house fire and after several months of recuperating her doctor told her she could put actual tabasco sauce on the scars for pain relief, that it would do the same job as the medical stuff and condiments are cheaper than meds. He also told her she could use Crisco to keep things supple but she said she had too many memories of Grandma’s fried chicken for that.) When I went online a few weeks ago to renew my prescription I had to make a special request because it had been more than a year since my last renewal. Which is good because it means it’s been more than a year since my last episode. Luckily I had strategically over-ordered my meds in the past so I had a big stash of two-years-old Sumatriptin hidden away that I was able to dip into until Group Health pharmacy got its act together and mailed me a fresh batch. When I feel a headache coming on and I pop the pill, I can usually head off the episode.
But not always. Then we’re talking about anywhere from a half-hour to four hours of high-end despair and, with the worst ones, a hangover effect where I am totally enervated for hours afterwards. A husk of a man. And at that juncture — from their most penetrating apex during that middle week — they recede in intensity for another week and are gone. A Bell Curve of wretchedness. It’s unpredictable when they’ll be back. Sometimes they show up a couple of times a year but more often for me it is a few years in between. Lately even two years and maybe three as the pattern.
Since it’s not clear to anybody what triggers them, we sufferers live in total fear of summoning the beast. I’m not joking; they are way too brutal to clown around with.
My cluster headache thing is an esoteric affliction but every retired person has geriatric chronic health issues. Pretty much everybody has to deal with sciatica and chronic lower-back pain starting in middle age. Another common one that I expect I will have to deal with sometime is knee replacement. For one thing, genetics: my dad had his knees done in his seventies. Moreover, I was a basketball player. I played probably four or five times a week from before I was 14 until I was 35 or older. Let me do the math for you: we’re talking about 10,000 hours of basketball games. A lot of those were in gyms, but many were on concrete playground courts or driveways. I’ve pretty much worn off any protective coating behind my patella, what they call “jumper’s knee” (or if you’re a doctor – or a person with a long history of conversations with doctors about this — patellar tendinitis or patellar tendinopathy). I’ve already got a bunch of knee-lift exercises I do to build up protective muscle around my kneecaps. That’s the easy stuff.
On the silver-lining side of things, there are some advantages to falling apart. It’s true that I take some pleasure in playing the Frail Elderly card when it’s to my advantage. I can convincingly pretend I don’t hear things said to me. Plus, I have already done the hard work of perfecting a blank uncomprehending expression that I can turn on whenever it is to my advantage.
The retirement years for a lot of people are all about managing health issues so, as brutal as the cluster headaches are, I’m glad that they are pretty much my only distressing condition right now, and one that comes and goes. I don’t have any diabetes or emphysema or any of that stuff. I’ve always been pretty active and watched my diet – including now – so I don’t have the problems related to a more sedentary or Supersize-Me lifestyle. And I’ve got 40 years’ experience dealing with the headaches so while I don’t always win the fight at least I have a chance. Plus there’s no fear of the unknown involved. Some of the wisdom on clusters even suggests that they dissipate with age. Hope so.
Because even when I’m not having a hideous episode I worry when the next one will start, and why. It even makes me a little queasy and anxious to be writing about them here, as if simply speaking the name will conjure the demon. You know it can happen. Beetlejuice Beetlejuice Beetlejuice!
Salad from the garden and grilled cheese sandwiches from the panini press for dinner.
Day 34, Mon Aug 3: Popped awake, ate some peanut-butter-toast and a cup of tea in a Brasil World Cup mug (no coffee in the house, what’s up with that). Enid has gone to the club for her workout. I hiked down to the Newport Library to pick up a CD on hold and a couple of magazines. It’s about seven miles round trip, so took me just under two hours. The day is overcast and light-gray.
Anybody who needs evidence that libraries are relevant should come take a look. Newport Way is the best. It is tiny and one-story. They renovated a few years ago and kept just enough of the Sixties charm while getting rid of the Sixties inefficiencies. It’s always super busy but somehow never uncomfortably packed. They even figured out the parking lot dead-on because there is usually a spot available, though sometimes you have to park on the street near the Aldergate church. People are coming and going, checking books in and checking books out. Students fill up the tables, sometimes with a tutor murmuring at their shoulder. The rows of computer terminals are always full – I have used them to quickly sign on, put in a thumb drive and print something out; I think to use them more long-term you have to sign up and can only stay an hour when there is a waiting list – and lots of people like to bring their laptops; I think both for the wi-fi and the opportunity to be out among people. If you want to sit and read – as I sometimes do – it’s usually possible to find an empty single-occupancy table or an easy chair in the lovely sun room at the back.
The meeting space or community area just off the front desk is almost always booked. I’ve been in there myself, staffing an info table for Bellevue College at a community issues night or taking a class on the eco approach to house cleaning. Sometimes in the daytime I peep through the door – it’s right there by the scanners where you check out — and it is packed with raptly-attentive pre-schoolers cutely focused on the presenter. It makes me happy and reminds me of when Elena was little and we used to attend story times or a presentation of animals by a naturalist or animal rescue person. Our neighborhood here in Bellevue is a regular suburban neighborhood and it is trending Asian, demographics-wise. Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian, but a little more Chinese. I know a lot of the families enroll their kids in Chinese School at Newport High on Saturdays. Sometimes the toddlers with the parents in the room are all Chinese-looking; I assume that the program is something to do with exposing the kids to their heritage but maybe it is nothing to do with that. Sometimes the tots appear to be all different ethnicities and then I make no such assumptions; I just figure they are having fun, listening to stories and singing “The Wheels On The Bus.”
When I got home, I went out and picked two bags of apples off of our trees and spent a couple of hours making juice. Quite a production. If the goal is to fill two 1.75 liter Simply Lemonade containers of sippin’ apple juice – one in the fridge and one in the freezer – then Mission Accomplished.
For dinner: Cold lime shrimp on a salad bed of mixed spring greens and red and yellow peppers, with feta and dill.
Day 35, Tue Aug 4: A routine day. Is there any other kind? I made fried eggs and tea for breakfast. Enid is out getting her hair done and then lunch with her mom; they are going to Monsoon East, one of our favorite more upscale-ish restaurants here in Old Bellevue. Depending on who is talking it’s called Asian Fusion or Thai cuisine but I’m not sure you would know it was Thai if they didn’t say so. Once when we ate there they served squash soup for an appetizer; when we walked in I didn’t like squash soup, when we left I did.
I can literally take two steps off my backyard past an overgrown laurel hedge and be on a trail that connects me with a vast network of greenbelts and paths. Today I hiked southward in the forest down to Forest Drive, only about three miles roundtrip but straight up and down. One of these days I plan to take that trail and then keep going another mile or so along Forest Drive and Lakemont Boulevard over to what we still call “Matthew’s” but what is really now named Town & Country Market. My plan is to buy a backpack-load of groceries and hike back home. I don’t want to give a misimpression, though. While it’s true that I am a few feet from one trail system and only a few blocks from others, and merely a few miles from mountain hikes, it would be wrong to infer that where I live is particularly pedestrian friendly.
On the walkability measure, our neighborhood is not remotely within walking distance of any amenity. First, we are at the top of a high hill; it is not flat topography. And we are in an area that’s not urban. Quite the contrary. We are literally the end of the road; in our neighborhood there’s only one way in and – No Outlet — you have to go back the same way. But if I can get to where I’m regularly doing the seven miles back and forth to Matthew’s (it’s probably less than a mile as the crow flies, but I am not a crow; it’s not direct, there’s a little bushwhacking and some non-straight-line trail-hiking involved) I’ll be able to go all urban-density in conversations. Like, “Yeah, I walk to the neighborhood grocery store whenever I need something. I just pop over.”
I made a big salad of garden veggies for lunch. Ran a load of dishes. Ran a load of laundry. Cleaned up a backlog of email business including renewing Elena’s student personal-property insurance and setting up my VEBA account – the thing where I can submit medical expenses for reimbursement. Although it still shows a balance of $0.00 in there instead of a few thousand dollars, at least it immediately recognized me when I signed in, so that’s good.
Day 36, Wed Aug 5: It is Enid’s birthday. To celebrate we drive 15 minutes to Mercer Island and walk six-and-a-half miles.
Just kidding about the “to celebrate” part but not the mileage. It’s overcast and cool. We start at the little park overlooking Lake Washington where Elena’s Vandals lacrosse high-school elite team used to practice. We begin right at the bike/pedestrian entrance to I-90 where, if you walked westward, you could go all the way across the bridge to Seattle. I’ve done it many times, while killing lacrosse-practice time. Today, though, we go the other way, east, on the lid over the interstate, past the edge of downtown Mercer Island and through that sculpture garden they have along the winding path.
