The Manic Self-Discovery Phase of Retirement, or Finding What I Was Born To Do

I haven’t had much time to write my blog posts, as I’ve been busy finding myself.   As you may recall, I recently experienced the first “adjustment anxiety” of my fledgling retirement, triggered by the prospect of extended time at home with (horror!) nothing specific to do.  That in turn sparked a flurry of activity designed to thrust myself into and through the next phase of retirement (the “re-orientation” phase) as quickly as humanly possible.  Being the goal-oriented girl I am, my objective is to get to the “completely comfortable and enjoying retirement to the hilt” stage in record time.  I am completely aware this may not be sound strategy and I may need to be patient and contemplative, but that’s not my strength and I can’t really help myself.

My partner Sandy and I with our Chicken, Lemon and Olive Stew at my cooking class

My partner and I with our Chicken, Lemon and Olive Stew at my cooking class

So, this week found me in a state of manic self-discovery.   I signed up for eight adult education classes over the next two months.  The first, last Saturday, was a seminar entitled “What Were You Born to Do?”  The second, a five-week series of golf lessons, began on Wednesday.  The third, a cooking class called “Winter Soups and Stews” was on Wednesday night.  I also scheduled exercise classes every morning at the local YMCA (including two yoga classes, which is new for me).  Last Saturday, before my adult education class, I met a friend at a Paint Your Own Pottery studio and painted a plate.  On Monday, I drove an hour to visit my college roommate who was in town visiting her mother.  On Tuesday, my husband and I had a dinner and theatre date with another couple.  On Friday night, I have my monthly Book Club meeting.  On Saturday morning, I’m driving to San Diego for the weekend to visit high school friends.   I fully recognize the overexcited, Energizer Bunny quality of my life right now, and I don’t think I can or should keep this up forever, but it has been invigorating!

Getting back to the seminar on Saturday (“What Were You Born to Do?”), I was intrigued by the description in the class catalogue, but wary it might be crackpot. “You were born to make a unique contribution to humanity.  Progressing toward this purpose brings joy and abundance. Straying from it causes stress and emptiness.  To accomplish this mission one of the 33 Natural Talents is wired into your DNA.  It’s so subtle, you rarely notice it; yet so powerful, it’s the source of your highest potential.”  I was hoping my Natural Talent was something lucrative.

The class proved to be surprisingly effective and energizing. The instructor, who reminded me of an older version of the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, began by describing his own life story and how his recurring dissatisfaction with the jobs he’d held had spurred intense self-analysis. This led to recognition of his own “Natural Talent” and its under-utilization.   He eventually quit his job and began giving seminars, helping others to recognize their Natural Talents.  He has fine-tuned the process and the list of Natural Talents through extensive research and working with “thousands” of people at the seminars he’s conducted over the past twenty years.

Materials from the What Were You Born to Do?  class (coming to a community college near you!)

Materials from the class (and coming to a community college near you!)

During the course of the 3-1/2 hour class, through listening to descriptions of the Natural Talents, completing questionnaires and quizzes, class discussions, and reflection on my life and activities, recurring behaviors, likes and dislikes, I concluded that my Natural Talent fell under the general category of Creative Arts, and more specifically, Writing.   During one class exercise, I recalled that some of my favorite activities as a young girl were reading, especially biographies of famous women; writing stories, letters and diaries; and making up elaborate stories regarding my dolls and other toys.  I also remember winning writing contests, especially short story fiction. In college, unlike almost every other classmate I knew, I loved writing research papers.  In law school, I made Law Review based on the strength of my “Comment” (a research paper on a topic never before published).  In fact, I was named Law Review Comments Editor, and the next year edited others’ Comments.  As I reflected on my favorite part of my business career, it was the writing – letters, presentations, reports – that I enjoyed the most, and it was always important to me to “tell the story” in my writing.  And most recently, writing my blog since retiring has been a source of great satisfaction for me.

It all seemed to resonate, and gave me a sense of both calm and excitement.  Calm because it provides a direction to focus on.  The endless possibilities for the rest of my life can seem overwhelming, and having a narrowed focus feels more manageable. It is also exciting to think of doing something I truly enjoy and that will utilize my God-given talents.  Of course, I immediately flew into What Exactly Can I Do With This and How Can I Make Money Writing mode.  The instructor gently reminded us that making a change into a new field or activity is a process and will not happen overnight.  He advised us to always take steps in the direction of our Natural Talent, but to also let it simmer internally and let our subconscious work on the exact fit for ourselves. Another indicator I’m on the right track was the list of other classes I’d registered for, before the seminar on Natural Talents.  It was interesting to see I’d chosen “Writing Your First Book,” “Publishing Your First Book,” “How to Give Seminars and Workshops,” and “Blogging for Fun and Profit.”

