Year of the Walk

We are approaching the end of a year of challenges we never imagine. Some of what happened this year was under our control, but other things were clearly out of our control. COVID insured that everyone had things happen this year that were not included in their plans. This year we often were asked to stay home when possible and practice “social distancing” when we could not. It was the year of the pandemic which will be the cornerstone of so many memories regarding 2020. For me this resulted in 2020 being the year of the walk.

We live in rural Montana which gave us lots of advantages over those who live in more urban settings when we were asked to avoid close interactions. I imagine lots of people became stir crazy and suffered cabin fever trying to be safe and smart. We had some of that as well. Even the best introvert needs some time with others, or at least not just those folks who are in the same household.

You can walk forever before you see a sign of another human being. You are also reminded how small you are in the universe and why they call Montana Big Sky Country.

Our first “stay home orders” came in March in Montana. Spring was coming early this year so we were able to bundle up and get out into the sunshine for our first late winter walks. Late spring and early summer brought some relaxing of the Montana standards for COVID protection. We followed what we felt was the science and kept our distance and avoided indoor venues when we could. We became walking crazies. We walked everyday, sometimes twice a day and rarely but it was not unheard of to walk three times a day. We were blessed and fortunate that we could walk out our front door and be assured we would not see another person. If we chose to go somewhere different it too was just a few miles from home with different scenery but no greater risk of running into some one.

Walking outside gave us Vitamin D which I am sure improved not just our bones but also our mood. We were more acutely aware of the changing of the season this year as well. We watched the days lengthen and late evening walks become possible. We felt the warm of the sun intensify as it rose further overhead.

Unlike parks in more urban areas, we were able to take walks and seldom see another walker.

When our first snow came in September we were reminded that we needed to prepare for winter to be more of the same isolation and distancing. The sun no longer warmed us to our core. The sunset was done and dusk set in by 5pm. It was then I talked to RangerSir about our plans for winter.

Our treadmill had died in early 2020 and we had planned on not replacing it until we got to our retirement destination. We like thousands of others put in an order early fall for a new treadmill. It arrived 45 days later just as promised. I’ll admit a treadmill isn’t like walking outside, but it isn’t Montana stinking cold nor is the wind cutting through your outerwear trying to free unnamed parts off. I still get out and take quick little walks outside, but my treadmill is a godsent for me. It allows me to keep active by eliminating the excuse of weather.

So 2020 will be remember for many things for all of us. In some way COVID impacted it all, but I am not going to let it define the year. One of the things 2020 was for me, it was for me was the year of the walk.

Connecting – New Ways, Old Ways, Always

Letters and written are my oldest form of communication that I can remember, outside of talking-. I have reflected on how my favorite way of connecting continues to be relevant today, postal mail.

My first memory of writing something that would be sent via the US mail was thank you cards. My mother was a stickler for them. We were not allowed to enjoy any gift until we wrote a thank you. It made for prompt writing of those notes. My grandparents could all expect written thank you cards for Christmas and birthday gifts. I remember it had to be at least three sentences. That meant you could not say thank you for the gift and call it quits. You had to tell them something about how you planned to use the gift, school or ask them a question. Grammatically those must have been some very strangely composed paragraphs.

When I was in primary school I had pen pals. Some of my pen pals were people I had met at Girl Scout camp. Others were strangers I picked out of the back of children’s magazines that had “pen pals wanted” (can you believe that in today’s world that was acceptable?) I may have had one pen pal as a school project. It was there I learned to love the written word. I loved to communicate with serious thought about composition and actually came to understand sentence structure and how to compose conversational prose.

I spent summers with my grandparents at the cabin. It was there I was introduced to the postcard. The cabin was a vacation destination and there were tons of picture postcards to pick from. I would pick out cards for my parents and my two sets of grandparents at home. It was on those cards every summer where I learned to tell as much about life as possible in that little spot for writing. I suspect that the recipients looked at my disjointed little notes several times before they made sense.