When we get home later we eat a sauté of veggies right from the garden. It’s nice to be able to eat fresh, healthy, tasty food that we get by walking a few steps into the back yard. Elena will drive up from Tacoma around supper time and we have planned to go into downtown Seattle for dinner at Palace Kitchen. They only book reservations for groups of six or more, so we will take our chances with all the other walk-ins. Presumably (hopefully), a Wednesday night will not be real busy.
We find an on-street parking spot just a few blocks away. Palace Kitchen is enjoyably packed but they seat us immediately in a booth. The evening is really pleasurable. It’s busy and enjoyably noisy and we have a great meal and conversation. We’ve got everything to talk about. We feel like we’re in a hip place. The food is great – Palace Kitchen’s menu is really well-made versions of basic food; we have salmon, trout and chicken. Plus huge slabs of coconut cream pie for dessert. Sometimes you have to spend $200 on dinner to make life worth living. When we finish eating, the twilight has edged past dark and we walk the three blocks to Belltown for a very fun tourist-stroll along the streets full of bars with their doors and windows open and sidewalk cafes and sidewalks generally jammed with the beautiful people. Or the hipsters, if that’s a different crowd. I can’t tell anymore.
Back home, Enid opens her presents and the big hit is “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys & Girls,” which she had as a kid but her mom threw out. Enid has lamented the loss from time to time over the years. We found a used copy for sale on Amazon. She spends the rest of the evening leafing through the spiral-bound, Fifties-illustrated book and laughing. So that is a real pleaser.
Elena later says that when she told one of her friends the cookbook story – that her parents have been married for a really long time and there was this book her mom loved so her dad scrambled around the internet to find it – the friend replied with a sigh in partly-mock disgust, “Ugh. Happy people.”
Day 37, Thu Aug 6: Before Elena leaves, I show her how to shake a dead mouse out of a trap and reset the trap with peanut butter. Thank god for rodent invasions, there are still things a Dad can teach to a Daughter.
You start out passing along essential life skills when she’s little. How to shoot free throws, put air in the tires, drink milk straight out of the carton, play those “Louie Louie” chords. How to not freak out when the shit gets real in the middle of a storm but, rather, to keep her wits about her and deal with it and leave the breakdown until later when everything else is under control. How to not mistake five bad minutes for a bad day. How to hate Duke basketball and Yankees baseball on general principles. How to say fuck it to the haters and let things bounce off without leaving scar tissue all over your heart and spirit. How to always do your best except for those times when good-enough is good enough. How to write a thank-you note. How to enjoy life, because it’s pretty good all-in-all. How to get knocked down and get back up again. After a while you’re showing her how to build up her credit rating and set a mouse trap.
And then one day you look up from your corn flakes and realize the table has finally turned. Starting with when she shows you how to delete a voice mail instead of accidentally calling the person back every time.
Dinner is a big garden salad and a smoothie made with frozen raspberries and blackberries that I picked and froze last month.
Day 38, Fri Aug 7: Enid took Nadia to Lakemont Veterinary for her check-up. Nadia gets an A++. She’s super healthy, plus, it turns out according to the vet, she is also the smartest, prettiest, most personable of all the cats in the world. OK, she could stand to lose a few ounces, but who among us could not.
Nadia is a sweetie that we got from the shelter when she was just that adoptable age. She picked us. When we went in the room with all the cats, a black kitten came and climbed on our laps. Now she’s lovable and sociable but of course she does her cat thing and disappears mysteriously during the day. She’s an indoor-only cat. We have screens on the doors but not on the windows. They are casement windows that open out with a crank and we have screens for them in the shed but we’ve never put them on. And we can’t open the windows without screens or Nadia will get out – which she did once when she was little, stayed out all night while we worried, and showed up in the morning, presumably having beat down all the coyotes and bobcats she ran into overnight.
(In a couple of years Nadia will use up one of her nine lives when she will all of a sudden stop eating and go all lethargic; the vet does some workups and treatments but $1000 later she is still not responding; google searching turns up lots of people who’s cats have shown the same symptoms. We try all kinds of variations to get her to eat, but nothing. It’s really discouraging and sad. Just when we have pretty much given up and resigned outselves that Nadia will soon be late, we get some Rachel Ray Nutrish Chicken Purrcatta and, voila, she eats. It’s wet food but it doesn’t stink. Within a few days she is flying around the house and back to her old normal self. We have now stopped taking her to the vet, even for her regular checkups. No more Science Diet. It’s all Rachel Ray Nutrish all the time for us.)
It’s a good thing Nadia and I are compatible because we are intimate housemates these days. I work or putz around and she mainly sleeps. She picks and chooses from the full, rich menu of weird domestic feline behaviors and a few unique ones. Like all cats, a lot of her billable hours are spent staring at nothing, gazing into a dimension humans can’t see, and probably should not.
When I wake up in the morning, she sometimes crawls out from under my bed where she has constructed a fortress of solitude. She will be active for a few hours (by active I mean she mostly looks out the window). Then at mid-morning she will curl up in her towel-covered orange chair in the TV room (or under the chair, or sometimes on the chair but under the towel). Sometimes in cold weather she will alternate that with lying on the rug just by the bottom of the dull-green couch, where hot air blows out from the furnace vent back there. In the afternoon she will go downstairs and sleep in a red Hardoy wing chair in Elena’s bedroom. She likes to get up on the kitchen counter where she is not allowed and sleep on an absorbent dish-draining pad alongside the sink. Enid gets bugged by that and chases her off. I let her up there and look the other way.
She demands – “mrroww” — that we run a trickle of water out of the guest bathroom sink so she can get a drink (although after she gets sick that time I mentioned, and goes on wet food instead of dry, she never seems to drink water again, she gets everything she needs from the food). She is partial to being in the room where we are. So if we are watching TV, she often curls up in the extra chair there. She will jump on your lap as long as it is her idea, not yours. In the evening if I am lying on the living room couch or in bed reading the paper, she will come up and snooze on my stomach. Sometimes, weirdly, she will lie down right at the end of the hallway rug. If I am sitting here in my office chair typing she will hop up to check on my progress, especially if I have a cup of water she can drink or dip her paw into.
In cold weather when I’m making dinner she will lie in front of the dining room heat vent so she can be in the same room. In warm weather when the doors are open, she stares out through the screen. If I’m watching a game in the evening she might come up in my lap and pin me. Or not. Some nights when I go down to bed she is lying on the floor of the music room, especially if there is a comfortable mound of unfolded laundry piled up there. The rest of the time when she disappears I have no clue where she goes. And it’s a pretty small house.
Unlike some of our previous cats, she submits to her mani-pedi; it’s still a two-person job, one to hold and one to clip (and how do single people manage this on their own?) but there is no hissing or side-eye or yanking of paws involved.
Nadia is a big black cat and she is also known around here as “Na,” “NaNa,” “Nading,” “Comaneci” of course, “Blackie,” “Peapod” “PeeWee,” “Peeweenimus,” “Peanut,” “Peanut Clusters” and a few other endearments. You know how it is.
Before Nadia was Asia, one of those all-purpose gray striped kitties. She was way more standoffish (and she especially hated the nail clipping; we had to swaddle her in a towel and pry out one paw at a time while she hissed and yanked back). I liked her style, a mix of pugilist and existentialist. For part of the same time as Asia we had Giles, a whippet who we loved. Whippets are the dogs that look like a half-size Greyhound. They can top out at 30 mph and Giles was no exception; that dude could move. After five or six years he mysteriously got some kind of blood disease; we spent a ton of dough on treatments but nothing worked and he passed. That was hard.
Giles was great but, overall, I like cats better than dogs. Cats don’t slobber or bark or need walking. When we were thinking about a dog my requirement was to get the most cat-like dog possible: whippets and Cavalier King Charles spaniels were the finalists. Other pets are good, too. When Elena was little her first starter pet was Jackie O, a white rat (some people think, “Rat? Eeew.” But they are wonderful pets, a good introduction to pet-care responsibility and, because they have a short life span, a valuable – if heartbreaking — lesson in pet mortality for a kid). Enid’s family always had dogs (Font and Bella), a few cats (Thomas), birds, a snake that disappeared a couple of times and was tracked down once behind the rec room paneling and another time inside an acoustic guitar.