The beautiful thing about retirement is that I no longer need to consider earnings potential when picking an activity.  I would love to parlay writing into an enjoyable AND lucrative second career but there is no rush or imperative.  In the meantime, I can dream about the possibilities.  Novel?  Humor?  Travelogue? Researched nonfiction pieces on politics, or history?  A biography?  An expanded blog?  All I can say is, now I’m down with the re-orientation phase!

My First Wednesday Night Dinner

My recent meltdown (which after further research I self-diagnosed as being the 4th stage of retirement) unexpectedly produced several positive outcomes.   As detailed in my previous post, my husband and I agreed that I would henceforth make dinner every Wednesday night.  More importantly, it spurred honest conversation, which helped us both.

To be clear, my “existential crises” (or meltdown as I half-jokingly referred to my recent discomfort) was not particularly serious.  After my last post, I realized I must have caused some concern, as a few friends reached out to me to ensure I was all right.  I assured them that I was simply going through a bumpy but perfectly normal phase in my journey.  It is important to me, in writing this blog, that I be honest and transparent about both the ups and downs of my first year of retirement, which may make some uncomfortable or cause worry.  But I fear the tendency to sugarcoat our lives not only causes others to feel inadequate in comparison, but also circumvents the opportunity for our community to identify with or assist us in our pain.  My hope is that others can learn from and benefit from my experiences.  (And I certainly appreciated the calls of concern!)

Getting back to my first Wednesday night dinner, which was last Wednesday, I must say it was marvelous.  I picked that day because my husband does volunteer work every Wednesday and I have the house to myself. I reasoned it would be a good day for me to learn and experiment and mess up in peace, and would cause my husband less heartburn not having to witness.  I know how to cook, and in fact kept myself reasonably fed during my twenties when I was single, but I’ve become rusty the past 10-15 years. I also wanted to play loud disco music while I was cooking.

The salmon and tomatoes

The salmon and tomatoes

I chose heart-healthy recipes from my “Cholesterol Down” book (the diet plan which I’ve used to control my LDL levels) including walnut-encrusted salmon, peas with dill and margarine, roasted tomatoes with garlic and, for dessert, baked stuffed apples.  I’ve been lobbying for more fish on the menu, and I dearly wanted to prove I could make a tasty AND healthy meal. I assembled my list of ingredients and on Tuesday, we went grocery shopping together and bought what I needed.

In order to be ready to eat at around 6:30 pm, as my husband was due home at 6:00, I started the prep work at around 4:00, figuring that would give me plenty of time.  (Wrong! We didn’t eat until 8:30 pm.) My first task was to chop cilantro.  Since we bought fresh cilantro, dill and basil, and they’re all green, I wanted to make triple-sure I had the right herb, so I ran to the computer and googled “What does Cilantro look like?”   After looking at images that assured me I had the right herb, I googled “How do you chop cilantro?”  I found a short You Tube video of some amiable rotund chef who explained that one folds the bunch of cilantro in half, that the stems may be included in the chopping, and then demonstrated chopping.  I ran back and replicated the amiable rotund chef.

Then I decided, as long as I’m going to all this trouble to make a nice meal, I should also make a nice presentation.  So, rather than sit at the kitchen island while watching the news, like we usually do, I set the table in the dining room.  I put out place mats (ones that reminded me of France), silverware, cloth napkins and a candle.

For the next recipe, I needed to chop dill, so I ran and googled “What does dill look like?” and “How do you chop dill?”  I found the amiable rotund chef again on You Tube who explained that one should NOT include the stems when chopping dill and again demonstrated the chopping process.  I went back to the kitchen and chopped my dill.  For the last recipe I repeated this process with the basil (except this time by process of elimination I cleverly identified the basil). By now, I felt incredibly grateful and bonded to the amiable rotund chef.

Peas with dill.  Who knew the potatoes would take an hour to simmer?

Peas with dill. Who knew the potatoes would take an hour to simmer?