When I graduated from high school and moved away from home to Minneapolis, I continued to use mail as my main mode of communication. Money was tight and phone calls were expensive. I wrote letters to my grandparents on a regular basis telling them about my new life and adventures. My grandparents had been a significant influences on my life and I continued to include them as I found myself as an adult. Letters were a way that worked for both of us

Like may others I moved more to the phone as I grew older, but I never gave up the love of letter writing. The art of letter writing came back to me in full force when RangerSir started his transition into a new career. To get a job with a federal agency at the time required years of seasonal work. I continued to work my corporate job and he started to spend months away from home working at distances half way across the country. I ferreted out things to make my writing special. I found books of postcards, fancy stationary and cards to send to him. His assignments were in guard stations that had power, but no telephone. His home was a sort of bunkhouse that made use of repurposed guard stations and old trailers. To say they were minimalist is being kind. They were out in the woods. He came into town once a week to pick up mail, do laundry and shop for the week. Mail call was a big deal. We both have those letters in our stash of stuff we have moved from place to place. These letters allow us to look back and remember details of our lives long forgotten

Things sent via mail have the chance to last long past a life. One of the things I that was given to me when my Granny had passed away and her house was being cleaned out was a book of post cards. My great grandad, George Clyde, had worked for the railroad and the stories about him were few and generally not flattering. In this book there were postcards he sent home to his children. They were an amazing slice of life of man encouraging his children and providing guidance. They were sent from towns all along the Santa Fe railroad line where his job took him. I love to see his hand and read what he wrote. In spite of his flaws, he seemed to really love his kids. I never knew him, but when I read those I imagine his voice. This is a piece of history that was not lost. It was a piece of history I shared when I gave some of the postcards George Clyde sent to his daughter, to her daughter, his granddaughter. I hope that some of the letters that folks who have to leave their children as part of their job in today’s world will last and give view into people years later in ways that others can’t.

This pandemic has brought back an excuse for me to connect to folks via mail. Sending a letter via mail is a connection that can last long after the moment they open the envelope. It is a smile you can hold on to. This summer I made and sent cards reminding friends were not alone. Most recently I made cards for the eldering in nursing homes. I had worked in a nursing home when I was in high school. I knew the feelings of isolation they suffered in the best of times. I could not imagine the isolation they were suffering now. I made and sent cards to the activity director that could be used to give to a resident who needed the pick up, for a resident to send to another resident, or a resident would have a card mail to a family member that have not been able to connect with on the outside of the facility. I like to think that they made a difference for at least one person.

The holidays brought my annual holiday card making effort. I made cards, with RangerSir composed a letter and used software to create photo collage. It will be last major effort for the year. I am getting the same and am enjoying thinking about all the folks we have met and touched along our lives.

I haven’t yet thought about what 2021 will bring, but I am sure that for the near future it will be much like 2020 has been. I suspect it will include more cards and letters just to say hi and stay connected. It is really all about staying connected new ways, old way….always.

New Way of Thinking of Thanksgiving

With the current crazy wave of COVID most of us are choosing a new type of Thanksgiving gathering this year. For most folks it will be a smaller gathering. Just your immediate family. Just your household and one or two friends. It will be different that is for sure.

One of the greatest challenges is how to scale back a holiday that is laden with more food, friends and family than almost any other time. It is full of long standing traditions for every family on what we must do and have. So the idea of making a Thanksgiving dinner for less than six is hard to imagine. You have spent years getting the biggest turkey you could find. You have juggled ovens and timing to get it all done at exactly the same time. Doing the holiday smaller may seem daunting. Scale back may seem reasonable for some things and others elements smaller may seem impossible.

Turkey is one of those things that just doesn’t scale down. However one thing you can do is have your grocery store meat department cut your turkey in half down the breast. I have been doing this for years. There are lots of advantages of having a half turkey this way. It takes less time to cook. You get an assortment of white and dark meat. You don’t need a roaster or huge pan; instead you can use a sheet pan.