Continuing on backwards chronologically, Enid and I had Rooney (real name Aroon), a dramatic-looking reddish Abyssinian that we shipped out when Elena was born because we were worried about the high-strung cat scratching the baby. We had Simone, aka Mona, another gray-striped cat who got hit by a car in front of our house on Queen Anne. Before I met Enid I had Coonie, a black and white kitty with a Charlie Chaplin moustache who always slept under the blankets with me. She got feline leukemia and had to be put down. That was extremely rough.
Back in college when I was living with a house of guys in a tenement on Q Street in Lincoln (“Breakfast Served All Day” said the sign in our kitchen), we had a lazy and thuggish gray cat named Nineteen Dollars (that was how much we had paid the vet to tune him up). Going way back to when I was a kid my family had occasional pets, strays that wandered in and stayed: Nuisance (gray cat); Hadstu (mutt dog in the spaniel style; Hadstu could escape the chicken-wire dog pen, come to the West Ward School and somehow get inside the building and find me in the fifth-grade classroom – it happened more than once and made both of us celebrities); Skipper (mutt dog in the large dingo style); Willie and Croix (hamsters that I brought home from the last week of Christ Child Camp in the summer).
Day 39, Sat Aug 8: When I was growing up we always had a garden out behind the barn that was used as a garage, in the part of the far yard that bordered the high-school football field. As an adult, I have always lived the gardening lifestyle. I’ve usually had some version of a backyard kitchen patch or sometimes just a flowerpot salad garden on the deck. That’s one of the cool things with gardening, you can do as much or little as you want to and still get the benefits.
Over time, Enid has taken on the main family farming but I help out around the edges. Gardening has so much going for it, both as a component in a low-to-the-ground lifestyle and as a way to keep active in retirement. We have a fenced in 30 x 20 foot plot at the lower corner of our yard. It has a sagging gate that doesn’t quite shut, so I need to fix that one of these days. We have a standpipe water connection right there to hook up a hose. A couple of wide Douglas fir rounds to sit on. A mason bee house on a fence pole.
The produce in each year’s garden is pretty standard, and then once in a while we try something new. What we grow: asparagus bed (with parsley and basil mixed in as pest repellents), raspberry canes, blueberries in half-barrels, lettuce, spinach, radishes, pole beans, peas, garlic, onion sets, heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes (in a different location, against the house), broccoli, kohlrabi, carrots, various flowers (rose bushes and annuals like zinnias ), herbs in different places on the front deck. We’ve also got a few apple trees and plum trees. I’m trying to get a cherry tree going but the deer like to nibble on it; I’ve fenced around it and I’ll give it another year or so, but I’m getting discouraged. One year I gave Enid a shitake mushroom kit as a gift and we seeded a log with it; it wasn’t an overwhelming success but we ate a few mushrooms off of it.
We will eat a lot of this food straight out of the garden. Then we will preserve some of it (hanging the garlic up to dry; stashing the heads of cabbage in the garage fridge; making sauerkraut; freezing green beans, berries and plums; juicing; making apple-plum-peach compote and freezing that for later).
I can’t emphasize enough that for every reason we like to grow food and eat it: sustainability, health, the locavore thing, off-the-grid independence, a positive activity, living lightly, economics (we get a minor kick out of seeing the prices at the store for raspberries, carrots or garlic, say, and calculating how much we just saved). Every aspect is satisfying. We’re not there yet with the people who post on Facebook that they’re putting up 29 quarts of sweet corn, but I can see us moving in that direction.
For supper, we grilled (we have the regular old Weber grill that you load with charcoal briquettes) chicken/onion/pepper skewers with marinade as dipping sauce, plus corn on the cob and homemade naan, and then a quick salad of lettuce, tomatoes and avocado.
Day 40, Sun Aug 9: Last night at 9:30, while I was already lounging in bed reading there were fireworks at the Newcastle Golf Course. The whole south wall of the bedroom is windows and French doors, and we see the golf course a few miles away. Not just a few Roman candles but big explosions with huge loud booms and gigantic elaborate displays like a Fourth of July show. Presumably somebody got married or a company was having an event. It was extravagant enough that it could have even been a CEO’s wedding. We could see the show through the trees. It went on for 15 minutes and stopped. Then after 10 minutes of silence there were two more loud booms, as if somebody found a couple of forgotten rocket bombs still in a box and set them off as punctuation. Unscheduled entertainment on a Saturday night is always a pleasure.
Day 41, Mon Aug 10: I know that most of what I’m writing about here in this book of days is everyday life – it could happen whether or not I was retired– with a few adjustments to having more personal time. The reality is – spoiler alert, and it pains me to be honest – that’s what most of post-work life amounts to: the same stuff that happened before you retired. It’s not some magical world where everything is suddenly different. That’s Narnia.
So much is the same, and yet everything has changed. My point – which I’m struggling to get to – is that however much life routinely trudges on, there is also much retirement-specific business – novel things you never had reason to think about before — that has to be handled.
In the mail today I got a cheery correspondence from VEBA Trust. “Dear Bart: Welcome! You are now an enrolled participant in the VEBA Plan. A contribution of $2,944.03 from your employer has been deposited in your account. You may begin filing claims for qualified medical care expenses and insurance premiums incurred on or after 07/01/2015 . . . “
It goes on for a few densely-written pages that I don’t read, but this is the important part. I breathe a relieved sigh that this item on my checklist has gone smoothly. And I do have claims I want to file for medical expenses so I will have to jump on their website and see what qualifies.
Also in the mail today I have received the hard-copy Social Security statement. Over my working career I mostly made decent but modest middle-class income. Some years I did a little better, especially when I had good freelance earnings from my side hustle in addition to my day job. And some years a little less.
Not to put too fine a point on it – and not to spoil the fun for anybody who is looking forward to a hobby as a Social Security buff — but trying to understand Social Security benefits is a nightmare. If you check out the “Social Security for Dummies” book from the library, it is thicker than St. Augustine’s “City of God.” (All is not lost: even if you don’t read it, this tome can come in handy when you use it as a step stool to stand on and retrieve spices from the top cupboard shelf.) As convoluted as they make things, it’s worth trying to understand it because all of us – well-informed or ill-informed – has to make personal decisions about what to do with the benefits we are owed. It’s one of the socialism-in-action parts of our capitalist system and it directly affects you. Everybody’s situation is a little different, so it’s worth it to try to untangle the arithmetic story problem as it relates to you.
Counter to the complexities of most info in this arena, though, the statement I got today is pretty straightforward. The biggest font on the front page tells me that my payment “would be about $2813 a month at full retirement age.” In my case this is age 66, so another year-and-a-half. If I started drawing on it early — now, or in a few months, in November when I turn 65 — I would get dinged between 6 and 13 percent.
Some retirees need to get that Social Security money ASAP because that’s what they’re going to survive on. But this is a moot point for us, for now at least. We are poor-but-honest working people (well, one of us is still working) and we have a different plan. The strategy here is to try to live for as long as we can on “other income” – in our case cash-on-hand money that we have accumulated in regular savings and checking accounts (mainly because we just neglected to do anything else with it) plus Enid’s salary.
The idea is that we will delay dipping into our investment portfolio unless there are unexpected expenses – ideally for five years until I’m 70, although that seems a long way off and may require entirely too much scrimping. And we will also defer on my Social Security for as long as possible, maybe also up to about age 70. We will see how realistic that is. If it’s a failed plan, we’ll figure out an alternate strategy for starting to draw down some of our accounts.
And, of course, this is just short-term planning that assumes we will continue our current living conditions. It doesn’t take into account 10-15 years down the road when we downsize, sell the house and all of our stuff, cut the soles off our shoes and move into a mud yurt at the senior commune.
I should stop stating the obvious but Social Security, as I say, is byzantine, and there are a lot of “ifs” in our strategy. Stick with my arithmetic story-problem, here. As I understand it, each year after age 66 that I delay, the payout increases 8%. So if my calculation is on target, if we can make it to age 70 – the year 2020 – then that’s a cumulative 32% boost, or about $1400 more a month over selecting the money now. So approximately $4200 a month, total. That’s in the neighborhood of $50K a year. It’s not quite enough by itself to cover our monthly household budget nut, which we penciled out at more like $60K last year when we started trying to sort this out. But it is close enough for rock ‘n’ roll.
The arithmetic is rough but the implications are pretty clear. As clear as anything gets with Social Security.
The most fun thing in this statement I received from the Social Security Borg (yes, I used “fun” and “Social Security” in the same sentence) is that it shows “Your Earnings Record” for every year you drew a reportable income. I first show up in 1966 – I would have been 15 for most of that year — with a “Taxed Social Security Earnings” of $42. It went up from there, although some years it still seemed like I made about 42 bucks. I wonder if I’ll figure out some way to make $42 during this first year of retirement.