And then at 5:00 a curious thing happened.  My husband came home early. He explained that his last appointment cancelled.  When I heard the key in the door, my heart sank.  I really wanted to have everything ready when he walked in the door – to wow him.  I also worried that he would be uncomfortable with me cooking in his kitchen, or that he would hover while making “suggestions” or I would have some catastrophe while he watched.  Instead, I heard him say “Ooooh!” as he saw the table set in the dining room, and then he walked into the kitchen, gave me a big kiss and hug and said “I’m really glad we’re doing this.  I’ve been looking forward to this meal all day. I’m sure it’s going to be great!”  And with that, he went to the computer in the family room and quietly checked email and news while I continued working on the meal (and no comment on the loud disco music).

Everything took a little longer than I thought, and I have to say, the recipe for roasted tomatoes with garlic was a pain in the ass.  It called for me to cut tiny tomatoes in half and fresh garlic into slices and then “stud” tiny tomatoes with even tinier garlic slices.  When I looked up “what [the hell] does it mean to stud something with something” on Google, the amiable rotund chef was nowhere to be found, but I gleaned from other sources that it meant sticking a garlic slice into each tomato.

The potatoes that were simmering with the peas took forever, so I decided to begin dinner without them.  I lit the candle, my husband opened a bottle of wine, and we seated ourselves in the dining room and started on the salmon and tomatoes.  Later the peas and potatoes were served, and we finished with the baked apples for dessert. I was thrilled with how well everything came out.  We talked and laughed and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in our dining room. I recounted all my googling and what I learned about chopping herbs (which actually impressed my husband). He very thoughtfully and sincerely told me, “These dishes are all fantastic.  They could honestly be served at a fine restaurant.   I hope that you will cook more often!”

And the pies de resistance…the baked apples!

And the pies de resistance…the baked apples!

All in all, a successful beginning to my “re-orientation” phase.  It was a satisfying day, and most importantly, we’re both looking forward to next Wednesday!

Existentialism, Disenchantment and the Six Stages of Retirement

I suppose it was inevitable, but I must unhappily report I’ve suffered my first post-retirement existential crisis.  Following a whirlwind (or manic) first five months that included a dream trip to France, multiple football weekends in Annapolis, several road trips to the Bay Area, and then the holidays, I now find myself at home, alone with my husband in our empty nest, no job, and no big trips planned for awhile.  So now what?

My detailed retirement plan

My detailed retirement plan

Before I retired, I recall seeing articles counseling prospective retirees to plan not only for the financial, but the non-financial and emotional aspects of retirement.   I planned the financial aspects down to the penny, but I was so busy working, parenting, traveling and everything else that I didn’t spend time thinking about the rest.  I just knew I (1) didn’t want to do THAT job anymore, and (2) would go to Paris and other places and maybe learn to cook and play golf and eventually do some volunteer or part-time work.  Beyond that, I reckoned I would figure it out when I got there.  And since I was the primary breadwinner in the family, I never allowed myself the luxury of seriously considering what I would do if money were no object.  I therefore had zippo in the way of a detailed plan or burning desire or vision for retirement. But, seriously, how hard could it be?!

One of the many things I failed to sufficiently appreciate while I was busy concentrating on my career was that my already-retired husband had basically taken over the house.  He was home, happily cooking, shopping, doing laundry, and watching really loud intense action movies in Surround Sound in the middle of the day.  And his daily routines, for the most part, did not include me.  So, my 24/7 lurking in his territory and my newly enthusiastic plans to start cooking or reorganize the house or rearrange the kitchen has not been met with enthusiasm.  I did not expect to be the intruder in my own house.  And I certainly never imagined I would be battling my husband over who gets to do chores. (“Aw c’mon let me do the dishes tonight!”)

Then there are issues of loneliness, self-worth and meaning.   It can be lonely around the house, even with my husband around.  It brings back foggy memories of my 4-month maternity leave, when I was so starved for adult conversation that I found myself chasing down other mothers at the playground. Even though I’m not an extreme extrovert, while I was working, I was accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the office and being around people.  Now it takes effort to socialize, and the further I get from my working days, the less I have in common with my working friends.  I also know that I’m easily bored and can get restless without the daily urgencies of the job that kept me on my toes. I find that without a “job” – whether chores or paid job or volunteer work – my self-worth suffers.  I miss that sense of purpose and accomplishment.  I have not yet identified what I want to sink my teeth into next, but I feel an obligation to find activities that use my skills and talents to give back to my community and I would like them to be meaningful to me.