Two halves of a turkey, each having one half breast, thigh and the famous turkey leg.

Be forewarned that there are some grocery stores that don’t have meat cutters on site or meat cutting equipment. Our local Walmart has neither. Our local Safeway does have meat cutters working during core business hours. We also have several local meat markets that will be able to help you as well. You need to be prepared to take both halves of the turkey. So if you have a deep freezer this idea will present no problem. If you don’t look for a friend to split a turkey with you.

This half turkey makes and easy turkey dinner.

Another option is to opt out of turkey for some other meat. Chicken is an obvious choice because you can stuff it. Don’t let that be your limit there are game hens and duck. Or maybe you do chicken all the time because it seems to be a healthier choice, so go wild and do beef or pork.

My mother, a high risk individual, is not going to anyone’s home for Thanksgiving, and she doesn’t want to risk any of her children coming to her place. She is geographically unfit for me to take dinner to her. I have come up with a different solution for her. The local grocery is going to have ready-made dinner for pick up on Thanksgiving day. She is going to have plenty of food and lots of left overs, but the grocery store feast promises to be provide her with the essentials for a Midwest Thanksgiving dinner.

I encourage you to look around if this avenue sounds interesting to you. My mother lives in a little town of 4,000 people with one grocery store. I was surprised at the options they have. You may be surprised what your local grocery store will offer.

Another option would to to do pickup from a local restaurant. They sure could use your support right now. It is another case of you not having to cook and having all the special trimmings you want.

One of my dear friends will be doing a turkey picnic on the beach for two. Her food will have elements of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. When you list the recipes you see Brussel spouts, turkey, cranberry, corn and bread but it is all updated. It sounds like a wonderful alternative to a woman who is looking out the living room window as a the wind howls and the third winter storm of the season blows over the mountain.

Maybe what this year is in disguise is an opportunity to update our Thanksgiving traditions. This is being said by a woman who Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday. For years I hosted the holiday and rented hall tables and chairs to seat all my friends and family who came from near and far. When I no longer did that I was included with friends as part of their holiday traditions and large gatherings. This year it will just be RangerSir and I. I am just fine with this. It is a moment in time when despite all the changes I have so much to be thankful for.

What Did You Do For Summer Vacation?

When I was a kid, one of the first projects school children were assigned was to write about what they did on during their vacation from school. It was always a hard assignment for me because my family did not go on summer vacation. I suspect I was not alone in the small working-class agricultural community I grew up in. There was no money or time for the local families to leave Dodge on some great adventure.

This always seemed a daunting assignment to me as a child. It somehow implied that you were supposed to report some amazing trip that would leave others in awe. As we enter the next season of COVID and I think back over my summer season in Montana for our family. It seems like writing about what I did with the season of good weather would be hard when all the plans we had were blown away with the sensibilities of limiting our exposure.

Dining out and eating new things is a form of recreation for RangerSir and I. Suddenly the idea of going out and eating just held no appeal. We regularly participated in “Take Out Tuesday.” We called ahead, don our masks, and picked up dinner from all sorts of local joints. We discovered new places. We mourned old favorites who decided to call it quits. We want local businesses to weather this storm, but take out just isn’t the same as sitting in a place and knowing when it is over you get up and the same folks who have taken care of making your dinner, will clean up after you leave. There are no cleanup fairies at our house. I miss this most of all. I don’t know what a comfortable eating out will look like to us, but I am looking forward to it.

Another of my favorite things to do this summer was to meet up for picnic lunches with friends. Some friends bought into the idea and others not so much. I ended up eating lunch out at least once a week, sometimes twice, and on one rare occasion three times. Sometimes we’d pick up carryout from a local place and other times we’d collaborate and make a picnic lunch each of us bringing food to share. The local park had a lovely pavilion where you could people watch and sit in the sun or shade depending on the day. It was relaxed because for a little while I did not worry about the virus and I caught up with friends. It was fun because my friends who liked to cook got a chance to show off their skills, and I did the same. It was nice because we did “show and tell” on our creative adventures and cheered one another on. I renewed friendships and discovered that others were feeling as alone as I was, but they were just as concerned as I was about reducing risk.