Maybe that should be my financial objective. You know what they say: you can’t reach your goals if you don’t set them.
Day 42, Tue Aug 11: Elena came home late last night so we will be back to the nuclear family unit here for the rest of the week. It’s nice. She had a good weekend at our cabin with a bunch of friends. She has brought along a stack of two dozen academic books for her research.
Within an hour of her arrival she asks, “Is there anything to eat” so we find some acceptable leftovers from Yea’s Wok to nuke, and a glass of chocolate milk. Watching her eat warmed-up Chinese, and helping myself to bites off of her plate with my own fork, definitely satisfies my parenting instincts.
Day 43, Wed Aug 12: Ate a midmorning — 10 o’clock — family breakfast in a pleasurable style, sitting in the flickering shade on the Duck Pond: bowls of granola, yogurt, blueberries, raspberries, and pineapple. In the afternoon Elena and I covered eight miles on the Sammamish River Trail from 60 Acres to Redmond and back. I walked, she ran.
After dinner, we sat home and watched Hishasi Iwakuma pitch a no-hitter for the M’s against the Orioles, which has the effect of suckering Mariners’ fans like me into thinking their team just needed a little spark like that to make a playoff run. The underachieving M’s, who had been thought by all the pre-season experts and pundits to have a legit shot at a World Series Championship, are still just seven games out, with fewer than 50 to go. Kuma’s no-hitter could be the tipping point. This is the thinking of the delusional fan, of which I am one. One of these years they’ll make a run at it.
Instead, in the next two days the M’s will give up 16 and 22 runs respectively in losses to the Red Sox, then win a game in extra-innings after first blowing a seven-run lead, then lose the following night in excruciating water-torture fashion when Fernando Rodney (an erstwhile dynamite closer who has somehow this year been reborn as a Little League pitcher) loads the bases in the bottom of the ninth and then serves up a walk-off walk. This is why all Mariners fans have Mariners ptsd. Why you wanna stomp on my heart? Once again, the mantra is out, Mariner-wise: wait’ll next year.
Day 44, Thu Aug 13: In retirement, you can spend entire days just doing this and that around the house. I wonder how this stuff ever got accomplished when I was working. Of course, some of it didn’t, which is why I’m dealing with the deferred maintenance now. When I was working I must have covered these little tasks in the evenings or on weekends. Now I’ve got the leisure time so I can pace myself.
Today for example, before I ate leftovers for lunch at noon, I did this: 1) made a pot of coffee and drank it in a blue-and-white Bellevue East Lacrosse mug (I’m wearing a taupe-and-blue Bellevue East Lacrosse T-shirt, too – put your hands up for BELAX); 2) handled various email and Facebook communications and printed out some correspondence that I want to keep; 3) drove for some errands: the library to pick up books and CDs that I had on hold and the Post Office to mail a big letter and buy a roll of first-class stamps; 4) retrieved the daily paper at the mailbox and; 5) sat on an outside bench with a late cup of coffee to read it; 6) shuffled around the house with a Wet Wipe to clean off random smudges and fingerprints on some walls and handrails; 7) emptied the outside mousetrap of its catch and re-set it with peanut butter; 8) checked the three rat traps I set a few weeks ago in the studio (Enid surprised a rat and herself and those rodents are not welcome visitors; but I have not caught anything since – I think she scared it away permanently); 9) did a temporary fix with nails on a rotting board on a half-wall right by our front door – this is further deferred maintenance and I will have to repair it the right way with a new board and screws sometime, but this will do for now; 10) cleaned out Nadia’s litter boxes; 11) cruised around the house and picked up lemonade glasses and coffee mugs, loaded the dishwasher and then ran the load; 12) ran a couple of loads of laundry; 13) watered the Meyer Lemon tree in the living room (this plant always looks mostly dead, but it continues to be fruitful with the most delicious lemons imaginable); 14) listened to an old Dwight Yoakum CD from back when he was good; 15) started thinking about Xmas presents since this is a good time of year to get a head start on that if you’re an organized person (sweaters for everybody?).
Day 45, Fri Aug 14: Up early for me (8am). It’s overcast and cool. Enid’s off to a doctor appointment. I took a three-mile walk, four laps around the neighborhood loop plus I did 10 “stairs” up and down our long steps that go from our driveway to the house. Saw some neighbors out there to wave hi to: Margaret, from right across the street, out walking; Becca, from around the loop, running her dogs; Tom throwing a tennis ball for his dog.
Was going to sit out on the back deck but it’s too chilly. Ate two cold pizza slices and a leftover blueberry muffin for breakfast.
This morning we got an email from our little King County Water District 117 that manages the well that serves the 40 households here in our community. It reminded us that because of the hot and dry summer and the increased water use, water supplies are below normal so now we need to voluntarily cut back 10 percent. Of course this afternoon at 1:30 it started to rain with the first real prolonged downpour in forever. Back in time, 20 years ago my job was spokesperson for the Seattle Water Department so in dry summers I’d be out there on TV reminding folks to be water-wise. It always seemed that as soon as we’d pull the trigger and send out the “save water” news release, it would start to cloud over. Too often for my liking I’d be delivering my “Be Water Smart” message on TV in a light sprinkle, which didn’t exactly help my credibility. But since I don’t have to go on TV and talk about it now, the rain is really refreshing.
The Seahawks’ first preseason game is on TV tonight so, as the Nebraska joke goes when late August rolls around: I smell a football.
Day 46, Sat Aug 15: Just a real lazy weekend day of hanging around home, checking off a few to-do tasks but mainly taking it easy. A favored pastime. Took a two-hour break in the middle of the afternoon to watch the Sounders beat Orlando City 4-0.
And I took an hour to do a light once-over of our retirement financial strategy to see if any flaws jump out. I’m trying to keep my eye on the financial side of retirement here in the first few months but to a certain extent we just have to wait and live with it for a while and see how things go. We need to be on top of things but we have a little flexibility because we are not living paycheck-to-paycheck or anything. In fact, we got a good surprise: I found paperwork from a City of Seattle employees retirement plan that had been sitting there accruing interest since I left there 20 years ago (there are many things less-than-perfect about working for the government, but the benefits package is one of the more-perfect things). It had literally been out of sight, out of mind until I came across last year’s annual account statement that I had filed with a bunch of other papers. I had written “What Is This?” across the top. It’s the equivalent of finding a twenty-dollar bill in a jacket pocket, but more than $20. I had to email them and ask the status of the account. They replied that it was live, vested and I could access it. So I will start the ball rolling with the paperwork to begin drawing that retirement benefit with a monthly payment into my checking account.
Everybody’s retirement situation is different. In our case, first I’m retired but Enid is still working, so we’ve got her paycheck. She’s a public-school teacher and they are chronically underpaid. It’s a modest living but, on the other hand, she’s a 25-year veteran with an advanced degree who is National Board Certified, so she has optimized her pay scale. On the downside, she has pretty much topped out. On the upside, she likes her job.
Most retirement financial advice you read cautions against carrying any big debt loads into retirement – by which they mainly mean your mortgage, if you have one. In our case, we’ve done it a little differently because our situation mortgage-wise is this: our house note is paid down to under $100K and we refied a few times over the years when the conditions were favorable, so it’s carrying an interest rate under 3%. We never did this with retirement in mind, just to optimize our asset. The payment is about $700 a month. That’s kind of crazy in this day and age, especially in Seattle’s super-heated housing seller’s market. People pay more than double that to rent a crappy apartment. In other words, it’s one of our better investments so there is no point in paying it off. Plus we like living here. By the time we get around to selling the house in another 10 years when we’re ready to downsize, one result could be that we will possibly walk away with a stuffed purse.
Day 47, Sun Aug 16: I know some people are only reading this book for the geriatric sex tips. Sorry, frisky AARPers, but I’m not the Go-To for advice about how to have real good old-folks sex. I am not going to give instructions or guidelines or demonstrations or recipes or “first do this, next do that”.
I’m all for it, for sure – everybody should have all the great sex they can – and personally I’m trying my best. I will say one thing: I keep my sex life free of the to-do lists that rule every other aspect of my being. One word, grandparents: spontaneity. But that’s all I’m going to put out there on the subject. I’m way too old-school and staid to be offering opinions and tips and insights on what goes where and for how long. I’m a trustworthy guru on many things, but you’ll have to figure out a few of these for yourself. OK, go.