Another issue I’ve discovered is that unstructured days can lead to an ADD-type existence.  There are so many things I can or should or want to do, and it becomes disorienting and overwhelming.   Paralysis sets in and I feel like I’m spinning when I don’t know what to do first.  And then entire days go by and all I can remember doing is emailing my cousin or researching wine racks on the Internet.  At this rate, I’m not going to make any significant contribution to society!

Which all led to my first post-retirement (and post-holiday) existential crisis.  Looking forward to months at home, with “clean up the garage” the only major item on my calendar for February, I felt anxious for the first time about retirement.  Damn those article writers!  They were right!  I should’ve had a plan!  After I finish the garage, what the hell am I going to do with myself?!  And will my husband and I even survive the garage?

Since I was in a state of blissful denial, I obviously didn’t do my homework pre-retirement.  Yesterday I googled “emotional adjustments to retirement” and was shocked at the volume of resources. Among them I found an article that describes the stages of retirement and was relieved to see that my own existential crisis was quite normal and actually fit the description for the “disenchantment” stage, which follows the “honeymoon” stage.  The author described the disenchantment phase as similar to the stage in marriage when the emotional high of the wedding wears off and the couple now has to work on building a functioning relationship together.  After looking forward to retirement for so long, many retirees are faced with a feeling of letdown. Retirement isn’t a permanent vacation; it can also bring loneliness, boredom, feelings of uselessness and disillusionment.  The stage following disenchantment is described as the “reorientation” stage where the retiree moves on to build a new identity in retirement.  It is described as the “most difficult stage in the emotional retirement process and will take both time and conscious effort to accomplish.” And it gets worse!  “Perhaps the most difficult aspects of this stage to manage are the inevitable self-examination questions that must be answered once again, such as ‘Who am I, now?’, ‘What is my purpose at this point?’ and ‘Am I still useful in some capacity?’  New – and satisfying – answers to these questions must be found if the retiree is to feel a sense of closure from his or her working days.  But many retires cannot achieve this and never truly escape this stage – make sure you do!” (Mark P. Cussen, “Journey Through the 6 Stages of Retirement”)

Oh, for crying out loud, even retirement is going to be hard work!  I probably understood this deep down, but I had successfully convinced myself retirement was going to be a piece of cake.  But I also know from experience that major life changes, even good ones, cause anxiety and require adjustments.  I appreciate now that I need to take charge of structuring my own post-retirement life, that it will take work and courage, and nobody is responsible but me.

My recent existential crisis manifested itself in some heated and ridiculous exchanges with my husband where I accused him, among other things, of chore hogging; frantic searches for adult education classes to swiftly learn new hobbies or explore new career paths; and an urgency to expand my circle of friends to provide companionship and sounding boards as I discern next steps for myself.  I also recognized there is a spiritual aspect that compels me to renew my spiritual disciplines.

Thanks to my “disenchantment” stage (now that I know what ails me), I am now signed up for seven (yes, seven!) adult education classes over the next three months, ranging from “Winter Soups and Stews” and “Golf” to “Blogging for Fun and Profit.”  I’m trying out three different women’s small groups at church to find the best fit.  I’ve scheduled myself to participate in group exercise classes every weekday morning at the YMCA – we’re members, it’s right down the street, and I now have no excuse. After intense but fruitful negotiations, my husband and I agreed that I will make dinner on Wednesday nights (a major concession I am proud of).  And today I attended my first Lectio Divina gathering at church (a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer) that really fed my soul.  I briefly considered setting up a Doodle poll with every friend I could think of to schedule lunches for the next six weeks but rejected the idea as giving the appearance of desperation.

Who knew retirement could be so exhausting?  Here’s looking forward to Stage 6!

Bridge Lessons

The game of Bridge, the game of my parents, has finally hunted and overtaken me. Retirement can be a time to pick up new hobbies and try new activities.  Retirement can also be a time to revisit past challenges.  Looks like, despite my better judgment, I’m learning to play Bridge, which illustrates all of the above.   And it’s more than a bit ironic since I’ve spent my entire life vigorously avoiding the game.