Now I wish I had take pictures of the many picnics I had gone on. I wish I had captured those simple moments of human connection. We have had our first serious snow and the temperatures dropped so lunch in the park is over. Now the ladies who I met so often at the park that allowed us to relax and stay in touch are now trying to figure out what we can do to keep up the momentum. Simple safe gatherings of friendship. We are batting around ideas. I am sure we will figure something out.

Where’d I Go?

I was planning on getting back at being a regular blogger this time reflecting on life at the pivotal time of retirement.  And then suddenly I disappeared again.   It was because I had these great plans sharing what our new life looked like.   I had planned to share the fun times, the surprises, and the challenges that came with this new phase.   We got challenges and they were nothing like we imagined. As the world was rapidly changing, when I thought about our challenges  I felt blessed that my challenges were so small to what some others were facing so I decided to sit it out for a while.

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Retirement is in Many Ways More of the Same

Sorry I missed last week. I was under the weather. RangerSir and I hunkered down at home and worked our way through the nasty crude making its way throughout southwest Montana.  It was while we were laying low that we were reminded that retirement is in many ways just like life was before retirement.

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When you are under the weather there is nothing like chicken soup.   We love homemade best.

One of the things that I think people about retirement is that this is some imaginary transformation that takes place in life.   You wake up and your life is different in so many amazing ways.  That somehow you are a different person in a different life.   You are the same person you were the day before you retired.  Actually, it is like your pre-retirement life than you’d imagine.  Life doesn’t change much when you retire.

In retirement you still have to grocery shop, do laundry, pay the bills, walk the dog, cook dinner,  and other tasks that keep your household running.   Yes, you suddenly have time to meet friends for a game of racquetball at 10 in the morning three times a week, rather just one night after work.  If you did not like to exercise before retirement, you will not likely change your mind just because you are no longer required to show up at work.   You might have time to try a class in yoga or tai-chi.   You will find time to try new things and discover some you like and some you don’t.  If you were not a reader before retirement, you won’t likely become one after.  There are exceptions to everything, but I don’t think your likes and dislikes change too much.   The choices you have for your free time open up.   The excuses you have recited for years suddenly are not bound by lack of time so things can change.  You can add some new things to your life, but many of the old things still will need your attention.

Retirement is full of opportunities if you allow yourself to explore them, but your old life and all that goes with it will still need your attention.   Enjoy the new, and continue to embrace your old life, because it is what got you to this destination.

Get to Retire Isn’t Easy

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by to read and/or comment on my return to blogging.   I am hoping to move over to some of the fun things about retirement, but comments and emails have let me know folks have some questions and concerns about how we did it.   Here are some of my thoughts on what got us to the point we could retire.

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First and foremost it started with saving.   I wish it had been as easy as putting money in a savings account that paid 5% interest.   If you are olden enough you may remember those days when a standard passbook paid that rate.   You may have read about a janitor who saved big sums of money doing just that.   Unfortunately, those days are gone, I suspect forever.   Our history of saving started when I  went to work for a company that had a 401k when they started in 1978.   RangerSir and I  started saving then and have not looked back.   No matter who we worked for, we have always  participated in the 401k, always making sure to saved enough to get the match even if it meant we had to cut out other things.