Instead of relying on me here, let’s instead turn to the great soul singer Solomon Burke. Consider what he says in a lengthy, spoken, combustible, preacher-style “the women of today” intro to a live version of “Hold On To What You’ve Got.” We’ve got this on a cassette mix-tape out at the cabin. He addresses his comments to men, but it’s the women in his audience who are in an uproar. He goes on for a long time, and then he summarizes: “Women are getting tired of the same old stroke. The same old strokety-stroke. They want something new. And it’s not really new; you just ain’t been doing it.”
Look it up on You Tube. You’ll be in uproar yourself.
My advice is to relax and enjoy it. Don’t keep score. Use everything you’ve got. Maybe listen to some Teddy Pendergrass. Or ask Pepper Schwarz, she’s always got something to say and I think she’s AARP-approved. If you’re handling the basics but wondering whether “spontaneity” includes something like whether it’s OK to put on Disney Ears and squeak like a mouse during sex, that’s Dan Savage’s department. Although I can surmise with some confidence that Dan Savage is probably all in with Team Squeak.
Day 48, Mon Aug 17: Time flies. I can get up at nine in the morning and do a few things and the next thing you know it’s one in the afternoon. It’s a beautiful sunny day and the view of Mount Rainier out our kitchen window to the south is spectacular. Had a bowl of fresh blueberries and peaches for breakfast; we got the peaches from a neighbor, Alex, who bought them at a roadside stand on the drive back from her cabin near Wenatchee. We had a bag of fresh green beans from the garden so I prepped and froze them: cut off ends of beans (and save in bag in freezer for making into veggie stock later), cut up beans into two-inch chunks, boil water, dump in beans for just 30 seconds to blanch, drain and put into bowl of cold water (put in ice cubes) for four minutes, pat dry, put into Zip Loc freezer bags, put in freezer. Total time: about 10 minutes.
In contrast to last month’s ripening – but not all that edible – plums from the tree near the basement door, we’ve now got some beautiful purple Italian plums from down by the garden that are delicious to just eat straight off the tree. And I can also do a simple cut-up-and-freeze on them for use later in smoothies. The best plum result we have found this year, though, is to simply halve them and load them into the Presto Dehydro. That takes about 10 minutes. Thirteen hours later we have dried plums, slightly chewy, very tasty and a terrific snacking option. No muss, no fuss, minimal hands-on and almost no time involved. I’ve done a couple of bags full, and I would do more if I were a little more ambitious. Which I may find myself doing, since the tree will keep producing into mid-September or later.
Our wonderful financial advisor, Kathleen, has requested – as she does periodically – that we send her updates on our retirement accounts — TRS and Fidelity for Enid and TIAA-CREF for me — so that she can review our situation and suggest any strategic investment moves. This is always more of a hassle than you would think. Or maybe you know exactly how much of a hassle it is. For today’s request, we end up digging around in folders and old piles of saved mail. Sometimes we find the report from a year ago but less often are we able to turn up the most recent one.
I first started working with Kathleen in 1987. I had a bit of money saved up then that I wanted to invest and I had seen a story about her being a “clean” investor. At the time that meant no military-industrial, no cigarettes, nothing connected to South Africa while they still had apartheid going on. And we’ve stuck together ever since. We are low-maintenance clients for her – we basically leave everything alone and rely on her to manage it for us. Also, I like her demeanor and outlook on life. Neither I nor Enid have any facility for money management beyond our shared conservativism and frugality. And we also have no interest in it. I know that there can be crooks out there who just want to take your money for themselves, but Kathleen doesn’t seem like that kind of person. If nothing else, she’s helped put us in the relatively secure position we’re in today. So, it’s been a good 30 years; I hope the next 30 with her are as productive.
Day 49, Tues Aug 18: Everything about Bushwick Book Club was beyond great.
They are a band. I wanted to pop over to Crossroads to check them out, so we went. I had heard that they write and perform songs inspired by books, so that was intriguing and I want to see if it’s any good. With a conceit like that it could go either way. The show was at 6:30 and we got there about six so we could grab a bite to eat.
We ate sandwiches from the Fez truck – falafel for me and lamb for Enid – and then strolled around the farmer’s market in the parking lot for a while, just window-shopping. Unexpectedly, the show was actually at the Community Center on the other side of the parking lot, not at the main Crossroads Market stage where all the music happens, which may have kept the audience miniscule. We could have easily missed it ourselves. If I hadn’t double-checked the time and noticed the venue I would have gone to the regular stage; when the band wasn’t there I would have merely figured something happened to cancel the show.
Instead they were in a nice little performance room at the Community Center. The back of the stage was a big glass garage door that you could see through out to the lawn and playground where families were doing family-friendly things. It looked like the doors can be thrown open and the musicians turned the other way around for an outside concert with people sitting on the grass.
As it was, we sat in folding chairs and there were about 10 of us in the audience. But we were appreciative and into it and Bushwick Book Club were just top-drawer in every way. It was thought-provoking and entertaining and the songwriting and musicianship were wonderful. Besides concerts, the group also does a bunch of other activities including working with kids to write songs, and connecting musicians with lyricists to write songs, and various other really cool projects that link literature and music. For this show they were a quartet, presumably the varsity squad, and they were really good. Right on target, so direct.
The musical style is Americana with a John Prine or Townes Van Zandt vibe, without ever really sounding like Prine or Van Zandt. They comprised a woman drummer and woman guitarist (and I’m mentioning the gender because it is still not that common, so they turned the stereotype on its head), plus a couple of guys, on standup bass and guitar/mandolin. They all sang. From the intros it sounded like they all wrote songs, too. The repertoire is inspired by books, which they talk about. “A Christmas Carol,” “Narnia,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “Wild,” “Shadowcatcher.” Most of the books I was familiar with, not all. The songs themselves are allusive to the books, not literal.
The single best moment for me was during a “Christmas Carol” tune (sorry, I have no clue on the actual name of the song) that was basically told from the point-of-view of a wandering spirit in chains and what that experience might be all about. Two verses in, the backup singers started mumbling and murmuring in a kind of lost-souls lament – but nothing so obvious as wailing, it was more matter-of-fact than that. I would have come out of my chair and started yelling myself, if there had been about a thousand more people in the crowd. Instead, I tapped my foot with a bit more vigor. That little concert was a good finale to a good day.
Backing up in the narrative eight hours, for lunch I had a grilled cheese & garden heirloom tomato sandwich made in the panini press (no, I did not milk a goat and make the cheese). These tomatoes are so heavy they are bending the plant to the ground. We’ve also got tons of cherry tomatoes in the raised beds against the south basement wall of the house. We’ve got a whole system of wire fences to keep the deer out. And today Enid brought in the first cabbage. We like to use it to make Feta Slaw. We’ve got cucumbers. And zucchini of course, for which our house is a perfect sample group with 50% liking it and 50%, er, noncommittal.
Plus I spent two hours moving things around in the garage and looking at how I can make it a staging area for a future downsizing sale of all of our excess junk. Heirlooms and treasures, I mean, not junk. Heirlooms and treasures.
Day 50, Wed Aug 19: Our 26th Anniversary.
We met in late August, 1987 at Heathrow Airport when we were both, separately, enroute back to Seattle from Paris. I had been in London for business and then visiting for a few days with friends who had an apartment in the Marais. I was trying to get home that Sunday in time to work: I had an assignment from Seattle Weekly to write a review of performance art (remember that, the Performance Art Scare of the Eighties?). It was a bunch of opera singers who floated around on a barge, then jumped into the water wearing survival suits and swam ashore to finishing their singing on dry land. Departing Europe at 9am Paris time was supposed to get me home by 6pm Seattle time. That was the plan anyway. Enid was returning from a year of working in La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast of France, and was going to jump into finishing her grad school at the UW in a month.
We had departed from Orly, landed at Heathrow, and then they had all the passengers debark so they could do some mechanical maintenance. They told us not to wander off from the little lounge area because who knew when they’d announce the re-load. There was no clue whether this was going to take six minutes or six hours.
I was reading an article about Mick Jagger in Q magazine when Enid walked up and said, “Is it OK if I sit here?” I said yes.
She was wearing a salmon-colored suit – skirt and jacket, but she didn’t have on the jacket, just a white shirt. She had her hair pulled back. She was stunningly beautiful and that has never changed. She has said subsequently that I looked “interesting” in my pink-framed glasses, cargo pants and a Crazy Horse Monument T-shirt. Over the years I’ve taken “interesting” to mean something positive.
This was the olden days of air travel, so once we were flying again there were open seats scattered around the plane. We were able to move and sit together and watch a movie. Our first date, sort of. Really, I think both of us just thought it was a pleasant way to make the nine-hour flight more bearable. The listed film was “84 Charing Cross Road” but instead it was a Michael J. Fox teen-wolf movie. Before the plane landed I got her phone number and we made plans to get together in a week or so to have coffee. We landed, I rushed through customs and had time to do my job with the floating opera singers.