My parents were avid Bridge players.  My mother played with the ladies in various groups and clubs over the years, and both parents enjoyed Bridge parties with other couples.  It was seemingly polite social activity, but make no mistake —–they were both highly competitive and loved nothing more than crushing their opponents.

My first encounter came when I was about seven years old.  My parents determined (since Bridge requires four people, two more than them) that they needed a ready pool of Bridge players, presumably to hone their skills for the kill at Bridge Club, and looked no further than their offspring to inflict Bridge lessons.   Thank God Almighty I am the THIRD child and have two older brothers.   Tom and Jim, who must have been about 12 and 14, were led to the card table like sheep to the slaughter.   My dad claimed my younger brother as his partner and Jim took the news like a prisoner receiving a week of hard labor.

I quickly deduced what was about to transpire was not going to be pleasant and wisely decided to go underground in my room the remainder of the evening.   Not even Mary Poppins (the sole record I had, volume turned high) could drown the distinct sounds of irritation (parents) and misery (brothers) coming from the living room.  I heard sounds of shouting and crying and words like “Trump” and “No Trump” and “Three Spades” floating down the hall.    I heard Dad bellow, “Mary, Jim trumped my ace!!!!”  (Dad spoke through Mom when he was particularly agitated or flabbergasted.) I did not know what this meant, but I knew it spelled big trouble for Jim.  I thought I heard Jim whimpering. It was about this time I formulated my life-long goal of avoiding Bridge at all costs.

Family Bridge lessons were perpetrated over the years but I always managed to evade them.   There were a few close calls – for example, when I was older and Mom hosted the bridge ladies, one of whom cancelled at the last minute.  My mom sweetly suggested she could “give me a quick lesson” so I could fill in, but I knew better than to take that bait!   I understood it would be a slippery slope if I capitulated, so I quickly manufactured urgent errands and fled.

You can imagine my reaction, then, when one night in November our good friends proposed a pleasant game of Bridge.  Now, Renee and Stan (names changed) are dear friends who host us in their lovely home when we visit Annapolis.  They have been more than generous to our family and we love them dearly.  Anyone else, upon mere utterance of the word Bridge, I would have refused immediately.  But I knew this was music that I must face.   My time had come.

So there I was seated at the table, with Renee as my partner.  She is affable, warm and outgoing, but with that same steely competitiveness as my mom.  Renee loves to play Bridge. She rattled off the rules and described the basics of strategy, and I tried to listen (through the buzz of anxiety in my brain and the chattering of teeth) while simultaneously controlling the terror in my belly as bad memories came flooding back. As the night wore on, I relaxed a little (once I realized Renee wasn’t going to yell at me) but it also became clear I am not a natural.  I was hoping one or both parents had genetically passed on knowledge or skill that would render me a prodigy once I got going, but sadly that was not the case.  In fact, I was rather a dolt.  I loved when I was “dummy,” which is a perfect role for me, and could just lay down my cards and cheer Renee on.  As part of my training Renee usually told me exactly what to do every step, which worked really well.  Until, she suddenly announced that I should play a hand with no help – and I still hadn’t a clue what I was doing.  Renee was gracious enough to remain calm but did say things like  “Now, why would you do that?”  It was clear I was no Goren.   I counted and recounted on my fingers the points in my hand, the bidding made no sense to me, and I could only think about playing one trick at a time.  Forget counting cards or any grand strategy for winning a round. It was pure survival.

We played Bridge a few more times while we were there and I was starting to get the basics.  But Bridge makes as much as sense to me as my son’s electrical engineering class.  There are the basic rules, and then the more advanced rules, and then the rules that good Bridge players just somehow know, and then there is the larger strategy that very good Bridge players have a mind for.   Renee assures me that Bridge is a complicated game and I will learn with practice.  I’m not so sure, but for Stan and Renee, and for Mom and Dad, I’m going to keep trying.

The All Guys Dinner Party

My son came home from college last week for Christmas break and I threw him the most wonderfully ridiculous welcome home dinner party.  The welcome home party has become a tradition since he left for college – when he comes home on vacation he likes to reinsert himself into the local social scene as soon as possible.  But for past parties we typically set up his XBox, PlayStation and/or GameCube in the family room, put some pizza and soda on the kitchen island, and let him and his friends go for it.