You can not have it all, and many things really aren’t necessary. We lived in apartments in fringy neighborhoods.  I never had a car until after we were married for nearly five years.   I took the bus to work, grocery shopping and everywhere else I needed to go because it was much cheaper.   Everyone has guilty pleasures.   I  was willing to cut out things or work a second job to be able to afford my wants that were not necessary.    I will freely admit I have a love affair with good shoes.   I have been known to visit the Hostess stale bread shop regularly to save for that magical pair of hunter green leather shoes  I still remember 30+ years later.    When Ranger Sir and I built our home we wanted new furniture because it was about 2.5 times the size of our prior home.  We did not need a second table for the formal dining room, our old one was in the kitchen and perfectly functional, but we wanted it and so much more.    I went to work for a store that carried furniture and he went to work for a home store that had appliances and hardware.   We both had good white-collar jobs at the time, but we did not want to save for a year or more to get what we wanted and so second jobs made it possible much sooner.

My parents never owned a home, and RangerSir’s parents did not have their own home for many years.  We felt that our parents not owning their home was one of the things that made retirement for them near impossible.  We were convinced that we would not only own a home, but it would be paid for before retirement.   I will say the downpayment was one of the hardest things we ever had to come up with.   It was one of two times we dipped into our 401k  (paid the penalty and the taxes.)   Our first home was not as nice as our prior rental, but it was that foot in the door.  We constantly were putting extra money on our mortgage all the time.   On our first home, every Friday we would round down our checking account and take the excess to the savings & loan who held our mortgage and put it on the principle.   Sometimes it is the little things that make a difference.   In the end, we met our goal of having our home paid for before we retired.

Another thing I think made a difference for us was every promotion and raise was split with us and our 401K.   Even if it meant we lost ground.   What I mean here is when you get a raise of $50, and your health insurance premium went an additional  $50, we still split the raise $25 more to the 401k and $25 to us.   I can say there were many times we felt like we were losing ground, and on paper we were, but knew we wanted to retire someday and so we realigned our spending.  Sometimes it was very hard.  I feel it is getting harder and harder to be middle class.

Lastly, the thing we did that I think was the hardest was we took control of our 401k as we changed jobs.  We never took the money we saved and spent it.   We generally rolled it from the 401k to an IRA.  I honestly would have been happy if it was as simple as that and letting it compound interest like the old fashing savings account but it wasn’t. I am sure we could have done different things and made more with our IRA/401k money.   We have had five, if my memory serves me correct, financial advisors.  We have asked each of them how they make money on us point-blank. If we didn’t like the answer they weren’t for us.  We have told them how we feel about risk in real terms i.e. if my IRA lost $2000 how would we feel.   Not some imaginary “how risk receptive are you?” question.   There is nothing real about that; it is all relative to each, the person asking the question and the person answering the question.    As we approached retirement our financial planner said we should take our money from our house when we sell it, put it into the market where we would make more money than the new house mortgage payment each month.   My  risk tolerance said, “are you smoking crack?” We remember market corrections before and we are due in our minds for another one.    One of our retirement goals we have always shared is to be mortgage-free. To have an advisor we had been working with for nearly ten years suggest that said he wasn’t listening to us and we sought out someone else.   We have found that as we have gotten closer to retirement our risk tolerance has gotten less and less.   Managing your money is hard.   I sure think that the idea of having no 401k and instead some business with all their smart accounting types setting up and managing a defined retirement plan would have been much nicer, easier and less stressful.   But those days are gone.  Businesses models have changed and it isn’t going to happen for most of us.   Our retirement is going to be at least partially sponsored by how we save and what we do with our savings.

What worked for us will not work for others, because each of us is different in our wishes and what we are willing to sacrifice to get there.   Our goal was to save like crazy, pay off our home and retire at age 55.  We were willing to work more than one job at times, forego vacations, and purchases to make it work for us. We missed that age goal, but the rest of it we managed to do and it all made retirement possible. We plan to travel some and have budgeted for it.  My wish and statement to others thinking about retirement is to make a goal and then move toward it every day.     Know you can not have it all ever.   There is a cost to everything and sometimes you have delay what you want because the time is not right.  There is a give and take to everything in life. Make the decisions that will allow you to control as much as possible of that given and take and when and how you do it.

Wishing you much success.