A week later I did call her. We went out for Thai food, to a movie called “I Hear the Mermaids Singing” and to a Belltown dance club called The Watertown. And then we just kept on going. I can’t help it if I’m lucky.
A year later we bought a little house together on the Interbay side of Queen Anne’s west slope, looking down at the railroad yards. A year after that we got married on a beautiful morning at Parson’s Gardens. Last year was our 25th Anniversary so that was more auspicious and we did it up very special, but we definitely like to mark the day with love every year.
We’ve been carrying around gift cards of unknown value from Purple Cafe in downtown Bellevue for a while so Enid says we should use them for our anniversary dinner. A decade ago Purple was the hot new thing, now it’s the established tried-and-true. We’ve eaten at the restaurant a handful of times over the years and it is always good, unlike some places you eat and the best you can say is that the food is accurately described on the menu.
When we get there Purple is pleasantly crowded. We have a really nice waitress who does a good job taking care of us, though Enid has to trade in her first glass of wine because they bring the wrong thing. Otherwise, everything goes great. We open with fried calamari and aioli dipping sauce. The entrees are, for me, grilled Ahi on grilled corn; for Enid, duck confit and lentils. We split a little piece of chocolate cake for dessert. It turns out that our three cards are for $50 each and dinner runs to $125 so we are covered for the meal, plus enough left to come back for Happy Hour sometime.
I got a screen door for my anniversary present. Enid got a wallet. True love is hard to find.
Day 51, Thu Aug 20: I know this isn’t a food memoir so I need to knock this off, but eating out of a backyard garden is superb. For just one example, I had two slices of tasty zucchini bread for breakfast.
I’ve tried to have healthy eating habits for 40-plus years, borderline vegetarian (right now I’m eating chicken and fish, but no other meat – if I ate a McDonald’s burger or a steak I would have to lie down and take a nap to recover) and mainly organic and natural. Enid and I keep talking about taking even a few baby-steps more in the direction of veganism and we will probably do that. Maybe we’ll expand from one-night-a-week purposefully meatless to two nights (even though lots of weeks we are multiple meatless). Or schedule in one vegetarian week a quarter, the way we have an “eat from the larder” week every three months. Or maybe we’ll do the “vegan till dinnertime” routine.
Of all the consequences, giving up cheese would be a hard sell. But, for me, all of the reasons somebody would be vegetarianish apply: healthier, more sustainable, animal-rights. It’s not because I think that cows are my brethren. If somebody’s serving beef and there’s not an alternative, I’ll politely eat it. If somebody roasts a pig on a spit, I’m definitely trying a taste. I’m not doctrinaire but I do think it’s slightly gross. Like any thinking eater, I take the path of minimal processed food whenever possible. (Though even here I’m susceptible to falling off the wagon and scarfing down a whole bag of chips; I’m not painting a very persuasive picture of myself as a healthy eater, am I.) No McDonald’s or anything. In fact, I haven’t had even an order of McDonald’s fries in about 15 years (though I cannot deny that the grease and salt is addictive and tastes good).
I do think eating the way I do is good for the planet, but that’s a secondary concern, not my main motivation. My diet tactics are mostly personal and selfish: I’m putting this into my body, so I’ll go high-quality, thanks.
Tonight’s supper started with an appetizer of heirloom and cherry tomatoes drizzled with oil and vinegar and garnished with fresh basil leaves; then hot dogs (OK, not out of the garden) with feta-slaw and fresh corn on the cob. White wine. For dessert: a couple of salted caramel chocolates that we brought home from Purple last night.
Day 52, Fri Aug 21: Enid teaches school, so she is ramping up to the start of the year. She’s joked about how it’s worse than ever this year because she’s going back to the factory while I’ll be doing nothing. Apparently she has this idea that I’ll be lounging around all day in house-pants, eating salted caramels from Purple. I wish. Actually, I feel like when she’s back on the job I’ll bear down a bit with some of my projects. When we’ve both got time off it’s too much fun doing things together.
She’s been making lesson plans and having school dreams and there are various planning meetings she has to attend before the first day. She teaches art (she used to teach French) at the International School here in Bellevue, to 6th-12th graders. The International School is one of the best public schools in the country by any measure, regularly ranking in the Top 10 in these various Newsweek and US News ratings. It’s open to anybody but you have to enter a lottery and get your number picked to get in. Most of the students who go here can handle the rigor but there are always a few parents who have entered their kids in the lottery for all the wrong status reasons. Eventually those kids bail out for a more conventional school.
It’s a small school of around 500 total students and its size has both positive and negative aspects. In the adverse column, because it is so small it is limited in the curriculum it can offer; the mantra is Seven Years of Seven Subjects. So, for example, every graduate has had seven years of French – not always true in a more conventional school with more elective choices available. There are no sports teams – kids who want to play can try out for the team at the high school nearest to where they live. As a result of that, there are fewer of the traditional high-school activities; no Friday Night Lights, for example. And the social opportunities are limited when you are in a class of 80; if a kid falls out with one group there are not all that many other cliques to join.
On the other hand, the small size has many advantages that tip the scale. It is just about impossible for a student to be anonymous; successes are celebrated and when academic red flags go up a quick intervention can happen. By concentrating on the seven core subjects (science, math, French, literature, history, phys ed, art/music) the graduates have a deep grounding. They all come out ready for college, able to listen and take notes, able to read and retain, able to research and write a comprehensive paper. Socially, everybody knows everybody and is, generally speaking (these are teenagers, after all), supportive and accepting of differences.
It’s academically elite but socially unpretentious.
It goes without saying that this is all different from my personal experience when I went to school in the black-and-white era. But I can say with assurance that the overall quality of education in the Schuyler Public Schools was not outstanding and the overall quality of the International School is.
The way Enid teaches it, art is a legit rigorous class like everything else. She’s a great teacher; she was the Washington State Art Teacher of the Year last year. A few kids every year graduate and go on to pursue an art major, or something related like industrial design or architecture. That’s cool but she also believes that a well-rounded liberal arts education including an appreciation of art will make a better life, no matter what career you choose. I agree.
It’s especially important to have teachers with that perspective in these days when legislators have shamefully abandoned their responsibility to public education. And when it’s all about STEM mania and career-focused, like that is the main value of education. The entire education process seems reduced down to churning out little programming drones, whose knowledge will be obsolete in about a decade. It’s sad. Frankly, even the students don’t seem that interested in it but they go along with the big push from industry. Science, Math, Engineering. On the boring side.
When’s the last time you had a glass or wine and a provocative discussion about algebra? What ever happened to intellectual curiosity and being able to think? I’m a liberal arts and social sciences man myself.
A successful student requires a lot of things. First, the kid has to be curious and open to learning. I don’t know whether that is a product of genetics or environment or what. But there is responsibility – maybe the prime responsibility in all of this – on the student herself. Then, it takes committed parents who will prioritize their kid’s education and advocate for them. Who will read to the kid when they are little, who will help them think for themselves, who will watch out for them but won’t coddle them or make excuses. By “advocate” I don’t mean that they will helicopter-parent the situation, or will blame every failing on a flaw in the school system. Those flaws are going to be there, so deal with them. Successful parents will teach their kids how to exploit – in the best sense of the word – the system. And who will teach their kids how to survive and thrive when the system fails. It helps a lot if you are a rich family that can afford different summer camps and tutoring and so on. But that’s not necessary because there are lots of free or low-cost things that can open your kid’s mind. Just to name one: the library is free. One place it does take money is in the funding of the school system itself. It is criminal that the legislators have abrogated their responsibility, from the national to the local level.
I have a disconnect when people start whining about the sorry state of the education system. And even worse when they try to put the blame on teachers. Of course it’s not perfect but my experience has been the opposite. All the schools that my kid attended were terrific and the teachers were mostly high-quality and almost all well-intended. Of course there were a few clunkers but those were mainly a matter of a personal style that didn’t click. So it ain’t broke. And the people who are going to “fix” education seem so clueless as to be laughable if they weren’t dangerous.
When I worked at Bellevue College I sat in a few meetings with some eager beavers from Microsoft who were taking on the education challenge. Their motives were pure. But their methods, assumptions and solutions bore almost no relationship to the on-the-ground realities at BC, and even less to what I knew was going on at International School – about three miles away from Microsoft’s main campus. The education system isn’t perfect and I believe when people say it is really shitty in some places, though I haven’t experienced that myself. I concede that there are some things schools can learn from business, but not many; if education is a business it’s one of the more unusual ones.