This year, as usual, I decorated the house for Christmas.  I trimmed the tree and hung the stockings.  I spent a whole day baking cookies.  (See previous post).  Then I went above and beyond.  I cleaned out all the boxes in the dining room (which had become a storage space since we normally eat in the kitchen), and then decorated the room.  I had my husband pull the boxes of our Spode Christmas Tree china out of the garage.  I unpacked and washed the china.  I cleaned out the hutch in the dining room so I could put the Spode away.  I went through all the linens I’ve collected over the years, and found coordinating tablecloth and napkins.  I read somewhere that it is trendy to mix and match napkins and tablecloth and china, so I was swinging for the trendy fences.

And then I went shopping.  First I went to Michaels Arts and Crafts – during the workweek, which almost felt naughty.  I felt an odd rush of exhilaration as I walked the aisles with hordes of women whose carts were overflowing with stuff, while Christmas carols blared over the sound system.  I don’t know why I found it all so amusing, but I could barely contain myself as I watched one lady, who couldn’t have been more than five feet tall and could barely see over the mound of loot in her cart, collide with a display of snow globes.  When all was said and done, the cashier refused to give me the discount on the candles I thought were 60% off, so in a moment of liberating defiance, I announced I wanted nothing in my cart and walked out the door.  (I never would’ve done that when I was working because I wouldn’t have had the time to search elsewhere).

Then I headed to Stats, which is a veritable local Christmas wonderland and superstore.  I wandered wide-eyed through the rooms of floral displays and wreaths and Santa Claus figurines. There I bought garlands and candles and pinecones.  Then I went to World Market and found napkins and rings and bowls.  After that I went to Home Goods and Pier One and Marshalls and TJ Maxx and Ross and Party City.  I don’t even remember what I found where at this point.  But I was a woman on a mission.

I even decorated the coffee table to serve appetizers. I knew the small plates and cocktail napkins would be curious to the guys but they would enjoy the extra food.

The coffee table decorated to serve appetizers. The small plates and cocktail napkins were a curiosity to the guys but they enjoyed the extra food before dinner.

And what exactly was this mission?   For goodness sake, this was a party for a group of eight to twelve 20-21 year old guys. Do you think guys that age (or any age for that matter) care whether they are sitting at the dining room table with Spode china in front of them?  Do they appreciate having a decorated house?   Of course not! In a moment of complete and utter lunacy, and which made me laugh out loud like a crazy woman, I raced to Big Lots the day of the party and bought a garland of poinsettias and a Santa yard stake because I decided the light fixture in the dining room and our front yard needed more decoration.

No, this wasn’t just about the boys.   It was about me.  For one thing, I spent the past 10 years, when I was in a senior management role, working really hard at my job and the holiday season was one of the busiest times.  I didn’t have time to plan Christmas parties and it was about as much as I could handle to decorate the house and trim the tree and buy the gifts and send out the cards each year.  I didn’t have time to savor the season.  For another thing, I want to hone my entertaining skills.  While I was busy working, my husband did most of the cooking and I have become rusty (and to tell the truth, I was never that good in the first place).  In September, just for fun, I attended a party planning class with my good friend John at a local high school. The instructor advised us to practice by putting on our own dinner party, and what better guinea pigs than a group of guys who don’t know their salad plate from their dinner plate and are happy simply having something edible placed in front of them?

With my collected merchandise, I decorated and set the dining room table.  Using my party planning class workbook, I developed a menu and a schedule for the party.   I scoped Costco for appetizers and gave my husband a shopping list for the food.  We worked together on the meal, since he is not quite ready to trust me with the keys to his kitchen kingdom.   (Probably itself another post topic.)

The All Guys Dinner Party

The All Guys Dinner Party. Notice the garland of poinsettias on the light fixture and the trendy mix of linens and china.

And was all this overkill for a group of college-age guys?  Absolutely! Did any of them make one peep about the decorations or the china or the music?  Of course not!  Did they enjoy themselves?  Enormously!   How do I know?  By the smiles and laughter I heard from the dining room as they sat around the [beautifully decorated dining] table talking to each other, and later from the family room as they played a board game and I listened in while doing dishes.  And they all thanked me before they left.  Was it worth all the work?  Totally!  Did I have fun?  You bet!  And yesterday, best of all, as I was walking out the door with my son, he asked to take a picture of me in front of the tree.  Then he wanted a picture of himself in front of the house.  After we got in the car, he showed me the “Snapchat Story” he just made.  Which is, after all, the way his generation communicates.  It was a photo of my decorated dining table with a caption that read “Ready to celebrate with friends” and then a photo of me in front of the tree with the caption “Family” and a photo of him in front of our house that read “Glad to be home.  Merry Christmas!”

The Fellowship of the Cookie

Among the things I miss most about my former work life are a few really good friends.  After working closely with some of them for over 25 years, I find myself yearning for that day to day contact, sharing the up’s and down’s of each other’s lives, and working on projects together.   When I retired, I had no doubt that I would stay in touch with my closest friends; however, I underestimated the loss of that daily contact.  It takes effort to set up lunch dates and even phone calls when no longer coworkers.  In my ideal fantasy world, I would have my own office where I would see my pals at the beginning of each day over coffee and at the end of the day to share our stories.   Sometimes we’d also have lunch.  (The time in between I don’t really want to do any work; hence, this is my fantasy world.)

Which is why last Sunday I was in heaven.   I decided to invite my former work group to my house for a holiday multi-tasking party.  I reckoned since I’m not working, I’d decorate my house early and we could bake, wrap and address cards together.   I remember being under such stress this time of year, with much to do, and my idea was to provide a festive environment where we could complete tasks together.   As it happened, because it is such a busy season, only my good friend John could join me.

The backlog of cookies that formed with just one oven!

The backlog of cookies that formed with just one oven!

But, oh, did we have fun!  John and I baked cookies together.  For SIX hours.  We planned our recipes during the course of the week and coordinated our ingredients.  On Sunday morning, we plotted our cookie strategy and then made adjustments to our project plan (oops, we forgot to take the 14 sticks of butter out of the fridge to soften) and more adjustments (oops, we hadn’t read the part about chilling the dough for several hours).  We helped each other by holding bowls and spatulas and measuring ingredients.   And we made SIX recipes together.  We talked and we laughed and we invented inside jokes about our baking adventure (“those damn pecan balls!”).   During the course of the following week, we texted gags to each other about our cookies.   Very little of our conversation was about work.

After six hours of baking, displaying the fruits of our Cookie-Palooza

After six hours of baking, displaying the fruits of our Cookie-Palooza

In some ways it was just like the old days working together on a joint project.  But in other ways, it is a delightful new relationship that transcends our work history.  By carving out a block of time for our friendship (my husband watched football in the other room while we worked and John’s partner was visiting his mother) we underscored its importance in our changed circumstances.  We did more than bake cookies together.  We created new memories and a new tradition for our friendship.

My First Post-Retirement Performance Review

Unbelievably, I’ve been retired for an entire quarter already.  Since I’ve positioned Year One of retirement as scientific experimentation (which warrants some level of rigor) AND old corporate habits die hard, I feel compelled to give myself a post-retirement quarterly review.  Dusting off the old performance review templates from memory banks (and causing myself stress just thinking about it) here goes:

On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = bad/you suck, 5 = excellent/good job):

(1) Progress toward stated Year One goals:

Paris trip – 5

Rest/recuperation – 4 (points off for jet lag)

Have fun – 5

Clean-up projects around the house – 2

Clean-up projects in garage – Q2 – AFTER HOUSE

Route 66 driving trip – Q3 – AFTER HOUSE AND GARAGE

Observations: Q1 was dominated by R&R, travel and fun. I was primarily a big goof-off, which fit my objectives perfectly.  After catching up on sleep the first two weeks, the majority of waking hours was spent planning and executing our fabulous Paris trip, two reunion weekends (my law school and my husband’s high school) and then three additional trips to Annapolis and one trip to San Jose for Navy football games.  We managed to attend all five Navy home games AND the Navy–SJSU game (resulting in all W’s which should bump me up to a 5+ rating on some scale).  Out of curiosity, I tallied days home v. days away and we were clearly away more than home, almost twice as much September through November. Which is a perfect excuse for why I didn’t get more done at home.

I did start working on home cleanup projects in between trips.  I managed to make my way through 2 ½ rooms (including closets), as part of Operation Purge, which entails sorting, tossing and trips to Goodwill.  After the holidays, our travel will slow down and Operation Purge will swing into high gear.

(2) Positives:

Flexibility – I’ve really enjoyed the flexibility.  It’s fun to do things spontaneously and go places, like restaurants or the mall or movies, during off-hours and avoid crowds.   When planning trips we can go an extra day or two or (what the heck!) week to take advantage of lower fares or less traffic.