I totally accept that my experience is an outlier. My daughter attended public schools in Bellevue, Washington, probably the best school district in the nation. Her school’s obsession with AP classes and academic rigor sometimes went beyond what was healthy for the kids, but she survived. She had a lot of great, caring teachers and only a few rotten ones. She, herself, is really smart and resourceful. She had parents who valued education, prioritized it and spent time supporting it. And, yes, we sometimes were working two jobs at a time but somehow managed to still have time to be involved in our kid’s life – just some kind of miracle, I guess.
Day 53, Sat Aug 22: I’m on my own all day because Enid has to drive a couple of hours over the Cascades to Leavenworth for a meeting of her statewide teachers group. She’s a major player this year so she can’t skip it. She gets home about supper time. It is forest fire season and she said it was smoky and there was light particulate in the air, but nothing that suggested imminent danger.
She picked a bouquet of fragrant sweet pea blossoms that makes sitting at the kitchen table a pleasant perfumery. So that’s what I do for a while.
In the afternoon I picked a big bowl of tomatoes and made stovetop tomato sauce; enough for two jars to freeze and a few dabs left over for a dipping/soup appetizer today.
For supper I roasted a chicken. We were going to finish off the half bottle of pinot grigio until I knocked it over on the table. For dessert I baked apples topped with vanilla ice cream. We have been boycotting ice cream for metabolism reasons but we bought this quart when we found a random bottle of root beer in the studio fridge and thought we would make floats. Carpe diem, eh? We did have tasty root beer floats the other day and then we had enough ice cream left over for baked apples tonight.
Day 54, Sun Aug 23: Another beautiful day and a little bit cooler. I’ve got the Skatalites, the great ska instrumental group, on the box. Enid is deep in school pre-planning days. In the evening she abandons me to go to a party to bid goodbye to three women in the neighborhood, longtime neighbors, who have sold their homes and are moving on to the next phase of their lives. We will do that, too, in a decade or so. In the short term, I watch the M’s lose to the White Sox.
For supper, I make croutons out of a loaf of bread branded “French Bread” that Enid had bought to use for French toast. Then we forgot to make any French toast with it and it passed the point of being French-toast-ready. The croutons taste great — tossed in olive oil and spices, and then stuck in a 400-degree oven for 15 minutes. I make a big bowl of salad out of a little bit of lettuce from the fridge and then every other veggie I can find in the ice box or the garden: carrot, green beans, kohlrabi, radishes, cucumber, bell pepper and then season to taste. For dessert, I make fruit salad which, like regular salad, is one of my staples. It is always a good and refreshing desert or snack. Pomophiles won’t need any encouragement in this direction, but others may find this revelatory. I take the same inclusive approach to both recipes. So tonight, for example, it is made of bananas, apples, kiwi, cantaloupe, shredded coconut and pineapple, with a handful of nut trail mix and a container of strawberry yogurt dumped in there to hold it all together.
Day 55, Mon Aug 24: A few maple tree leaves are turning yellow around the edges and it’s feeling like fall (or autumn – you choose which word you prefer). Anyway, it’s slightly cooler the past few days. I’m feeling a little different, too. Not sure if this is light melancholia or what, I’m not that in touch with my feelings.
We keep a paper calendar inside a kitchen cupboard door where we write down our family appointments and I have received an email from the At-A-Glance calendar company that it’s time to renew. I jump online and buy the 2016 version (once I’m done it acts like maybe it didn’t actually make the order, but then I get an email confirmation from them, so I’m good to go).
Then when Enid gets home we pop over to Factoria and I buy a pair of clearance-sale Asics running shoes at Big 5 – I need these for my next year or so of daily walks; my shoes are breaking down — and a pair of on-sale cargo shorts at Old Navy, plus a $1.49 pale yellow T-shirt. With that price markdown it must be their worst-selling item, but I kind of like it.
Day 56, Tue Aug 25: I started picking up and cleaning up in the garage to use it as a staging for all the stuff I will eventually garage-sale or Craigslist as I downsize. At first I think that I am going to be pedal to the metal on this as an ongoing retirement project. As it turns out, after today I will set aside the downsizing activity and not get serious about it again for six months or more. And by “or more” I mean a couple of years. I took a stab at it now because it’s on my list, and I always obey my list.
Truthfully, though, you can never start too soon on the decluttering in retirement and, actual garage sale aside, I make progress. That way you’ll have it somewhat under control when you finally have to do it. Also, it’s easy and surprisingly satisfying to organize some stuff and throw out a few piles. Even the non-hoarders among us will accumulate a lot of crapola over the years. The House Full of Random Crap Syndrome, aka the American Condition.
Also, it’s cool to see what turns up in decluttering. I found a long-missing backpack containing a couple dozen lacrosse balls. The best treasure I unearthed, though, was a portable CD player. Not even a Discman but a knock-off Discman. It had spindly old-fashioned headphones still plugged into it and an Alligator Records blues sampler loaded in place. It took me a while to figure out how to work it. None of the several buttons actually said “play”; they said things like “mode” or just had arrows pointing different directions. But once I pushed the right switch I had fun listening to Albert Collins and Koko Taylor and the rest. Ate a mid-afternoon enchilada for a snack.
For dinner, had tofu and garden green beans and broccoli stir-fried. Enid made peach cobblerettes with whipped cream for dessert.
Day 57, Wed Aug 26: Got up and cooked Elena eggs for breakfast. Took her to the airport for her semester abroad in Madagascar; she will fly Delta via Paris. Sea-Tac was really busy.
Came home by about noon and ate two different kinds of leftovers for lunch. Had two books and three CDs on hold at the library so walked down and then returned via the back side of Somerset. This route is all on sidewalks through the neighborhood but includes some pretty rigorous steep climbs in a couple of places, especially right there by the ropes course and zip line behind the South Bellevue Community Center, and again right where 49th veers off from Highland Drive. Seven-and-a-half miles altogether.
Checked once again to see if Elena’s tuition payment finally showed up in the Puget Sound account. It did. This was a payment from a GET 529 account that I transferred almost two weeks ago. I could see that the money had left the GET account but it wasn’t showing up in the Puget Sound account yet and I was worried that something might have been screwed up. It’s been known to happen. So it’s a relief when I see that it is completed.
Then I had to scan some pages and send them to Kathleen, our financial advisor, so her staff can update a report for us. We have various retirement-style accounts that will be familiar to anybody who has worked at government or quasi-government jobs. So that got done.
I emptied the cat litter boxes. (This happens on Sundays and Wednesdays. At the start of the month I totally empty out and replace the litter in both boxes – upstairs (Nadia’s main box) and downstairs. At mid-month I sprinkle a little fresh litter on top. I’m just providing these details in case you want to model your cat-litter management operations on mine.) I ran a load of Elena’s laundry that I told her to leave behind in a pile. I have always been the laundry man at our house so this is no problem for me. I am just playing to type, not doing anything above and beyond.
Day 58, Thu Aug 27: A package came in the mail from the President’s Office at Bellevue College. It is a letter from President Dave Rule (a really good guy and good boss, by the way) telling me thanks for my 11 years of service. The retirement swag includes a free parking pass, a free pass for the gym (I may actually use this in the future since we live only a few miles from campus) and – wait for it – a black plastic desk clock that says “In Appreciation” and has the Bellevue College logo. It was their version of the Golden Handshake. Pretty funny, and I appreciated the gesture.
I know some people at the college were offended a few months ago when they gave a bunch of us bonuses. Er, stipends. We had been in a salary freeze for several years as the state legislature abrogated its responsibilities to education at all levels. It’s an understandable sore point for a lot of employees. So the college leadership couldn’t give raises, but they could give the stipends. Of $200.
Some people I worked with thought the paltry amount was insulting. It’s not dissimilar to that time when one of Enid’s superintendents sent around a missive to teachers. (Remember, these are heroic public school teachers, who work a million-and-one uncompensated hours a year.) The superintendent’s memo announced that on the day before a holiday vacation the school district was going to bestow “the most precious gift of all, the gift of time.” It then told them they could knock off and go home one hour early.
So in the Bellevue College case, the $200, it’s true, was kind of ridiculous but I took it in the spirit I assume it was given – as a genuine expression of thanks for a job well done. And, again, it was $200 I didn’t have the day before.