Free time – my free time is now truly free.  In the past, I rarely had a vacation where there was no BlackBerry to check, no email to return, no conference call THAT I JUST HAD TO dial into.  I can really relax and be present and enjoy myself.  On several of our fall trips to Annapolis for football games, we booked extra days and explored the area – we visited small towns we’d never seen, museums we’d never discovered, scenic drives we’d never taken.  With free time, the world becomes an oyster!

Less stress – See two points above.  Friends have commented (with no prodding on my part) that I look physically younger, happier and more relaxed.  I sleep better and my energy level is higher. I didn’t realize how much stress I was under until I was away from the job for a while.

Time with hubby – I was worried (as was my husband!) that too much together time might lead to unpleasant consequences, such as one of us killing the other.  It has been an adjustment (mostly with our home routine that I have disrupted).  However, for the most part it has surprisingly been a non-issue.   In fact, we are really enjoying doing things together, especially the travel.   I am thankful my husband is an available partner in my retirement activities.  If he was still working, I don’t think it would be nearly as enjoyable.

Travel – something I loved about my job was the travel.  I relished staying in hotels, visiting new places and exploring cities.   However, I often didn’t have time to do much sightseeing when I was working.  Although I was perfectly happy traveling solo, expeditions with a partner are much more rewarding. Now, we can go to those bucket list places and do those bucket list things we’ve always talked about, and at our own pace.  I was gratified that our inaugural trip to Paris was a success and gave us the confidence and incentive to do more big trips.

(3) Challenges:

An office – it may sound silly, but I do miss having my own office.  When I was working, I shared our home office with my husband.  But there’s something important about having your own space.  Even in retirement, there are things to do – bills to be paid, appointments to be scheduled, events and travel to be planned, etc.  I am, for the time being, using my laptop and cellphone in our den as my office.    But I have no desk or desk chair or file cabinets (or IT department or administrative assistant or receptionist, but I need to get over that). For now it is working fine, but at some point I would like to set up my own home office space (maybe in my son’s room once he graduates college but don’t tell him yet).

Time management – after being constantly under the gun in the corporate world for the past 25 years, it’s difficult to approach a To Do list with anything other than a fanatic urge to finish as quickly as possible.   I find myself with that old familiar stress when I still have (horrors!) unchecked items on my list, even if they are things like “Look for Ribbon for the suitcases at Jo-Ann Fabrics” or “Sort Magazines on the Coffee Table.”  The other trap is that I am often unsure of what day of the week it is (forget ever knowing the date) and sometimes I have to think hard about what month it is.   Without the structure of work, it is easy to lose track of time. I know I have more time now, but the days seem to just fly by.  How did I ever have time for a job?

Lack of routine – since Q1 was all about travel, I haven’t really settled into a “normal” routine.  I still feel like I’m on an extended vacation.  In Q2, once our travel abates and I start working around the house, I would expect a more normal (or less abnormal?) daily rhythm to develop.

Post-retirement activities – somewhat related to the previous points, I have purposely not made any decisions about how I will spend my time after this first year and have in fact turned down several offers.  It has not yet become clear to me how I would like to spend the bulk of my future time in retirement.  I know that, in addition to our travel, I would like to get involved in ongoing “work,” whether that be volunteer, part-time or non-profit, that will be meaningful to me.    As much fun as I’m having with my life of merriment, I can already sense a need for some “greater good” purpose to be significantly reflected in my activities.  I also miss the camaraderie of co-workers and the sense of pride that comes with team/organizational accomplishments.  Once I have my major home projects under control, I will embark on a more focused search.

(4) 360 feedback:

For purposes of this review, I asked my sole “co-worker” (my husband) for feedback on how my retirement is going thus far.  His response was “You’re doing fine.”  Okay, then! Whether that answer stemmed from an understandable fear of the repercussions of saying anything negative or from extreme laziness in answering one stupid question, (hey I was in the same boat for 25 years, I know the game!) or was, in fact, an accurate assessment (albeit somewhat sparse), I can’t say for sure.  I will therefore interpret his response as akin to the proverbial “Pleasure to have in class” comment I always received from my teachers in grade school and leave it at that.

(5) Overall rating: 

5

That’s the other beauty of retirement.  I’m now the boss and I can rate myself whatever I want!