When I left there I used a quick and quiet exit strategy. I gave my two-weeks’ notice, cleaned out my files, tried to leave things in good shape for whoever would have to take over my workload, nailed down all the paperwork, and left. Of course I told my immediate colleagues, but otherwise I snuck out without any announcements, to avoid a retirement party where people made awkward comments. Too often those events at that place had the air of a wake or memorial. But less festive. I think these awkward “good bye parties” were well-intended but possibly I am wrong and they were a final act of passive-aggression aimed at the person leaving. Personally, I did not want to be quizzed about my reasons for leaving or my future plans. I did not want to eat grapes and cheese cubes and chocolate-chip cookies.
I also did not want to be taken out to lunch, although a couple of my close colleagues who I liked very much right in my work group, Evan and Rebecca, twisted my arm into going out for Indian vegan with them. (Evan, by the way, is the one who taught me the phrase “house pants” for sweats or loungewear or PJs that you put on to idle around all day.) I resisted a little just keeping my internal antisocial bona fides but it was easier to simply go. Plus they were two of my favorite folks there. Plus the food at Bombay Kitchen is great. See how messed up I am about this, so that I am making elaborate explanations for simply going out to eat with people who like me.
I declined an exit interview – I did not see the point of shouting comments over my shoulder as I slid out the gate — but I did chat more informally with Human Resources Vice President Aaron Hilliard (another great guy) about my rationale for retiring when I did. And then I ghosted. I was there one day and gone the next.
The door shut quietly behind me.
Day 59, Fri Aug 28: For our walk, we did the Cross Kirkland Corridor. It’s a 16-foot-wide flat path constructed on an old decommissioned railroad line after they pulled up the tracks. You see a lot of backyards or, in other stretches, the back walls of businesses. The start of it is basically on the opposite corner of Bellevue across town from where we live, so it’s a 20-minute drive. We park in a Metro Park & Ride garage, walk a block, and, whoomp, there it is.
If you went the whole length it would be six miles one-way end-to-end. We go partway and double back, an eight-mile round-trip. The Kirkland piece connects to 42 miles of abandoned rail corridor from Renton to Snohomish and various cities are now talking about developing the portion of it that runs through their town for recreational use. If they do it in Bellevue it will have a “high line” feature where the old railroad tracks went up on a high trestle. I hope they do. The previous couple of times we’ve walked it in Kirkland we had to turn around half way because of construction – or you could take a weird detour through the neighborhood but we never did.
Today the path was open through the former construction zone. It turns out that it runs between two buildings of a Google campus but the strip around the path there is officially a “county park” that stays open to the public. Google has put in benches, basketball courts, a little Crossfit-style exercise area, and a beach volleyball court.
Since they just took down the barrier fences a few minutes before we walked up (we are practically the first people through) the developer of the whole project is there and very fired up to walk us around and tell us about it. How he bought a caboose to bring in as a snack stand. How certain pavers will light up at night. How some other pavers spell out “Google” in Morse Code. How they will have festive holiday lights and music out there on the lawn during the holidays. It’s a lot of fun hearing him enthuse about it. And props to Google for not feeling like they have to build a moat around their buildings.
Day 60, Sat Aug 29: Rain rain rain rain. It’s calming to sit inside with all of the doors open, listening to it dopple down on the roof and the deck.
Since we can’t do any outside activities, it’s a good day for “indoor gardening” – sitting on the couch and organizing notes from this summer that can be incorporated into next year’s action.
All summer it’s a rolling harvest-and-preserve routine. We do what we can, without bugging out. Earlier in the year we had asparagus and broccoli and, of course, lettuce, carrots, radishes.. It’s satisfying in multiple ways to pick raspberries, say, and then make raspberry ice cream. Or to pick raspberries, freeze them and then – rediscovering them with delight in freezer next December — toss them into smoothies. This month we’ve been harvesting cabbages and tomatoes and green beans.
Right outside our bedroom French doors out to the patio is a lush stand of dahlias, exploding like fireworks, backdropped with pretty pastel Russian Purple Sage. Enid brought in a mix of spiky white and golden dahlias for the dining room table.
Day 61, Sun Aug 30: Got an email from a boyhood friend, Frank, which sets off all kinds of memories of where I grew up and why I’m the way I am. We were close buddies through high school and even into our college years together at the University of Nebraska, before we went our separate ways.
When we were 17 or so I was hanging out with a few guys one late afternoon, leaning up against parked cars between the baseball field and the track. Right near the shotput ring. Frank pulled up and held something out the car window, displaying it with a Check This Out look. It was “Are You Experience” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Our minds were already blown by the cover photo. Then we went over to his house to listen. He dropped the needle on the record and the first distorted notes of “Purple Haze” came out. I know that nowadays we listen to it and it just sounds like a good record. That day, my head started spinning around like Linda Blair in the “The Exorcist.”
Now, Frank has a successful water-quality engineering firm in San Diego. We are not really in touch but we do exchange a few emails every other year or so, and this relationship works for us. We are comfortable and casual with each other. I imagine everybody has a friend or two like this from their roots. I hope so, anyway.
If the two of us ever actually do get together I expect it will be entirely natural, like we last saw each other 45 minutes ago, not 45 years. Mainly, we have a shared sense of place; we understand one another in subatomic ways that don’t have to be verbalized or even thought about – it’s almost like some sort of cultural genetics — and that people who did not grow up there can never comprehend. We both have nostalgia and appreciation for having grown up in Schuyler, and we both know that we can never go home again.
Today, Frank is contacting me to let me (and a lengthier email list) know that Mick Flynn died. Mick was our straw boss one summer on a corn detasseling crew (he was in college, we were young teens.
Frank: We’d get picked up somewhere and all ride in the back of his pick-up, sometimes try to stand (surf) while bouncing along the gravel roads to the summer fields. I think the pay was 50 cents an hour, and we really liked being handed out those long and sharp corn knives to whack at anything that moved, in addition to weeds. Mick was very well liked and respected by the young crew, who he entertained with his exotic jokes and stories.
Bart: I am sorry to hear this news, but it brings back many fond memories. It was one of the only jobs a guy could get before we were old enough to drive or big enough to bale hay. I still have a scar from elbow to little finger from when somebody nicked me with a corn knife. That job came in handy for me just a few days ago: my daughter is a college junior eco-anthropology major who just spent a couple of months in Malaysian Borneo and will do a fall semester in Madagascar. She was playing the leeches-in-the-jungle card but I shut her down with ticks-in-a-July-cornfield. In terms of work ethic, Mick showed us that it is possible to work hard most of the time, goof off part of the time and still get the job done, a leadership style I have found useful in many situations.
Frank (now responding only to me, not to the entire list): Incidentally, have Swob visiting for dinner tonight, haven’t seen him in quite some time. From our phone conversation, he hasn’t seemed to have lost his sense of humor. He will have the scoop on all the surviving former youths of Schuyler.
Bart: Please say hi for me and pass along any intel you pick up. I am not much in touch with anybody from there; I should probably try harder at that. Some Facebook contacts. No remaining relatives there except a couple of nieces in Omaha, so it’s hard to find a reason to visit. Still a proud Nebraskan-American, though.
Frank: Will do. I don’t try much either, but occasionally get some stuff because my sister is still in Schuyler. I think the population is now around 6,000, half Hispanic and a growing Sudanese population that everyone is afraid of.
Day 62, Mon Aug 31: Free Car Wash Day at Brown Bear Car Wash. As a retired gentleman I am always looking for free and discounted stuff. Since this is where I go to run my car through anyway, I drive over to Factoria right away at 8:30 this morning and take advantage of the offer.
I drive a bright blue 2009 Honda Fit that I bought used with just a few thousand miles on it after it had been a Honda of Bellevue loaner the year before. I don’t have my ego or status tied up in the car I drive. I buy cars that rate high for dependability and they do not have to be “sporty.” The Fit is economical. It’s roomy – considering it is just this side of a mini — with lots of storage when you put down the back seats. It is one of the highest-scoring cars in “Consumers Digest” and the other rankings. I’m super happy with it.
Now I consider it a shared car with Elena and eventually it will be hers. She uses it sometimes when she’s on campus in Tacoma and she’s had it down there the past few months. She needs it more than I do as she becomes more independent and figures out how to live on her own. Especially because it turns out that I don’t need it at all so far since I’m retired. There’s no errand that can’t either wait until evening or the weekend, when I can use Enid’s car, a silver 1999 Toyota RAV4 that just keeps on ticking. Or if I have to, I can make arrangements with Enid – I will drop her off, use her car during the day, and then pick her up from work. We’ve done it lots of times before.
My long-term to-do list has a few items for my transportation strategy moving forward, starting with acquiring a senior Orca pass that gets you on the Metro bus and light rail for almost nothing. But I will get to all of that later. Maybe next year. Today I’m featuring a clean ride.